Filmjuice was lucky enough to have a chance to chat with Danny Cohen, the man nominated in Best Cinematography for The King’s Speech.
Danny’s credits are hugely impressive having worked on many films by Shane Meadows, including This is England (2006) and Dead Man’s Shoes (2004), as well as working on the HBO series John Adam’s
with King’s Speech director Tom Hooper. More than anything talking to Danny you get the impression that he has a genuine passion for film and cinema. He is not a photographer who found himself working in the medium but someone who has an affection for the silver screen. His approach is from a story perspective rather than a purely technical one, which is a rarity for those in his profession.
Congratulations on your Oscar nomination. Does a nomination like this feel like recognition of you work to date?
Yes definitely, I can safely say I haven’t been nominated for one before. I’ve been shooting for close to fifteen years now so this feels like an acknowledgment of my body of work on top of The King’s Speech itself, which is very exciting.
The King’s Speech has been tipped for awards long before its release, working on it did you think it would generate the kind of buzz it has?
No not in the way it has, there’s no way of knowing. I think the first sniff of awards it got was at the Telluride Film Festival and it went down well there and then won the Audience Award in Toronto and managed to build up a good reputation. It’s hard to describe how it comes about but there is a certain formula that if anyone knew what it was they would be knocking these things out every week. It’s random in how it came together, it was a great script but if you have a great script you can still screw up the film for any number of reasons.
You can’t predict the outcome of a film because there are so many variables. I suppose that’s what the director’s main job is, to have a vision of what he wants to make and to know that it’s a good story and how he wants to tell it. If it is well told then a film has half a chance but there are always very random things that can occur and affect that. For example when we were shooting The King’s Speech we had a scene in the lift and it broke. Something like that can potentially mean not getting that scene or running out of time.
Then there is the process of post where the director wants to get his version and the producers have theirs. At the end of the day it is a commercial venture and there are a lot of things in play. Its not every day that all these things are in sync but if they are you’ve got a great chance of producing something that the people are happy with.
The King’s Speech is not your first time working with director Tom Hooper, what do you think it is that makes the two of you a successful team?
I first worked with Tom on a Channel Four Film called Longford with Jim Broadbent and it went down really well. It was a very difficult subject matter about Myra Hindley and the Moors Murders. It’s a complicated story but one that Tom told well. Then the same on John Adams which had lots of characters and important subject matter that Tom brought together really well. Tom’s got a great eye, so working with him he picks up things that other people might miss. He’s willing to stick his neck out so John Adams and The King’s Speech could easily have been boring historical dramas but Tom’s approach, style and design makes for interesting viewing in that it’s not your everyday fair
Was it through Tom that you became involved in the film?
Yes. Tom was actually in the States so I met up with Iain Canning, one of the producers. We discussed the script and he told me that it wasn’t a massive budget we had to work with but was worth taking a punt because we believed in the material. One of the amazing things about the film is the casting just came together just before we started shooting. They hadn’t cast Helena Bonham Carter’s character
right up to the last minute.
Tom always wanted Helena to play the part but the producers had the conundrum because she was shooting Harry Potter. That meant that Harry Potter had first call on her, so even once we had scheduled our shoot if theirs changed she would have to go back. But Tom felt she was right for the part and fought to keep her even though it meant when we were shooting we had to work around her schedule and shoot her at weekends a lot of the time. Tom went into it with his eyes open knowing that she was spot on for the role
and having to move our schedule definitely paid off.
You’re up against some tough competition at the Oscars, if you don’t win who would you like to see walk away with the award?
Roger Deakins (who is nominated for True Grit). He’s done some amazing stuff and some of my favourite films and been nominated nine times, which says it all really. Films like The Big Lebowski (1998), is a work of genius. A film he did in the 80s called Defence Of The Realm (1985) which is an amazing British thriller and it’s shot brilliantly and he was just getting going at that point but there are so many fantastic things going on in the film. But every single one of his films from No Country For Old Men (2007), The Assassination of Jesse James (2007) all of them, every thing he does is phenomenal.
You’re very much a British Director of Photography having regularly collaborated with Tom and Shane Meadows, do you ever feel the pull of Hollywood?
It’s one of those things that there is more opportunity there in the sense that they make a lot of films and it is industrial filmmaking. As a result of that they make a lot of good films but also a lot of bad films. The perception that we have a massive film industry in England is skewed but there are consistently really
good films getting made here.
When you read The King’s Speech did you visualise it in the way it has turned out?
Off the page The King’s Speech read really well, it packs a punch. You have an idea of what you want to achieve but so much of it is about sets, the production design and the right thing on the day. For example there is a scene set in Balmoral which we shot in Knebworth House. So we’re meant to be in Scotland and
are actually just outside London. We lucked out because it dumped down a huge volume of snow just before we were going to shoot it. It gave it that authenticity. There’s no way you can factor that in. Tom always wanted it to look as real as possible, to present a reality that is completely believable. We never did anything crazy with the lighting but tried to keep it all logical concerning light sources. Maybe that’s part of its success in that it creates a specific atmosphere and texture. Essentially if the audience believe it, it has
more of an impact as a film.
With films like this and This Is England you are something of the go-to-guy for capturing the look of England’s history, do you have to approach this differently from say a more contemporary look?
What’s interesting is that they’re both historical dramas. The problem with shooting any historical drama is the street furnishings completely change, all the cars are different. Therefore everything in front of the lens has to be thought about. It doesn’t matter if you’re shooting for 1936 or 1983 you’re facing the same problems. So you’ve got lamp posts that aren’t right, bus shelters that aren’t right and satellite dishes that you have to endlessly keep an eye on to make it feel as real as possible.
You’ve been fortunate enough to work with some of the cream of English acting talent who stands out as someone you have enjoyed working with?
What’s exciting is they’re where they are in their game because they’re great at what they do. Everyone has a story so they’re always interesting. In Dead Man’s Shoes Gary Stretch, who played the villain, was an ex-boxer and you could really sense that in his performance. On that film I was operating the camera
as well as lighting so when he threw a punch at Toby (Kebbell) or Paddy (Considine) I was always worried he could kill someone with one of those punches but that’s what his trade was before he became an actor. It was lethal. Looking down the lens it was amazing to see this guy who knew what he was doing when he threw a punch and selling it. It was an exciting film to make.
With the emergence of 3D and digital technology is the craft of cinematography changing and what is your preferred medium to shoot and light for, film or digital?
I don’t think it’s changing. Essentially it’s always going to be a case of taking photographs and having a measure of what that photograph is trying to say. The pictures and the story have got to be intertwined no matter what you’re shooting on. For me, although I’ve shot HD on This Is England ’86 The Channel Four show from last year, shooting on film still gives you the most latitude. You can keep more detail in the image and you have more control when shooting film. But HD will inevitably catch up, there’s no running away from it, so for me the question is can film hang-on in there, will there be the appetite for people to shoot on film? I think there is because there’s a texture and an emotion that you get on film that just gives you that little bit more in all stages of the process. But HD is a reality and I’m fascinated to see how it
will play out in the next five years.
Is there a genre of film that you haven’t worked in but would like to?
I’d love to do a musical. Growing up I used to watch Bob Fosse films like All That Jazz (1979) and a French film called The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (1964). It’s such a bizarre medium in the sense that it’s completely non-believable. If you want to give yourself a headache do one of those in an interesting way, like Baz Luhrmann did Moulin Rouge (2001), I thought that was an incredible film. He took it apart and put it back together again and in doing so re-invented the musical. I do the occasional pop promo and they’re always fun, especially if it’s a good tune and so different from what I normally do.
What attracts you to a project the story or the people involved?
It’s both. It’s got to be a story I think is worth telling. But you’ve got to know you’re going to be able to work with people. Shooting a film might be six months of your life so you’ve got to know it’s worthwhile and fun to do. You work stupid hours on a film so you’re going to be spending more time with these people than your family so you have to make the right choices.
Besides the King’s Speech which films have stood out for you in the last year both in terms of look and general filmmaking?
I don’t get to the cinema much. I recently saw 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) which I thought was amazing. The look of Inception is mind-blowing. What Wally Pfister does is push the boat out and creates amazing images.
What is next for you?
I think I’m doing another thing with Shane (Meadows). There’s talk of a one off film of This Is England set in 1990. So we’re updating it another four years.
The King’s Speech is out on DVD & Blu-Ray on 9th May.