Ben Davis crafted the look of some of your favorite films from the last 20 years, everything from neo-noir “Layer Cake” to Marvel films such as “Eternals” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” This year is a particularly strong showing for the director of photography, who has two buzzy films out with frequent collaborators: Michael Grandage’s “My Policeman” and Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees of Inisherin.”
How do you choose your projects?
It always starts with two things: script and director. I’d love to say every decision I make is based purely on those things, but I have children and bills to pay. [Laughs] A lot of those sort of boring decisions come into it. But the script and director. For instance, when Tim Burton asked [me to work on “Dumbo”], I didn’t even think about it. Or Martin—I don’t need to read Martin’s scripts.
Do you see the look of the film from the script, or do you find it as you collaborate?
The sort of curse is that when I read things, even books, I tend to read in images, which is part of having done what I’ve done for so long. At the same time, I never want to go into a meeting or a first conversation with a preconceived idea of what the film should be. That person has been sitting with that script for a long time, and they have a far better idea or have given it far more thought than I have. I’ll have some ideas, but try to throw them into the back of my mind.
For “Banshees,” so much of the film is this desolate, fictional island. Did you work closely with a location scout?
Martin had a very preconceived idea of what that was and spent a lot of his youth in and around [the Aran Islands]. So we drove up the Irish coast for days and days trying to find them. And the [period correct] houses and the pub, they didn’t exist anymore. If there was something, it was surrounded by modernity. And Martin wanted all the locations on the Atlantic coast. The prime locations were all built in. No one actually sees that when they [watch the film].
Ben Davis on the set of “The Banshees of Inisherin” Courtesy Ben Davis
Inisherin becomes almost the fourth lead of the film. How did you create such a powerful sense of time and place?
I spent a lot of time [on Inishmore]. I tried to spend my time in preparation and spent a hell of a lot of time photographing it and trying to capture what the island said to me. I’m not a writer as Martin is. I can’t articulate what I felt about the place or the feelings that place evokes. But I can photograph it and show you the images. There’s something very special about it, the raging ocean and the sky is so barren. It’s very beautiful, but it’s also quite melancholic, and I adored it. I loved it there because I’m not afraid of melancholy. It's something I quite embrace. That did shape the idea. But I think Martin always knew that.
Does your approach to Marvel movies differ from smaller films?
The Marvel world, you’re shooting films for over $100 million. They’re different in scale, and they’re different in ambition, but the job is the same. The responsibility is the same. There’s still a narrative. That’s always the focus on the set of any project. What’s the story we’re trying to tell? If it’s just about imagery and bangs and whizzes, I’m really not interested. And if the film ends up like that, it means I’ve failed because I haven’t delivered some emotionally stimulating narrative.
Was there a lesson you learned early in your career that has stayed with you?
When I started out, I went on a job and it was a very young director. We were shooting, and he wanted to shoot it a certain way, and I thought it was ridiculous and also terrible. And we fought about it. Not badly, but I thought it was a terrible way of going about it. And we filmed it and cut it together, and I saw it afterward—and it was absolutely brilliant. So that was a huge lesson for me. Just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s not good or it’s not right. Just because the voice isn’t the same as yours doesn’t mean the voice isn’t worth listening to.
What advice do you have for those interested in a career in cinematography?
If you’re at the start, photograph or shoot all the time. Watch as much cinema as you can, but go out and actually photograph things. And it’s much easier now than it used to be. It was expensive—you had to process it and cut it. And now there are so many mediums you can work in, and they’re all immediate and low cost.
This story originally appeared in the Jan. 19 issue of Backstage Magazine.