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Rodrigo Prieto on ‘The Irishman’: ‘I Can’t Imagine Saying No to Martin Scorsese’

Rodrigo Prieto on 'The Irishman,' Cinematography
Martien Mulder

To say that two-time Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto is in demand would be an understatement. Prieto has been a frequent collaborator with directors Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Ang Lee, Julie Taymor and Oliver Stone and has worked with Curtis Hanson, Cameron Crowe and Pedro Almodóvar. He has shot Martin Scorsese’s past three films: “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Silence” (earning an Oscar nom) and this year’s “The Irishman.” He talked with Variety about the demands and rewards of shooting the current film.

What was the biggest challenge?
I think the schedule. It was well beyond 300 scenes, and we shot for 108 days. So we had to move frequently, often several times in one day. Add to that, roughly half the movie has visual effects with the de-aging techniques. That required a rig that we created for the three cameras needed, which created a lot of logistical questions on how to light the actors. Creating that rig was another challenge. Even though it was challenging, it was one of the most joyful experiences of my life going to the set every day.

Why were there three cameras?
The main camera captured the scene; attached to it were two others, which we called witness cameras. Those two were fitted so they would capture infrared light and project that onto the actors, which the main camera couldn’t see because of a filter. Those witness cameras have information about the way every facial muscle is moving.

The camera seems to move a lot. So all three cameras were moving at once?
Yes. I made sure with my team that the rig was lightweight, so Scorsese could do whatever he wanted. When we follow Frank Sheeran [Robert De Niro], he’s a very methodical man, so the camera follows him in that manner. But with other characters, the camera moved a lot. For example, in the Latin Casino, we did a circular dolly around Hoffa [Al Pacino] and Peggy [Anna Paquin] dancing; the camera then has to move to see Bufalino [Joe Pesci] leaving. That was tricky, and we used the three-headed monster because Hoffa at that point was being de-aged.

Was there any task that was overwhelming?
No. I can’t imagine saying no to Martin Scorsese. Part of the thrill of working with him is executing his vision. In “Silence,” the script had the men being crucified on the sand. But then he pointed to a rocky area with the waves crashing and said, “Let’s put the crosses here.” So we just said, “OK,” and had to figure out how to do it without killing the actors.

How do you keep up your energy?
I drink a lot of coffee and eat nuts. I call them my anxiety nuts. The truth is, I love what I do so much, it doesn’t feel strenuous. I get tired but I’m happy.

Who were your early heroes?
One of the first cinematographers I became aware of was Néstor Almendros because of his book, “A Man With a Camera.” His whole notion of naturalism I found fascinating. At that time, cinema in general, and Mexican cinema in particular, had a way of lighting with hard light and hard shadows, which I did not like. So I found Almendros’ approach to be interesting and refreshing. The counterbalance was watching Vittorio Storaro or Jordan Cronenweth with “Blade Runner,” for example, which were more stylized; they had a huge impact. Another influence was Gabriel Figueroa and his strong compositions. I started developing a style of naturalism with a little extra flair, a combination of the sensibility of those great cinematographers.

Your work on Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution” was also amazing.
That’s one of my favorites. That’s the movie Scorsese saw, which made him think of hiring me for “Wolf of Wall Street.” It’s interesting because it couldn’t be more different from “Wall Street.” But I am happy about that. The three with Scorsese are very different from one another and very different from anything I’d done before.

Things You Didn’t Know About Rodrigo Prieto

Age: 54  Birthplace: Mexico City Family: Married with two children Oscar nominations: “Brokeback Mountain,” “Silence” Favorite Films: “All That Jazz,” “Raging Bull” History: One of Variety’s 10 Cinematographers to Watch in 1999 Family Tree: Grandfather was mayor of Mexico City Treasured possession: “Raging Bull” poster autographed by Scorsese, De Niro and Pesci, a gift from his wife