DP Peter Suschitzky on The Empire Strikes Back, Collaborating with David Cronenberg and the New Wave’s “Boring Light”
British cinematographer Peter Suschitzky is known for his collaborations with David Cronenberg (Cosmopolis, A Dangerous Method, Eastern Promises, A History of Violence, Spider, eXistenZ, Crash, Naked Lunch and Dead Ringers). His eclectic career saw him start working in fantastical “what if” tales on It Happened Here (1966) and Privilege (1967). He worked with Peter Watkins, Albert Finney, Peter Watkins, John Boorman, Ken Russell and Warris Hussein in Britain, before Hollywood came calling. is first trip to Cannes, working on Charlie Bubbles by Albert Finney, was cancelled after the festival was stopped by the May ’68 protests led by Jean Luc-Godard. This year, I met him at the festilva, where he was being presented with the Pierre Angénieux award for his work in cinematography.
Filmmaker: How does it feel to be awarded the Pierre Angénieux award, following in the footsteps of Vilmos Zsigmond and Roger Deakins?
Suschitzky: It’s a mixture of being flattered and excited, and a little bit frightened that it might seem like a little bit of a full stop at the end of my career. I don’t want that. I want to continue to make movies.
Filmmaker: The last film you shot was Tale of Tales, which played Cannes in 2015 and was this extravagant, beautiful picture. Why haven’t you made a movie since then?
Suschitzky: To tell you the truth, I haven’t found a good project that was interesting. I give a lot to the films that I work on, both creatively and emotionally. It’s hard. I don’t want to work on a film that I don’t respect.
Filmmaker: When you say that you haven’t found a good project, is that visually, or the narrative, or both?
Suschitzky: You need both. I start by reading the script. I really judge who the director is, if I know his or her work. If it’s a first film, I have to read the script and I can get a feeling as to whether the film would be good — not necessarily visually, but a good work. I don’t go to the cinema to see pretty pictures: I go to be transported somehow, so that’s how it works for me, first, by reading the script.
Filmmaker: When did you first realize that you had an aptitude for shooting film?
Suschitzky: I worked in photography, as a child. I took a lot of photographs as I grew up, because it was around me, and I was given a camera at the age of 5 or 6.
Filmmaker: Your father, Wolfgang Suschitzky, was the DP on Get Carter, Entertaining Mr Sloane and Moments.
Suschitzky: A friend of my parents gave me a primitive camera, a Box Brownie. My father taught me, before the age of 10, how to develop and how to print photographs. I became reasonably good during my late teenage years and I loved film. I used to sneak away from school at the end of the day and go and see all the important movies – art house movies – of the day. I saw the Bergmans, Kurosawa and older films too.
Filmmaker: Was photography a good way of picking up girls?
Suschitzky: Picking up girls? No, not for me, I was a very shy young man. (Laughs)
Filmmaker: So was photography your way of communicating with the world?
Suschitzky: I guess it was — of observing the world and conquering, perhaps, my fear of the world, grasping the world. I looked at lots of other people’s work and I wanted to do good work of my own.
Filmmaker: When you started making films in the mid-1960s, did you imagine cinema arriving at where it has today in terms of technology?
Suschitzky: No. I don’t think we can imagine what it will be 30 years from now, or even 10 years from now. Technology is changing rapidly. In my early days, cameras were almost fixed. They didn’t change. It took almost years for the first self-print camera to be made. Yet at the same time, it’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is the writing of the film, because everything is hung on the skeleton of the script and after that, comes the quality of the director and his or her ability to cast it well and the camera. As the cameraman, I’m going to choose the camera that I’m going to use with care and I love the lenses, I find that also a very important choice. But I have to admit, if the script is good and the director is good and imaginative, you can shoot a film with a pre-war camera.
Filmmaker: Do you feel today, with smart phones, that everyone is a cinematographer?
Suschitzky: I don’t think it matters. It still takes skill to go beyond that. There is a surplus of images; there are so many images that image is in danger of losing its power. Imagine yourself in the 19th century and wanting to hear music: you had to play it yourself, or you had to travel to a venue to hear musicians play it. Because you had so little music available, the impact of hearing live music was very, very strong. When you go to the dentist, and there are magazines, and you flip through them, these images are not meant to be looked at. Most of them have little meaning to them and that’s a problem.
Filmmaker: So do you think that a picture is no longer worth a 1000 words?
Suschitzky: It depends on what it is and who is receiving it. It really all depends on the sensibility of the person looking at the picture.
Filmmaker: How do you like to work with directors on set?
Suschitzky: Assuming that I’m lucky enough to work on a project that is stimulating and stretching me, ideally I’d like to watch the director rehearse the actors on the set and then talk with the director about where to put the camera, how many shots to do. I’ve worked with directors who like to do all of that themselves; make the decision where to put the camera, but many of them, invite a discussion with the cinematographer and that is my ideal.
Filmmaker: When you started, it was the time of Free Cinema. There was a very difference aesthetic: the influence of the French New Wave was there, the cameras were changing. What were your influences?
Suschitzky: I was heavily influenced by all sorts of things, I watched movies from before that period with great passion. The first movie that I saw was when I was five or six. Someone brought a project to the home and showed me some Charlie Chaplin films. I was at film school at Paris, relatively briefly, at the beginning or the middle of the Nouvelle Vague, I was very excited by the ideas of some of the directors about cutting. They did some very unusual things with the narrative — cutting forwards, jump cutting. I wasn’t influenced visually for very long by them, because most of them shot by bouncing light off the ceiling to give the camera a great deal of freedom to move around, so that produced boring light.
Filmmaker: So who did influence you?
Suschitzky: I was influenced by all sorts of films, not one in particular. Chaplin, because I liked laughing and so loved comedy, John Ford and Bergman, Kurosawa, they all had wonderful cinematographers, so I was subconsciously influenced by them. I was also an avid gallery goer, so I was influenced by paintings and drawings, other people’s photographs, so I can’t put my finger on one influence. It takes a long time for a person, it doesn’t matter who he or she is, to discover their own style, where their journey is taking them.
Filmmaker: How did you move into the world of fantastical filmmaking?
Suschitzky: I don’t seek it out, but you easily get put into a box. So when I was lucky enough to get to do [The Empire Strikes Back], I got calls asking me to do other fantasy films, but at the end I didn’t want to do — at the time, at least — films with more visual effects. They were slow to do and I prefer to work on intimate films with actors telling a story that touches me. I’m not deeply touched by fantasy films, unless they are quite exceptional.
Filmmaker: So why did you take the Empire Strikes Back job? Was it because it was the biggest job in town?
Suschitzky: Yes, and the first one had excited me. I was approached to shoot the first one, but the studio felt that the director, inexperienced as he was, needed to have a veteran with him. Why did I accept the film? It was a new challenge. As a young cinematographer, I wanted to be challenged and I knew that the previous film had been enormously popular, so it was the feeling that we were working on something that was important to a lot of people. That is very flattering to the people working on it.
Filmmaker: How did you feel about the digital version of Empire Strikes Back?
Suschitzky: Ooh. I haven’t had a look at the Blu-ray copy of it yet. When I bought a DVD of it, it looked as though they had increased the contrast a lot and it didn’t look the way that I had shot it anymore. Maybe I’ll be able to judge better on Blu-ray.
Filmmaker: Were you disappointed that they made a digital version?
Suschitzky: I was disappointed that I hadn’t been involved in anyway, not even in the consultations about the changes. It’s up to Lucas whatever improvements to the digital effects he wants to make, but as far as the general look of the movie is concerned, I feel very strongly that the cinematographer who created the look should be consulted.
Filmmaker: In terms of David Cronenberg, the director that you are most closely associated with, when did you first meet him?
Suschitzky: It was around 1987 or something like that. He had to find a cinematographer and we met. He said that he had fuve cinematographers on his list and I was one of them. Something clicked. We liked each other, although I didn’t know any of his work, because I knew of him as a horror director and I don’t like watching horror films. So I hadn’t watched any of his movies. I say that with a sense of shame.
Filmmaker: But you’ve gone back and watched Scanners now, and thought “I would have shot that better”?
Suschitzky: Yes, but I say that about work that I’ve shot too. When I see it retrospectively, I know that I can do it better today, and I wish that I could reshoot certain things.
Filmmaker: Can you tell me how your on set working relationship is with David Cronenberg?
Suschitzky: You will be disappointed to learn that we don’t discuss very much. He sends me a script with no discussion on the look of the film. Obviously, he has to discuss the set building with the production designer, but since they are both in Toronto, I don’t get involved in that. My job, once I’m given the material to photograph, is to make them look as interesting as possible. I do get there in time, usually, to have discussions with the production designer, on where to put windows, the colors and textures, and that’s the important thing. We don’t look at references, we don’t talk about shots.
Filmmaker: You don’t have a look book or any lens discussions?
Suschitzky: No. He always says to me, I don’t know what I’m going to do on the first day and I say, I feel the same.
Filmmaker: Do you like to have a truck full of lenses with you on set, so you can make switches while shooting?
Suschitzky: You have to decide on the type of lens you want to use. Nobody has a truck full of lenses, at least I think they don’t. You have to decide what you want. Now that I’m shooting digitally, I test lenses out. I always get a day in pre-production to test the look of the lenses, or even cameras. I want to use something that is friendly towards myself and seeing things. Because the digital capture of the image is so analytical, you catch so much it can have a cruel side to it. So on the last movie I took Panavision Primos which were made in the late ’70s and early ’80. They seemed to me, to film human skin in a friendly way. I think the last film I shot, digitally, looks close to film.
Filmmaker: Do you prefer directors like Cronenberg who leaves you to your own devices, or do you like a bit of guidance?
Suschitzky: I don’t think I’ve worked with a director for a long time,who has tried to tell me how to light anything. I think that the casting of cinematographer with a history — it’s different if you are a cinematographer with no history and it’s your first film. It’s like casting an actor or actress: you look at their previous work and if you don’t like it, you don’t work with them, but if you like it, you don’t try to tell them to do work that is contrary to their instinct. And if you are an intelligent director you leave them alone, unless you can see something that you really don’t like.
Filmmaker: So it’s been a long time since you’ve had a bad time on set?
Suschitzky: You can have a bad time on set for other reasons. Personality reasons, bad time for the light.
Filmmaker: Who has been your favorite actors to work with?
Suschitzky: It’s very difficult to say, but if you are talking about male actors, I think the first name that comes to mind and one of my favorite actors to work with is Marcelo Mastroianni. He seemed to do nothing, yet everything was there on the screen, all very subtle. He understood the camera sees everything, you don’t have to do things big, you don’t have to underline your performance. There are lots of fine actors around, but he gave me a lot of joy.
Filmmaker: Did you become friends off set as well?
Suschitzky: No. I was too shy a person and my job absorbs my attention and I don’t have time to pause, to chat. There are very few pauses for a cinematographer, I watch the rehearsal, a shot of the scene, and I discuss it, if possible, with the director and then I start to do my work. I prepare the first shot and then I watch the next scene. There is no pause in our work.
Filmmaker: How has the work changed, now that you can see what you have shot immediately and don’t have to wait to screen dailies?
Suschitzky: That’s part of digital work. I insist on working with a high quality monitor so that I can see exactly what the camera sees and what the film is going to look like on the screen. I welcome that. Of course, I would say it takes some of the power and mystery of the cinematographer’s work away, because previously the only person who knew what the film was going to look like, if they had enough experience, was the cinematographer. Today, you can see it on the set. Maybe you would say, “Doesn’t that invite comments from other people?” I haven’t had that problem.
Filmmaker: How about the fact that in post-production the ability to grade a film and change the look is now so great?
Suschitzky: Well, I want to be there in the grading of the film so I can control that along with the director, but I don’t want to change the intention in post-production I want to be able to correct small things and enhance a little bit, to make small retouches if you like. Maybe I want to change a contrast in one place, maybe I would want to change the top left hand corner of the screen, or a wall that is too bright, but to totally change the concept or the look of it, I’d rather not do that, I would want to, as far as I can, correct in front of the camera.