Rodrigo Prieto, who first visited Poland’s Camerimage fest in 2000 to take the top prize for “Amores perros” and later filmed “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” says his cinematography in Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” presented challenges that pushed him into new territory.
The crime thriller, adapted from Charles Brandt’s book “I Heard You Paint Houses,” follows decades of the story of union organizer Jimmy Hoffa and the mob. The project forged new tools and techniques to create the authentic look of ages passing as characters turbulent lives roll on.
This is your third major film with Martin Scorsese, following up on 2016’s “Silence.” Has the intimidation factor fully passed now?
That’s one thing about Scorsese – certainly with his body of work and his incredible talent as a director it can seem like it would be intimidating. But he is very charming. The day I met him he immediately put me at ease. He obviously has an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema but he doesn’t lay it out there.
Scorsese fans have been awaiting another lush, period crime story – how did you go about creating the look that might achieve this for “The Irishman”?
He didn’t really want to emulate past gangster movies and even his own work – that wasn’t part of the design at all. Really, it was based on the character, Frank Sheeran, and how he sees life and how he works as well. His job is union organizer along with sort of a friend and bodyguard for Jimmy Hoffa.
The design of the camera work is predicated on Frank Sheeran’s ways. He is a very methodical person and he approaches a murder as just part of a job. He got desensitized to killing in World War II, where he saw many, many days of combat and had to kill prisoners of war.
So the mentality of the main character determines the point of view for the key scenes with him?
For him it was just you get an order, go and do it. So the camera behaves very simply. We didn’t do any spectacular angles or movements when a killing is happening. So the camera pans with him approaching a person, maybe he kills, maybe it pans back. Or sometimes the camera just sat there, static. It even extends to the cars. All the cars, we show them in perfect profile. Filming in a dry, simple, methodical way.
But it’s not really that simple – it’s actually more complicated. When you shoot a profile of a car it has to be a perfect profile so it’s really not that simple.
There are other moments, which aren’t related to Frank Sheeran, maybe the deposition of Jimmy Hoffa, where the camera moves around, swoops down toward Robert Kennedy.
Scorsese is also quite methodical with laying out his shots well ahead of time, marking down angles and creating storyboards himself. What was left for you to determine at the point you came on?
That does become the bible of how we shoot it. But he is not technical in the sense that he says, ‘OK, this is a 27mm lens.’ It’s more the feel he wants, the type of movement. When I execute the shot I have the freedom to propose within that idea.
Capturing spontaneous performances and reactions with Robert De Niro’s and Al Pacino’s characters were also part of your mandate. How did you go about this?
In dialogue scenes, Scorsese wants to capture the moment of the two performers. So we shoot it with cross coverage, with two cameras. And a third camera to do the two-shot. It certainly complicates the lighting. It takes a little longer to prepare the setup but once you do it it’s done.
The anti-aging digital performance capture, with multiple cameras used to capture data on each actor’s face, added serious complications to your work.
It really was challenging. Also with the de-aging technique with these camera rigs – each angle had three cameras. It was a big rig. But any shot that Scorsese wanted us to do we had to be able to deliver. It took so long to finish one of these shots – the post production was more than a year.
I don’t think a move exists where you see the characters realistically age so many decades. It’s not just retouching – it’s actual face replacement. You go from the 40s to 2000 and you really see them go through a lifetime. It really gives a special power to the story.
How did you go about creating distinct looks for the different eras of “The Irishman”?
That’s a very important part of it – what the passing of time means. I also wanted to be able to give each decade a different feel. And Scorsese wanted this home movie feel for the early period but he didn’t want this jittery, handheld look. I was thinking it had to be film but with these cameras with the big rigs, and changing the magazines, it wouldn’t have worked. So this is where the digitalization came in. We decided we had to do it digital for the scenes that required de-aging.
I started researching still photography of the different eras. Since we can’t make it Super 8 or grainy or 16mm, I thought how about the memory that we all have of our parents’ photos, our own photos. I was born in the 60s and grew up in the 70s. I have a memory of how that looked.
So I ended up using an emulation of Kodachrome for the 50s and then Ektachrome for the 60s. Then from the 70s and beyond I shifted away from still photography and I thought I’d like the color to start to drain away. So I went with an emulation of ENR, which is a bleach process in printing developed by Technicolor Rome for Vittorio Storaro. It added contrast and took color away.
Netflix, the film’s producer, has taken a lot of heat for the relatively short theatrical run for a film by such a master of big-screen cinema and most viewers will stream “The Irishman.” Does that bother you?
The exclusive theatrical run is just under a month but it continues in theaters. It’s not like it will be taken out of theaters. What I do wish is that there were more cinemas that were showing it. But what I’m grateful for is that the movie was produced and made the way it needed to be. And what I appreciate about streaming is a lot of people get the opportunity to see the movie.
How do you work differently today from the way you did earlier in your career filming for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu or working on films like “Argo”?
I’m a different person, like we all are. But I really feel I still have the same level of excitement as when I did my student films, all my first movies, “Amores perros,” as when I’m doing these movies. On “The Irishman” it’s a very special thing to be working with these legendary actors and director – it’s a level beyond anything I’ve ever done. But having said, that, I kind of approach my work in the same way.
I do every movie as it’s own thing and I try to do my best. I don’t feel like I’m at a level where I’ve figured it out – ‘Now I know what cinematography is and I know what to do.’