Cinematographer: 'American Gangster,' 'Zodiac,' 'Margot'

Harris Savides may be more at home in the arthouse than the cineplex, but that didn’t keep him from lensing not one but two large-scale period crime films this year, “Zodiac” and “American Gangster.”

At first blush, the two films seem to have much in common, from their 1970s setting to directors — David Fincher and Ridley Scott, respectively — who tabled past directorial flourishes in favor of a straightforward, gritty realism.

However while “Zodiac” looked forward with its all-digital approach, “Gangster” looked back for inspiration. Scott set out to “make a color movie that was almost black-and-white,” says Savides, who underdeveloped the negative to make the film look like it was shot in the ’70s.

“Zodiac” was a bigger challenge for Savides, who was reticent about shooting on the HD Viper camera. “If the technology is too present, I think it can take you out of the story,” he says. Through an extensive testing process, Savides “beat up the slickness of that particular camera” to achieve the look he and Fincher were aiming for.

“His interests are now much more in how the story needs to be told,” Fincher says. “He is now less of a photographer — he’s forgotten more than most people know about technique — and more of a co-author of a film’s mise-en-scene.”

For efficiency, Savides could dispense with light meters and light directly off the 32-inch monitors. The finished film’s hyperreal quality proves a perfect fit for its meticulously detailed, obsessive subject, but Savides says he feels “a little bit like a guinea pig in this whole changeover from film to digital.”

He does, however, admit: “I might be too precious in my own desire to still work on film.”

The throughline between “Gangster,” “Zodiac” and Savides’ other 2007 release, dysfunctional family drama “Margot at the Wedding,” is naturalism.

Ironically, it is “Margot” that most evokes ’70s American cinema. Trading the lyrical ennui of the films he shot for Gus Van Sant for a more intimate, fly-on-the-wall aesthetic, “Margot’s” gauzy natural beauty works in tandem with a jagged cutting style to conjure up a nostalgia that is far from rose-colored.

“We wanted to feel like we were there in the room with the people,” says Savides, who adds that director Noah Baumbach stressed a simple style “without doing that much coverage and playing shots in one.”

Mixing a variety of projects comes naturally for Savides, who never aspired to be a cinematographer when he enrolled in film school. Once there, he became interested in still photography, worked as a fashion photographer, and “through circumstances that I didn’t really have much control over, I ended up shooting (films) again.”

Savides lensed musicvideos for future feature helmers like Fincher and Mark Romanek, and a Levi’s shoot introduced him to Van Sant. He remains active in the commercial world, and these spots, such as Martin Scorsese’s much-YouTubed “Key to Reserva,” allow Savides to be selective in his feature work as well as keep him in New York.

“I want to stay home sometimes and be with (my family),” he explains, though his next project, Van Sant’s “Milk,” transports him back to the Bay Area period milieu of “Zodiac.”

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Awards pedigree: Dual N.Y. Film Critics Circle award for “Elephant” and “Gerry”; Spirit noms for “Gerry” “Elephant” and “Last Days.”

Inspiration: Early on, Savides was “drawn to fashion photography and very stylized imagery,” but these days, he leans more toward “independent, European cinema or Asian films. I love Edward Yang and the Dardenne brothers.”

Visual aids: “Zodiac” drew from Steven Shore’s unadorned photos of ’70s Americana; “American Gangster” employed the gritty stylization of ’70s crime pics like “The French Connection”; “Margot at the Wedding” looked to Ingmar Bergman and Eric Rohmer for their “simplicity of the lighting and economy of coverage.”

Favorite tool: Natural light. Savides’ still photography “was based on natural light and embellishing what was in the room,” and he’s carried that approach into film.

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