112 Days in Iceland: DP Florian Hoffmeister on True Detective: Night Country
The diversity of cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister’s output makes it difficult to typecast him. The German DP won an Emmy for his work on a BBC version of Great Expectations and followed with the Rowan Atkinson spy spoof Johnny English Strikes Again. Then, in succession, he lensed the Scott Cooper horror flick Antlers, the Apple prestige drama Pachinko and Todd Field’s Tár, picking up an Oscar nomination for the latter.
But with True Detective: Night Country, Hoffmeister returns to a previous specialty–unsettling subzero horror.
Hoffmeister’s work on AMC’s The Terror followed an ill-fated 19th century artic expedition. He’s back to frigid dread with the new season of True Detective, with Hoffmeister shooting all episodes as a pair of Alaskan cops (Jodie Foster and Kali Reis) investigate the disappearance of the crew at a remote research station during a wintry period of perpetual darkness.
Filmmaker: The show is set in Alaska, but you filmed in Iceland. How long was the shoot and how much of it was on stage in Reykjavik compared to small towns in northern Iceland?
Hoffmeister: It was 112 days total. I think we did something between 40 or 50 days of exterior nights. We started with about six weeks on stages in Reykjavik, with a mixture of location work as well. Basically, the idea was to begin on the stage in the fall before it snows, then to go outside when the snow came. So, in January we went up north to a town called Akureyri, which has about 20,000 people living there. Near to that was a little village called Dalvik [population 1,500] and that’s where we did a lot of exterior work. When the weather got more like the spring, we went south again and finished on the stages in Reykjavik.
Filmmaker: Did you do some night exterior scenes on stage?
Hoffmeister: We did do some. When people have asked [director/writer/showrunner] Issa López why she was interested in me for the show—because Tár hadn’t come out yet—she has referred to this series called The Terror. I shot the first season and that was set in the Arctic, in the darkness, and all shot on stages. There is a sequence later this season where people run into the ice, and once you see that, you will think, “Did they really shoot that in the ice?” And we did not, but we made it look like we did. There’s also some stuff where a character breaks through the ice and, obviously, we had to do that in a tank. Overall, there were only maybe four or five days out of the entire shooting schedule where we actually went inside on stage to do exterior work.
Filmmaker: How remote is the area you shot your Reykjavik exteriors?
Hoffmeister: About 40 minutes outside of Reykjavik. And once you’re out of Reykjavik, it gets Arctic quite quickly. There’s no lights, nobody living there. The entire island has a population of 320,000 people and I think like 200,000 of them live in the Reykjavik area. Half an hour outside of the city, you could freeze to death very easily.
Filmmaker: How did you piece together the fictional town of Ennis?
Hoffmeister: When I joined the project, Iceland as a location had already been chosen. Our production designer Daniel Taylor had traveled there, and they had done some case studies, and it was agreed that it was too crazy to shoot in Alaska. Canada was discussed, but then they thought of Iceland, which had an American Air Force base for a very long time. So, there was sort of an architectural influence on the island that we could use for some of the work, and you could find American cars there from the time period. We did the exteriors for Ennis in a couple of places. Dalvik was one of them. There’s another city called Keflavik, where we shot Ennis’s main street. So, we kind of put the puzzle together. I should also mention the work of Hunter Robert Baker, who went up into Alaska and did some second unit plate work and exteriors. Some of the establishing shots were done by him in Alaska for real.
Filmmaker: This is the fourth season of True Detective, but as an anthology there hasn’t really been consistency in the look. That extends to the camera/lens packages as well. The first season was shot on film. The second was shot anamorphic but cropped to 1.78. So, you’re not really beholden to anything.
Hoffmeister: We did do a few bows towards the first season. You have the [spiral] symbol. You have these long car scenes where [the detectives] sit and reflect. So, storytelling-wise, there was connective tissue already, but I never really thought about anything that I needed to reference visually. I was thinking about, when you live in the darkness for most of the winter, how does that change your approach to lighting? I live in Berlin, and I like the lighting quite moody, even in the winter. But when you live in constant darkness, you tend to consider light more like an element of survival. So, in my mind, I thought all the public spaces would almost be overlit. When they are in their daily routine, like at the police station, they tend to switch on literally every single light source. I actually noticed that with myself. When I’d wake up in Iceland, it would still dark and I would switch on all the lights. I wanted to walk away from this intuitive response of, “It’s a dark show. It’s about dark themes. So, make it all dark.” I thought the lighting should have this utilitarian feel to it, but then the darkness should be strong when it comes. When you switch the lights off, it just goes to into total blackness. Those were the two extremes.
Filmmaker: What did you end up shooting with?
Hoffmeister: We tested a bit and Arri had just released the new Alexa 35, which they promoted for its amazing dynamic range. I thought that would be the tool of choice for this. We had Arri in Munich build us a very specific LUT. The camera has a new feature called Arri Textures, and you can burn these textures into the files now, so they become a part of the file that is unchangeable.
Filmmaker: The only DP I’ve interviewed so far for a project that was shot with the Alexa 35 was Eigil Bryld for No Hard Feelings. He decided not to use the Textures because he was hesitant about burning them into the footage.
Hoffmeister: I spoke a lot with the head colorist at Arri—another “Florian”; his name is Florian “Utsi” Martin—about the LUT and how I wanted a kind of photochemical approach with really strong blacks and highlights that [popped] but maintained texture so that the highlights, when you switched on the lights, would almost feel like an electric guitar [wailing] in rock music. I really wanted them to pop. That created quite a steep contrast and I thought in the mids it would have made my life very, very difficult, because obviously the mids are where our faces lie. So, you want to be a bit gentler there. I didn’t want to force myself to constantly work with fill light to ease something that I’ve introduced to the picture. So, Florian built us a Texture that would influence exactly that middle part and would be slightly softer in the mids and also create a little bit of a noise that we would associate with grain. And, yeah, we burned it in.
Filmmaker: What did you use for lenses?
Hoffmeister: We used Panavision Super Speeds and Ultra Speeds.
Filmmaker: And by shooting with the Alexa 35, you weren’t constrained by the necessity to use large format lenses.
Hoffmeister: Yeah. I had shot lots of large format, especially on Pachinko and Antlers. On Tár, we did a mixture [of large format and Super35 sized sensors]. Todd Field is really a cinematography aficionado and he reminded me of this visual heritage we have almost subconsciously with the field of view that comes with 35mm. On Tár, I kind of rediscovered how beautiful an 18mm can look in spherical on Super35. One of the films that Issa referenced in prep was John Carpenter’s The Thing, so I thought it could feel nice to go back to that [field of view].
Filmmaker: The Thing, along with a lot of those early Carpenter movies I absolutely love, was shot anamorphic in 2.39. True Detective is 2:1. Did you ever discuss going wider?
Hoffmeister: HBO has a policy that they don’t go any narrower [than 2.1].
Filmmaker: They’re still doing that? They present non-original movies in 2.39.
Hoffmeister: We pitched our case. As a studio or network, they are super-supportive and open to visual innovation. They are famous for how their shows look. You don’t have to persuade anybody there of your ambition if you intend to create interesting imagery. The aspect ratio is the only thing [they’re not flexible on]. We shot a test and showed it to them, and they said, “Listen guys, this is not the first time we’ve talked about this with filmmakers. Join the club.” (laughs) They’ve tested it with audiences, and it doesn’t work for them. In their defense, I think they know what their brand means and it’s amazing how much people still associate that brand (with quality shows). So, if they say, “We have tested it and we don’t want it,” you have to say, “OK, you know what you’re talking about.”
Filmmaker: Everyone is different when it comes to temperature preference, but I absolutely hate the cold. I’d rather it be 100 degrees than 0. What is the worst part for you about working out in the cold for all those night exteriors? I read an interview where Issa talked about some sort of fluid in the monitors freezing and causing latency issues.
Hoffmeister: We definitely had some cold nights, but actually Iceland is not the coldest place. Yes, it’s called “Iceland,” but it’s near the Gulf Stream. In the winter it may have been minus five Celsius, but it didn’t go to like minus 50. Now, when we were there, it was the coldest winter they’d had in a hundred years, but we were surrounded by local crew that have worked in these snowy environments. They’ve taken Ridley Scott up and down the glaciers or Christopher Nolan when he comes. Clothing was a big topic that was discussed all the time. Everybody had a recommendation. It is very exhausting to work in the cold. You get tired quickly. You burn a lot of energy and it’s hard to communicate because the wind is blowing so hard. Your mind works a bit slower, but there were some amazing moments, like when you shoot out on a frozen lake and see the Northern Lights come up.
Filmmaker: There are some incredible wide shots in Ennis where all the buildings in town are decorated in different colors of Christmas lights. How did you coordinate that?
Hoffmeister: That’s what I meant earlier about when people live in darkness, they have a different approach to light. The people in the town we shot in put those up themselves. So, that is pretty much shot as it really was.
Filmmaker: Oh, wow. That’s just what the town looks like normally? There’s a mixture of color temps on the street lights in those wide shots as well. I went in expecting a bleak, almost monochromatic palette because of the setting. I loved the way you went the opposite direction and incorporated all these colors. There’s a string of almost Floridian pastels—pinkish and aqua—in the design.
Hoffmeister: Our job was more to maintain [that color found in the town’s exteriors] in the interiors and the more artificial and controlled setups that we did. I always embraced the cacophony of color. It’s also just different living in that climate. It’s a very transient nature of housing there. It’s hard to bring stuff there. So, nothing gets thrown away and if it does, it might just lie around for a little while, because it doesn’t rot because it’s so cold. So, you reuse things. The lighting should reflect that kind of transient nature of the settlements.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the interiors of the Tsalal research station. There are a lot of shots in there on wide lenses where you’ve moving through multiple rooms. How much of that set was contiguous?
Hoffmeister: The entire (interior of the) station was one big build. We had numerous stages, but we were very lucky that the biggest stage we used was just large enough to exactly fit the entire station inside. You could walk to the television room all the way through the hallway into the big kitchen and dining room.
Filmmaker: How did you light that set? You see the ceilings in pretty much every shot. You’re basically motivating everything from the overhead fluorescent sources we see on screen.
Hoffmeister: Those were all Asteras, so they’re all controllable. We had some softer overheads in the hallways where we did light through muslin. Throughout the episodes, you’ll notice that the station is changing its character. Whenever you come back to it, it feels a little bit different. It gets darker and scarier. It’s almost like an organism.