Peter Deming – “Lost Highway” to “Mulholland Drive” A master class with the influential director of photography.


THENEWCINEMA: Let me start by asking you something about yourself.  What was your path to becoming a director of photography?

PETER DEMING: Well…I guess it was something I was always interested in. I have an older brother and when we were kids he used to make Super 8 movies with my dad’s movie camera and I was always the crew… I was the crew and the cast and everything else.  So it sort of started there. Then later I went to the University of Wisconsin and for my graduate school I went to the American Film Institute in LA.  Then onto becoming a camera assistant, loader, second assistant, first assistant, camera operator, you know the whole progression of jobs.


TNC: What do you think is the best path to becoming a DP today?

PD: To me that is still the best way because you learn the working of the whole camera crew. People starting as DP’s, often don’t understand entirely the jobs of their crew, so if you have done all the jobs it’s better.  I would say either that or if you are coming up through the lighting department since that is such an intricate part of being a DP.  But technically I think there is a lot more to be learned in camera than there is in lighting.  My first recommendation would be to come up through camera.


TNC: What do you think about film school?

PD: Couple of things, it depends on your level of experience going in.  I mean, I went to film school right after college so I had a lot of things to learn about equipment and hardware, so for me it was a great thing to do.  I think if you are coming out of the business and going back to school then I am not so sure that on the technical side you would learn much.  But there is always the old saying “it is not what you know, it is who you know”. And oftentimes you can meet people in that environment, be it fellow students, a guest teacher or what have you that can give you a break and tips and help with your career.


TNC: What was your first big break?

PD: It’s hard to pinpoint.  My first big break I guess was shooting a movie for Sam Raimi called  “The Evil Dead II’’ which is a pretty big cult movie, even today.  And that film, I still get people talking about it when I go in for job meetings.  Not knowing it at the time, but it opened certain doors and a level of recognition that I hadn’t had before.  And then you just sort of build on that.


TNC: What films or DP’s influenced you the most?

PD: I was very influenced by the cinematography of the 50’s and 60’s, like James Wong Howe, Russell Metty, Conrad Hall and Haskell Wexler.  Then, progressing from there, Jordan Cronenweth, Vittorio Storaro, Caleb Deschanel.  Those are all people that take, and took, chances with the material and technology and had the capacity of producing both rough edge but also very polished images in different styles.  I think that is something I have always strived to do, not sort of get stuck in one genre or one look.  And besides that, pretty much anything by Orson Welles.  A lot of people cite “Citizen Kane”, but I always liked “A Touch of Evil” just a little bit more. I like the way it was conceived and shot.


TNC: How did you deal with the arrival of visual FX, green screen and such?  Did you have to learn a lot of new things?  Do you use them a lot?

PD: Yeah, you can’t help but use them.  I think on Sam’s movie we did last year “Drag Me to Hell” we had over five hundred effects shots, and that was not really considered an effects movie!  It is hard not to do a film, big or small, that is… that does not have some of that.  Saying that, I did a little film in New York last year called “Last Night” funded by Gaumont that was a pretty straightforward drama that we shot in anamorphic. I am happy to say, that there are no green screens at all in that.  But honestly it is rare, even in lower and moderately budgeted movies, not to use them.  It is the future and I don’t mind it as long as it does not become the story instead of serving the story, and I think that is often the case.  A lot of style over content these days, and that sort of turns me off.  But those are great tools and some films would never have been made without them. So I think that if they are used in the right way to enhance the story, then I am all for it.  As for learning it, yes you have to learn it, but fortunately I have been around long enough that I have learned about them as they emerged. Of course there are a dozen ways to achieve the same shot and everyone has their own style, so you are always adjusting to what kind of post processing they are doing and that changes so rapidly.  Even within the course of a production, different tools come out that allow you to do different things and this ultimately makes it easier and easier on set to collect the elements needed to put a shot together.  But it is always a challenge when you put up a big green screen shot. You are striving for realism so you sort of have to divorce in your mind from the whole green screen aspect of it. Than light it as realistically as possible and hope that it will composite seamlessly and no one will know.  Half the shots in “Drag Me to Hell” that are effect shots, no one even knows that they are. To me that is the best of both worlds.


TNC: Is it realistic to use green screen on a micro budget film?  Using it for car shots, or to insert different views into windows and such.  Would it be cost effective?  Can it be pulled off with minimal equipment and still be photorealistic?

PD: These things are typically cost effective in short shots, as charging post work by the foot or frame is the norm.  Therefore, shorter shots are more apt to fit with a micro-budget.  You don’t need much more equipment than you are probably already carrying.  Most car scenes are packed with dialogue and can run long, therefore, can get quite expensive.


TNC: In your opinion can you achieve a photorealistic green screen composite with lower end cameras that do less than 4:4:4?

PD: Absolutely you can. However, you are merely matching the original resolution and ‘‘look’’ and in my opinion, 4:2:2 has a difficult time getting a ‘‘film look”.


TNC: How much do you need to know about postproduction as a DP?

PD: You can get away with knowing very little, but the more you know, the more you can trouble shoot on set.  You can have your opinions be heard about how to achieve a certain shot, avoid problems that may come up down the line, as well as being able to work quickly.  Knowing is not a bad thing, as long as it does not come in the way of storytelling.


TNC: Do you operate the camera yourself?

PD: I try to whenever possible. I mean, I think that particularly when it is an “one camera” shoot, I try to operate the camera at all times.  On “Last Night” for instance that was the case. But on bigger films where there are two, three, or more cameras on at all times, it’s hard to keep track, keep tabs on everything that is going on if you are behind the camera.  If it is an intimate story and I am lighting through the camera, finesse sort of lighting, smaller sets, I operate the camera.  Anytime I cannot be next to the camera, no matter how big the movie I get on the camera to be there and see how the actors move through the space.  It is impossible to judge this from a video monitor.


TNC: In what way can an actor or director make your work harder?  What is there to be aware of?

PD: Mostly it’s a matter of control. Oftentimes the request is made to not be to strict on actor’s marks, to light for an area rather than specific points. This can deflate a look and it is a compromise when the lighting becomes that general. The proliferation of multiple cameras in what I would describe as ‘‘TV style’’, does this as well. Not that I’m against multiple cameras, not at all… but when you attempt to cover all the angles, master, shot, reverse shot in one multi-camera pass, it’s difficult to achieve any sort of finesse lighting… another area that can get frustrating is shooting day exterior. Typically you have your day planned, coverage vs. sun and shadows. When a certain shot goes long or there are delays in MU, hair or costumes, then that can throw the whole day’s timing off and then you’re always trying to catch up.


TNC: What are your thoughts on digital cameras, specifically the RED?

PD: I think it is a step in the right direction, but I think there are a lot of issues with the RED that are not so attractive.  Some production related, some postproduction related. It has a lot of color space issues that I won’t go into here, but I’ll say that the raw data recorded has color issues that complicate post-production. It also really should be filtered to shoot tungsten, effectively reducing ASA to a level very undesirable for nighttime shooting. I have used the Panavision “Genesis” system which is to me… I mean I haven’t used a lot the other systems out there, but from a versatility point of view to go beyond the capability of film stocks, i think the “Genesis” is the best one.  It records the highest resolution, the same as the RED camera, but it does not have the ASA restriction and it does not have color balance restrictions as the RED has.  You can push the ASA to unheard of limits and still get pretty good images and if you keep it in the realm of what film stocks are capable of, you really can’t tell the difference between digital and film.  There are definitely still some workflow issues and it is a bigger deal and a bigger crew to shoot that way.  The fact that you cannot just grab the camera, throw it in your car and go shoot something is a bit painful to me. Until the technology becomes small enough that you can do that… but at least for now, they are not quite there yet.  But it is amazing some of the stuff they are doing, particularly in 3D and there is no denying that this is the future.


TNC: You do both art house and mainstream movies, what do you prefer?

PD: I like both, but first and foremost, I like telling stories and there is no denying that technology plays a large role in my job.  So for the bigger sort of studio movies it’s good to bring that art house aesthetic to the job, but also be able to use the latest technology and see what is possible technically.  There is something really great about doing a very small art house film though. The crew is smaller, it’s a much more intimate experience and you are right there when it is happening.


TNC: Have you ever thought about directing yourself?

PD: Yea, I am working on that, hopefully if all goes well, then sometime late next year.  But now it’s sort of a difficult time in the movie business, at least since the last year or two. But I think things are going to calm down soon and hopefully the timing will be right for people to go with a first timer.  (Laughs)


TNC: Which one of your own films are you the most pleased with in terms of cinematography?

PD: That’s a difficult question. Some don’t turn out how you planned in pre-production, and that can be good and bad. If you’re lucky, it will be an improvement! I did two movies with David Lynch, and in that process, the look often evolved daily and the outcome is a culmination of pre-production, the production experience and ‘‘forces of nature’’, that’s a rare treat. Mostly, you pre-plan a desired look and mood, and if all the cards fall into place, you’re film will looks like it did in your head those many months ago. For me, films like ‘‘From Hell’’, ‘‘The Jacket’’ and ‘‘I heart Huckabee’s’’ come close to that ideal.


TNC: When working with a filmmaker like David Lynch how much freedom do you have to interpret the visuals?

PD: There are scenes where he has very specific ideas about the lighting or the level of light.  But most of the time I will either feed off the rehearsals, or he will talk about a certain mood or emotion he is going for, but it usually sort of ends there. Then it is up to me to interpret the mood and light the scene.  That is really a great way to work for me because I know ultimately what he wants, but he is not telling me how to do it. It’s a dream way of working.


TNC: “Lost Highway”, what inspired you guys, what were the references for the ‘‘look’’ you guys gave the film?

PD: Well we talked briefly in prep, but only, very briefly… but then you just sort of feed of what’s happening.  The best example I can give you, the first day of shooting, we were in the main house, Fred’s house.  And what is so amazing about David is that if you read the dialogue of those scenes, the dialogue is fairly banal.  “Hi honey where are you going?” “Oh I am going to work…” so what I thought it was going to be and what the scene turned out to be were completely the opposite.  Because of the way he directed it, the way he blocked it, there was so much tension and so much back story between these two people that I had to completely change my whole thought about lighting the scene and that sort of started the engine on that.


TNC: Did you guys try out a lot of different things?  Are you a DP that experiments on set?

PD: Very little was pre-decided, I would say when you are making movies with David it is very much like David’s other love which is painting.  It’s more like you are creating on the day.  You sort of have this box of paint and this canvas and then you just see what happens.  With a couple of exceptions on ‘‘Lost Highway” that is pretty much the way things went.  We would try out things and experiment, but then maybe they didn’t work.  David would call it the “happy accident”.  But other times things would happen that we didn’t expect and we would sort of latch onto that and maybe take it a little bit further.  It is an adventure, that’s the best way I can put it.


TNC: Did you guys shoot in sequence?

PD: No, not entirely, but we did shoot Bill Palmer’s story before Balthazar’s, so in that sense we did shoot somewhat in sequence.


TNC: What are your thoughts on storyboarding?

PD: To me it’s only essential if you have either stunts or mechanical effects or visual effects or something where you know that something is going to happen on set that could affect thirty, forty, fifty people.  The best way to get that information out there and be clear is the storyboard.  I think if it is for a scene in a car or a dinner table or… you know all those scenes we are used to seeing, a lot of times it’s boarding the obvious.  To me that is a waste of resources.  But everyone has their own process in prep and if some people like to do that, so be it.


TNC: What ratio do you shoot on average?

PD: That of course depends on the director, but I would say four or five to one.  Some people do nine, ten, twelve and some people two or three takes.  But I would say four or five is the average and a good tempo.


TNC: If you were to do a film from the trunk of a car on a limited budget, what would your basic lighting kit be?

PD: I would probably have a small collection of “Kino flos”, I would have a small collection of paper lanterns that would collapse nicely into that trunk.  And maybe some very small HMI lights if you could get them in there.  I think with those tools you could do a lot of things.


TNC: Green screen on the cheap?  What can you realistically achieve?

PD: I think if you are planning simple composites on the cheap, it is very achievable. Modest sized green screen elements are not expensive to shoot. The expense, of course is in postproduction.


TNC: How do you choose your projects?

PD: It depends… you try to only do films you like, but that does not always end up being the case.  I strive to work on different genres and different styles as much as I can.  I am interested in shooting any kind of film that I might go see myself.  That is a criteria I try to adhere to, but as I said, that has not always been possible.


TNC: Do you solely use the script as visual inspiration, or do you use other visual references when prepping a project?

PD: You inevitably reference other material whether films or paintings or any sort of visual medium, but the scripts should really be the catalyst.  I try not to reference other films so much because each film should have its unique look. For example when we started “Lost Highway” we never said this should look like that other film or we should steal something from there, those discussions never came up.  It was just about the color or the texture of the movie.  The lighting style and the camera movement came out of the story very much.  I think it is important not to apply something false upon something when you don’t know what it is going to be.


TNC: What is your favorite focal length?

PD: I like the quote unquote normal lenses, 50mm being my favorite.  As far as compression aspect it’s the closest to normal eyesight so I would say 40mm, 50mm, 65mm.  I think that is a great size, cause it feels… the angle of view appeals to me.


TNC: Your favorite aspect ratio?

PD: Anamorphic 2.39:1, absolutely.


TNC: When doing sexually explicit scenes like in “Mulholland Drive”, do you guys clear the set?

PD: It is basically David, me operating the camera and the focus puller, and maybe the sound guy and that’s it.  But that is pretty standard.


TNC: What is the number one wrong thing a “first time” DP does?

PD: I think, not trusting their instincts.  If you second guess yourself too much and start worrying about what other people want to see, rather than how you think the story should be told.  Of course it does not mean that you will get your way,  but you have to be creative and take chances and voice your opinion on what you think is the right way to do something.  Like I say, you won’t always get your way, but at least the thought process is there and you don’t lose that creativity.  So regardless if it ends up on film or not, it is a way of working and one day hopefully people will listen to you, and you will sort of get your say.


TNC: At what stage do you start working on a project?

PD: Depends on the project, but I would say more often than not, too late.  Ideally I would like to come in very early when the concept and the initial location scouting is happening.  I am then happy to go away for a few weeks and then be back for the more intensive prep.  Oftentimes you come onto a movie and decisions have been made that greatly affect your job, decisions were made without you which I think the DP should have had a say in.  But because of budget and time those… cinematographers would be happy to come in for a week way early in the game. Have their voice and opinions heard and that production knows what they are thinking and why.  Often problems could be avoided if they talked to you first, or earlier.


TNC: Which director do you wish you could have worked with?

PD: I mentioned Orson Welles, I would certainly have loved to work with him, Truffaut is another one.  Current directors I would love to work with… John Sayles, I think he is amazing.


TNC: What would you recommend to aspiring directors of cinematography to do in order to improve their craft?

PD: Don’t just study old films, or other films, study the light in real life and figure out a way to achieve it.  Also don’t be afraid to take chances. Caleb Deschanel once told me, he said if there isn’t at least two or three days on a shoot where you are not really sure what’s gonna come back from the lab, than you have sort of stopped growing as a cinematographer.  You need to take chances, it’s the only way you will learn.


TNC: Wide shots are often the hardest to get right  on a budget.  Any tips how to make them look better?

PD: Try to build in some depth, whether it be by placing some prop in the foreground or choosing a camera position with foreground in mind, anything that can give you more depth will help.  If working with available light, know where your lights gonna be and pick a good time of day if you can.  In terms of artificial light, try to create some depth with the light, be it back light, edge light or cross light, etc.


TNC: How do you cover, in what order?  Do you always shoot master, medium, close up etc?

PD: Normally, that is the order as often the wider shot dictates what you can achieve in the closer coverage… continuity in the lighting. You can fudge and stretch this to a certain extent, but if you want it to cut together, you can’t drastically change the look after it is established.  I’ve shot coverage before master on larger set-ups like night exteriors, when I was reasonably sure I could establish the lighting I was ‘‘matching”.


TNC: Panning with action, do you want to start the pan before the actor moves or after he starts moving and if you overshoot your mark should you reframe over time or live with it?

PD: Traditionally, I would say start the pan as the actor moves… let them initiate the movement, motivate it, unless of course you are going for something more stylized.  And in terms of overshooting, it depends on how badly you’ve overshot.  I tend to try to recover and reframe, VERY SLOWLY, unless you’ve completely botched it !!


TNC: What does it take to make a good dolly shot?

PD: To me there are two kinds of dolly shots.  There is the ‘‘motivated’’ and ‘‘unmotivated’’ shot and certainly when you are traveling with characters then it is all about timing.  There is a start and a stop timing that will be natural and not forced, and if you can achieve that it will go largely unnoticed because you’re traveling with the action, so the attention is on the actor.  The other probably more difficult one, the ‘‘unmotivated’’ shot, where not just the timing but he feeling, the emotion of the shot comes into play.  It really depends on the story you are telling and what part in the story this camera move plays, because you are no longer following the action, you now are the action and you need to sort of interpret that in terms of speed, focal length and all those things.  To make it enhance what you are doing and not be just be a gratuitous shot.


TNC: When doing a close up, what is important to keep in mind?

PD: I think a few things, one is the focal length you choose and the height of the camera and often most important the light on the face.  Going along with watching and observing natural light.  I oftentimes will watch people in the room whether it is day or night and sort of look at the quality of light and where it is coming from, then later I try to figure out how I can recreate that in an artificial setting.  One of the hardest things to do for me is day work on stage.  Because there is a quality of ambient light during the day that is so hard to reproduce faithfully, it is a sort of soft and everywhere light and that is just really hard to recreate.


TNC: Do you have a lucky pair of socks?  What do you always bring along when you work?

PD: No, no… the only thing I have always had, I’ve had the same light meter for thirty years so I won’t be giving that up.