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Piers McGrail on Cinematography
23 Jun 2020 : Nathan Griffin
Cinematographer Piers McGrail.
With the IFTA Awards Viewing Season in full swing, we showcase Irish talent who are blazing a trail across our industry, working in front of and behind the camera.

Hosted in association with IFTA, this Q&A Series connects with Irish talent who represent a range of disciplines across our industry. 

We find out what they look out for in the projects they take on, what their approach is to filmmaking and on-set collaboration; what inspires them; what current trends and techniques they like, and dislike in the industry.

Irish Cinematographers have become highly respected both in Ireland and internationally for their rich and diverse catalogue of screen work. We spoke with two-time IFTA nominated Cinematographer Piers McGrail who just delivered a very prolific period, working on three of Ireland’s largest projects in 2019: Ordinary Love, Never Grow Old, and Calm With Horses. McGrail’s previous credits include Lorcan Finnegan and Garret Shanley’s debut feature film, Without Name (2016), Junita Wilson’s Tomato Red (2017), Gerard Barrett’s Glassland (2014), as well as the BBC miniseries, Little Women (2017).

IFTN: What attracted you to these projects? (Ordinary Love, Never Grow Old, and Calm With Horses)

“The starting point for me is always the script, and although all of these films are quite different they were very well written. Never Grow Old was a very easy sell for me, firstly because some of my favourite films are westerns - and it seems like such a rare opportunity to work on one these days. I had also worked with Ivan previously, and we seem to have a very similar taste in film, so I knew it would be an enjoyable project.

“I had never worked with Nick, director of Calm With Horses, but I did see a couple of his short films, which were really well made. And although crime drama seems perhaps a little over-represented here in Ireland, it was a very strong script - and ultimately more of a human story than a gangster film.

 “And then with Ordinary Love, again, a drama about a couple experiencing cancer is not an immediate draw - however, the script was really impressive. Totally unsentimental, very understated. I also watched Glenn and Lisa’s previous film Good Vibrations and it was clear that they were really talented. Another strong connection between all of these is how different they are - I shot these films in succession and it’s always nice to work on something completely different to the previous one.”

IFTN: What was your approach to making each of these films and where did you take inspiration from during the process?

 “Never Grow Old had been in development for several years before it finally went into production, so Ivan had a pretty clear idea of what it should feel like. We both felt quite strongly that it should have a very classical feel, and although we weren’t specifically referencing one film, we certainly took inspiration from films like Heaven’s Gate and Unforgiven. I love the pacing of those films, so slow and considered. We aimed to bring some of that atmosphere and approach into Never Grow Old. Our shooting style was very simple; we shot digitally on lovely old Panavision Anamorphic lenses. We rarely had camera movement and it was always motivated by character movement. We tried to keep the framing quite wide for the most part - I think the only big close up is the final shot of the film. We also kept the focal lengths to a minimum, and coverage was very simple. Myself and Ivan had a good feel for what is required for the edit, and in many cases, we would shoot a scene in one or two shots. At the same time, we were never overly specific about how we would shoot specific scenes ahead of time. There were a couple of scenes with special effects, which required some planning, but in general we would pick our shots based on the blocking.”

Calm with Horses was a little less precise in its approach. We knew we didn’t want it to be overly gritty and socially realist - the script was quite expressionistic at points and we wanted to reflect that visually. There were an awful lot of locations required, and a lot of our most useful work in pre-production came from the scouting process, along with designer Damien Creagh. Regardless of whether you’re looking at the right location, it’s a really useful time to start talking about the visuals and feeling out the kind of look that a director is imagining. This is particularly true in this case as I hadn’t worked with Nick previously. During production, we kept things very loose really. The cast brought a great energy to the set and it was good to be flexible and find it with them. In this case we didn’t really look at many references, but one film that we both really liked was The Place Beyond The Pines. It’s a great example of a film feeling both authentic and cinematic, and I think the photography is really well judged to achieve that.”

Ordinary Love was a relatively easy project to develop. On one hand, the script was so precise that there was never going to be too many ways to approach it, but I also very quickly found a shared perspective with Lisa and Glenn. It doesn’t have to happen that way, and often it doesn’t, but in this case, it made the whole process very straightforward. The honesty of the script demanded a very pared-back approach - I think it would have been easy to slip into something more melodramatic even through the photography, so I really tried to keep it simple. It was actually quite a challenge because there is a very narrow line between being understated and being uncinematic, and it took a great deal of careful location choices [Phil Crothers] and great production design [Nigel Pollack] to allow us to be quiet with the camerawork. Glenn and Lisa had a great confidence about the tone of the film, and one thing we were always conscious of was the tremendous importance in fleeting moments and details. We discussed a lot of films early on, and one that stands out was Three Colours: Blue, which I hadn’t seen. I also attempted to channel some of my favourite ‘quiet’ films, like Five Easy Pieces, or anything by Hal Ashby.”

IFTN: What is your general style of working with directors and creating a visual strategy?

“Usually the director will dictate what that looks like, and there are quite a variety of approaches that I kind of slot into. For my own part, I will have a fairly complete vision of how I see a film just based on the script, and I will often send the director an initial bunch of image references, just to tease out whether we are roughly on the same page. If I then get to meet the director it usually means that we are at least somewhat on the same page! And of course, we then get into a lot more detail and find plenty of places where we would differ. It’s interesting to tease out the differences and get a feel for what the director is really looking for. And during pre-production that can sometimes happen by simply talking through the script or it can happen by visiting locations.

“I take a lot of photographs during location scouts, and it’s a great way to start establishing potential frames. I’ll print out all the best shots and stick them up in the production office, and although people are usually too busy to look at them properly, I think they kind of start to give everyone a sense of what it might look like. And then, of course, it all just snowballs and you end up on set shooting scenes that you’ve discussed in great detail in a couple of hours [or less!]. And really it takes a few days or even a week to properly get into the rhythm of what you are shooting, and I don’t think that the ultimate visual approach is really discovered until that happens - dictated not only by myself and the directors but the cast and crew as well.”

IFTN: Tell me about your experience on set across these films, and what your favourite moment during production?

Never Grow Old was physically really gruelling. We shot it in Luxembourg and Galway, during the winter. In pre-production, we had discussed the idea of having a really filthy, muddy western - dank and gloomy, as opposed to the sunlit classics. We planned to achieve this with some weather effects, dirty costumes and makeup, but both our locations ended up having loads of real rain, and we ended up with really thick mud all over our set. It was such an issue that production had to provide everyone with wellies, and we had to be washed down with a power hose at the end of each day. Combined with bitterly cold weather it was just incredibly tough on everyone - the poor costume department was working overnight to keep the continuity correct. And for the camera and lighting department, it was a nightmare. Every time we wanted to move the dolly - which we used almost exclusively - we had to lay wooden boards on the ground.

“I have to say the crew was remarkable, and I was very lucky to have such excellent people on my team. Despite the conditions, they were extremely positive. The conditions aside, it was the most fun I have ever had during a production - I think myself and Ivan were just completely in our element. Production designer John Leslie and his team created the most remarkable sets, and it was one of those rare occasions where you could point the camera anywhere and you could find beautiful texture and palette. One of my favourite moments involved a shot in a church. We’d been looking out for good imagery for a dream sequence, and we also had a number of horses that day. Without expecting it to actually happen, I put forward the idea of putting a horse in the church and Ivan really liked it. It required a ramp to be built to get the horse in there, and I think any other production designer would have said no, but John humoured us, and the shot worked out really well. Usually, regardless of your experience on set, you are happy to reach the last day of filming, but with Never Grow Old I would have happily continued for another few weeks.”

“Calm With Horses was a real scramble of a shoot, with a lot of locations and not a huge amount of time. We were working in some really special locations over in the west, and it was great to have all the crew staying together in one place - that always seems to help the morale on set. We shot in early summer, and we were lucky to get some lovely weather, although typically this coincided with days where we were holed up inside a house or nightclub! We were driven by a really talented ensemble cast, and Nick was really good at adapting as we went, which is important when you have limited resources and time. I think we had the most fun in the last couple of days, in particular the day we shot the car chase. This was one of the sequences that was the most daunting, and very ambitious to shoot in a single day.

“We planned it out quite meticulously in pre-production, although I think originally we imagined shooting it over a couple of days. We knew that we wanted it to feel really energetic and genuinely fast, so we avoided anything too graceful and mounted the cameras directly onto the cars. We had a matching left-hand drive version of the hero car, with a dummy steering wheel, so we could get a shot of Cosmo pretending to drive, while a stuntman was driving beside him. That allowed us to film at high speeds and really helped with the energy I think. In order to monitor those scenes, myself and Nick had to follow close behind, so we were watching from a follow vehicle that was also being driven really quickly - I think for both of us it was a really fun release after such a hectic shoot. We managed to get even more coverage than we planned that day, which is quite unusual for something that technical. Again, we were blessed with a really talented crew.”

Ordinary Love was a really pleasant shoot. Usually, you have some tough days mixed in with the good, but I can’t think of a bad day on this shoot. I think maybe the subject matter of the film galvanised everybody into being positive. Sometimes it is easy to take things too seriously on a film set, and it’s not uncommon for emotions to run high, but in this case, it was always very respectful and straightforward. I think we were all guided by the calmness of Glenn and Lisa, who were always very studied and gentle. We also had a really lovely cast - Liam and Lesley were incredibly calm and often very funny, and it’s always interesting to me how that puts the whole crew at ease. We were lucky enough to access some real hospitals, and in some cases, we were filming real people at work, which was both interesting and humbling - apart from these direct links, almost everyone has some experience with cancer in their friends and families, so I think the sense of community on this film was untypically strong.

“We had no car chases or horses on this one, but I have to say that one of the great privileges of being a DoP is seeing incredible performances just a few feet away from you. I could pick many such scenes from the shoot, but one that stands out, in particular, is an argument between Liam and Lesley in their bedroom. It’s a powerful moment in the cinema, but it was quite something to see it in person.”

IFTN: What was your first paid role as a DoP, and how has your work evolved over the years?

“I had to look back over my invoices and I sent my first one just over ten years ago! At the time I was lucky enough to have a really good camera, and I think most of my work was because of that. It started with tiny commercial shoots. I had friends from college who were really proactive and started producing commercials quite quickly after college. That gave me a way to make a living out of it, which I think is often the biggest challenge when you’re starting out. I also seemed to segway into working with visual artists for a few years. Again, I think they probably heard that there was a cheap cinematographer with a good camera! But that work was actually really formative for me. It was often really disorganised and rarely planned, but the results were always effective. I think it gave me an appreciation for spontaneity, for finding something rather than assuming an approach. Along with a lot - a lot - of tiny budget music videos at the time, that work is still some of my favourite.

“I think there is an energy and originality to that style of shoot that is hard to replicate in the framework of a feature film, regardless of the scale or budget. I try to carry some of that into my work still. I think the one thing that has changed most is my taste in pacing and shot design. I have definitely started to retreat into a more simplistic approach. I don’t like feeling the camera work, and I’m happiest when I am telling the story invisibly. I have never been that technical, but I am even less so now.”

IFTN: What do you think of the current state of cinematography in independent and mainstream cinema? Are there trends you’re excited about or that you like/dislike?

“Directly following on from the previous question, I do think there is a lot more films now that look really beautiful, but don’t really tell a good story. In fact, it’s really unusual to see film these days that is not beautifully photographed - a little of that is down to the quality of the cameras, but I think it’s mainly because there are a lot of really good DPs out there. Sometimes it is suitable to have lush photography, but it doesn’t necessarily improve the film. It’s hard to imagine a film as visually original as, say, Festen being produced in the current environment, and perhaps that is also due to an expectation of what a film should look like from funders and distributors.”

“At the same time - and hopefully this isn’t a hypocritical point! -  I also think that there clearly isn’t enough investment in mid-budget cinema in general. Making a film look superficially beautiful is actually one of the cheapest things to do at the moment, but I miss set pieces, ensemble casts, careful production design, etc. - a lot more goes into creating great cinema than good lighting. The positive is that the filmmaking talent out there is so abundant at the moment, and I think - I think - we’re seeing a slight resurgence in independent filmmaking with the likes of A24 and NEON. I’d like to see more filmmakers being reclaimed from the world of TV and back making cinema.”

IFTN: What filmmaker or cinematographer has influenced you the most? 

“I have a few favourites that never really change, and I think they are probably on lots of people's list! I’m a bit old fashioned so I’m quite into Hitchcock, David Lean. I love some of the 70s Indies - I think I mentioned Bob Rafelson and Hal Ashby earlier. And Alan J Pakula - all his great collaborations with Gordon Willis. I don’t see films like those being made any more. And Kubrick, of course.

“And recently it has to be Paul Thomas Anderson - always brilliant. But mostly I keep returning to the 70s and early 80s. I rewatched a Sidney Lumet film called The Verdict recently. It’s so sparse and confident, pure story. Those are the kind of films that I love the most.”





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