“I Would’ve Shot the Telephone Directory of New York If Todd Had Asked Me To”: DP Florian Hoffmeister on TÁR
According to cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, writer/director Todd Field often expressed his desired aesthetic for TÁR in a series of repeated Field-isms: Let’s just witness. Don’t gild the lily. Don’t make it look like a movie with a capital “M.” In other words, make the style invisible.
However, Hoffmeister’s work was far from invisible to his peers, who bestowed an Oscar nomination upon the German DP for his work on the film. TÁR—Field’s first feature in more than 15 years—follows the downfall of a composer/conductor played by Cate Blanchett as she prepares a career-capping performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic. With the movie up for six Oscars on Sunday, Hoffmeister spoke to Filmmaker about how, to use one of the DP’s own favored aphorisms, you craft memorable scenes without “putting a hat on a hat.”
Filmmaker: In the movie’s production notes, Todd Field mentions your work on The Terror as something that drew him to you. Did you ever talk to him about how you ended up on his list of prospective cinematographers?
Hoffmeister: No, I don’t know, but I’ve always really admired him and his work. When In the Bedroom came out, I was a few years out of film school and that movie touched me as an audience member. So, I was truthfully excited when he reached out. I would’ve shot the telephone directory of New York if Todd had asked me to.
Filmmaker: I don’t know if you’ve ever watched any of the Criterion Closet videos, but after seeing Todd’s episode it’s clear how much of a cinephile he is and that he’s particularly interested in cinematography. Did he have references for TÁR?
Hoffmeister: We never really talked a lot about references. Our creative conversations from the start were all about restraint and taking away. We wanted to come from a place of authenticity that would put the audience into an immersive experience. In terms of coverage, Todd would often want to step back. He’d say, “Let’s just be there. Let’s just witness.”
I really enjoy testing, so I shot tests that we projected in the cinema. Todd had this phrase when he saw some of the tests where he’d say, “That’s really beautiful, but that looks like a movie with a capital ‘M.’” That was another of his catchphrases. Todd had also shot some other tests I wasn’t able to attend earlier in New York. When I watched that footage remotely with him, there was a particular shot that I really liked and I said, “That’s how I saw the film when I read the script.” And Todd said, “That’s one of my favorite lenses.” (Laughs) It was unfortunately very old and broken Zeiss glass that you wouldn’t want to force through our schedule, but now we had something we were chasing. We narrowed our choices down to the Arri Signature Primes and Christoph Hoffsten at Arri in Berlin hand-tuned them for us. For cameras, we shot with the Arri Alexa 65 and Alexa Mini LF. It was interesting because I had shot a lot of large format, but Todd also really enjoys Super 35 [size sensors] because there’s a tradition that comes with that form. So, we would oftentimes switch formats. If we did portrait shots, sometimes we would just [crop in on the Mini LF sensor] and default to Super35.
Filmmaker: Were there specific rules for when you would use each format or was it more intuitive?
Hoffmeister: Well, you start with all these rules when you’re having conversations in prep, then you start shooting and they change immediately. Sometimes you gravitate toward something by intuition, and then on the day you realize that something else actually feels better. We would set up the camera and initially plan to do a move. Then we’d do the move and go, “Oh God, that doesn’t work at all.” So, then you say, “OK, let’s move just a little.” That doesn’t work. “Let’s move slower.” Still doesn’t work. In the end, you end up with the camera just sitting [stationary]. It was all about taking away and taking away and finding that less is more.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about the New Yorker Festival interview between Lydia Tár and Adam Gopnik that opens the film. It’s such an interesting way to give the audience all this exposition but have it feel organic and compelling.
Hoffmeister: In the movie we only wanted to move [the camera] when the actors are moving, so in that scene that meant no movement at all. There’s this beautiful angle that we used that defies every law of [how you should shoot a conversation]. It doesn’t have background. It’s quite a long lens, it’s a bit flat. There’s a guy whose knee is in the way, you see a bit of a chair. But we thought, “Don’t be precious about it. Throw things away. Don’t gild the lily.” That was one of Todd’s phrases: “Don’t gild the lily.” I like to say, “Don’t put a hat on a hat.”
Filmmaker: It is funny, especially when the film first came out, how many people thought Lydia Tár was a real person and not a fictional character.
Hoffmeister: I think it’s that idea of creating this immersive experience and trying to, to use another Todd phrase, “Not get caught.” Whatever we do, we should never get caught. We should never let the mechanics of what we do become apparent. I think that scene is just beautiful in that sense.
Filmmaker: How tightly is that scene scripted?
Hoffmeister: It was exactly like that. Word by word.
Filmmaker: How many cameras were you running?
Hoffmeister: We had two camera crews on the entire shoot. When we did the rehearsal scenes in the orchestra, we had four cameras. We also had to have crowd duplication at that point, because it was still a COVID shoot. Even if we had the time and money to fill [that space with extras], we weren’t allowed to fill the audience. So, we had to be quite precise in the angles.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about the oner when Tár guest lectures at Juilliard. What was the genesis of that shot?
Hoffmeister: Todd had been adamant from the start that he thought this should be a oner. On a superficial level, truthfully, I was excited about it, because we’d just had these sequences that were people sitting and we’ve got our rules of holding the camera back. So, I was excited to unleash the camera and follow Cate through that journey in the classroom, but it was not just about making it a oner to show off. It was more of a philosophical debate about capturing what we wanted to capture. We had about 35 angles that we felt would’ve been worth covering: You see the reactions. You go wide, then you want to be tight. Now they’re at the piano.
Filmmaker: There’s also the bit of business with the student tapping his leg.
Hoffmeister: Yes, the leg had to be in it. That was crucial. So, how would we capture all that? Todd was adamant about not giving editorial the power of pacing that scene, but to empower Cate to drive the editorial tempo of it. Technically, it was challenging, because we had to devise a system for how to get the camera through that room. We thought about bringing in the crane. That didn’t work. We had this idea of building a rig under the ceiling, but that would’ve just been chaos. Steadicam wouldn’t have felt right. In the end, we devised this system of grips carrying this rig that we built with a stabilized head and they passed the rig up the stage and back down throughout the shot. It was like this gigantic dance.
Filmmaker: Was it a MōVI or Ronin type of gimbal?
Hoffmeister: In Britain they have this thing called the Stabileye, but we couldn’t get it—there’s only a few of them—so we went with the Ronin in the end. Filmmaking can sometimes appear like such a muscular thing, where you’ve got all these cranes and equipment and crew. It was funny to see these 40-plus-year-old grips all running around in their socks with the rig because they didn’t want to make any noise. And Cate was just amazing in that scene, where she has to play the piano at the end of this long take.
Filmmaker: I was going to ask you about that, because when she plays the camera angle is just low enough that you don’t really see her hands on the keys. Was that in case she flubbed a note the take wouldn’t be busted?
Hoffmeister: No, absolutely not. That was, again, the same thing from Todd about throwing it away. Never make a point of it. She played everything for real.
Filmmaker: So, you could’ve gone tighter on the hands in that moment, but that would’ve been—as you said before—“gilding the lily.”
Hoffmeister: Exactly. Her performance in that scene is absolutely breathtaking. We rehearsed a day for just the camera move, then rehearsed a day with Cate. Then—as it always seems to go—when we shot it, the first take was breathtaking, but we failed literally in the last 10 seconds. We had a technical glitch. So, we had to go again and again until we got it.
Filmmaker: One of the few times you go to an angle that draws attention to itself is when Cate is conducting. The camera is down low, with Tár towering over it.
Hoffmeister: That was a real orchestra. They’re touring all the time and they’ve got crazy schedules. We prepped it for weeks, then I think we only had about four days to shoot it. They were playing live, and it was all recorded live. On the first day we did something like 94 setups. Our first and most key directive was to photograph it like it’s hard work. It shouldn’t be glorious. We want the nuts and bolts. Again, don’t move the camera. When you see 80 people do Mahler, the heart of the cinematographer wants to just let the camera fly. (laughs) But Todd wanted to do no movement and be observational. We had to prep it so that the lighting would sit in a way that you could shoot wide and tight at the same time, which was a bit of a challenge. As we worked our way more into the angles, there was this moment toward the end where Todd said, “Let’s just break free for a second and do this [low angle shot].” It was almost a moment where we were like, “We’ve done all this [coverage], let’s do this one to have fun.” Who would’ve thought that it would become an iconic image of the film.
Filmmaker: How did you light that space?
Hoffmeister: We definitely had some practical challenges in there. The first one was that we had to shoot the load in—when the musicians all walk in—at a real concert. The concert lighting has to have a certain luminance so that people can read their sheet music. It’s a rule in the German union for concert musicians. It is guaranteed. So, I couldn’t just say, “This is too bright. Let’s go a bit darker because it looks better on camera.” That was one of the benchmarks we had to accept. For a moment, I thought, “Well, maybe for our stuff [when there’s no audience] we could still bring our own lights and build our own rig,” but that all went out the window because the LED lighting used in the concert hall also has an acoustic importance. They’re basically acoustic panels that enable the musicians to hear themselves. So, you cannot simply say, “I’ll take them away and bring in this gigantic overhead rig with my film nights and everybody will be beautiful.” The musicians wouldn’t be able to play the music anymore.
We went through this elaborate testing process where we would attach different gels to those [practical] LED overheads. It was really quite an interesting experience. If you used one gel too thick it would suddenly look like movie light. If you went one gel too thin, it would just look horrible. And all the gels had to be attached with magnets so we could take them off again quickly. So, we pretty much took the light that was there, but shaped it very deliberately.
Filmmaker: I don’t want to get into too much detail about the final shots for people who haven’t seen the movie, but was that final scene at the concert in Southeast Asia how the script always ended?
Hoffmeister: It was that exactly. When I read the script and saw the last lines for that voiceover I thought, “What a way to end!” It happened to fall into place with the schedule that we shot Southeast Asia at the very end. We actually finished the film there and, by pure chance, the crane shot that is the last shot of the film was the last shot we did. We prepped by setting it up in a parking lot beforehand so we could really time it to the length of the voiceover and the musical cues. We shot it at the end of a really long day. Cate was [picture wrapped] and flying out that night, but she came down and sat with us while we did that shot. It was so hot that people started dozing off. We finally get the shot and it’s the end of the film. Todd was on the stage, and I ran over to him, and we just yelled out in pure, victorious joy that we’d managed to pull this off. And the funny thing is all these extras in these fantastic costumes, who had no idea who we were, all stood up and applauded. (Laughs) It was a surreal moment, but the perfect ending to the shoot.