“The Directors I Work With Prefer a Natural Approach”: DP Diego García at Rotterdam 2020
Because of the nature of the business, a cinematographer often has a more eclectic body of work than an actor or a director, and it is not unusual to see their work span continents. Even by these standards, however, Diego García’s filmography is quite impressive: His last four credits are Carlos Reygadas’s Our Time, Gabriel Mascaro’s Divine Love, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Too Old to Die Young, and Yorgos Lanthimos’s short film Nimic—four films produced in four different countries by directors with four different mother tongues. It isn’t surprising, then, to hear that García is particularly attentive to a director’s body of work when selecting projects.
García was present at the 49th International Film Festival Rotterdam, where he was honored with the festival’s inaugural Robby Müller award—established in conjunction with the great DP’s widow, Andrea Müller-Schirmer—to honor an artist who has created an “authentic, credible and emotionally striking visual language,” and to promote the festival selections Nimic and Divine Love, recently released theatrically in the Netherlands. Amid the publicity blitz, García made time to talk to Filmmaker about working across continents, his preference for celluloid over digital, and the differences between Hollywood and independent filmmaking.
Filmmaker: You’ve worked across many different continents with a lot of different directors. How do you find your collaborators?
García: I don’t think there is a formula or rule for how I end up working with directors from different countries. It’s just a matter of being open and if you receive the call and you’re interested you follow it. In the case of Yorgos [Lanthimos], this was a short film, and I don’t know if it was coincidence, but we shot it in Mexico. I am Mexican, and maybe he was looking for a local DP—I’m not sure. But they chose me, and I said yes.
Filmmaker: How about with Apichatpong Weerasethakul in Thailand? I imagine the language barrier would have made that production difficult.
García: Yes, Joe works with Sayombhu Mukdeeprom normally, who was shooting Miguel Gomes’ film [Arabian Nights], so he started to look for another DP. He called me; he had watched some of my work—at that time I think he watched Fogo and Neon Bull, and he was interested. He called me, then I went to Thailand. It was a beautiful experience working with him and on this whole production. It was very focused on the storytelling and on Joe’s vision. I started prepping with him right away and I felt very good even though I was the only foreigner in the crew. The whole crew was Thai. They tried to speak with me in English, and I think we found a very good workflow.
Filmmaker: On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve now worked with Gabriel Mascaro twice. What’s it like collaborating with him?
García: I think we like each other very much. We’re good friends. I mean, normally I am good friends with the director. It’s not necessary, but I have the luck to have a good connection with the directors that I work with. With Gabriel I have done two films so far. I really love and enjoy his universe and his ideas. He’s always looking for a different way to create a language and a different approach. I think Gabriel saw a film that I did, and even though he speaks Portuguese and I spoke Spanish, we Skyped, we liked each other, and he invited me to shoot Neon Bull. Since then we’ve grown very close and we created a strong team together.
Filmmaker: Did the political situation in Brazil make the production of Divine Love different from Neon Bull’s?
García: Actually, we shot Divine Love right before Bolsonaro, so it was the right moment to do it. There were no restrictions or anything that prevented us from doing what we needed to do.
Filmmaker: The director, you’ve stated, is a major factor in you choosing what to work on. So many of your films are shot using natural light—is that your preference or your directors’?
García: I think both. I guess the directors I work with prefer a natural approach and they try to focus more on the storytelling and on the characters, where things really matter, not more on the technical side. But it’s tricky because filmmaking is a technical thing. I guess we try to stay on what we think is more important. So I think it’s both sides; I do prefer being very minimal in terms of my choices for lighting set-ups and camera, but I think the script and the story and the director’s vision always shows me the way and shows me how to work. For me, that’s the guide. It’s not that I come into a project with a certain formula or influence. For me, shooting a film is always like a blank page. I’m always very curious to discover the film.
Filmmaker: I imagine some directors you have worked with are very hands-on about cinematography and the technical side of things, and others are not at all. Do you have a preference in which group to work with?
García: I enjoy both, when there is more technical input into the cinematography, but sometimes if they let me do what I believe is correct for the scene or the film in general I am also happy to give my input.
Filmmaker: Are there any cameras or lenses that you use frequently, across all your projects?
García: I play it film-by-film. I think each film has its own personalities, its own voice. So, the same thing: when I start to prepare and am thinking about the universe of a film, I’m always open to finding the stock and everything else that puts me on the correct path.
Filmmaker: What did you use on Divine Love?
García: We used an Alexa XT, I think. Lenses, we used anamorphic, a Cooke Xtal. It’s a vintage glass rehoused by this technician, Duclos. Those are beautiful anamorphic lenses with a lot of character, distortion, interesting flares and creamy bokeh. We liked them.
Filmmaker: And how about on Nimic?
García: We used 35mm Panavision camera with a primo lens. Different stocks.
Filmmaker: Do you prefer to shoot film and digital? Or rather, what do you like and dislike about each?
García: Yeah, I think each one has its own thing, but I do prefer film.
García: I think, even as I’ve done more digital lately, I’ve been thinking that from now on I would love to start working much more on stock—35mm, 16mm, or even 8mm—just to make a more direct and purer workflow and process on sight.
I don’t know…there’s something very special about shooting on film. People will say it’s only, you know, good old memory or being melancholic about the stock. But I do believe there is some different magic in shooting on film. Not only in the technical way—you know, the skin tones, the colors in general, the texture, this will be what everybody will say—but I think it’s true that there is something really special about shooting on film. The hard lights, for example.
I’ve been noticing that lately a lot of filmmaking—digital filmmaking—especially from younger DPs and newer generations, are leaning more and tending more into soft light, low contrast. Naturalistic, in a way. And I was wondering if this is a technical thing to follow because of the digital. For example, if you shoot in the middle of the day on 35 with a hard light, it just looks good. It doesn’t matter. It’s interesting how choices are also made by the moment and the tools we use as filmmakers.
Filmmaker: Talk a bit more about your approach to your lighting on film vs. digital.
García: I like to observe. I work through looking at details—small details—in the rooms that I’m working on. I like to look at people, I like to look at movement of things, and I enjoy having a perception of time passing. Through that, I think I try to translate it to images and light. I am always based on reality, on imagination, and on dreams. That’s the source of how I work lighting.
Filmmaker: When did you go to film school? Were you trained purely on celluloid?
García: I did film school in Mexico City—CCC, it’s called, the film school there. The first exercises that I did were on film. 16mm and 35mm. Back thenthe first digital cameras were out on the market, but my school was film. And I also did a lot of still photography. I used to have my own dark room, my own lab at home. So yeah, I love film.
Filmmaker: You used to, but not anymore?
García: Not anymore, unfortunately. But I’m really looking forward to rebuilding it. I’m thinking, actually, of going back and starting to do on my own still photography work.
Filmmaker: I want to talk a little bit about budgets. You’ve worked recently on Wildlife and Too Old to Die Young, and you’ve also worked on a number of smaller budget projects. What do you like and dislike about bigger budgets?
García: I don’t choose a film because of the budget. That’s something to mention. I first choose a film because of the director, because of the creative approach, and the script. But mostly directors. I think each way to work has its own thing, but I’ve been thinking lately that—even though I’m about to start an even bigger project—I really want to do something small, very concentrated on the storytelling. Can I mention my ideal way to work?
Filmmaker: Please do.
García: 35mm, with a director that is connected with something pure emotionally. Strong characters or a focus on nature and landscaping, or internal landscaping on human behavior. I’m interested in doing something that makes me question myself about life and why we are here. And shot in a very simple way. I think that would be my ideal. It could be only a five-person crew, or thirty. For me the size doesn’t matter. It’s more the subject and the direction. So yeah, I don’t mind working on a bigger project, I also believe it allows you to be free and take your time to shoot whatever you need to shoot to make it right.
Filmmaker: Did you have trouble adapting to not being the camera operator in Hollywood?
García: I do prefer operating. I think it is part of connecting yourself with the camera and the pace, the rhythm, that you want to give. You can always explain this to someone else, though it takes some time. At first I thought, “It’s a waste of energy, I prefer to just do it myself, I don’t need to explain to someone else how to do what I’m thinking. Just give me a camera and I’ll do it.” But with time I understood that there is value in having an operator—not always, but it allows you to be closer to the director, with the monitor, or just watching the scene and thinking about different details instead of wondering “Am I on the right pace and the right rhythm with the panning?” It allows you to think about how to compose in the moment. So I think there is value in both. I do prefer to do it with the camera, on the viewfinder, and find the right thing myself, but now I’m getting used to having an operator, though it has to be someone that understands you, your sensibility, your timing, and your framing.
Filmmaker: How early do you like to get involved? Do you like to work directly with the art department and the costume and production teams?
García: As a cinematographer, I believe that I have to be involved in every detail that counts on the image. I’m responsible for everything that happens on the image. If I’m allowed to be involved in the wardrobe, and of course in set dressing or the whole of production design, I’m always happy and interested on bouncing off ideas and being creative to create the image and look on the film.
Filmmaker: Do you always get involved that early, regardless of the size of the project?
García: Yes. For me it’s part of the work. It’s very important. The DP is not only connected to lighting and composition. It’s a more integral thing.
Filmmaker: I know you work with a DIT, so how much of a perfectionist are you on set? How do you know what you can and cannot do after the fact?
García: Yes, I work with a DIT when I shoot digital. A friend of mine, he knows me. I can go deep in details when I’m on set. I enjoy shaping the image as much as I can, but I always let it breathe. For me it’s like having a canvas and painting. Being on set is like being a painter working on a landscape and just using the tools to start painting.
Filmmaker: Is painting a big influence on you?
García: Very much. Painting and music.
Filmmaker: Which schools, or particular painters?
García: I love many kinds of painting and time periods. I think my main influences are painting. Mostly classical painting. I really like Romanticism and Impressionism very much. I like the way they treat light and how they look at nature and how they translate it into an image using colors and shadows. I like how they treat the dark areas, the shadows, especially, as a silence, or an empty space. Sometimes we think that photography is about lighting, and it is, but it’s also about taking out light and using the empty space and blacks.
Filmmaker: One of the things I really like about Impressionism, especially someone like Courbet or Manet, is this sense of out-of-frame space. People cut off on the edges of the frame. How much thought do you put into what’s outside the frame and giving a sense of expansiveness to your images?
García: That’s a good question. I care a lot about that. For me it’s as important, what’s out of the frame, as what’s in the frame. There are many things about this. First, you’re taking just a small piece or a fragment of reality. You’re leaving out the rest of it. You’re getting the human mind to recreate something large based on what you give it, but the rest is outside, for the viewer to complete. That’s why it’s so important that you think about what you’re doing in terms of the composition—what’s in, what’s out. It’s beautiful to let people complete the image out of the frame. I enjoy this part of the work—composing the frame and making it feel good for the emotion. It has to feel natural and not staged or fake, it has to be more attuned, like what you’re saying, to an outside reality, outside the frame.
And depending on the film, for me it’s important not to feel the camera. It should be more like you’re taking people inside something and not thinking about “oh, there’s a camera framing it there and it’s composed perfectly with this pattern,” you know? It should be in harmony. I like to make it more invisible.
Filmmaker: You mentioned harmony, and earlier you mentioned music. How does music play a role in your art, and what kind of music?
García: I love music. I think music is maybe the highest and most pure form of art because it does not work with reason or in an intellectual way. It can go through you. In the instant you have it, it takes you somewhere, a memory, or gives a feeling or emotion. So for me it’s very pure. There’s no mediation, no bridges that separate it from an emotion. It’s a universal language.
So, connecting this to film, I always try to take those lessons and try to do that with the camera. Maybe it’s impossible because there are so many layers between that emotion and the technical and cerebral processes. For example, if you play three notes, a chord, that chord can take you deep into something. Something as simple as that three notes. That’s why I like simplicity. You can go very deep, do a very complex thing, from something very simple and minimal.
I take lots of elements from music. It’s all related. Starting from silence—we talked about empty space and black. We work with time, with rhythm—the pace of the film is also part of the language and how you reconstruct a reality through time. Music is the same. I start from black, or from silence, when I get to a location, and I start observing. I like to start with no light sometimes, like a blank canvas. I do use some musical terms. I believe in rhythm. I believe in harmony—if it has to be harmony, maybe it doesn’t and needs to be chaotic. If you think about “tones,” for example, you have color but also tones as a feeling. It’s all related. It’s the same language. All the art forms are connected, but for me music is very important.
I love classical, I listen to a lot of ambient, I listen to a lot of experimental music. I consider myself a psychonaut. I love soundscapes and that kind of thing. But I’m open to, and am always looking for, interesting music.