Camerimage Interview: The Great Gatsby Cinematographer Simon Duggan


Continuing our series of interviews from this month’s Camerimage Festival of the Art of Cinematography in Bydgosczc, Poland, spoke with DP Simon Duggan who, following credits like I, Robot and Live Free or Die Hard, was the man behind the lens on one of this year’s more visually ambitious projects, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. In the below interview, Duggan discusses the difficulty of making the project a reality, working with 3D for the first time and teases his next project, Duncan Jones’ Warcraft, which is about to enter production in Vancouver.

If you missed them, be sure to check out our previous Camerimage interviews with director Terry Gilliam, production designer Rick Carter and cinematographer Roberto Schaefer. Also, be on the lookout for many more in the days to come.

CS: How did “The Great Gatsby” start for you?
Baz Luhrmann was looking for an Australian cameraman and I happened to fill the bill. I had been working in the States for quite awhile. I went and met him in New York. Him and Catherine Martin, his wife and designer for the film. We had some four-hour meetings just talking about everything and anything and we really got to know each other.

CS: This seems like it must be a dream project for a cinematographer.
Of course it is, yeah. It was my first 3D project as well, so we were shooting native 3D, which isn’t going to happen that much anymore, I don’t think.

CS: How is the learning curve on embracing 3D as a film format?
Look, we did lots of tests to get familiar with the whole process but, really, it’s so intuitive. When you’re shooting real 3D, you’ve got a monitor there and it shows you what you’re getting. It just becomes second nature after awhile.

CS: Some of the sets are digital extensions. How does that affect your job?
Basically, we tried to ground the actors in a real environment as much as we possibly could. It was just set extensions out of windows where that New York, Manhattan doesn’t exist anymore. Really, most of the film was shot for real except for some exterior windows. Obviously, there’s some exterior scenes at night or day where Chris Godfrey, the visual effect designer, created them as complete CG. Some of those shots were quite amazing, I thought.

CS: Did you go back and look at previous iterations of “The Great Gatsby”?
I saw the 1976 version and was quite shocked that it’s such a different film than when I first saw it as a teenager. But I think it’s great to have a different way of seeing a film done a few times. I think Baz has done a great thing for new audiences that way he’s done it.

CS: The relationship between DP and director is such a close one. Can you elaborate a bit on how you went about forming and building on that bond?
Look, obviously we’re both professionals and have been around for a long time, so there’s a lot of shorthand in the way that we talk with each other. It’s mostly about looking at ideas and looking at imagery and just getting to know one another. As I said, we did lots of tests with the actors. The actors came to New York and I spent several days with them. We rehearsed a good portion of the film just in Baz’s office, with 3D cameras. That was mostly about getting an idea of what 3D could do for performances and camera movement and what we could do with it.

CS: So are you working in tandem with a stereographer?
Yes. We had a stereographer, but really were were setting it for the maximum depth we could for a big screen projection. We pushed it as far as we could for everything. I’m talking about stereo separation. We tried to make it feel as big and as grand as we could.

CS: Tax credits in Australia have been a huge boon for the industry. Can you talk a little about what that has meant for you?
Look, I believe there’s still a 20 percent tax credit. I’m not sure what it is at the moment. Baz managed to get a 50 percent tax credit somehow. I’m not sure the details. He made sure the film was going to be done and done in Australia. I think Sony had the film to shoot in New York and said that it could not be made. That it was too expensive to ever be made. And yet, here we are.

CS: Is this your first Camerimage? What drew you to the festival?
Yeah, this is my first time. It’s been two nights. Two crazy nights so far, of course.

CS: What gets you excited for a new project?
I think if I’m being challenged visually, that’s when I really get excited about shooting something. Of course, “The Great Gatsby” was that because it’s my first 3D experience. I think also lighting opportunities. My love is of lighting and creating a mood, which is something that “The Great Gatsby” offered me. It was just a fantastic opportunity.

CS: “The Great Gatsby,” of course, has a real sense of spectacle to it. Do you enjoy that bigger-than-life feel?
Well, that really was the thing with that film and we loved doing that. Every time I hear that we made it look glossy, well, we did and we did it for a reason. It’s part of the story and part of the theme of the film and the characters. It was a very different film. I just finished shooting the sequel to “300” and that’s a very gritty film, so that’s a very opposite look. That was equally a great challenge for a different reason.

CS: How do you know when a project is right for you?
It’s just a gut feeling, really.

CS: Do you know what’s coming up next for you?
I’m doing “Warcraft” with Duncan Jones. We’re setting up in Vancouver. We’re midway through pre-production, so I’m lucky to be here.

CS: It seems like your films all have very different levels of special effects and I’m sure “Warcraft” is no exception. To what degree do special effects influence your job?
Look, it’s really all about having a good background in post-effected films, which I’ve had for many years. I did “I, Robot” ten years ago and it has gone from there. I think you earn a bit of trust from the visual effects department, too, because they know you’re a DP that knows what they’re trying to achieve. It’s a very complex process.

CS: Do you think 3D is something you’re going to stick with for the time being?
I’m finding that the studios don’t want to shoot native 3D anymore. They want to do it all in post. There are some great examples, though, of where that really works. “Gravity,” which has just been done, is a fantastic film. I think 3D is a medium that tends to get blamed for any problems on production. If production goes slow, they’ll blame the 3D cameras. It’s not fair. If you capture your actors in 3D, you’re getting so much more information about their characters and you have the audience right there. If you’re doing post-3D, you just don’t get that separation. The actual information that you get when you’re shooting for real.

CS: I know James Cameron has talked about the real charm of 3D being closeups and seeing the actors faces. There’s a real balance in “Gatsby” between long shots and close-ups. Was there a very conscious effort to maintain that?
Oh, exactly. There are moments with Daisy that are very intense moments where we actually pushed the camera right up to her face like her face was almost in the matte box. She was actually quite fearful of the camera at times, which I think helped with her performance.

CS: 3D aside, what’s the biggest change you’ve seen in your job these last few years?
Really, it’s the move to digital. That’s been the last three films for me. I’ve really adapted and I love it. I think it’s a great medium and it has actually enabled us to shoot 3D so we could get cameras small enough to fit on those rigs.

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Weekend: Nov. 22, 2018, Nov. 25, 2018

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