Hitchcock: Behind the Lens with Jeff Cronenweth, ASC
CreativeCOW presents Hitchcock: Behind the Lens with Jeff Cronenweth, ASC -- Cinematography Feature

Jeff Cronenweth, ASCJeff Cronenweth, ASC
Los Angeles, California
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Hitchcock Featurette: Hitch & Alma

Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, ASC's latest work, Hitchcock, stars Anthony Hopkins as the iconic filmmaker and is set during the filming of horror classic Psycho. Directed by Sacha Gervasi, the film premiered Nov. 1st at the AFI Film Festival.

In 2011 and 2012 Cronenweth earned Best Cinematography nominations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the American Society of Cinematographers for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which also garnered a BAFTA nomination), and The Social Network. Both were filmed with director David Fincher.

Recently named one of the 10 best shot films of 1998 -- 2008 by his peers at the American Society of Cinematographers, Cronenweth shot his first feature, Fight Club, in 1999. He also lensed Mark Romanek's One Hour Photo and K-19: The Widowmaker directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

In addition to his feature career, Cronenweth is known for his CLIO Award-winning music videos and commercials. For directors including Spike Jonze, Stephane Sednaoui and Phil Joanou, he lensed Nine Inch Nails and Janet Jackson videos as well as Jeep, Adidas, Gatorade, Gap, MasterCard, Verizon and Tommy Hilfiger ads. He continues to photograph commercials and music videos between feature projects and recently shot the high-fashion spots for Lady GaGa's new fragrance, "Fame."

A native Los Angeleno, Cronenweth studied filmmaking at the University of Southern California and began his professional career apprenticing to some of the film industry's greatest cinematographers, including; Sven Nykvist, ASC, John Toll, ASC, Conrad Hall, ASC and his father, the late Jordan Cronenweth, ASC.

The script for Hitchcock had been circulating around Hollywood and a lot of my friends had told me it was a really great story. At the time I wasn't really looking to do a movie. I was cruising after having shot The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and going through the awards season, which is work in itself. I shoot and direct commercials with my brother and I was shooting the launch of Lady Gaga's perfume, a 5 to 8 minute commercial that Steve Klein directed. On that shoot, the first AD came to me and said, My friend is doing this small budget movie, I know this isn't the right way to approach you but he's a great fan of yours...and it was Hitchcock. He gave me the script the next day, I read it and felt like I had to do it.

It was the whole package that drew me, and it started with a great story. When I read the script, Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren were already attached, and Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel were in the air. It certainly wasn't what I thought it was. The original title -- and the book it was based on -- was Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, which sounds like a documentary. Respectfully, the Hitchcock family and Universal have the rights to Psycho and a majority of the Hitchcock library, so we had to be somewhat creative with what we could and couldn't use. We didn't want to replicate any particular shot per se from Psycho but rather create shots of the Hitchcock film crew shooting similar scenes. What it was an historic love story, and one that very few people know. I went to USC Film School and I never even knew about Hitchcock's wife Alma or her contributions and integral part she played in his movies.

Anthony Hopkins as “Alfred Hitchcock" and Helen Mirren as "Alma Reville" as they discuss the new movie and prepare to meet the leading actress, Scarlett Johansson as "Janet Leigh". Click image for larger view.

So I was taken by the story, and then add to that the cast that was coming together, and to be able to shoot something about one of the top icons of our industry were all compelling. Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren had tried to work together for 30 years and previous projects hadn't worked out, so this was also going to be their first movie together.

It wasn't like we were trying to copy Psycho and we didn't have those responsibilities, but it opened the door to sneaking in some of Hitchcock's techniques and processes. Since it's a love story and not a Hitchcock drama, that was all calculated. Having done back-to-back movies with [director David] Fincher, this was the complete opposite of that kind of structure, in that Sacha Gervasi was relatively a first-time director. It opened the door for new challenges and responsibilities and that seemed very exciting to me.

Scarlett Johansson in the car as "Janet Leigh" in Psycho. Her character displays a strong sequence of facial expressions as she deliberates her actions with the Real Estate office and the fear of being caught by the policeman who suspects her of suspicious activity.

Hitchcock is a Montecito Picture predominately, Tom Pollack and Ivan Reitman's company so prior to meeting Sacha I met them. I heard the story of how Tom loved Sacha [Gervasi]'s documentary Anvil! and invited him in among 26 other directors. They wanted to meet Sacha but pretty much figured he was not going to make Hitchcock, since he'd never done a scripted film before or worked with actors; his background was as a writer. But Sacha told them all the things he would change and by the time he was done with the pitch, they were sold on him.

His complete immersion into the script allowed us to fine tune the delicate subtleties and nuances throughout the pushed schedule, both in performance and detail. Sacha added the Gein character as Hitchcock's alter ego and he wrote that stunning scene in the bedroom when Alfred questions Alma's loyalty, and she goes off on him and how she's been with him through thick and thin. It's the most powerful scene in the movie.

Alma, with Hitchcock through "Thick and Thin". Helen Mirren as "Alma Reville" and Anthony Hopkins as "Alfred Hitchcock".

Without any misunderstandings about my responsibilities on the film, I did feel that I was the senior person and that they were all depending on me. To me, it's the same difference, knowing I'll get the support I need in the end. It was a great collaborative effort. One of the first decisions that came up was the format to shoot this on. Sacha had on his mind that it had to be shot on film, for two reasons: It would probably be the last time either one of us would have the chance to shoot film and, second, it's Hitchcock and nostalgia.

Hitchcock and Nostalgia. Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most progressive directors ever and he'd be one of the first to embrace new technology as it was available.

I turned the conversation around on him, saying that Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most progressive directors ever and he'd be one of the first to embrace new technology. At the end, however, it became a financial decision to save an enormous amount of money. To me, with Sacha being relatively inexperienced and the fact that we'd all be working with all the prosthetics and we'd need to be able to look at the action on the monitor, it seemed it would be most practical to shoot digitally. For me, if it's done right the pros and cons of shooting digitally neutralize. I used the RED Epic, which I used two-thirds into shooting The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. That movie had 158 shoot days, and the RED Epic wasn't available when we started, so we began shooting with the RED One with the MX chips and then made a transition when the Epic was available.

Sacha Gervasi with Anthony Hopkins. Hitchcock was shot with the RED Epic at 2.40:1, which is a wide aspect ratio, then they made a 4K frame within that.

We were shooting 5K but knowing it would only be released in 2K, I shot at 2.40:1, which is a wide aspect ratio and made a 4K frame within that, which Fincher and I often do. It gives us flexibility in repositioning shots and all that room for stabilization. The RED Epic performed beautifully, and we had no problems. I love the Alexa and RED but RED seemed more appropriate on this picture. One reason is that we used the old RenMar stages as the studio, and RED owns those stages. There were certainly advantages to being there and using their equipment. The RenMar Studios is the same place they shot The Artist; it hasn't changed much over the years.

Sacha wanted a mild Technicolor look. He wanted to embrace the blue skies and the color palettes of the sets and costume design and bring that to life. In the end, however, we backtracked from that a bit. The final look wasn't as vibrant as I thought it would be. Hitchcock is a dark character and so is his alter ego, so that dictated a style to enable the audience to feel the emotions of that world.

Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock on the set of HITCHCOCK. Photo By Suzanne Tenner
Anthony Hopkins as "Alfred Hitchcock". Photo By Suzanne Tenner

When we were shooting the driving sequences or were on the Psycho set, we tried to stay in the 1960s world and all the practicals (wall and table lamps, etc.) they would have embraced. Out of that comes our look. I'm a fan of incandescent lights and dressing room mirrors and real lamps used in a house as lighting sources. I tried not to use any light sources, any movie lights they wouldn't have had at that time. We also had a lot of vintage lamps that were in scenes that we actually used to light the scenes with.

I didn't feel at all restricted by this. In fact, it helped keep me in check. When you have too much leeway, you can get out of bounds of what you need to do for that movie. I did a submarine movie, K-19: The Widowmaker, for director Kathryn Bigelow and the sets weren't moveable intentionally so we could not put the camera in a place you couldn't in a submarine. Although it was restrictive, it kept it legitimate and honest. Finding shots within those parameters was exciting and that's what we did on Hitchcock as well. Shooting a lot of practical locations, we wanted to embrace Hitchcock's ability to move the camera and we took advantage of that as much as possible to restrict coverage. In a perfect world, you'd do beautiful complicated moves and then go in and do coverage but because of the time needed for prosthetic work, we had to combine a lot of things. That limitation forced us to be creative about our coverage, and that was a great thing.

Sacha's background as a writer sometimes did shape what he was looking for. In my view, writers can be obsessed with the word and need to see actors say every word that's written, but I don't believe that's necessarily the best way to emotionally engage the audience. So we had conversations about when to use contrast and not, when you needed to see what the characters were saying versus a more dramatic lighting. It was a question of us working through it and balancing out the movie where there was enough of both.

Great ideas come from adversity and creative compromise. Jeff, above.

I had seen all the Hitchcock movies in college but in preparing to shoot this movie, I revisited six or seven of them and certainly watched Psycho again and some of the TV series as well. I also had several books about Hitchcock and did some research on the camera equipment, sets, costumes, and lights. At the end, we were fortunate enough to talk to some original Psycho crew members. We did a Q&A at the Academy with the movie's script supervisor. I learned more stories about his personality and style and what their days on the set were like. Hitchcock was a very closed person who only had an inner circle of friends he trusted and would confide in. He also had such a great sense of humor that's often missed in the persona he created. We were making a movie about a couple and their love story. So some of the pressure of being attached to Psycho were nullified by the restraints put in by the family and Universal. It was just the catalyst to get into their journey and their resolution.

In the final analysis, the greatest challenge in shooting Hitchcock was also the greatest inspiration. That's always true, obstacles become inspiration as soon as you stop fighting the challenges and embrace them. I could have used more shooting time, more space on sets, more tools and so on, but that was not to be. You have this, now make it good. This is what we have to do. Great ideas come from adversity and creative compromise.

I was fortunate enough to have a father who was a cinematographer -- I should say, rather, a master of light -- and I was privileged to work with him for a number of years. Without a doubt, he was my greatest inspiration, both as a cinematographer and his aesthetic choices as an artist. I will always aspire to reach some of the plateaus he did. I grew up in the business, visiting sets, and always felt like it was something I wanted to do. I didn't know which part, but I loved the collaboration and the notion of everyone working together to achieve a common goal.

Everyone works together toward a common goal. (L-R) Peter Rosenfeld, camera operator, Jeff Cronenweth, ASC and first A/C Harry Zimmerman on the set of Hitchcock.

I started school at junior college in Santa Monica and the opportunity to join the union came up, by working at a commercial company as a staff loader. I had the choice of doing that or working on Blade Runner, and my dad recommended going to the commercial house. In retrospect, it would have been nice to have been on the set of Blade Runner. After my job each day, I'd go to the Blade Runner set, so I did get to see a lot. I finished my education in film school at USC and then went back and worked with my dad as well as John Toll, ASC, Conrad Hall, ASC, and Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC. When my dad retired, I did seven movies with Sven Nykvist, ASC. They were both geniuses and had slightly different philosophies to light. By the time, he'd retired, I was just starting to shoot so it worked out perfectly.

My philosophy is that it's all about the story, supporting the story and letting the visual support that. The cinematographer needs to not get in the way or let his ego take over. People being backlit and silhouetted is always beautiful but doesn't always tells the story. As cinematographers, we have a responsibility to start with the story and go from there when opportunities present themselves.

It's all about the story. Scarlett Johansson as "Janet Leigh" in Psycho.

Hitchcock Official Trailer

Photo credits: Suzanne Tenner. ™ and © 2012 Fox.