A few months ago, I posted an audio interview with the late, great Harris Savides, ASC, about his approach to contrast.
This post continues my informal conversation with Harris at the Camerimage Festival many years ago, but this time with a focus on his filmmaking process with director Gus van Sant on the Death Trilogy.
Harris left us way too soon in 2012, at the age of 55.
Harris was a pure artist, and a gentle bear of a man, intelligent, considerate and humble. He was universally admired by his peers, and sought out by top filmmakers including Gus van Sant, David Fincher, Ridley Scott and Sofia Coppola.
Harris’ feature credits include:
The Yards, Birth, Zodiac, American Gangster, Somewhere
Harris also lit notable music videos for Madonna and REM.
the death trilogy
For me Harris' greatest work is the so-called Death trilogy, his collaboration with director Gus van Sant:
2002 Gerry -- 2003 Elephant -- 2005 Last Days
The three films combine to create a powerful generational portrait of American youth at the Millennium, punctuated by violent deaths. In Gerry a young man murders his friend. Elephant follows teenage mass murderers at a high school (evoking the 1999 killings at Columbine). Last Days is loosely based on the suicide of grunge rocker Kurt Cobain.
This tragic trilogy is marked by stunning filmmaking and cinematography, informed by a minimalist aesthetic. The stories are stripped down to bare basics. There is little dialogue, no coverage, and van Sant’s mise en scène is elegantly spare. Harris’ brilliant lighting suffuses the films with often soft and understated naturalistic sources, ranging from majestic deserts to institutional hallways and murky interiors.
Harris and I spoke about the trilogy, focusing on the unique filmmaking process that created these masterful works.
Benjamin B: How did you guys start on the trilogy?
Harris Savides: It all started with a feeling that Gus had to make a movie the way he wanted, without any of the politics, without anything stopping him from being creative.
BB: So it had to do with changing the process of filmmaking?
HS: For him it did. Making these three movies without any of the impediments that would prevent him from doing what he wanted. He had to give up a lot to get that.
He designed the films so that we could work really simply. You have to give up budget, you have to give up support, you have to work really simply. And in return you get freedom that, I think, far outweighs what you’ve given away.
BB: Is that freedom mostly in terms of time?
HS: It’s in terms of time, in terms of creative control
BB: And for you as a cinematographer, does it mean that you’re going to try a bunch of different things when you get to the set?
HS: No, we make rules. The rules are a simple mandate. Very simple. Like very little dialogue, try to shoot as long a take as possible, put the camera at this height (gesturing at the table).
It’s very interesting, because a lot of decisions are taken out of the mix. It imposes an integrity on everything. But also it imposes a speed, and a decision-making that’s pure, that’s only about a few things.
BB: I love what you’re saying, that if you want freedom, you need constraints.
HS: Oh yeah. I think that’s the essence of freedom. You can’t be free and be a wild filmmaker. You really have to have rules, and a discipline of sorts, that, of course, conspire to make the film that you’ve set out to make.
BB: You feel that freedom more strongly with Gus’ films, than other films you’ve worked on?
HS: Totally, because… it’s him, it’s due to him.
BB: There’s something brilliant about Elephant, something conceptual. I’m trying to imagine how the script read?
HS: The script was incredible. With Gerry, Gus started with these scripts that were very short. They were my favorite scripts to read because they ended up being 30-35 pages. And there was no exposition in them at all, which I think is good for a movie script. It went like:
“Rob walks down the stairs. Rob gets a can of soup, opens the can. Jane comes in. Jane says ‘Good morning, Rob.’ Rob just mumbles. Jane leaves.”
It’s funny because Leos Carax [the French director] sent me a script and he writes like that too…
Anyway, Gus’ scripts are telling you what the shot is, what you’re doing. He’s not embellishing what he’s writing with color, with adjectives, with adverbs. "He walks down the stairs and opens the door”. The gnarled doorknob is not there. The doorknob isn’t there!
Then Gus will break it down one more step. He’ll take those 30 pages and turn them into… I think in Gerry we had 1 ½, maybe 2 pages. He called the two characters “The Gerrys”.
“The Gerrys drive. The Gerrys park the car and get out. The Gerrys walk to the rock…”
It was so wonderful because all of a sudden you realize exactly what you need to deliver to the audience.
BB: Did these simple scripts change your approach?
HS: After working that way, through that process, and seeing the movie, I stepped through a threshold in my career. I really learned – relearned – how to be a filmmaker. Because I learned how to distill things down to what we needed to tell the audience.
Now when I look at this page, or this paragraph, I think: “What do we want to tell them, and how can we do it in the simplest way?” And once I’ve figured that out, then it’s easy. Then it becomes: “Do I need to make it better?” And usually there’s not a lot of reason to do so. Because all you’re doing is delivering information.
To me that’s the best filmmaking, you’re editing in camera. You’re actually making the movie. As opposed to giving yourself choices, and then you have to figure out what to use later. In those experiences with Gus, you’re leaving that day with the scene. You know you’ve got it.
BB: You’re not going to search for the soul of the movie in the editing room.
HS: No. And that’s freedom. And it’s empowerment. I can’t tell you how good it feels to have accomplished that work. You don’t know if it’s good, or if people are going to like it, but you finished that day with a sense of “we got what we needed to get, let’s move on”.
BB: What kinds of things did you and Gus discuss before making Elephant?
HS: Gus had these ideas or feelings. These were just catalysts for ideas, but we talked about [director Frederick] Wiseman, we talked about [director John] Cassevetes, we talked about schools, we talked about hallways.
He also had this idea that he wanted to have a very wide lens behind someone walking, fish-eye. We tried it, and it didn’t work. You were aware of the movement instead of the story. So we held back, we went to the widest lens we could do, it was an 18 or 21mm. We lost that feeling, and then we were there.
BB: How did you decide to shoot Elephant in 1.33:1 ?
HS: It’s funny because for the format, we talked about those little instructional films that teachers used to show in the Sixties in 1.33. And Gus thought maybe we should do our film in 1.33. It worked very well for the way halls are built, and for following people.
BB: What other kinds of constraints did you give yourself ?
HS: You know on Last Days, we used only 2 lenses. We sent everything back. I think we did bring one lens back, a longer lens. So it was 3 lenses and that was it. Think about it: the height of the lens was established, and it was either the wide lens or the tight one. It also gives the film…
BB: A coherence? The audience might not be able to put their finger on it, but they will feel it…
HS: Yes. It’s visceral. It’s cohesive, there’s nothing confusing. And I don’t think you need all these lenses. Why can’t you make a movie with two lenses? Some great movies were made that way.
It’s nice to have choice, but with all due respect to the manufacturers, I don’t think we need all these lenses. It’s like in America you walk down the potato chip aisle, and there’s a whole lot of potato chips. You get on some jobs now, and they say: "do you want a 32mm or a 34 or a 27?" And you sit there processing all these possibilities.
BB: Do you agree that the filmmaking process defines the final result ?
Benjamin B: So if all processes were the same, then all films would start to look the same ?
HS: Oh yeah, look at Hollywood. There’s a certain amount of that going on.
BB: In Last Days like you said the camera is low, but also pretty static. Was that a rule?
HS: We thought we were going to be moving again in Last Days, like we did in Elephant. And all of a sudden the architecture imposed this static thing on us. It was a Victorian house, there weren’t long hallways, there wasn’t the wide outdoors. The movement was too busy. It was rooms going into rooms, and that became what the movie was about, instead of about these people. So we backed off and went into this Ozu [referring to the Japanese director] formal lens thing.
BB: What are the lighting rules you gave yourself?
HS: Keep it real. Keep it natural. The beauty of those movies was that one of the rules was no coverage, unless we need to. No close-ups, unless we need to. So when you have a close-up, it’s very important.
In the standard coverage, where you do master shot, medium shot, 2-shot and close-up, the crew become like robots. It’s like “Okay, got it”, then everybody starts moving, the tape measures come out… That’s not filmmaking, it’s the dumbing down of the people who make movies. And everybody’s just covering their asses, “just in case”. Why do you need a close-up? "He’s buying fish! Why do we need to see a close-up of a man buying fish?"
Instead of shooting everything and looking at it later, please make a decision. It’s hard to make movies. We don’t have money, and we have to act like the police are chasing us. So let’s try to do this with some dignity. And do it well, and have some fun. And do good work.
BB: Say more about keeping it real.
HS: Keeping it real… I’m very lucky in this work with Gus, in that I don’t have to match anything. Think about it. I get heralded as a lighting master but I’m not matching anything. I just set the camera up. I know that if we do another take, and it’s very rare that we do, it doesn’t have to match. I know there’s going to be no intercutting. The sun’s going down? It’s looking better!
BB: And not matching saves a lot of time !
HS: Exactly. And more freedom. More freedom to be creative. In Last Days it's freedom to create things. Or to move the way we did in Elephant. That’s the filmmaking, we had time to do that. Elephant was shot in 17 days. Last Days was shot in 19 days
BB: Wow. That is truly amazing. And that’s financial freedom too.
HS: Yeah and we came in under schedule. And they’re not long days!
BB: Do you always give yourself cinematography rules?
HS: Yes, I certainly do, to establish an integrity, an identity. Unless it's a film that needs to jump around visually, but I tend to avoid that trick. I think that a film has to have just one style, one look, whatever that is.
thefilmbook: Interview with Harris Savides - About Contrast
thefilmbook: Harris Savides 1957 - 2012
diyphotography.net: The Cinematography of Harris Savides
wikipedia: Harris Savides
wikipedia: Gus van Sant
- The Death Trilogy by Gus van Sant with cinematography by Harris Savides
YouTube: trailer for Gerry
YouTube: trailer for Elephant
imdb: trailer for Last Days
YouTube: Making of Last Days by Felix Andrew
wikipedia: Columbine High School massacre
wikipedia: Kurt Cobain
wikipedia: American documentary director Frederick Wiseman
wikipedia: American director John Cassavetes
wikipedia: French director Leos Carax
wikipedia: Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu
(known for his static shots with low-camera angle)