On Meeting Jane Goodall, the Emotions of Animals, and Lighting Interviews for Story
A deeply moving portrayal of Jane Goodall in her own words, Jane is also a love story we can watch in real time — not just of Goodall and the chimpanzees she observed creating tools in the forests of Gombe, Tanzania, but also between the untrained researcher and the photographer first sent to record her work. Blending unseen archival footage and intimate interviews shot where Goodall now lives in Tanzania, Director Brett Morgen and cinematographer Ellen Kuras have added a new chapter to a legendary life in front of it.
Jane premiered at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival and was broadcast on National Geographic TV this spring, making it eligible for Emmy consideration, and Kuras and Morgen both won Emmy Awards at the Creative Arts Emmy ceremonies on September 8 and 9. Kuras shared her award with the late Hugo van Lawick, the Dutch filmmaker whom Goodall met and married while researching chimpanzees in Gombe. His color archival footage, some 140 hours of it, had sat undetected in the National Geographic archives for 50 years, until the network realized what it was sitting on.
Kuras, who has deep experience in features (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and other Michel Gondry films), television (The Night Of…) and documentaries, including the Errol Morris miniseries Wormwood, she is the only person to win the Best Dramatic Cinematography award at Sundance three consecutive times (for Swoon, Angela and Personal Velocity). In 2010, she was nominated for an Oscar for her directorial debut, Nerakhoon/The Betrayal, for which she won an Emmy, and she has since directed episodes of Legion and Ozark among many others.
We talked to her about the very detailed lighting set-up, the opportunities for women cinematographers and directors in a changing industry, and about finding meaning in your work.
StudioDaily: Did you have a chance to watch any or all of Hugo Van Lawick’s archival footage before you began shooting the interviews with Jane Goodhall in Gombe?
Ellen Kuras: I had seen some of it. Brett had shared parts of it with me when the two of us were working on a dramatic pilot together [When the Street Lights Go On, 2017]. He mentioned to me that he was doing a documentary about Jane Goodall for Nat Geo and we sat down and he showed me some of Hugo’s footage. I was just blown away. This stuff hadn’t been seen, ever, by anyone. The fact that they have it there in their vault was just an astounding discovery. They came to Brett because they knew they needed to put it into some kind of narrative. Because Jane was still alive — Hugo had passed in 2011 — it was a unique opportunity to be able to reconstruct the story of her early days as a researcher. And I found it fascinating, too, because she wasn’t a scientist and there she was in this very isolated area and she was able, by sheer persistence and meticulous observation, to make quite a scientific breakthrough that essentially changed our human perception of evolution. To me, that was a fascinating idea and I wanted to be a part of telling that story and be able to bring that to light.
It’s also pretty remarkable that the calm, clear-eyed person captured in the original footage is the same person we see in your interviews.
The tenacity she displayed then and continues to display is really a key part of who she is. Being a woman researcher in that kind of remote situation during the 1960s was hard enough as it is. People weren’t really taking what women did very seriously yet, at least in the scientific community. The fact that she made this startling observation that chimpanzees can fashion their own tools to collect their food — it connected the link to us as human beings. Previously, people didn’t think of chimps or animals in general as having thought or the ability to make decisions, to think and solve problems like we do. She watched this chimp solving a specific problem.
Also, there was this idea previously that humans weren’t animals or that we’re this separate and higher order of mammal. Some still do. It’s a bias that is really prejudiced against and animals. I consider myself an animal-rights activist and when I look at animals I see immediately that they are sentient beings. It really is astounding to me that only a few years ago, I saw the cover of Time magazine on the newstand and it was about research that proved for the first time that animals have emotions. Obviously those scientists never had a dog or a cat or any other number of pets: of course they have emotions! A little more close observation could tell you that. It’s been found that an octopus has the ability to reason, and that astounds people. But why can’t we, as humans, give animals the credibility they deserve to be able to have thoughts themselves? I think that Jane recognized then and still does that it’s convenient for humans to think that animals don’t have any feelings so we are able to use and abuse them for our own needs without having any kind of conscience. It was revolutionary, in terms of evolution and religion, that she made that discovery way back then. And it’s even more relevant today, because creationists are continuing to push through this agenda that has absolutely no bearing on scientifically researched and observed data. To be able to help get her message out now, no matter how tenacious she’s been about telling it over the years, was so meaningful for me. It’s tantamount for my development as a person and for my career. When Brett asked me, I thought, whatever I’m doing I’m going to drop it and go to Tanzania and be a part of that and bring her message to the world.
Was this the first time you had met her?
Oh, yeah. I was very excited to meet her. She’s been an icon to me and a role model for years. I was a very young cinematographer when I got some early success and there were really no role models for me in the industry. My role models were women in the world who were leaders, thinkers and pioneers. I was always very aware of who she was and the work she was doing. So when we first met in person, it was like meeting the Dalai Lama for me. She’s a legend and yet she’s extremely grounded and rooted and here and present and very real. She’s also got this great sense of humor and she’s wonderfully acerbic; it’s a part of her that I grew to love during the filming. But she also commands a sense that everyone should think for themselves, and think through things, and be on top of it. And she’s right.
Can you talk about how Brett and you set up the interviews in terms of lighting effects that underscored the chronology of Jane’s story? For example, the scenes shot in the fading light of the evening, when she is discussing the dissolution of her marriage, are very effective.
The fact that the interview itself goes into darkness was something that Brett planned and that he really wanted to use as a paradigm of the structure of the film. Part of that was because he had already mapped out her whole story from biographies and the archival footage and knew that there was darkness in her history as well as light. He wanted us to be able to come out at the end with a sense of hope. He structured all of the questions for Jane in a certain order, in fact, so it would follow that arc. I had to make adjustments to the lighting with the gaffer so it would also reflect that structure. We would stop the interview at a certain point and I would relight to make it feel like the day was waning.
You shot with the Arri Amira. How did you like working with it, particularly on this project?
The Amiras are kind of the Super 16mm equivalent in the digital world now. They are lightweight and low-profile. They are very inconspicuous cameras, so that was good for this. We shot very long days, and we wanted her to feel comfortable as she talked.
Was it difficult to travel to where she lives now?
We shot it in her son Grub’s house, actually, in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, and we had to keep the equipment to a minimum. She lives in part of the house, and we recreated a sense of her original camp in Gombe inside of it. We were using ArriFlex lights, so HMIs, but we also had one or two 12Ks, which we were able to run off of a small generator we brought with us. We had to be able to balance the light inside because we were looking at her but also outside. I knew I would be shooting into the sunset, so we had to use bigger sources. The thing about Jane is she is really active; it was actually more difficult to pin her down so we could do the extended interviews. She travels the world doing her thing, speaking and giving workshops. We had a small crew from the U.S., just me and the producer and line producer, and I created the rest of the crew from South Africa from my contacts in Cape Town, where I’ve worked quite a bit on commercials. The production designer, Elmi Badenhorst, is a friend of mine who came from South Africa. The camera assistants also came from South Africa. I brought one camera operator from L.A. who handled the other Amira. All the electrical and grip crew were local except a gaffer from L.A.
What else did you and crew do once you arrived to set the scene?
We really had to create the environment around Jane. We were definitely moving things around in the room and we art-directed it a bit so it would feel like Jane was in the original environment she was relating to the camera. We had originally wanted to go to Gombe but I had some scheduling conflicts and the trip, deep into the forest with all that equipment, would have been really arduous. And Jane, given her crazy schedule, wasn’t able to make the time it would have taken all of us to make the trip there. Elmi and I basically put the whole look together around her, but we were lucky to be able to use a lot of her own things from her part of the house, like her books and notebooks.
How long were you in Tanzania?
We were there for a little over a week, because we originally had to scout around to figure out where to shoot before we ended up deciding we would do it in her son’s house. Then Brett had to meet with Jane, and we met with her and of course we had to make sure all the equipment, including those lights, was working properly. The actual interview took place over the course of two-and-a-half very long days.
As an early member of the ASC and only one of a handful of women in the society at the time, is the industry in your opinion a more welcoming place for female cinematographers and directors today?
Definitely. Even at the time that I was working, the ASC in particular was a place where people were very supportive and welcoming. Part of the thing that is changing across the industry that’s a good thing is there is finally now more opportunity opening up for women. That’s a key thing, because I think that women have always been extremely capable of working on the technical as well as the creative side of things. The perception is changing now and thank God someone like Rachel [Morrison] was able to make such a dent by shooting such a huge movie [Black Panther] at the same time as being [Oscar-] nominated for another [Mudbound]. In my case, I remember trying to do movies that were out there and to make myself visible so that other women could see that yes, you can do it, too. If I can do it, so can you. I know it was important to up-and-coming cinematographers and directors because they’ve told me. They just needed to see that somebody could in order to get the courage up to put themselves into that role at a time when cultural and societal norms say otherwise. There’s that tenacity again — you have to have it in order to move forward and do what you are trained to do, regardless, and to find those opportunities to do your work so people can see it. It mirrors what Jane did: continue to do her work in spite of the naysayers.
In the past year alone in this industry, things have changed considerably. When Patricia Arquette mentioned wage equality on the Oscar podium in 2016, that was a turning point. I think the proposed lawsuit related to that really made studios perk up and pay attention. It’s sad that it took the threat of a lawsuit to make everyone take it seriously, but they are finally paying attention to this issue and it’s a really good thing. They are making a real effort to hire women. I happened to have lunch with a male television director recently, who is a friend, and he was lamenting the fact that it was becoming harder and harder for him to get a job. I kind of laughed and said, “Welcome to the club.” Now he knows what it feels like. When I heard that, I knew things were shifting in a major way.
What first inspired you as a filmmaker?
I was really influenced by The Battle of Algiers and Z and Missing, and I really wanted to make films that had a deeper political meaning or undertone. To me, these films were just so intriguing. All the President’s Men was another one. I was offered Recount, which was one of the best scripts I’d ever read, but didn’t get to do that. I got my first breakthrough when I was offered to shoot Tom Kalin’s film, Swoon, which was just supposed to be an art film but went on to great critical and popular success. I feel lucky that my work has been so widely viewed and lauded from such an early point in my career, but I was also in a unique situation to be considered on the A-list of cinematographers.
What do you think the industry and film schools can do to better mentor women cinematographers and directors?
Besides teaching the craft of cinematography, I think it’s important to stress the idea of creating meaning with your work. It’s one thing to know how to use the camera, but it’s a whole other thing to know how to tell a story and bring meaning to it. That’s critical for any filmmaker. I’m grateful that I was able to realize that early on and wanted to be a filmmaker that wanted to say things with film, not just technically record the action. I think that’s given me a fuller perspective than someone who is just behind the camera getting great shots.
What do you tell students when you speak to them?
Whenever I get in front of a group of students I say, “Number one rule: don’t be an asshole.” It’s really a collaborative process and unfortunately everybody has gotten the idea that there’s a hierarchy in place that means that you can exercise your ego in a way that puts other people down. I’m very much against that and anyone who has worked with me knows that. Honestly, I think that has helped me have a very successful career. The second thing I tell people is, “Trust your intuition.” That inner voice is what will be your ultimate guide.
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