Interview: Janusz Kaminski and Lois Burwell on Lincoln


Part of Steven Spielberg’s creative team since Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, respectively, director of photography Janusz Kaminski and makeup designer Lois Burwell are two names that are going to be heard quite a bit moving into Oscar season. Their latest, Lincoln, marks a brand new set of cinematic challenges which they discussed in a recent interview with

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis as America’s 16th President, Lincoln is both a multifaceted look at one of the most important constitutional amendments in the history of the nation and an intimate portrait of a man in the twilight of his life. Also starring, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones and many more, Lincoln has already proven to be a box office success, pulling in over $65 million in less than three weeks.

You can check out the conversation with Kaminski and Burwell below and, if you missed our previous interviews, you can check out video interviews with Field, Gordon-Levitt and Spader by clicking here and a talk with Jones by clicking here.

CS: Both of you have worked with Steven Spielberg quite a bit. What is it, stepping onto one of his sets, that places the experience apart from working with anyone else?
Janusz Kaminski:
I’ve done pretty much his movies. He just feels very familiar and very comfortable. I’m not sure. It just feels good.

CS: Although both of your jobs are very different, your work impacts one another. At what point do both of you sit down and discuss a tandem approach?
There’s never too much to figure out. We do tests and, based on the tests, we do adjustments for lighting, coloring and filtration. Lots of little adjustments. Things are always changing because of technology. Film emulsion became very color-sensitive and it becomes a bit of a big deal to actually have a movie like “Lincoln” where everyone is made up and everyone has beards. Everyone has different color skin tones. To plan that to look like it just looks like someone’s face becomes very complicated. It’s was even easier ten or fifteen years ago when film emulsion was not as color sensitive. Now, it’s extremely color sensitive. If you don’t get the hands, you start to see the differences. You learn while you’re doing the tests. “Oh, it looks like we’re going to have to put makeup on the people behind them as well.” Hands, faces. Any piece of skin that’s being photographed has to be made up. That all comes from experience and knowing the aspects involved in making movies.

Lois Burwell: We actually spent a huge amount of time when we’re shooting in one another’s company because we have rushes sessions where we look at dailies.

Kaminski: Every day at lunch. We still have film dailies.

Burwell: That’s exactly what we do.

CS: Does working with Steven Spielberg feel like a given now when a new project comes along?
I would never presume.

Kaminski: Yeah, it is true that Steven likes to work with the same people and you assume that you will be asked to do the movie, but that’s not a given. He may see someone else that he wants to experiment with. You just accept that as a possibility.

CS: Does it ever happen that a project comes along that just isn’t of specific interest to you?
No, because I’ve done so many movies with him and they’re all different. I’ll do any movie he wants to make, you know?

Burwell: Yes, because the story is always different and the cast is always different and, therefore, my work is always different. There’s always something of enormous interest. The only time that wouldn’t happen is when it’s in conflict with something that’s happening in one’s private life.

Kaminski: Not for me! I went through two divorces making movies. Work is definitely the most important thing for me and making movies is the most important thing. Equally, are kids, but it’s not necessarily important to be married happily.

Burwell: There were a couple of things for me. A couple of films I missed. One, my father was having an operation, so I wasn’t going anywhere. Then he became unwell and I was with him and took care of him until he died. I don’t mean that to sound miserable, but there’s always an X-factor.

Kaminski: Life happens.

Burwell: Exactly. Life happens and I think you cut your cloth accordingly.

CS: Lois, does it give you a particular thrill to do something like this that’s very grounded in reality as opposed to work on some of your more fantastic films like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”
My personal preference inside myself is that I like to do, whatever it is, what I can to make a person look real inside their story. If it’s “The Fifth Element,” you want them to look in that Jean Paul Gaultier/Luc Besson way. It’s stylized, but real. Whatever it is, it’s real. Whether it’s Darkness in “Legend,” that’s my thrill. But I’m really love doing all films. I like doing exteriors with a purpose. There’s something sort of wonderful about that. But this one was very different. It’s period work and I love that.

CS: Janusz, you have quite a few films that look totally different. Do you know, right from the outset, what kind of approach you’re going to bring to the project?
You get an impression and make plans and then, on the first day of photography, the movie kind of takes on its own life and you just follow that. It’s not as raw as it may seem. I do photographic tests and, based on that, I get a certain impression of how the movie should be. I’ve done so many movies with Steven that, for the next one, I’m scared because I don’t know what to do. The world I create in the next one is supposed to be the future. I’ve done futuristic movies with him before. We’ll figure it out.

CS: For both of you, how much have computer-generated effects changed your jobs in the past few years?
It changes the job but, on this particular film, there’s no digital makeup amendment so, for this one, the answer is that it doesn’t change it at all. Obviously, it sometimes does. On say, “Saving Private Ryan,” we had a thousand soldiers, didn’t we?

Kaminski: Especially with digital makeup, the job can be a little easier because technology is so advanced that you can really alter the way people look. I did some tests on this movie with Tommy Lee [Jones] and it’s really amazing what I can do with all his wrinkles. But then it’s not the character.

Burwell: I absolutely hate that. I would really be upset if, digitally, someone had to correct my work. The fun is actually making it happen. It’s the difference between going to a shop and buying a cake and baking it yourself.

CS: Janusz, is 3D something that intrigues you at all?
No, I have no interest. I mean, I’ll do it one day, but I can wait.

Lincoln is now playing in theaters everywhere.