To the layman, Chris Menges’ cinematography in “Dirty Pretty Things” may look tawdry, claustrophobic … in fact, downright ugly. But it’s pitch-perfect for the subject matter: Third World immigrants trying to eke out an existence in the underworld of contemporary London.
Mention the film to almost any cinematographer and you will draw passionate raves. “It’s a brilliant piece of work,” says five-time Oscar-nominated d.p. Owen Roizman. “It looks unlit, and yet it is stylized realism. Whatever little catch lights and modeling lights Chris used on the actors’ faces, they all looked like they belonged to the natural environment.”
“Chris Menges is a master at environmental lighting,” says cinematographer Woody Omens. “There is such a sense of place in ‘Dirty Pretty Things,’ there’s energy and light coming from so many sources, you can feel the surroundings in the actor’s faces even in those moments when you don’t see the surroundings.”
Menges is particularly proud of a sequence in which the camera follows the protagonist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as he drives his cab to the taxi station and walks into the office.
“The taxi office is tucked under a railway bridge,” explains Menges. “I wanted to emphasize the tunnel-like atmosphere as he drove beneath the bridge. So I chose turquoisy, soft blue light.
“Inside the taxi office, I used hundreds of dimmed-down 40-watt bulbs in the ceiling. I was trying to capture the feeling of passing from the exterior in the evening, when it’s gray and dark, into the main part of the taxi office, where the outline of the window is done in green neon, and you go down the corridor with its shiny walls in this kind of cavern underground, where it goes to this light blue with Dutch turquoise, with that low color temperature of around 2,600 Kelvin.
“If the camera can move hand-held all the way through all those elements, it gives a feeling of subterranean London.”
Key tools: The Arricam Light. Film stock: Fuji 500 ASA.
Aesthetic: “A lot of the film was shot with a hand-held camera, which makes a set much freer and gives the scenes a nervous edge that reflects the desperate circumstances of these immigrants as they run from one job to the next, trying to stay one step ahead of the immigration authorities. The film is really a recurring nightmare.”
Challenge: “Working in London is incredibly tough. They have this agency called Health & Safety, which is all very well and good, but part of our professionalism is to do things safely, quickly and intelligently. You want to go and make the story live, and they are impediments to that.”
Oscar pedigree: Nominated for “Michael Collins” (1996); won for “The Killing Fields” (1984) and “The Mission” (1986).