I reached Jim Denault, ASC, in Dallas, where he was prepping the pilot for a half-hour HBO comedy with Mike White. Our conversation centered mostly on stories with a political backdrop. A case in point is his upcoming feature Trumbo, which stars Bryan Cranston as screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted in the 1940s for being a Communist. The film, which also stars Helen Mirren, Diane Lane, John Goodman and Louis C.K., is scheduled for release in November. The director is Jay Roach, with whom Denault has made The Campaign, Game Change, Dinner for Schmucks and Recount. (Roach’s résumé also includes three Austin Powers comedies, as well as Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers.)
I asked Jim if he has a personal interest in projects of a political nature. “I’m interested in politics, and Jay is very interested in politics,” he says. “But what draws me to a project is really the personal story, the drama the character goes through. The backdrop, whether it’s a Western or a political campaign, is less important to me than a strong character who overcomes adversity — or doesn’t. With Ron Klain in Recount or Steve Schmidt in Game Change, the character comes up against the system, and the drama is about what that does to their families, their belief systems and their lives. That’s the stuff that draws me into these stories.”
Jim referred to Maria Full of Grace, the independent film he shot a decade ago in which a pregnant Colombian teenager (played by Catalina Sandino Moreno) becomes a drug mule to make money for her family. Moreno received an Oscar nomination, and the film, directed by Joshua Marston, enjoyed a very successful run. “Maria Full of Grace had a political aspect to it, but it’s really a story about one person and her struggle,” he says. “The interesting part of working on these films is going through the process of figuring out how they’re supposed to look. What’s the story really about? What is this script giving us? What are the challenges?"
“We refer to political films like The Parallax View and All the President’s Men,” he says. “But instead of coming to meetings with all the answers based on somebody else’s movie, it’s interesting to ask why Gordon Willis [ASC] and Alan Pakula made those movies look like they did, how they got to that place.”
Jim does see some interesting parallels between Trumbo’s story and today’s political scene, and that idea did seep into some of the visuals. “The war on Communism was a very new kind of war. Often it was a war on an idea rather than a war with shooting armies lined up against each other. The story has a certain timelessness, but we tried to shoot and color-correct it with a saturation that evokes Kodachrome from that time. We used slightly older lenses that were less sharp and a little less contrasty to make it seem a little less modern. We got to re-create some scenes from a movie set of that era, and that made me think about the limitations faced by cinematographers back then: slow film stocks and slow lenses.
“It was actually a lot of fun to work with hard light for a change,” he adds. “We’re so used to using soft light and what that does to portraiture. Lighting with a Fresnel, and seeing what it does to the quality and texture of an actor’s skin, was very gratifying in a way.”
Early in his career, Jim was known as a cinematographer who was adept at using all the video cameras of the time. Again, he sees some parallels between now and then. “Right now the moviemaking world is going through the same sort of equipment cycle that video went through back in the 1980s and ’90s, when video cameras went from using tubes to chips, and videotape went from ¾-inch U-matic to Betacam. It seemed like you had to buy a new camera every two years in order to keep up with what people were demanding. Maybe in the first year, you’d pay off the loan you took out, if you were lucky enough to get rentals. In the second year, you might make some money, and by the third year, no one wanted to rent your junky old camera!
“I think that’s true of some of today’s digital cameras. Producers complain about how expensive they are, but they’re not thinking about how the rental houses have to amortize them over a very short period and somehow make a profit as well.”