Saturday 24 July 2010

LAWRENCE SHER - Director Of Photography Interview.

"If you can not have a back up plan, then I think you’ll just HAVE to make it, you’ll have to survive and find a way to make a living," mused cinematographer LAWRENCE SHER. It's an attitude which goes a long way to explaining his success. In the year when he shot 'KISSING JESSICA STEIN,' he made only $7,000. It was a risk, he took it.

Ten years later and his credits as a DOP include 'THE HANGOVER,' 'GARDEN STATE,' 'DAN IN REAL LIFE' and 'I LOVE YOU, MAN'. Not only that, he's just finished shooting the much anticipated 'PAUL' (Directed by Greg Mottola, starring Simon Pegg & Seth Rogen,) and 'DUE DATE' (Directed by Todd Phillips, starring Robert Downey Jr and Zach Galifianakis).

He's an expert at the subtle. It's what I call 'deceptive simplicity,' the type of thing that's been hard to find on the screen since the days of Billy Wilder, but it's a big part of what made 'GARDEN STATE' and 'THE HANGOVER' so special. Lawrence Sher has the unique talent and restraint to be able to use the camera in a way that brings out comedy, adds extra layers of emotion - and manages to make it look simple. What follows is an extensive interview, where I tried to find out more about how he shoots, who his influences are, and what advice he can give to upcoming cinematographers.

Are you shooting something at the moment?

I am, I’m shooting this movie called 'The Big Year.'

What’s that about?

It’s a really cool movie, it’s about bird watching. It’s based on a book from 1999 called 'The Big Year,' about this competitive bird watching contest that these birders do if they can afford it or if they have like the wherewithal to do it - which is they try to see the most species of birds in north America in one calendar year. It’s really really really difficult and in '99 these three guys all from different backgrounds went after it in the same year cause it was the year that had the right circumstances, and so it’s a movie based on that book, that kind of deals with these three guys and the competition to try and break this record.

How important is the script to you? Do you tend to do things that you relate to or that fascinate you or is that not important to you?

Yeah, it’s very important to me, for sure. You spend so much of your career, so much of your life in this business and for me particularly, just trying to get hired on any movie you spend these different plateaus of your career you know, you sort of spend-- I certainly spent a good ten years at least just trying to become employable then spent the next five or six years being employed and just trying to work up any sort of resume to allow myself to get opportunities to shoot bigger movies, but also better movies. In the last three or four years I have had the fortunate opportunity to be a little bit more selective, I’ve been able to sort of, you know, choose things based on script, who’s doing it and who you're working with and all that. Last year I did two movies that I had a great time on. I wasn’t burned out but I was like, maybe we’re going to take some time off.

But I actually had a lot of interest in bird-watching when I was a kid cause my Dad was super into it when my brothers and I were five, six, seven, eight years old. So, I had known about this book through him and so when it came up it was a great opportunity. David Frankel is directing it, the guy who did 'The Devil Wears Prada', and 'Marley & Me.' Owen Wilson plays the current record holder, and Steve Martin plays the other guy and there's Jack Black. So you take these three really great comedy actors that all star in their own movies and now they're all sort of sharing basically three separate stories in this movie, so it’s a cool cast, great director and a good subject matter, so it was a really nice opportunity.

You seem to do a lot of comedy. Is that something that you tend to go towards, or is that just the way it’s worked out?

I get offered a lot of comedies, and fortunately I like doing them and I like working on them. The one thing with comedies is that they're not always the greatest opportunity for cinematography, but it’s also the nature of where my career is at and there’s no question that you know, I’m sort of trying to branch out a bit but also I’ve had such opportunities of late to continue to work with people I really like, and the bottom line is, it’s hard to get any movies made these days, even in the studio system. They happen to always make comedy.

Looking back at your films, something that I’ve liked about your work is that there seems to be a kind of, almost like a deceptive simplicity to it, where you don’t draw attention to the camera. Do you think that’s something to do with your style or is that perhaps to do with the genre you’re working in?

I think it’s probably a combination of both. Even though I really respect and admire a lot of cameramen that are a bit more flashy - I think my personal aesthetic and my personal style of working comes more from real life things and then that style of simplicity also lends itself to the genre as well, and also to working quickly. It’s something I aesthetically like and whenever I start to feel I can see my hand in it, it always runs a little bit uneasy, but that’s not to say that style doesn’t have its place, it certainly does, it just happens not to necessarily form as much of my style.

I watched 'Kissing Jessica Stein' recently. I saw it years ago when it came out, and in my head I remembered it like a very typical New York rom-com kind of film. But Looking back at it now you definitely had a distinct style, where the camera moves a lot - what are your memories of shooting the film?

Well, a lot of it is also dictated by the actual nature of making the movie. That movie was a twenty day shoot in New York with very little money. But I do think that represents something that I continue to do even though it’s an early film with very, very little money, which is, it has some of the same aesthetics that I still fall through on, but also a fair amount of hand held. I mean I was a little bit influenced by Woody Allen and those kind of things too.

--I think that you can notice that, looking at the film it has a real immediacy to it - I guess it’s the handheld, there’s a lot of movement.

Yeah, I really like handheld. I was excited by Steven Soderbergh and a couple of other filmmakers that were able to sort of bring some of the independent philosophies into studio films, or whether it’s like Doug Liman and Soderbergh or those kind of guys that gave credence to putting handheld into big-budget studio movies. It’s funny, I went back and watched a little bit of 'The Hangover' on TV and I had forgotten how much of that movie was handheld. And I like to do handheld that’s quite quiet and doesn’t really draw attention to itself like, it’s not like a 'Husbands and wives' kind of thing.

But that was great as well, you look at 'Husbands and Wives' and 'Manhattan Murder mystery' (both Woody Allen film's, DOP: Carlo Di Palma), there was something really great about that energy and that kind of camera work.

I think it’s exciting when you can take that kind of energy that normally was associated only with independent films and bring it to bigger films. Now you see it all the time but at the same time it can be abused and treated in a way that’s very self-conscious and annoying. You can certainly find examples of that as well, but I certainly obviously do it quite a bit so I like it, you know.

Thinking about 'The Hangover,' when you were shooting, did you guys have a feeling it was going to be as successful as it was?

Not as successful as it turned out to be. We did think that we were making something that was pretty funny and we were feeling like, oh good! we’re actually doing well by the script and maybe we are elevating the script. It felt quite easy and loose and all the things you kind of wanted to feel. It wasn’t a very difficult film to make per-say, it had it’s challenges like every movie, but it had this kind of ease of working that felt good. I think it wasn’t until maybe the last couple of weeks that I thought this could be really good, but you still don’t think a movie with three guys that aren't really well known; you still don’t know exactly how it’s going to find its place into the market, you know.

It wasn’t until like, certainly Todd Phillips the Director had made a cut and the first time he screened it he realised the movie could be a wild success and I think I saw the next screening and I thought, Oh My God this movie might be massive because I’ve never seen an audience react like that before. Now mind you, that was even a cooler way for that audience to see it in a way that no audience would ever see it because, you know obviously once you market any movie but particularly a movie like 'The Hangover,' it's predicated on a bunch of surprises throughout the movie, but once it's out there - even if they don’t know the context they know all the surprises, and the audience that I saw it with had no idea of any surprises and literally, each surprise from the beginning to the end they really couldn’t even catch their breath. So when things like the tiger or the guy jumping out of the car or Mike Tyson or any of those things, the tooth, they don’t even see it coming. But obviously once people go and see any commercial they know that’s coming.
A film like 'The Hangover', being how successful it was, has that given you a new level of opportunity?

Absolutely, absolutely. Like everything, 'Kissing Jessica Stein' was the first movie to give me an opportunity simply because I think I did five movies before that or close to it, which isn’t a lot but the biggest thing was that nobody had ever heard of them. I mean, they were like these terrible little B movies, C movies, or D movies for that matter. But they were opportunities for me to learn and to sort of cut my teeth. At least Kissing Jessica Stein came out in theater's and was in Festivals and did fairly well. It was at least a title that people could go, even if they didn’t see it, they knew what it was, right? And then that allowed some opportunities and then 'Garden State' probably allowed the next set of opportunities. And then I did a studio movie, which wasn’t a very good movie, but it was certainly like...

Which movie was that?

'Dukes of Hazzard.' That was probably the next set of opportunities because it at least allowed me to be in the studio world and even though it wasn’t this blockbuster it still got out there was number one in the box office, so that provided some opportunities.

I do have one question about 'Dukes of Hazzard' - right near the beginning there’s a big fight scene and a lot is happening and there’s a lot of information that’s being given to the audience. I always wonder how you go about shooting things like that. Do you go for a lot of coverage so that the editor has got a lot to work with or does it tend to be put together more precisely?

Is that the bar fight?

Yes, that’s the bar fight right at the beginning.

Yes, definitely go for a bunch of coverage. That specific instance, a lot of that bar fight, unless I know that other films have done but I’ve never done it, but I, I’m trying to recall....

How many cameras would you be using for that kind of thing?

That was mostly two, I think everyone thought we had three but at a certain point, because of the nature of how that bar fight was shot, you can’t really sit three cameras into a lot of the shots because some were quite specific. In that instance an actual stunt co-ordinator developed what the sequence was going to be at the rehearsal. He’s a great stunt co-ordinator; this guy Dan Bradley who did the 'Bourne' movies, 'Spiderman' and 'Superman,' he’s now directing this movie ‘Red Dawn, the remake of ‘Red Dawn.’ His whole team is quite good and his second in command was the stunt co-ordinator for us and he basically got into the bar and he shot the whole scene on a video camera and we used that as a template to shoot the rest of it. So, something quite specific, like the bits of it were already laid out quite specifically and then it was a matter of attacking each piece, like the pool balls going across the table. We just followed through and executed it.

What do you enjoy shooting more, big action things or the little subtle moments with characters?

I think it’s really the whole bit. I like taking a script; looking at it, dissecting it, and figuring out those subtle things within the script, and to make the whole thing flow as one piece. Within every movie that’s the fun part. If the whole movie was just day after day of action I think that would be just as boring as if everyday was just two people sitting across from a table. I like that in every script there’s a little bit of it all, and every day has a different opportunity to use your experience an come up with new things within that. So, it’s a little of everything, you know.

The relationship between the Director and the Director of Photography is very interesting to me. In 'The Hangover,' two of my favourite shots are; one at the beginning when Bradley Cooper’s character is calling the bride to be from his cellphone, and there’s a second scene when the friends arrive at Stu’s house and call out, ‘paging Dr. Faggot.' What I find so funny is how you’ve got these out of focus character's in the background, the way it's staged is really funny, do you know what I mean?

I was just wondering if that is the Director’s vision or something you developed? Like for example when Bradley Cooper is making the phone call to the bride and you’ve got these guys out of focus in the background standing around awkwardly, It's hilarious. I’ve asked this in a complicated way, but do you know what I mean?

No, no, no, I totally get it. In that specific instance, I actually think that was written into the script. In a lot of things even if they're not written specifically into the script, the material will really drive so much. It becomes fairly self-evident. You look at the scene the way it’s written and it becomes pretty straight forward as far as what’s the best way to tell the story. If I recall I feel like it even says like, 'in the background you see three guys and you don’t really know what they’re doing'. I remember we shot it knowing that it was broken up into two parts but, for the first time you see the scene, you’re seeing Bradley in that profile shot and a real close up; you don’t know where he is. You see some guys back there but don't know what they're doing. Later we do the exact same shot, and cut to those guys in the background, and then you learn a new set of stories, which is them talking to Mike and all that stuff, so. In that specific instance that’s how Bradley was written. It was obvious that’s the frame you’d want out of that shot, you know.

And then when we scouted that little location for Stu’s house I think it was just in scouting, Todd said "oh I’d like it if like we had it such a way that we can have a window here and then in the background as he’s talking to his girlfriend those guys pull up." I like to think all the ideas are the Director's ideas ultimately, even though I’m given a fair amount of leeway, to place the camera and do all these things perhaps more so than some DPs. All’s being driven by the Director because, first of all a lot of them have written the script or lived with the script for a long time, but also in preparation I go through with the directors and just talk to them about what they imagine, even if they're not talking specifically about where the camera wants to be and all these things. We talk in general terms and from those conversations I feel like all the specifics and all the information I need from the Director and then when I’m able to place the camera or create the coverage for the scene ultimately it’s all, it’s all from the Director. With 'Garden State' we shot the storyboard, whole scenes, even though I do a lot of the shot listings and story-boarding it’s all based on a conversation I had with Zach for about six hours where we went through the script and it’s all very specifically Zach’s stuff and I feel like it’s very much Zach’s point of view. But I’m just executing it to some extent on a bigger scale.

Have you ever had difficulties with Directors, like the relationship between you and them? Cause obviously it can be a very tense relationship?

Yes, it could be terrible, you hear these stories. Fortunately I haven’t had any really bad, any things where I felt we were really off sync. There are Directors like Michael Mann or Spielberg, a whole handful of Directors where the cameraman basically just lights the movie and the Director's place the camera on every shot. There’s a lot of really successful Directors that work that way. Fortunately for me, or just by the nature of the movies and the Directors I work with I do have a fair amount of play as far as my opportunity to contribute as to where those things go. But even with that said, I really do genuinely believe they're all still very much the Director's movies.

How do you typically get involved in a project, how does a new project come to you?

In the beginning, I would hustle. I would do a lot of research on my own, trying to find movies that I thought I could do well with, that I could contribute to and not be competing against some huge cameraman. Now I get scripts sent to me by my agent and those scripts usually have a Director involved already, so I’ll take that into account, as well as read the script obviously and see if it feels like something I can connect to and something that I feel I could do good work on. If it’s even sent to me now, that usually means that they would like to meet with me. So then if I choose to meet on the film as well then the next step is having a sit down meeting with the Director and/or Producers and then I’ll prepare for those by going through and coming up with something; often looking at still photography or paintings or anything that I feel is appropriate. Something that feels like what the movie should feel and look like, I’ll bring those to the meeting and then we talk through the script and talk through ideas. I hear their ideas and you see if it jives and feels like something you want to do. Then you see if they pick you, like you were auditioning as an actor. It used to be that they’d send out my reel and then people would decide, 'Do we want to meet with Larry?' My agent would hustle a lot more as far as you know, having to push me on a lot of projects. Now I get sent a lot more and I have a little bit more opportunity in deciding on what feels right. Also now there are a handful of Directors I’ve worked with and thankfully they come back to me on their new projects.

When we were talking last year I was just doing another movie with the Director of 'The Hangover' that comes out in November. (When Larry and I first got in touch, he was busy shooting 'Due Date,' Directed by Todd Phillips and starring Robert Downey Jr)

Thinking about younger filmmakers and upcoming cinematographers who want to be doing your job.. obviously now with digital filmmaking; thousands of people are out there wanting to do what you do. What advice can you give?

The main advice I have for anybody is: I never had a back up plan, and I think that’s kind of the only advice I can give. I moved out to LA half-way through college. I got super into film and then because I always had an interest in stills photography I got really interested in camera work and I just decided I really want to do this for a living. I wanted to be a cinematographer. I had the benefit of knowing what specifically in the film industry I was interested in, which certainly helps and not everybody has that. Some people really need to figure out exactly what it is. I moved out to LA with no real contacts or anything, but I also didn’t have a plan to do anything else. I tried as best as I could to stay away from the Joe jobs. I still needed to make a living but I would do things still related to film as best as I could. That’s not to say I didn’t have one or two Joe jobs, but I read scripts that would allow me to earn a living and I obviously had the benefit that I could work as a camera assistant. But everything I did as a camera assistant, whenever I earned enough money to make rent I would go try and shoot stuff on my own. So I was really disciplined about not getting too stuck into working as an assistant. I was constantly trying to shoot. I think if you want to shoot then go shoot, that’s the best thing I could say, and find any way to make a living but continue to do it and everything you do will provide experience that will allow you to get jobs. It just takes time. The year that I made 'Kissing Jessica Stein' was one of the first years where I decided I would not do any more camera assisting even though that was basically how I was earning a living. What a miserable year, it was my only job all year and I think I made $7,000 on the whole movie. So, here I was, a 30 year old guy and I made $7,000 that year.

But it paid off!

Yeah it allowed for other opportunities, yeah exactly.

It’s almost like just by making the decision like you said; the decision to move to LA, the decision to say you’re not going to do any more camera assistant work, that’s the important thing there, right? Do you know what I mean? It’s making the brave decisions.

Yeah, and really cutting off the safety net. I’ve seen my friends go through the same thing to some extent. Everyone has their real responsibilities, like family and they have to earn a living; those are all real things I’m not dismissing them but as best as you can if you can not have a back up plan, then I think you’ll just HAVE to make it, you’ll have to survive and find a way to make a living you know.

Do you think that there is a character trait in successful people in the industry - that separates those who are working from those who aren’t, or is it luck?

No, I think partially, it's luck, there’s no question. Even with my own personal career; I look at these other cameramen and some of them don’t even have the opportunities that I have right now and these guys are amazing and frankly more talented than me. But I think the main character trait is the attitude, really; it’s attitude and enthusiasm. I still believe movies are a Director’s medium first and foremost. I hold the Director in great regard. They really have to carry this major load of all the decisions on a movie. So I feel that every job, whether you’re the costume designer, production designer, you name it-- every little department head or even the people working underneath each department head.. everything you can do to help the Director facilitate their vision; you’re going to be a valuable asset on the film.

Treat every film as if you are the Director, as if it was your film. I think that’s an important thing. If it’s as important to you as it is to them, then you’ll become a valuable asset. It helps you do your job better because you care more. I’ve really loved every film I’ve worked on because of the opportunities provided to learn and have these experiences. It’s not even like it’s faking it, I genuinely get so engrossed in every film I choose to do, that, they feel like my films. They feel like something that’s so important to me, that I want them to succeed. I want to do well by the Director and Producer and all those people. It's not even just bullshit, it’s genuine, and I think that ultimately if I’ve had any success it’s probably because of that.

Are you shooting today?

Yes, yes we started like 10.30am our time.

Lawrence is currently shooting 'THE BIG YEAR,' and 'DUE DATE' is due out in November.

Care to share?


  1. Nice interview! I love reading and hearing people's stories, how they started out and when & how they got a break, what it's like working with others in the industry. Always helps to keep my fire burning to be a working filmmaker!

  2. Great Interview!

  3. I have always wanted to be director of photography so I was looking around and found this and I got some great advice. Thanks!!!!

  4. lawrence sherman have great attitude and their work is mind blowing, without doubt your post is cooll,,,