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‘Peterloo’ DP Dick Pope on the Making of a Massacre

Cinematographer Dick Pope has collaborated with iconic director Mike Leigh for over two decades and set out to apply their unique approach to filming to the story of the 1819 British massacre of demonstrators known to history as Peterloo. A study of workers, factory owners, the clergy and the crown, whose conflicting interests build to a brutal bloodbath on St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, the film represented the greatest technical challenge Pope has faced, he says.

Competing for the Golden Frog at EnergaCamerimage and shot at historic locations, the production was built up from a focus on actors and performances as its foundation, says Pope, an approach he and Leigh have used throughout their collaboration on films including “Naked,” “Vera Drake” and “Mr. Turner.”

You’ve been on juries here at EnergaCamerimage more than once. What do you notice in different choices younger cinematographers are making?

I do find in the last few years this tendency to shoot a lot of stuff out of focus as a kind of stylistic decision, which I’m not very keen on. It’s an affectation. For me, it takes you out of the film. But it’s so popular – really shallow depth of field, swinging the focus in and out – obviously artistically [it works] for them. But for me it doesn’t work, really.

And the other thing I find is there is a huge amount of handheld for absolutely no reason whatsoever. It’s like a lack of confidence. Waving it around – I mean that “Hill Street Blues”-type look. There’s so much of it now – they’ll do wide shots handheld as if it’s somebody’s point of view. But it isn’t – that really gets to me sometimes.

What for you is the determining factor for camera moves and lighting?

To me, everything on the screen has to be motivated and serve the story – certainly acting, the actors… Years ago on “Naked” we did go handheld but there was always a reason. There’s a big extended scene in Soho where Johnny walks around at night. But it had that dynamic.

And the other thing is, the chips in the cameras are really sensitive. You can see into darkness – you really can. The tendency can be to make it darker and darker and darker. It used to be the producers, thinking about where they’re going to sell it in cinemas, were always trying to make it brighter. Now it’s the directors who want it darker. I’m not talking about darkness with a lit edge so you can see something. They just crank it down and it goes muddy, very gray, very woolly. I find that an affectation also.

Working with Mike Leigh is a challenge for any cinematographer who want shots planned in detail well in advance, isn’t it? When is the first time you learn just how a scene for him will be shot?

When the scene comes together. I only see it when he’s ready to show it with the actors. He’ll show all of us, the company so to speak, and we’ll all watch and they’ll all go away and they now know what it is. And Mike and I will work out staging and where to put the camera, how to film it, privately, with the actors. We’ll run the scene over with the actors and get those positions.

But there is also a great deal of precision in your filming with Leigh, so how does that come into it?

We know where we’re going. It’s not a complete blank canvas. We’ve already been prepping locations. That involves the art department, myself. I’ll go and see a place over and over, but not knowing exactly what we’re going to do with it and what the scene entails.

I get word through the grapevine that there’s going to be a hundred people or one person. Then we look at it and it’s just like that – he makes the film up as he goes along. We’ve got quite a long shoot period so part of it is filming and part is him devising the scenes for the actors. So I don’t go in there blind.

Once the scene is underway, it is kind of written down because at that point, when the actors are happy, and Mike is happy, then that’ll be locked.

And how responsive is Leigh to your input on the ideal way to shoot a scene?

He’ll run a scene with me watching it and say, “What about here?” and “What about there?” And I’ll often say to him, can we change the choreography a bit to get better light? And we’re in there together.

These films feature remarkable performances that actors prep for intensively – so how does this counterbalance the priorities of the ideal camera position or move?

The important thing is, it is structured. There’s no throwing me into a room with a group of actors and making it up as we go along, visually. He’s very precise. But it’s about telling the story with the actors. We never let the camera dictate. We’re not slaves to the acting – it is a marriage between the acting and the camera. Bringing the camera to the actors and the actors to the camera.

It’s almost like a stage play. Visually we go for the emotion – the distilled emotion of the scene. Honing in – and I certainly do with the lighting – to get the most from every performance and every situation.

So there’s no trying different takes with different readings of the lines?

The actors have spent months – five, six months, in building their character up. By the time we get to film they are totally that person. They deliver every time. He doesn’t do a lot of takes. It could be five or six or one. We move along quite rapidly when we start.

You’ve said the climactic massacre scene in “Peterloo” was one of your biggest career challenges. How so?

There was lots going on everywhere and it was quite a complicated shoot, trying to keep the whole coherent as a piece. You have to know where you’re going with it because I haven’t got a script. I don’t know what scene 150 is going to be – anything about it. We try to devise a look and adhere to that look so I don’t get lost.

And weather conditions where you were filming, in Northern England, weren’t on your side?

The thing was, that Peterloo massacre itself took place just over a couple of hours on a hot summer’s day in 1819. It was a famously boiling summer. We were filming it for four weeks, outside. We were filming it in all sorts of weather. The shear organizational aspect of it in lousy light. One of the biggest exterior challenges I’ve ever undertaken.

We were filming from sunup to sunset every day and we had everything thrown at us – rain and storms. I lit the exteriors not with lights on people’s faces but with banks of lights, old Hollywood style, beaming down on the backs of people to rim them as if in the sun when it wasn’t there. Happily, it doesn’t really show.

How did you crack the best way to shoot the soldiers on horseback putting down the demonstrations?

We had three cameras on it, which is very unusual for us, to shoot the massacre. And he worked in the same way he always worked – that’s the thing. He defines the scene on St. Peter’s Field with the actors and then elements are brought in like the stunt people, the crowd, the cameras. He employed the same working technique he always does – he can’t do it any other way.

That gives it a real focus – we always did it from the ground as if we were in the crowd. We never went up and did these bloody shots that people do when they’re all up and looking down at everyone like ants running around. It was right in there.

The film also shows multiple characters’ back stories leading up to the tragedy – how did you make them visually distinct?

That was partly where they lived – the environments they inhabited, the royalty, the working class in their hovels, tenement buildings. That was more about production design but obviously I play off that with the way I light.

The weaving mill set was made for some extraordinary realism – how did that come about?

It took my breath away when I first saw that place. It’s like an underfunded northern museum piece that is opened up for visitors somewhere near Burnley in Lancashire. There were six machines, or even just four, that worked. But in the background they had a team of people right to the horizon jiggling bobbins and pulleys as if they were working so the whole place was like shaking and moving. The children walking in the foreground with their baskets and their bare feet.

You’ve said that your first consideration in taking on a job is the appeal of the story. What was it about “Peterloo” that captivated you?

Yeah, the script – when there is one. You visualize it as you read it. If it resonates with you, you think, “Oh my God, I haven’t done this before. What a challenge.”

And what visual reference points were key in your research?

I watched quite a few battle scenes, like Kurosawa’s “Ran,” “Seven Samurai” – again. But what I did look at more than anything else was a miners’ strike documentary and newsroom footage from 1984, when Maggie Thatcher finally sunk the unions, basically. They sent the mounted police in and they brutally, brutally put it down. And there’s spectacular footage. And the illustrations of the day by people like George Cruikshank – I looked at those.

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