Shooting on the English Coasts (and in the English weather) with 65mm Lenses, and Avoiding the Schmaltzy Leading-Lady Close-up

Cinematographer John Mathieson, BSC, who burst on the scene in 1988 with his artfully raucous camera work in Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Peek-A-Boo” music video, is never one to be pigeonholed by genre. After several collaborations with Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Hannibal, Matchstick Men, Robin Hood), Mathieson has also shot period pieces for Mike Newell (Great Expectations) and John Landis (Burke and Hare) and action tentpoles including James Mangold’s critically acclaimed Logan, the final chapter for Wolverine in Marvel’s X-Men franchise, and Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. He recently wrapped shooting his first animated film, Rob Letterman’s upcoming Pokémon Detective Pikachu.

For Mary Queen of Scots’ first-time film director Josie Rourke, the current artistic director of the legendary West End theatre company Donmar Warehouse, Mathieson relied on long lenses, the 8K Panavision Millennium DXL, and his well-trained eye to help tell the sweeping story of the Scottish queen set on toppling her cousin from England’s throne. We talked to him about shooting digitally on location out in the region’s unpredictable weather and how the right light and vintage lenses were all he needed to capture Saoirse Ronan’s natural beauty.

StudioDaily: How did you come to work on the project with Josie Rourke, a first-time director?

John Mathieson: Actually, Seamus [McGarvey, Atonement, Nocturnal Animals, Anna Karenina, We Need to Talk About Kevin] was going to do the film with Josie at first, but due to a scheduling problem, I went in at the last minute. We didn’t have time to meet up and talk about it and it was more “off we go!” Jose and Seamus had talked a lot about shooting on film, but Working Title didn’t really want to do that, especially with a first-time director. I think it would have been great, but it is a very wordy script and there was an awful lot of ground to cover, so I think they wanted, pound per frame, a cheaper option.

Ian Hart stars as Lord Maitland, Jack Lowden as Lord Darnley, Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart and James McArdle as Earl of Moray in the film.
Liam Daniel / Focus Features

The locations are stunning. Where else besides the Scottish Highlands did you shoot?

We went up and down the country, from Gloucester down to Shropshire and to various medieval places with Elizabethan houses and castles that are still intact. It’s more a question of, if you are going to send a crew out into the country, where do they stay every night and how much equipment and props and costumes move with them. You really don’t want to be doing this too much. And there were more beautiful things just outside the range of where we could reasonably go, especially in Scotland. We didn’t quite get to all the West Coast locations we wanted to, and we had to stick more to the East Coast, which is flatter and less dramatic. But it has more hotels.

I’m sure the famously fickle weather didn’t help, either.

It really wasn’t a problem at all, and I’ve taken a few films up there myself. There was talk of going to New Zealand, and I reminded them that only an hour from London you are in some of the most deserted, epic landscapes of Europe. Why would you want to go to New Zealand and take everything with you? You’re right: you do inevitably get really terrible weather. But the thing is, on the West Coast, the weather blows through so quickly you can get sun, rain, hail, snow, rain and sun again all in one day. You’ll be wet and dried out, and then wet and dried out again later on. When you get wet the third time in one day that’s when you start getting pretty pissed off, especially when it goes down inside your boots. But you get used to it. But with the weather comes all that drama in the sky. The second unit got a lot of terrific shots as a result. There’s plenty of drama on the ground, too, like the kind of icing sugar snow that dusts everything and lasts only a morning. You might get folks freaking out when they can’t see two inches in front of their faces but you have to reassure them and say, “It will all be fine shortly.” Sure enough, once you get the camera set up, the storm usually lifts. If it was steady and clear all the time, it would be too flat and way too boring. It’s difficult, of course, especially when you have to get people and horses up there. But the drama you get is worth it. That’s why I love going up there and I love getting wet. And I went right back up there afterwards to do the upcoming Pokémon movie, of all things.

Where, and how, did you shoot that terrific long shot of Mary and Darnley as they ride up the ridge?

That’s on the wrong side—that’s on the East Coast. We did it the standard way, with a helicopter. I would have rather shot that out on the West Coast but it’s smoother, so it was easier for everyone, especially the horses. The West Coast is more volcanic with craggy edges and rock faces being thrown up dramatically, but it’s very difficult to ride horses out there. I’ve actually done it a couple of times but there aren’t too many choices, so to get a horse up onto a ridge like that, you’d have to do a lot of difficult animal handling to get the horses up there. And then to run it three times with different takes, they’d be spent.

Did you do anything in particular with lighting when setting up your shots outside?

I suppose I shouldn’t be telling you this, but I never really got the hang of lighting exteriors. Why get your lights out when you can see perfectly well? I think we were certainly lucky in that we always had a lot of moisture in the air and it all worked so well. When Mary quips down to Darnley and tells him his swords aren’t just for show, you can just see the rain coming down. So I would use a certain length of lens so you can make it out as it gently falls on Saoirse in that fantastic peacock-blue-green armour and the filigree fishbone patterns on it. What you don’t really want on digital cameras is too much sunshine, and they aren’t as good outside. But I got a lot of overcast.

What were those lenses?

They were all vintage 65mm lenses, rehoused, from the 1970s, originally used for large-format cameras. They have such a nice veiling and provide a lot of fill and flare, since they let a lot more light in than modern lenses. You can see it, in particular, in some of the interiors, where Saoirse is in a very dark castle and the flare sort of creeps around her and catches her so nicely around the face, chin and neck and lifts her, without having to use too much extra fill light. A lens like that will do that for you. They are not very good at dealing with high contrast, but they have this very delicate, soft touch, especially on her. When all the candles are lit inside those castle scenes, the air becomes thick and you can feel the fogginess in the room and the real warmth of the candles. The lenses halate and spread the highlight a bit and don’t contain it like a modern Zeiss would. Candles are never pinpoints; they kind of blow and produce this atmospheric glow around the candelabras. Again, that helps fill in the shadows as well without a lot of fill light. The lens does a lot of that for you, but it’s still something you have to find your way with, really, to know them and know what they do, especially how they react in low light. When you open the iris up the focus starts to go, so that’s a downside to vintage. But what you get is that lovely, cozy interior feel. You wouldn’t want to shoot the exteriors that way, and you want to iris the thing way down when you’re outside. When you bite them down they look good and solid, and that suited us just fine outside. But I pushed them as far as I could when we were inside. When Saoirse was inside near a window, I sometimes let them go, although not always. You had to bring it down when it wraps in and flattens the whole image off, and that’s not good. Because it’s digital, you can see immediately what’s happened and ride that. Sometimes you think, “I’ve shot the whole scene at this aperture and the lens swings that way, and you can dig it down one half or more stops, which makes no sense, yet the exposure looks better and the shot has more bite. You can’t always do what’s on the instruction manuals. You’ve got to get out there and see what the scene needs.

Ismael Cruz Cordova as Rizzio, Maria Dragus as Mary Fleming, and Izuka Hoyle as Mary Seton join Saoirse Ronan in her bedchamber in the castle.
Liam Daniel / Focus Features

Did you use any filters at all on Saoirse Ronan?

None whatsoever. I hate filters. If you put something like that on a lens you are slamming something straight through the image and if affects everything. What you want to do is affect areas of the image, like her, so you put her against a window, so the light will wrap around her neck and shoulders, so she’s almost silhouetted, but the light will come across her cheeks and fill her in. That will certainly hit the lens in the middle and it will defocus a bit because it will flare a bit. When she moves off into a darker corner, you just creep something round and push something back into it. I always think that if you get a shot that looks sharp and crispy and you get the actor to glow in one corner, that’s a wonderful photographic trick. You’ve also successfully avoided the schmaltzy leading-lady closeup trope. Oh god, all that atrocious stuff they used to do. You can keep the details of these dark, mossy, filthy old castles yet you make the actors look incredibly special. And this was so important to the story about this young beauty who came from France and is causing merry hell in Scotland and England, but she’s delicate and beautiful.

Margot Robbie (left) and Mathieson (far right) and crew members inside one of the historical locations.
Liam Daniel / Focus Features

Contrast that with how you shot the increasingly hardened mask of Queen Elizabeth’s face.

We weren’t allowed to use smoke, because we were in some very, very important medieval buildings, but it also helped that she was set off by all that hard-cut Cotswold limestone and all those Gothic details, so it’s what Velázquez and Bacon did as painters, putting softer shapes inside of frames of geometric shapes. So she’s against that but she also moves quite a lot, and that was Margot’s choice. But there are also all these very Puritanical men surrounding her and she is provoking them to ask them why they haven’t done what she wanted. She is all “office” all the time. Mary, by contrast, is more colorful, softer and much more traditionally feminine. Margot plays Elizabeth as quite a boy, really, and she is very rigid amidst all those men. So I had to make all the shots very brittle and upright and shoot with the lenses deep and keep everything crisp and hard.

This film is based on a scholarly book of history, but is this film history or is it art? Walshingham, Elizabeth’s and Cecil’s great spymaster, for example, never makes an appearance.

Well, it’s a spin on the history and, of course, it’s alternate history because we populated the courts with different ethnicities. In some ways you could argue that we should have surrounded Saoirse by really rough and hairy Scottish guys to accentuate her plight and put a bunch of Blackadder types, with a few Dutch guys thrown in, around Elizabeth. Perhaps that would have highlighted even more how alone these two great women were and how very different they were from each other. Perhaps their longing to connect with one another would have been even greater had we done that. But as a DP, that’s not for me to ask.

Crew members review a scene with Mathieson (right) on set.
Liam Daniel / Focus Features