The original interview can be found here.
Danny Cohen has received an Oscar and a Bafta nomination for his cinematography on The King’s Speech.
The London-based film-maker previously worked with King’s Speech director Tom Hooper on the Emmy-nominated HBO TV series John Adams, and Channel 4’s Longford.
Cohen’s other film credits include The Boat That Rocked, Glorious 39, and This Is England.
But what is a cinematographer – and how do you become one?
What does a cinematographer do?
My job is to help the director realise what’s in his head.
The cinematographer creates a consistent look for the film and makes images that help tell the story. It’s what’s in the frame, the lighting, getting the mood right – getting images that push the story along and keeps the audience inside, not outside, the film.
What’s the relationship with the director?
There’s a dialogue that constantly goes on between the director and the cinematographer [also known as the director of photography, or DP]. You’ve both got to be there for every single shot. A lot of other work – like production design, costume and hair – has to be nailed before you start filming.
Once you get the trust of a director, they know they can rely on you to do something very interesting. It’s a very complicated relationship.
What were the challenges of working on The King’s Speech?
We shot the film in November – January. If you make a film in the UK in winter, one of the biggest things you confront is that it gets dark at 4.30pm.
So it’s about being able to control the light: Lionel Logue’s consulting room was a biggish room with a skylight, so we put a lighting rig outside the skylight and a blackout tent above the lighting rig. So whether it was day or night, we could light the scene however we wanted.
A big interior set-up was Ely Cathedral [which doubles for Westminster Abbey]. Controlling the light was a major challenge because of the size of the location. We used massive lighting balloons which give ambient daylight – hopefully it looks natural on-screen. If you looked slightly wider than the frame you’d see the chaos of a film set, lots of lights, lots of people and equipment.
Is there a particular shot in the film which was hard to achieve?
There is a walking and talking scene between Logue and King George in Regents Park, where we used lots of smoke machines to give it atmosphere. There was low winter sun which always looks fantastic because you get long shadows.
We worked out where the sun would be and had Geoffrey and Colin walking towards us to have them backlit and so we could play the sun into the lens.
That’s an example where we were all lucky – it could have been windy or raining.
Some reviews have noted how you abandon traditional framing techniques in The King’s Speech. How did you approach that?
You want images that unsettle the audience, so if you put an actor in the wrong position in the frame it’s going to feel uncomfortable. In a weird way, doing the things you shouldn’t in this case benefited the story.
Normally you shoot faces with longer lens to get big close-ups with out-of-focus background. What we did to a certain extent was use very wide lenses, but very close to the actors. In the consulting room, the camera is right in Colin’s face but you still see the walls and never lose the context of where he is. That’s not the traditional way of shooting historical drama.
How did you get started in cinematography?
There’s no right or wrong way. You can go to film school, but everybody’s different. My first degree was a social science and nothing to do with film. I’d always done a lot of stills photography. I ended up as a photographic technician at Middlesex Poly and then became a camera assistant on small documentaries and pop promos and commercials.
It’s all about chance meetings. I ended up as a camera assistant and clapper loader for eight years working with lots of cameramen with different styles, so that was my film school.
I worked with the French cameraman who shot Betty Blue. Going to work was like going to a master-class every day.
How well do you know your fellow nominees?
I’ve never met any of them. Until the Baftas, Roger Deakins [who beat Cohen for his work on True Grit] was my favourite cinematographer! I’m a huge fan of all his films – one of the first he did was Defence of the Realm, a small UK thriller and it looks amazing. The Big Lebowski is a big favourite of mine.
What difference does an Oscar nomination make?
It’s recognition, it shows people think you vaguely know what you’re doing.
The phone hasn’t stopped ringing, I’ve been doing a lot of interviews for American magazines. People, bizarrely, find it really interesting.
What’s your next big movie?
We just finished Johnny English Reborn in December. Essentially it’s a Bond film. Having thought I’d never get asked to do a Bond film, I thought it was a fantastic opportunity because it’s about spies, gadgets and car chases. Working with Rowan Atkinson was exciting. We did some fun stuff.