“People Live on Hope When There’s Limited Freedom”: DP/Director Gonzalo Amat on The Man in the High Castle and SEAL Team
Two of the most elegantly directed and photographed shows on television and streaming right now—and two of the most disparate in terms of their visual style and tone—share a common filmmaker, cinematographer and director Gonzalo Amat. I first became aware of Amat’s work as director of photography on The Man in the High Castle, Amazon’s bold and nerve-shredding adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi novel that imagines an alternate America ruled by Japanese and German powers following a US loss in World War II. In its fourth and final season, The Man in the High Castle jumps between multiple realities and dimensions, juggling dozens of major characters without ever losing its penetrating emotional focus, thanks to consistently strong writing and performances unified by Amat’s rigorous compositions, textured lighting and carefully coordinated palette. The precision of Amat’s painterly approach is as hypnotic as it is pleasing to the eye, with the cinematographer synthesizing influences from Blade Runner and American film noir to Ozu and Mizoguchi to create something beautiful, chilling, and distinctive.
Amat’s achievement is all the more impressive alongside his work on the CBS action series SEAL Team. As a cinematographer, Amat worked with director Christopher Chulack on the pilot to establish SEAL Team’s look; he has since returned to the show four times as a director. In virtually every way SEAL Team is The Man in the High Castle’s opposite, with quick cuts instead of long takes, a constantly moving and kinetic camera instead of a grounded and restrained one, and a subjective point of view linked directly to the characters’ perspectives as opposed to High Castle’s more objective clinical distance. What both shows have in common is a visual grammar carefully calibrated to the subject matter and the goals of the text; heightened allegory in Man in the High Castle, down and dirty realism in SEAL Team. As a fan of both shows I wanted to learn how and why Amat made his choices and hopped on the phone with him to find out.
Filmmaker: Before we get into the technical aspects of Man in the High Castle, I wanted to ask about how your background informs your work on the show. As I understand it you have a personal connection to this kind of material—to the idea of growing up in a society without democracy and with government controlled media.
Gonzalo Amat: I grew up mostly in Mexico but spent a lot of time in Spain. My parents grew up there under Franco, so I heard a lot of stories about that, and during my childhood in Mexico the PRI was still there, and that was a kind of dictatorship in its own way. Of course, it wasn’t as tough as what’s on the show, but I do understand living under authoritarian rule and how life comes to feel normal under those circumstances, how people live on hope when there’s limited freedom. Looking at old pictures and talking to my mother about that is something that really made me connect to this project.
Filmmaker: The show has a really strong, formal style that I love—every frame is almost like a living painting. What were some of your influences and reference points?
Amat: They’ve evolved throughout the show. In the beginning, we started with things like The Conformist and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, then I brought in ideas from film noir of the ’40s and ’50s as well as Japanese directors like Ozu and Mizoguchi— directors who let the camera and blocking tell the story in a very strong, direct way, perhaps with a single light source coming in from the window. You might clean it up for the close-ups, but basically you try to have a single source, and in the wide shot establish the frame and let the actors work within the frame. Let it play for a sense of realism, without moving the camera to follow the actor—you don’t have to keep the actor in the frame all the time. Now, there’s a practical component to that as well, because we’re on a tight schedule without a lot of time to move to the camera. So when I work with directors I often ask, “How can we block this to minimize edits?” There’s always a compromise with time, but you try to turn it into an advantage in terms of the visual storytelling. Another movie I looked at was Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, a really smart movie in terms of the way they solve certain problems, like giving a sense of the world without having to show too much of it.
Filmmaker: And how does your lens selection play into that?
Amat: First of all, 99% of what I shoot I shoot with prime lenses. I don’t like the look of zoom lenses, and I think primes make you think more about where you want to put the camera. Sometimes it’s hard to convince a director of this, but I don’t think it’s the same thing to change the lens and move closer than to just punch in on a zoom. It’s a different sense, a different vibe. It feels different to the audience and definitely to the actor. In general, I think a lot about the implicit grammar of the lens, of how even the same size shot—a medium close-up of an actor—is different on a long lens as opposed to a wide lens that gives you more background and a different depth to fill, and gives the audience a different sense of how far the camera is from the actors. We shot almost entirely with Zeiss master primes, and although we had all the focal lengths I would say 90% of the show was shot on the 27mm, 40mm and 65mm.
Filmmaker: What kind of camera do you shoot on?
Amat: We shot season four primarily on the Alexa Mini. We transitioned from the RED to an Alexa from season one to two, because the Alexa just seemed like a better tool with a more cinematic look and required less lighting on exteriors. We could shoot better images in fewer days. Eventually we moved on to the Alexa Mini due to the fact that it has internal ND filters, so you save a lot of time—you don’t have to change the filter every time a cloud comes over. Also, sometimes the external NDs that you put on don’t necessarily match, so you have two cameras on the same actor and one looks great and the other one looks normal. That’s a hassle.
Filmmaker: I find it interesting that with Man in the High Castle you have this very calm, controlled style that, as you say, is reminiscent of classical Japanese cinema. Then on SEAL Team, where you shot the pilot and then returned to the show as a director, you’ve got an equally effective but totally opposite approach—kinetic with a lot of quick cutting and very expressionistic camerawork. When you photographed the pilot, what kinds of conversations did you and director Christopher Chulack have about the visual language you wanted to establish for the series?
Amat: We looked at some of the contemporary movies I like that have a clear but free-flowing visual style, like Zero Dark Thirty and films by Paul Greengrass. The way that Chris works, he’s really fast and doesn’t necessarily do coverage on all the actors. He’ll think of a moving shot that will take care of most of what he needs, then maybe do a couple of shots if he wants to add a line or two. So I knew that we had to do most of the lighting with practicals, especially because Chris really wanted to be able to shoot with two or three cameras at once and not have to worry about moving equipment around. So I would say I worked with 95% available or practical lighting. In scenes where there wasn’t motivated light, the characters would be using infrared goggles, so we’d just shoot infrared. Chris shooting efficiently and quickly isn’t just about time and budget—it’s a creative choice to get the kind of fresh performances he wants from the actors. The whole style of this show was dictated by a desire to make it real, to get everything right. We have a lot of technical advisors, and people on the writing and producing side who have served in the military, so everything is geared toward making the most realistic show possible. To that end I chose a texture with a certain amount of grain and not a lot of light, and tried to make it more cinematic than what you normally see on network TV. The camera doesn’t have to be on the actors’ faces all the time. Sometimes you get more of the actor’s inner life being behind him rather than in front of him.
Filmmaker: A great example of that is the “Kill or Cure” episode that you directed this season, where you have a lot of material between Jason, the character David Boreanaz plays, and his therapist. That could have just been routine stuff with talking heads, but you did things with your camera to convey the main character’s state of mind in an interesting way. What was your approach to visualizing that material?
Amat: I looked at a couple of Steven Soderbergh movies I really like, Out of Sight and The Limey. He does some interesting things where you hear the dialogue but the character isn’t actually talking on screen; it’s kind of the way that memory works, [putting] together something that happened. My logic was that I wanted to build scenes around the memories that Jason is talking or thinking about, or trying not to think about. Even though in the story it’s supposed to be Jason’s last session at the end of a few days, I still want it to feel like a journey, like he’s been this office for a long time. Building on those Soderbergh influences—I was thinking about Terrence Malick too—we would shoot the same scene multiple times with different blocking; in take one he’s standing by the window, in take two he’s sitting down, in take three he’s pacing. That didn’t make sense in terms of conventional filmmaking, but then you can cut it together in a way that visually portrays what’s going on inside of his head.
Filmmaker: You also directed an episode last season where you had some emotionally raw scenes dealing with the death of Jason’s wife. How did you work with Boreanaz to get him where he needed to be for those moments?
Amat: It’s always tricky when you work with actors that have been with the character for a long time, in this case three years. As a director you have an idea in your mind of what you want, so you need to talk it out before you start shooting. David and I discussed what his state of mind was in each scene, and the nice thing is he has incredible craftsmanship because he’s been doing this so long on so many different shows. So he has a great sense of where the character needs to be, and together we figured out that he was in a kind of denial, still trying to plow through life without stopping to think. In the end he realizes that he needs to slow down, and does. Once we discussed all that I explained to him what I wanted to see with the camera, and he would also give me ideas, because he’s a storyteller. He really understands not only behavior but how the camera sees that behavior, so it’s really great working with him.
Filmmaker: How is your job different with a series regular like him versus the guest stars who are only there for that particular episode?
Amat: The nice thing is that on the four episodes I’ve directed I got to cast all the guest stars, and that’s fun because you can go against what the usual stereotype is of a doctor, or a CIA spy, or whatever. I try not to put those kinds of established stereotypes out of my mind, especially when it comes to race and sometimes even gender. I just go for the best actor and the person who’s going to be most productive to work with on set based on their audition. Often you’re picking up on the work that started there, especially if you don’t have a lot of time. I make sure I let the actor know what I liked or what the producers liked in their audition so they know how to approach the scene; I don’t want them to try to copy it, because that can freeze an actor up, but I want them to build from it. And again, the key is always going for realism. I mentioned all the technical advisors and veterans on the show; every time you do an action sequence, four or five people have vetted that before you even shoot it. Then once we’re shooting we have Scott Foxx and Tyler Grey, actors on the show who are former military and are our last filter to say whether it’s realistic or not.
Filmmaker: Those action sequences seem quite complicated to me in terms of the number of moving parts, yet that sense of realism you’re talking about makes it seem like you’re catching the action on the fly. How much is planned and how much do you figure out on the day?
Amat: If it’s something special, like a crash where we’re only going to get one shot at capturing it, I really plan every camera position and shot and have a lot of conversations with the team about how to execute those scenes. But if it’s a normal thing where the team is breaching a building and the camera is following, I generally plan on the day, because until I see the actors and the location I don’t always know who’s going to enter first, who’s going to clear which room, what the natural flow of the bodies is going to be. You don’t know those things until the day that you’re shooting, so on that day you block it out and then decide which camera can go where. It’s all about capturing the behavior in the most authentic way possible.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and streaming on Amazon Prime. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.