Not long after cinematographer Lawrence Sher’s first collaboration with filmmaker Todd Phillips, “The Hangover,” became a massive hit in the summer of 2009, the seasoned director of photography agreed to participate in a video conference with film professor Adam Collis and his students at Arizona State University (ASU). Since then, Collis’ engaging Q&As have led to the establishment of ASU’s Film Spark program in 2015, which includes a successful internship initiative. A few of the program’s recent virtual conversations can be viewed in their entirety on Film Spark’s YouTube page, and Sher is among the subjects featured there (you can view his insightful two-hour chat with the students here).
This past awards season, Sher received his first Oscar nomination for lensing Phillips’ galvanizing DC blockbuster “Joker,” anchored by a ferocious performance from Joaquin Phoenix that earned him a long-belated yet well-deserved Academy Award for Best Actor. He plays Arthur, a deeply disturbed loner who is beaten down by an unfeeling society until he fights back, taking on the persona of a monster aiming to restore balance, which Batman is ultimately destined to achieve. He’s not all that unlike the towering creatures in another of Sher’s recent projects, Michael Dougherty’s eerily prescient popcorn movie, “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” who must do battle in order to preserve the survival of humanity, while reducing the modern world to rubble.
Last week, Sher took time to chat with RogerEbert.com via Zoom about how “The Hangover” prepared him for making “Joker,” his love of chatting with students and the value in taking risks.
I saw “Garden State” on the cusp of attending college, and it somehow captured the surreal nature of that profound transitional moment. You found such inventive ways of externalizing the main character’s psyche through shots such as the one where his shirt fades into the wallpaper.
That was a real watershed movie for me. I connected to it from the moment I read the script because I’m from New Jersey. The film’s writer, director and star, Zach Braff, went to a high school in Maplewood that is very similar to the one I attended in Teaneck, which is the town where we shot the film. They were beautiful, diverse, middle class, suburban communities where many of their inhabitants worked in New York. So the movie just felt personal from the jump for me. I was connected to the material, and it was the first time that happened to me on a job. When you are building a career as a cinematographer—and in my case, being one who is a bit self-taught—there are many moments where you’re just aiming to get a job and execute whatever it is that you’re assigned to do.
That’s true of all my early stuff. If I’m shooting a B-movie about sharks, I’m mainly just trying to make sure that I don’t fall flat on my face, while getting all the pieces together. “Garden State” was the first opportunity in which, from the minute I started prep on it, I could see an opportunity to finally practice my craft, which is to assign psychological meaning to the camera position, while molding the coverage and the storytelling in a way that could emotionally draw people in. A lot of it was obviously in the script, and Zach, who had gone to film school at Northwestern, was interested in that as well. It just felt like it was the first opportunity for me be a cinematographer.
I read that you stayed in your aunt’s basement during the shoot.
That is correct. In each character and script page, I could relate to something very specific in my own experience of growing up in New Jersey, such as the basement scene where Zach trips or the house where Natalie Portman lived. As a cinematographer, you are trying to draw on some memory, as an actor would, that will fuel your motivation for a particular scene. Your experience informs what the space should feel like, and there were so many instances of that throughout the script. So it was, strangely, a really easy shoot. We shot the film in 22 days and it felt like everything was clicking. I wasn’t surprised when it turned out good, and I was really happy that a lot of people saw it. It’s amazing to me how many people still bring it up all these years later.
What aspects of Todd Phillips’ approach to comedy did you connect with during your first collaboration in 2009?
It definitely felt like a personal connection right away, which is always a great start. I was such a big fan of “Old School” and the way that Todd was willing to make things a little bit darker and dirtier, while leaning into the reality of the photography in his approach to comedy. So it was instantly a perfect fit. We wanted to show a side of Vegas that wasn’t emphasizing the glitz of the casinos at night in the way that they are portrayed in commercials, and the way that we usually think of them. We were showing a side of the city that was “back of house,” like the restaurant term, so scenes were set behind the casinos, in empty lots and weird apartments that are off the Strip. My relationship with Todd has been the most fruitful and satisfying and challenging one I’ve had with a director for the 11 years that we have made these six movies, and in all of the best ways.
One of my favorite examples of how you lens a scene for maximum comedic impact in “The Hangover” is the wide shot of Alan (Zach Galifianakis) imitating Phil (Bradley Cooper) as he kicks the sand and swears, though Alan substitutes the expletive with “Shoot!”
That is a perfect example of what makes Todd such a good director. Obviously there’s a script, and he works really hard on getting them all to a pretty good place. We always have a plan, but we are so open to being aware of what’s happening in the moment. When we started shooting the movie in Vegas, early on you could feel that these three guys—with their bickering and the relationship that they were forming organically onset—were a really special trifecta. You hope to get that in every movie, but you can’t count on it. There are a multitude of those moments, like the one you mentioned, that weren’t in the script. Zach had decided that he would look at Bradley as his hero, and that he would do anything to get his approval, even down to the final scene where Alan has his hair done. He asks Phil, “How’s my hair look?”, and Phil’s like, “It looks great, buddy!”
Alan is basically like a child looking up to his father during his scenes with Phil, whereas he had a different way of bickering with Ed Helms’ character. I vividly remember the scene where they are going down the hallway, and they are about to approach their hotel room before they realize that Mike Tyson is inside. They stop and Ed says, “You’re the stupidest person I have ever met,” and Zach replies, “Thank you.” That sort of banter formed throughout the making of the script. The thing that I have learned the most from Todd is that the script never stops being written, and the characters never stop being formed. They’re not formed in the script, they are formed when the actors take hold of them.
That also seems to have been the case, a decade later, with Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker.”
For sure. People think of that film as a bigger departure than it actually was for Todd and I. We had been moving in this direction throughout the last five movies we had made together. All the same techniques that we had become accustomed to—such as me lighting for the spaces and not the faces as a way for us to move the comedy along and not have a lot of time between setups, allowing the actors to stay in rhythm—that was no different from how we worked with Joaquin. With him, we were just doing it to 11. Because “Joker” was such a singular, deep-dive character study with often one character in the room, maybe two at most, you aren’t servicing the same potential things as you are in a comedy. Instead, you are servicing quiet moments and introspection from both the camera and the character. It just provided an opportunity for us to do things that were slightly more overtly artistic than we had chances to do in the past.
We recognized that this was an opportunity for us to really push ourselves artistically, but none of those choices felt that out of bounds. It didn’t feel like we were writing a new rulebook as to how we were going to do this. We just had a different canvas to show it on. Every day, we tried to push each other to do stuff that wasn’t compromised and that would challenge us. At times, we were like, ‘Let’s just do something that feels like a weird art film, and since no one is stopping us, let’s keep going.’ The amazing thing is that it reached as many people as it did and made all that money, which is obviously what the studio wants. It’s a business, and we recognize that. Todd is a really practical filmmaker in a lot of ways. He’s very responsible and so we cared that the movie was seen and made money. We don’t make choices necessarily based on that, but you want movies to be seen, so the fact that “Joker” succeeded on both fronts was awesome.
In the Oscar press room, composer Hildur Guðnadóttir told me [at the 2:32 mark in the video embedded above] about how Phoenix channeled the emotions she was aiming to conjure with her music, which was played on the set, thus inspiring his impromptu dance moves in the bathroom. Would you say your camerawork was equally inspired by the score?
Of course. Even without music, the camera is dancing with Joaquin. Because there is so much freedom, and because we want to give Joaquin that kind of freedom, we don’t want to know what he’s going to do next. I operated one of the cameras along with my “a” camera/Steadicam operator, Geoff Haley, who won Camera Operator of the Year from the Society of Camera Operators for “Joker,” and both of us prefer to shoot without knowing anything about what Joaquin has planned. You are actually dancing with a partner that’s leading all the time, so it was really exciting and spontaneous for us to find moments organically within the take. It was about ten days into shooting when we did that bathroom scene. Hildur had sent Todd what was basically the beginning of what she felt the score was going to feel like, so he said, “Let’s play it and see what happens.”
Arthur’s dance was quite literally a dance between the camera and Joaquin and the music. Then we started playing the music when filming a lot of the quiet moments in the movie, such as a contemplative walk down a hallway, so it naturally influenced the speed of a dolly move or a Stedicam move. The score influences you in the sort of vibe and energy that you’re getting as you photograph the action, so it makes a huge difference. I was lucky enough to do a little bit of additional photography on “Aloha,” which I know was not one of Cameron Crowe’s most seen movies. But I was and still am such a huge Cameron Crowe fan, and he plays music onset. An actor will deliver a line of dialogue, and he’ll bring up a song, or sometimes he’ll drop it out before another line of dialogue, so he’s doing this kind of live mix onset that I thought was really, really cool. Sometimes we would not have Hildur’s music playing loudly onset—we’d have it in our headsets—and so it was a character in the movie, just like the camera, and of course, the main character of Arthur.
In a way, Arthur’s dance is as big a risk as the group sing-a-long in “Magnolia,” an indelible sequence you singled out during your recent Zoom chat with Adam Collis’ students from ASU.
That’s exactly right. In 2009, I was the first guest on the Film Spark video conferences that Adam runs at Arizona State. I thought it was such a cool way to connect with students, and I love talking to them. Having gone to film school myself—I was an economics major—I got into film late in the game, and found that I had a massive passion for it, which brought with it a bit of intimidation. So every chance I had, I would read something in a book or an article in which the experience of filmmaking—the mistakes, the problems, the struggles—was demystified. I remember seeing the great behind-the-scenes documentary of “The Shining” that was shot by Kubrick’s daughter, Vivian. You think of Kubrick in the same ways that I think of P.T. Anderson, which is that he has everything figured out, and there were no decisions that didn’t get made long in advance. He’s supposedly been thinking about them forever.
Then you see Kubrick with a finder in his hand, searching for the iconic shot underneath Jack Nicholson as he’s banging on the door, and you think, ‘Oh wait, he just found that.’ You see him try it high, you see him try it another way, and then he finally gets underneath, and he’s like, ‘Okay, let’s put the camera here.’ Those kind of realizations are so essential when you are a young filmmaker, so that you are not suddenly feeling like you have to be a genius right now. Genius is never something that you attain, but you can seek after those moments, while knowing that you’re going to have struggles even when you are a 70-year old filmmaker trying to figure out what to do next. My involvement with Film Spark has been a great experience, and I’ve continued to go back and give those talks. I also have a little internship set up with them where students work with an image database tool that I’ve created called ShotDeck. It provides filmmakers with visual references that help make their movies better.
I encourage readers to check out your Instagram page, @lawrencesherdp, where you and your family have passed the time in quarantine recreating classic movie scenes via ShotDeck.
My wife has been recreating paintings by artists like Frida Kahlo for the Between Art and Quarantine challenge online, and since my art is movies, I was like, ‘Let’s recreate some movie stills using references.’ I am always seeking references to communicate vision, and also because they comprise our language that we use to communicate with directors and production designers and costumers. There’s always a point in a process where we are constantly looking for some reference, and ShotDeck is a vehicle to help you find those references easier.
What I found fascinating about your work in last year’s May release, “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” is how you managed to capture the grandeur of these creatures, particularly Mothra, in way that was almost abstract, through color and movement.
A lot of that came from Mike Dougherty, the director. Early on, he had created reference images with an actual artist that showed what the design of these characters would look like. Photographically, the most fun aspect about these creatures is that they all have a kind of bioluminescence, and are essentially just bigger versions of what we already see in nature. Godzilla has a tail that is equipped with a cyan nuclear power that he can whip around. All of the monsters have a different color palette and bioluminescence, and the best part of prep for me was figuring out how to work with that. When Mothra first materializes in that cave, it provided a great opportunity to play with color on the characters’ faces. The movie instantly became about this wild color palette, and I love color, which is apparent even if you go back to the “Hangover” films.
Some of the stuff that people have attributed to the “Joker” look of cyan and orange or sodium vapor has been present in my work since “Dan in Real Life,” so it goes pretty far back, but the opportunity to do that in a big monster movie was amazing. In fact, they didn’t want me for “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” I had made some successful movies, obviously the “Hangover” series, but like an actor being typecast in a certain role, I had to sort of kick down the door to get into the room on that movie. Having directed a movie—and I definitely want to go back and direct some more—I really came back to shooting with this newfound passion for pushing myself into different genres and to go outside of my own comfort zone. “Godzilla” was a really important movie for me in that sense. Not only was I given the opportunity to make the movie, which is thanks to Mike Dougherty and Legendary, but I was also able to try new things, rather than just play it down the middle, and I took that into “Joker” as well.
Casting April Grace in that final scene of “Joker” felt like a nod to “Magnolia,” where she memorably cross-examined Tom Cruise. What was your process for lensing that very last shot with the white walls and bloody footprints? It has inspired a number of provocative interpretations.
The visual idea was to play a little bit with the sense of reality in that final shot. It’s very subtle, and it was actually a really hard thing to pull off. I wouldn’t say I necessarily pulled it off successfully when I watch the movie, though I like the shot, of course. We built the space so that there would be a window at the end of the hallway. As Arthur walks down this antiseptic, fluorescent lit hallway, the concept from the start was that we would ever so subtly—and it is pretty subtle—start dimming up what would almost be sort of a sunset. The hallway is baked in white to the point where it is nearly black and white, which lends an almost playful, weird, surreal quality to the shot. Arthur would walk into the setting sun, effectively, but the sun wouldn’t be a part of it at the beginning. It’s definitely something that was, from its inception, not meant to stand solely in a place of reality.
We had a 20k light at the end of the hallway to add that weird dimming element, and it was actually quite difficult to determine when and how much to dim it up. If you dimmed it too much, you lost the color, so we also tried versions without it. A big memory of that shot, for me, was trying to execute this kind of surreal idea photographically, in addition to, of course, this kind of playful, weird ending. It obviously has a macabre feel with Arthur’s red, blood-soaked feet and the way that he is being chased, almost in the style of Keystone Kops. When “The End” materializes, the credit is written in an old-fashioned, calligraphy font. That was all discussed very early on as a way to subvert the tone of the movie by mining a little sense of playfulness even within the darkest moments.
When I first saw the film at a packed preview screening, you could hear a pin drop in the theater because the audience was so unsettled—I felt, in a good way. Later on, I saw “Joker” in 70mm at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, and the audience was much more responsive. They even gave it an ovation at the end.
It’s interesting you say that. After I saw the film in an early cut and gave it some notes, I didn’t see it again until it was effectively final cut, and Todd had to screen it. He asked me if I wanted to come see it at Warners, and when I showed up, there were around 350 Warner Brothers worldwide distribution employees in attendance. So it was a full crowd at one of the biggest screenings in LA, and not having seen it that size since we shot it—and without the music we had temped in—I was blown away, to the point to where I turned to my wife and I asked, “Are you liking this?” Because it was so quiet—unlike the first time we saw “The Hangover” with a crowd, and I realized that the movie could be a really big hit. In every moment, you could feel it connecting with the audience. It was alive. With “Joker,” the audience reaction was so quiet because they were digesting something that is a little hard to understand, particularly early on when no one had seen it yet. Nobody had seen this movie before these 350 executives did.
So when my wife whispered back to me that she thought it was a freaking masterpiece, I was like, ‘Oh good, because I’m really liking it. I think this is pretty good.’ [laughs] Then it ends, and I think people are literally going to get up and give the film a standing ovation. And they do nothing. I thought, ‘Am I wrong?’ So we go out of the screening room and there are little cheeses and hors d’oeuvres laid out for all the executives. It took about fifteen or twenty minutes until we started hearing people sharing their reactions. The experience didn’t supply that thing you want as a filmmaker, which is that affirmation of, ‘Alright, you did it!’ Instead, they were just silent and it was very disconcerting. But what I realized was that this was how the movie impacted people when they saw it for the first time. I obviously went to a lot of screenings after that, and once audiences had seen the film multiple times, that’s when you started hearing people react to it because they knew what was coming and they were into the tone of it. There’s no longer a surprise as to what the tone of this movie is. When you see it for the first time, it’s truly like, ‘Woah, I didn’t expect that!’
Is it important to you, as a cinematographer, that the 70mm format is kept alive?
Yeah, I think it is important to keep movies alive. Here we are in this Covid craziness which marks what is probably the most fundamentally challenging moment for movies ever. As someone who was an economics major, I am obviously interested in this kind of stuff. Movies are generally recession-proof because they are cheap entertainment, and even when people are not doing well, they still want the escape of movies. So movie theaters have usually been the one stable component of our economy. Films are a huge economic indicator for our country because it is one of our biggest exports, and to just stop it in its tracks, both from a production standpoint but also from going into theaters, is something that we are all grappling with. But I think it will come back. I enjoy movies on TV. I certainly watch them that way, and I get the convenience of it, but movies were intended to be communal experiences. They aren’t books. Movies are best seen while sitting with other people who are enjoying this thing together, and I think that will never change.
To me, the financial success of “Joker” and Leigh Whannell’s “The Invisible Man” represent an exciting shift toward smaller scale, character-based blockbusters in which the most crucial special effect is the actor’s performance.
When I saw “The Invisible Man,” I was like, ‘How did no one ever think to do this before?’ Don’t make it about the Invisible Man—he’s invisible! Make it about this person who is now reacting to somebody who they can’t see. In previous films, we’ve spent so much time with the Invisible Man, and learned about his story of how he became invisible, and here, they flipped it. I thought that was just a brilliant method for reimagining a story that has been told a bunch of times, which I suppose is similar to “Joker” in that way.
I saw “The Invisible Man” twice in theaters as well, and it was wonderful to hear people audibly gasping in the audience, just as they did during “Joker.”
Horror movies and comedies were made for the theater. They were intended to be experienced with a group of people, and that will come back. The best thing that this crisis has shown—I mean, it’s obviously exposed tough things, too—is how flexible and adaptable we are as human beings. Just look at how quickly we all adapted to this whole Zoom thing. We just jumped in and were like, ‘Alright, let’s keep going. Keep moving forward. How would you like us to make this happen?’ And I think we will figure that out on the filmmaking front as well.