Music videos launched Harris Savides into a rich and satisfying career as feature film cinematographer, most recently for Gus Van Sant's Last Days, the third film in a trilogy about death, all of which Savides shot (Gerry and Elephant are the other two). Savides came to music videos from an early career as a successful fashion photographer. His photographs of album covers led to a fruitful long-term collaboration with director Mark Romanek on music videos for artists including Madonna, Fiona Apple, Nine Inch Nails and, most recently, Coldplay.
What/who are your influences?
I love photography, and my photography informs my cinematography – and vice versa. The directors I've loved have influenced both. Photographers I like are Henri Cartier Bresson, William Eggleston, Josef Sudek and Josef Koudelka. With directors, I like Roman Polanski, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Yasujiro Ozu, Chantal Akerman, Edward Yang and especially the Dardenne brothers, Luc and Jean-Pierre. What they all have in common is the simpleness of their frames. The viewer has to be conscious of the frame and participates more than in a "regular" movie.
The look of music videos is highly stylized. How did the music video background inform – or not inform – your feature work?
I don't think I've consciously taken anything from music videos and applied it to features. Music videos are so stylistic. It's about the beauty of the image- it's like a commercial. Features are the opposite of that. If you do that in a feature, you're actually downplaying what's important- the story- and taking away from it. There are features, however, such as Birth, where the look is part of the story.
What are the challenges of working with Gus Van Sant?
For the use of long shots, he introduced me to some movies. For Gerry, we saw Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, a great movie, which has these static shots in her apartment in Paris. He also introduced me to Bela Tarr, a Hungarian filmmaker, who did Satantango, a seven-hour film. These introduced the concept of long shots and overlapping time from a different perspective that we used in Elephant and Last Days.
The challenge is to come together every day and deliver the story in a fresh way without cutting, without coverage. The unwritten rule is to try to play it out. We will cut when there's nothing that's going on, of course, but we try to do it one take and we try to do it without cutting.
It's not like building things from a script where it's all written down. There's a blueprint, so we know what we need. Van Sant is cutting all the time (on film) as we're shooting, and we're projecting each night in film, which is fantastic, especially on a low-budget movie. Sometimes it's scary [working this way], but it's also fun and quite challenging.
Does this way of working pose challenges with lighting?
Consistency in the look is mostly built in before we start shooting. We talk about what we're going to do as a night interior, a day interior. What I don't have is the headachy, bothersome problem of matching coverage. If I am going to use one take, no matter what magazine I take, the lighting only has to match with that magazine.
The look of Last Days is a heightened natural, real but a little prettier. We didn't want it to look like a documentary but we didn't want it to look affected. We got really good at enhancing available light, with a very small lighting kit. We loved the house [in Last Days] because of the numerous windows that let in light. We designed shots around them because it was so pretty and it worked for us. We'd rack focus to the kids through the window. It was all serendipitous, part of our finding shots.
What is your preference with regard to lighting? Do you have a philosophy or guiding principles that come into play- or does your thinking vary from project to project or director to director?
I like to light a space and let people inhabit the space, rather than light the people. Rooms are lit, not people. People don't walk around with lamps attached to them. It gives the story more integrity. You don't want to walk away with the look of the movie in your head. I still always want it to look better than life. I don't know if I'm entirely successful. But I think it makes people who are watching the movie happy too.
What do you think about digital cinematography in general and the new megadef cameras (Arri's D20, Panavision's Genesis, Grass Valley's Viper) specifically. Have you tested them? Plan on using them?
I have tested the Viper and I liked it a lot. I also know a lot about the D20, the Genesis and the Dalsa Origin. It isn't film- that's apples and oranges. But I feel I'm up on it, that I have an objective overview on the whole thing. I'm currently in discussion about doing a big movie with the Viper, but I can't discuss it. I think it will be fun to shoot a feature with it.