Steven: And big crews also can be an obstacle. When you have a lot of lights, a lot of cables and a lot of crew, suddenly you're carrying this caravan of people and the conversation and the noise increases on the set and everything slows down. This doesn't mean that you can shoot big films with one camera and two lights and a crew of five, but you also have to recognize when you have these big crews they're not always efficient, though they are often necessary.
When you're doing a really big film, you really do need big crews and everyone has a function. But again, there is a sweet spot. Behind Enemy Lines was a big movie and you had only done relatively small films and commercials. Suddenly you're a DP on an enormous action film. Your first day on the set of a big film as a DP. Were you scared? What were you scared about? How did you overcome it? What happened?
Brendan: Well, your first day on a set isn't your first day on a film. You have been figuring things out during prep. Fear is a bad thing. So is panic. The same way fear can spread, panic can spread. Happiness can spread too, and encouragement can spread. So, I had decided that whatever I was feeling, I wasn’t going to show fear or panic and I was going to encourage the crew.
Your first shooting day is a big day; it’s the first time you put everything together. You want to get everyone to feel comfortable working with each other, so we decided to shoot something that required a lot of the crew, but was low pressure before the first day of major photography. I think it's useful to do something low pressure like make-up tests or wardrobe tests. On Behind Enemy Lines, we did a make-up test with Owen Wilson which is a bit funny. We weren’t sure why we were doing a make-up test on a male lead in an action film, but the chances are it was a test of me and John. Now understand, this was our first Hollywood movie.
We had decided we were never going to use a light on any exterior on the film. That was our plan. We arrived at Griffith Park to do this test and there was a 40-foot grip truck and a 40-foot electric truck and we hadn't asked for them. I looked at John and said “John we're not going to use any of this”. And we shot the thing and several times we were asked by the producer “Are you sure you don't want anything?” And the gaffer kept coming up and asking “Are you sure you don't need anything else?” And then one of the studio executives made a phone call and I didn't know what the conversation was about, but I don’t think he was happy.
The next day we went in to look at the tests on the Fox lot. After the first couple of frames the same studio executive got on the phone and said you've got to come down here and look at this stuff. They liked it. And that’s pretty much how we shot the film.
Steven: That's incredible. How did you get exposure?
Brendan: Well, if it was too dark we didn't. We stopped shooting. That's what it came down to.
Steven: Well, what if it was afternoon and the sun was directly overhead for example? Were you worried about shadows under the eyes or the audience not being able to see key details? Would you bounce light into the eyes or just let the eyes drop off, or would you have diffusion overhead?
Brendan: I can't remember exactly but I'm completely in favor of putting a butterfly overhead. I did a film with Sly Stallone called Escape Plan. We went to do a shot of him in an old-style phone booth. You could see through glass on three sides. He arrived on set and the first thing he asked me was “Where's the butterfly?” And I said we don't need it. He obviously wasn't used to this. But it worked. Sure, sometimes you want to see the eyes. But sometimes, the audience doesn’t need that. Sometimes it’s better if it is more natural.
Steven: Go back for a second. Weren’t you scared that the executive who made that phone call was going to get you fired? Those things happen. DP’s sometimes get fired. Were you at all frightened?
Brendan: No, I was blissfully ignorant. You can only be afraid if you know what to be afraid of. Why would they fire me? As far as we were concerned, this is how we were going to shoot the movie. We knew it could work. Shooting in Ireland we were used to bad weather, changing weather and making what we had work. And it would look good. People get used to doing complicated rigs. They should ask, does it really look better? And what is better? What is pretty? What is natural?
Steven: I understand, but lights and big overheads give you consistency. When I shot in Ireland I had lots of overhead diffusion and lots of lights. So that even as the weather changed the image could remain the same. I remember shooting on the beach with you in West Cork. Sun, cloud, rain, wind, sun and then dark. Even with all the rigging, the background kept changing. It was very hard. I understand the advantages of both approaches. The approach a DP decides to use can vary significantly but I think it needs to be appropriate to what you are shooting. For example, when you’re shooting a big TV series like West World, which you shot, matching exterior light is usually more of a requirement.