Cinematographer John Toll’s four-decade career has spanned low-budget documentary work and two consecutive Oscar-winning classics (“Braveheart” and Western costume drama “Legends of the Fall”), plus groundbreaking work on the pilot of “Breaking Bad,” and the final episode of Netflix streaming series “Sense8.” Toll’s skill as one of the most versatile DPs in Hollywood has earned him the Camerimage lifetime achievement kudo.
After your remarkable TV work with Vince Gilligan on “Breaking Bad” and now with the Wachowskis on “Sense8” do you feel you’re ready for a break from the small screen?
I don’t feel such distinction between feature work and TV. It’s all about who you’re working with and what the project is. I did “Breaking Bad” because I knew Vince Gilligan. I had never worked with him but we had spoken about working together many times and then he came to visit me and started telling me about the project and I thought it would be great to do. I really appreciate him and his work – he’s a great guy, and writer and storyteller.
But these days when you can never know where and how a film will be viewed, is that a concern for DPs?
There’s no way you can anticipate it. If you’re shooting a feature for the big screen then that should be your priority. People have been watching large-screen films on TV for decades. I think if you’re telling a decent story and you have an interesting project that involves the audience they’re going to be involved. On a larger screen it’s going to be more impressive but I don’t think it’s life and death if it’s viewed on a device.
How did you score one of your first breaks as a DP – on the 1985 Beach Boys documentary with Malcolm Leo?
I started as a PA at a documentary film company and worked as assistant cameraman and then a camera operator and eventually a DP. That film came along while I was still working as a camera operator – I got the opportunity to do a Beach Boys documentary so I did it. If I had a chance to shoot a commercial or a documentary I would just do it. It helped me transition enormously.
How much has that experience of shooting on the fly proven useful even today?
“Sense8” is the best example. I’m pulling from my experience on every kind of filmmaking I’ve done. We have a fluid, spontaneous approach on this and part of it’s got to do with the nature of the story, a lot’s got to do with the way Lana Wachowski direct – she was the creator, producer and director. Because of the diversity of the locations, the idea is that we really ought to be able to take advantage of the places where we are. The reason we’re traveling to all these countries is to put the audience in all these different environments and see the diversity of the characters in their own worlds.
Some times we just show up and shoot because the schedule doesn’t allow for the type of planning that we might do for a different type of filmmaking. We’re not in one place long enough to establish a real infrastructure and a studio situation. Ninety percent of everything we shoot is on location and we use the natural characteristics of them.
And the budget and pace of a TV series like this adds real pressure, doesn’t it?
But there’s a certain amount of spontaneity when you get there because it’s impossible to plan every shot, every sequence. We planned where we would shoot, what the idea was but the specifics were things we figured out pretty much on the day. But all the departments all knew what they were doing and were very proficient – that’s the only way it works.
How is it that producers didn’t win the argument that it would have been far easier to do in a studio with a green screen?
It was all Lana – and with her background in films heavily relying on visual effects – we had a few VFX but it was minimal – so she wanted to do a reality-based project and you could not get a more exaggerated version of a natural style, a natural visual approach. So it was cool.
You certainly don’t shrink from a challenge – last year’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” broke technical ground with its 120 frames-per-second, 4K, 3D shooting for Ang Lee…is this kind of filmmaking spreading?
Ang is preparing to do another one as we speak – a film called “Gemini Man” with the same technology. He’s very committed to the idea of the high frame-rate 4K technology. He believes that there’s definitely something there that’s unique – and there is. He’s an incredible visionary – an incredibly well organized, articulate director.