Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, ASC, discusses his work on "Tale of Tales", a film by Matteo Garrone

Heroic Fantay

[English] [français]

Three exciting events have just happened concerning British (and francophone) cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, ASC, who attended the Cannes Film Festival to present Matteo Garrone’s new film Tale of Tales, to serve as a member of the jury of the Critics’ Week, and to teach a Master Class under the aegis of Sony available on the Internet on 21 May. David Cronenberg’s loyal partner discusses the creation of this fantasy film inspired by traditional Italian folk tales. (FR)
Peter Suschitzky en visite à l’AFC sur le Pavillon de la CST à Cannes
Photo François Reumont

How were you asked to work on Tale of Tales5 ?

Peter Suschitzky : Usually, the first contacts go through the producers and, of course, the agents. But for this film, Matteo Garrone contacted me directly on my mobile phone after Jeremy Thomas had spoken to him about me. I was driving my car and pulled over to the side of the road to speak with him.
I was already quite familiar with his work, and I had really enjoyed his two previous films, (The Embalmer and Gomorra), and since I also love folk tales, I was immediately delighted at the idea of working on this very ambitious film. He immediately invited me to come meet him in Rome, and I arrived at a production office where all of the shooting locations were already posted on the wall, with costume ideas and a few names of confirmed actors.
The only thing that scared me, was that his latest film, Reality, was almost entirely filmed from the shoulder with frequent pans to the left and to the right… it was a style that I had a lot of difficulty relating to as a cinematographer. That is why I said to him, “Matteo, if you really want to direct this movie in the same way as Reality, I’m not really the man for the job because I don’t think I will be able to create interesting lighting.”
He answered me by saying that every movie has its own style, and that he would adapt. But now that the film is finished, you can see that he didn’t really keep his word !

Yes, that’s true, the film is composed of a series of camera movements, like the long take in the opening scene…

PS : Tale of Tales was, without a doubt, the hardest film I have ever had to film. It was almost 100% shot using a Steadicam, and even in the parts of the film where that doesn’t show, the frame is always sort of suspended in mid-air. Mateo Garrone couldn’t help himself but to use this sort of floating camera on this film, and he doesn’t like to give directions or precise stage instructions to the actors. There were no marks on the ground, the camera literally followed the actors around in function of their motions and their inspiration.
That is quite the opposite of a normal way of directing a movie. I really like precision, and I need to know where the actors are going to be so that I can create interesting lighting and produce frames. This is a stimulating job, indeed, but one that is very difficult to manage !

The film is full of extremely interesting sets…

PS : We were almost always in real locations. For example, the canyon where the chase with the ogre takes place is a road that was hewn by hand by the Etruscans over 2,000 years ago ; the castles in Italy or even the set of the river with the extraordinary rocks that look like gigantic fish scales… The only exceptions were the grotto where the princess tries to escape from the giant bat, her flight from the ogre’s lair against a green backdrop, the house of the two sisters, and the underwater battle between the king and the monster of the depths were also filmed against a green backdrop.

Another thing that is surprising when one watches the film is the extreme care that was given to the actors’ eyes. For example, in the opening shot of the film, there is always a little sparkle in the queen’s eyes…

PS : As the years go by, I realize that I have rather neglected that part of the job, to which I plead guilty ! It’s true that one can absolutely allow oneself to leave the actors’ eyes unlit without using reflections, but on this movie, I decided that it would go well with the characters’ roles.
A little story regarding this topic : during the first evening of shooting, Salma Hayek came to see me and said with a big smile : “I have the reputation of being a very beautiful woman, and if that doesn’t show on the screen, everyone will know that it’s your fault !” Smiling, I answered her that after the movie was over, she could always sue me…
But I think that in the end, she was satisfied. Happily so, because given all of the excellent lawyers that must work for her husband, I wouldn’t have had a chance of winning the lawsuit !

A word regarding your choice of camera…

PS : I was very glad to be able to film this movie using an Arri Alexa because I find it a very easy camera to use on a feature-length film. Its design is inherited from 35mm cameras, unlike others, which seem to be descendants of the camcorder.
My only complaint is regarding the viewfinder, which doesn’t seem to me to be good enough to really be able to judge the light, as one was able to do when using a 35mm camera and one used to do through-the-lens focussing. Now, I am less “one” with the camera, since I have to go check my work on a monitor.
Regarding the lenses, I chose a Primo Panavision series from the 1980s, which perfectly match with the Alexa by giving a bit of a vintage feel to the image, unlike recent lenses whose results didn’t seem to fit with this film. No filters were used on Tale of Tales.

There is a highly-contrasted recurring set that plays an important role in the film, which is the tree at whose foot the spring flows…

PS : That set was a place where the contrast between what occurs under the tree and the background caused us some problems. Happily, that place was one of the ones that I was able to scout out well before beginning shooting, and so I had two 12K HMIs brought in as reinforcements along with an ambience created on the LED Mac Tech in order to regulate the contrast whilst keeping the image very soft…
In fact, more and more, I use LED spots, especially on this type of film where there are lots of natural sets that are sometimes difficult to access. With a simple Honda portable generator, you can power the lighting for a number of different ambiances and create sufficient levels of lighting outdoors in full daylight.

I also learned that you’re publishing a book of photos…

PS : This project is very dear to me and one that I have been working on for a number of years in my spare time between shootings. The photos aren’t from sets, but rather a selection of about 50 photos of nudes, in black and white, that I took in a little artist’s studio in my home in London.
To round off the work, I also added about 20 street photos I took during different times in my life. The book is called Naked Reflections and will be published by Schilt : it will be printed in 1,200 copies and can be purchased online from Amazon or from the publisher’s website directly.

What about your participation in the jury of the Critic’s Week ?

PS : This must be the fifth or sixth time that I’m serving as a member of a jury. And I must tell you that even though the films selected for a competition aren’t always good, I always enjoy discussing them with the other members of the jury, when we share our opinions, discover other cultures, and other ways of envisioning cinema.

What really makes a film good in your eyes ?

PS : Something that has been thought through. A film that tells a story using cinema’s means of narrating. Not simply a camera on the shoulder following the actors around whilst they improvise without taking editing into account… That is exactly what bores me most when I go to see a film : watching a film that looks more like a news report than a film.

(Interview conducted at Cannes by François Reumont for the AFC, and translated from French by Alex Raiffe)