“Midsommar,” the just-released pagan cult thriller from A24 and filmmaker Ari Aster (“Hereditary”), takes a conceptually harrowing premise and makes gorgeous cinematographic light of it. That’s in part thanks to its camera man-with-a-plan Pawel Pogorzelski. The cinematographer speaks with Backstage about shooting his most ambitious project to date and what actors can do on-camera to make the whole team say, “We got it.”
How would you describe the role of the cinematographer?
The cinematographer puts the image that the director has in his head on the screen. [We help] him take his image of what the movie is and then, as a team, we put that up on the big screen. I always want to get to know as much as possible what the director is thinking, and I love sitting in on all the meetings the director has: VFX, costumes, makeup. You can always pick up on something that he didn’t mention, and that could be quite helpful in creating a better image. With the schedules we have today, once you get to set, you have to start shooting. There’s no time to say, “Oh, that’s not how I saw it.” You have to take the time to realize it [beforehand] so you can be right from the first try.
Was there anything unique about “Midsommar” compared to other projects you’ve worked on?
What was unique was doing so much outside and relying so much on the sun. It was so difficult because the sun keeps moving. I really noticed it when, for instance, an actor would come in late because something had happened in hair and makeup so they were 30 minutes late to set, and you just say, “Well, the sun was perfect and now it’s gone so this is what we’re going to get.” No one is going to ever see what I saw. It’s being able to let go of that. I’m going to just have to let go and be there to tell this story and know that it’s not going to be the exact way I wanted because it was such an ambitious project and the sun was not going to wait for me. [Learning] to let go was a big experience for me on this one.
When you’re shooting so many exteriors, do you always have to have a contingency plan for weather?
We had some interiors so if the weather was really bad we’d go inside to shoot some interior scenes inside the house. There were a few days where we had to just call it; we had to cancel because it wouldn’t match anything. If it had been raining, even if it stopped but the ground was wet [while] everything else was sunny, that wouldn’t match. Sometimes you just have to call it and give everyone a day off, which no one minds—except the producer.
How do you as the cinematographer work with actors?
We are all working toward the same outcome, and so much of [our work] is communicating what we’re doing to let them know what our intention is. It’s explaining to them exactly how the camera is going to move so they can understand what the intention is and how they can then play with that. I work with actors in terms of helping them know where the best light is, and sometimes they can do me a favor and move a certain way that’s better for the camera. There is very much a collaborative sense of working together in order to make them look better. That’s how I think of our relationship: sharing my plan with them so they know, “This is what you’re going to do, so I will stand right there.”
When you’re shooting a scene, are there things actors can do that make you say, “That was a great take”?
That’s almost like asking, “What is a great performance?” It just comes from the inside. I think I can see the difference when I see a great performance. I can see, “Oh, we got it,” after a great take, and most everyone feels like that was a great one and we have it and we can move on. The tricky thing is, I don’t know what happens in the edit room. And a lot of the performances are constructed in the edit room as the film takes its own shape. But you usually have a good sense of a performance when you do a take and you’re like, “That was something great.” Something happens where it just feels special and everyone knows it.
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