“If I Had Been Working in the 1970s [But With Today’s Technology], I Would Have Used Digital, I Would Have Used LED Technology”: The Holdovers Cinematographer Eigil Bryld
In The Holdovers, a professor, a student and a grief-stricken cook are stranded together at a New England boarding school over the holidays. The story takes place in the early 1970s, an era whose films are beloved by both Holdovers director Alexander Payne and cinematographer Eigil Bryld. However, they took opposing philosophical perspectives in imbuing their movie with the spirit of that epoch.
Though he looked at the work of Hal Ashby for inspiration – particularly The Landlord and The Last Detail – rather than attempt to replicate it, Payne’s approach found him imaging what kind of film he himself would’ve made if he had been a director working in that time.
Bryld’s cinematic time travel thought experiment went the opposite way. After initially considering shooting on film and cramming the G&E truck full of arc lamps, Bryld shifted his mindset to instead consider how a cinematographer from the 1970s might use today’s tools to capture a similar feeling of looseness and experimentation. Bryld spoke to Filmmaker about the results.
The Holdovers is currently in theaters and available on VOD, with a physical media release scheduled for January 2nd.
Filmmaker: Let’s start with the opening sequence, which is a montage offering glimpses of life on campus. It really sets the rhythm and tone for the movie. How much of that was sketched out ahead of time, and how much were you just grabbing pieces as they presented themselves?
Bryld: The overall idea was very much planned out. Alexander loves montages, so there were a couple of places where we knew, “Okay, there’s going to be a montage here.” In terms of executing it, main unit shot some of it, and then we also had a second unit to run around and place extras and capture the vibe and the landscape. For the campus itself where most of that opening was shot, we did most of that at Deerfield Academy [in Deerfield, Massachusetts]. We were actually supposed to shoot that part at a different school, but that went south literally two weeks before we started shooting.
Filmmaker: Did the weather cooperate in terms of providing snow for the exteriors when you needed it?
Bryld: It was a real concern from the get-go and something we talked a lot about. Obviously, we were at the mercy of whatever the winter was going to be like. Sometimes the winter in Boston is brutal and it’s just a white out constantly, and at other times it can be really mild with little snow. We were a little bit tied in by the schedule of the boarding schools we shot at because we could only shoot there during their winter break. In the end, we were pretty lucky with the weather. In fact, we got too much snow in the beginning. Later, when we did start running out of snow, or it was melting in patches, we would cover the background basically just with white blankets and then the closer it got to the camera, the more detail it would be. Then for some scenes, like when we were shooting in downtown Boston, we actually had trucks with real snow that we could add. They would lay down a base of polystyrene or whatever they use and then throw real snow on top of that and make it dirty. We tried to do all the exteriors and all the wide shots as early as possible in our schedule. We weren’t a massive budget movie. The advantage of that is we were fairly nimble, and we could move things around. If we saw great snow coming in, typically we could shift the schedule. We didn’t have a massive cast, so we used that flexibility in the best low-budget filmmaking manner and tried to make a weakness into a strength.
Filmmaker: That’s a good point. This is essentially a three-hander. It’s not like you’re Oppenheimer with this 100-person cast and Robert Downey Jr. might only be there for a small portion of the shoot. With The Holdovers, you can say, “It’s snowing. Let’s grab our leads and shoot this scene.”
Bryld: A hundred percent. For instance, when we were shooting at Deerfield Academy, we were shooting in a church and a blizzard came in and we ran out and did quite a lot of the opening sequence of the movie. Like you said, Paul was already there, so we had the ability to [pivot the schedule] on the film. The challenging thing about our shoot was the number of locations, and obviously they’re all very specific locations. Everything in the movie was shot on location. We didn’t shoot anything in the studio. That made it a little bit complicated just in terms of moving things around.
Filmmaker: In Alexander’s interview with Filmmaker, he said something I thought was interesting about his approach to the 1970s. Even though he had specific references for the era – Hal Ashby films in particular – he said he wasn’t trying to replicate the look of any films or filmmakers. Instead, he approached it as, “What kind of movie would I have made if I was a director in 1970?” Did you employ that philosophy as well?
Bryld: My initial thought when we talked about the project was, “I’m going to try to do it with the same equipment and the same dogma as it would have been done with in the 1970s.” I started researching where I could find arc lights and have arc lights as daylight lamps, which is obviously a really bad idea. (laughs) I was thinking, “We’ll shoot it on film and maybe I can get Kodak to make some 5289 or 5287” or whatever it was called back in the day, which would’ve never happened. So, I started going down that route, but then I realized that the cinematographers of the ’70s were opportunists. I love that era of filmmaking, and I must have read the book Masters of Light a hundred times when I was in my twenties. They would shoot handheld in the street if that was the right way to do it. They wouldn’t say, “Oh, we don’t have enough light to light up the street.” They would push the film instead. So, I started thinking, “If I had been working in the 1970s [but with access to today’s technology], I would have used digital. I would have used LED technology.” I realized that I shouldn’t limit myself. I shouldn’t box myself in. I should run with the spirit of that time and not try to squeeze our story into somebody else’s mold. It was immensely liberating to start thinking like that. That’s when it started becoming fun for me, as opposed to just sort of pretending or making everybody’s lives miserable by having massive generators for arc lights. (laughs)
Filmmaker: Do you have a favorite cinematographer from that era?
Bryld: I love Gordon Willis — like everybody — but I would say Nestor Almendros. One of the first films I saw that really put me on the path to doing what I’m doing is Days of Heaven. I managed to see it maybe 20 times before I had a clue what it was about, but I was always hypnotized and mesmerized by it. Then I read about the movie and how Almendros spent more time turning lights off than turning them on because that film was done with almost no lights. He was really a master of using and shaping available light, and I just loved that when I was starting out, because I started out in super low-budget and no-budget movies, where you just made whatever you had work. It was liberating. You can very easily spend a lot of time and waste immense amounts of energy trying to change tiny little things or creating perfect continuity, which I don’t think is always 100 percent necessary. I think a lot of being a cinematographer is drawing a line at times. You can try to control every aspect of your craft or you can try and get into a zone where it’s more like surfing, maybe, where you’re riding the wave. Obviously, you want to stay on your feet and you have a trajectory and a direction and all of that, but I much prefer to roll with the punches and keep it feeling alive. Otherwise, I would get bored. If I had full control of every aspect, I think I would just lose interest. It wouldn’t keep me on my toes. One of my issues with digital in the beginning was that there were so many options. You could change so many different things, and I thought, “That’s fascinating. I’m going to try and tweak everything,” but I would just get lost in it. So, nowadays, I really shoot digital the same way as I would shoot film. I either shoot 3200 Kelvin, or I shoot daylight. I don’t really fiddle around with [the ISO]. I change the stop, or I change the lighting. Because the film stock wasn’t very sensitive in the ’70s, I even thought about giving myself that restriction as well early on in production until I realized, “This is another one of your silly ideas” and really a cop out. That would be pretending.
Filmmaker: So, you thought about putting the ISO at like 100 or whatever the stocks would’ve been in the early 1970s?
Bryld: Yeah. (laughs) Actually, in the end I went the other way. Most of the movie is shot at 1280. I operate as well, so I’m not sitting at a desk and looking at a monitor and tweaking. I’m always there by the camera and obviously the monitors on the camera are not the greatest. So, I have to use my eyes and the DIT becomes my light meter, in a way, just making sure we have enough exposure.
Filmmaker: Did you shoot at 1280 to dirty up the image and add texture? You’ve talked in other interviews about testing 35mm for The Holdovers and contemporary stocks being so clean that you were going to have to add digital grain in post anyway.
Bryld: My initial thinking was that because I didn’t want the blacks to be super dense, I didn’t mind a little bit of noise in it to begin with. I was also thinking that one of the things about film stock is that, even back in the day, it holds much better in the highlights than digital does. Really what happens when you make the ISO higher on a digital camera, and this is the opposite of film stock, is you actually get more information in the highlights, and you sort of compress the toe. So, I thought, “That’s more like a film curve, in a way.” But, to your point, we did test 35mm, and obviously film stocks nowadays are designed to be transferred intermediately. The curve and the contrast are designed to be optimized for digital. So, the irony was when we tested film stock, we didn’t really get much grain, and we didn’t really get the contrast that we were looking for. Then we were like, “Okay, but maybe we start here and then we do all the digital applications on top of it.” But then I was told that I would have to de-grain the film to add my own grain on top of it, and I just sort of felt hollowed out. (laughs) “So, I have to shoot it on film and then make it video and then make it film again?” At that point, I thought I’d much rather have a LUT on set that replicated the look of the ’70s film stocks and then we can start building incrementally from there. It was more about the contrast and the color reproduction and even some of the wear because film stock that sits around for 50 years changes slightly as well. Luckily, my colorist Joe Gawler, who I’ve worked with almost exclusively for the past 12 years, has done a lot of Criterion restorations. So, he knows a lot about how film stock ages. When we got to post, he came up with so many great little things. He’s a big part of the final look of the movie, along with my 1st AC Glenn Kaplan and my gaffer Frans Weterrings.
Filmmaker: That was something I was going to ask about that I’d heard you mention in other interviews, the idea that you wanted the movie to not only look like it was made in the 1970s but that the viewer was actually watching a print from the 1970s.
Bryld: A hundred percent. As part of that, we actually experimented with printing it on film stock (and scanning it back), which we just couldn’t get it to work [to our satisfaction].
Filmmaker: You also tested 16mm, which would’ve given you grain and also your 1.66 aspect ratio. How seriously did you consider that format?
Bryld: We tested 35mm, digital and both 16mm negative and 16mm reversal. As soon as we saw the 16mm, Alexander and I both thought it felt too small somehow. It just felt a little suffocated, but the grain was definitely better. Also, Kodak said — because this was just after the pandemic — they couldn’t guarantee they could provide enough 16mm stock for us because of supply line issues. So, they were advising us against shooting 16mm. The 1.66 was something that just seemed to make the portraits a little more intimate. It’s more of a European aspect ratio. It’s another little sort of spice in the big goulash or whatever dish we made. (laughs)
Filmmaker: Alexander said in an interview that the boxier the frame, the better it is for close-ups. You just mentioned using that 1.66 frame to make the portraits more intimate. When I watch a movie in the theater that I’m going to write about, I’m usually taking notes – most of which I can barely read afterward – but I kept noting all these striking close-ups in The Holdovers. Tell me about your approach to those portraits. You used the 55mm from Panavision’s H Series for a lot of those shots, which is a very fast lens.
Bryld: We actually didn’t shoot it very fast for the close ups. Most of the film is shot around a T4 and sometimes even deeper because we didn’t really want to get into having to rack focus or be too split when we did group shots. Usually, the 50mm is the lens I use the least, but on The Holdovers it was actually the 55mm in the H Series that made us pick that set of lenses. We looked at a whole bunch of options. [When I started doing press for the film] I actually mistakenly thought we shot the movie on Super Speeds because I looked into what Gordon Willis had shot The Landlord with for Hal Ashby and it was something like Super Speeds. So, I got Panavision to figure out what lenses they were, and we did test those. I think I’ve even done interviews where I was talking about how great those Super Speed lenses were (laughs), but then I talked to my 1st AC Glenn and he was like, “What are you talking about? It was the H Series,” and then it all came back. The H Series is great because it definitely has the feel of vintage lenses, but without too many weird aberrations. You can pretty much put anybody anywhere in the frame and it’s not terribly distorted. They’re very well-made lenses. We just fell in love with the 55mm. It felt intimate, but without the camera having to be physically right up next to the actors.
Filmmaker: When we spoke for No Hard Feelings, you talked about how you used to always default to the Arri Master Primes, but you’d become more open lately to exploring new glass. Was this the movie that started that shift?
Bryld: I think the movie that really changed it for me was this movie I did with Adrian Lyne called Deep Water. He wanted to shoot on zooms, and we were testing endless zooms. I’ve used zooms on a lot of the films I’ve done. Everything I’ve done with Barry Levinson is always on a 12-to-1. There’s a lot of good 12-to-1 lenses out there, but I don’t think there’s that many good shorter zooms. Then we found this K35 zoom lens. It makes everything quite round, but in a very pleasing way. So, we committed to that. We carried prime lenses as well on Deep Water, but the prime lenses sort of stood out as soon as we put them on the camera. I think all of the film is actually shot on that K35, except for maybe a couple of car shots that we had to shoot on primes. That opened me up to the notion of a lens having character that’s helpful and can become integrated. The movies I love are the ones where you get submerged in them. So, I’m always worried about making something that sort of sits away from you. My biggest concern with The Holdovers was always — because it is dealing with the past — that it becomes overly nostalgic or sentimental, like you’re seeing it through a great big filter. It would’ve been a great disservice if the photographic process got in the way of the characters. That would’ve just strangled the movie. So, our goal was to do something that is obviously very stylized, but hopefully doesn’t draw too much attention to itself.