An interview with Gone Girl cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth
“Why would you even want this? Yes, I loved you, and then all we did was resent each other and try to control each other and cause each other pain.” – Nick Dunne in Gone Girl
“That’s marriage.” – Amy Dunne
Even by David Fincher’s misanthropic standards, the jaundiced view of marriage in the director’s latest film Gone Girl is bleak. Based on the best-selling novel by Gillian Flynn, the twisting murder mystery centers on a couple (played by Rosamund Pike as the titular missing wife and Ben Affleck as her possibly homicidal husband) whose union is so festeringly rancorous that by the time the quote above is uttered it draws a laugh from audiences.
Fincher may be a misanthrope, but he hasn’t lost his sense of humor when it comes to human foibles. In Gone Girl, he swells the matrimonial acrimony until it reaches the absurd heights of pitch black comedy.
“That’s David’s sense of humor,” said Gone Girl cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth. “(He wants) laughs that, after you’ve made them, you have to ask yourself, ‘Was that appropriate for me to laugh at?'”
If anyone knows Fincher’s cinematic sense of humor, it’s Cronenweth. He’s been working with the director for more than 25 years, first as a camera assistant under the tutelage of his cinematographer father (legendary Blade Runner DP Jordan Cronenweth) during Fincher’s formative period of stylized music videos and commercials. Cronenweth graduated to operator and second-unit work on Se7en and The Game before assuming the role of cinematographer on Fight Club, The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – the latter two earning him Oscar nominations.
With Gone Girl out on home video this week, Cronenweth spoke to Deep Fried Movies about his latest Fincher collaboration. (Note: The nature of our cinematographer interviews mean that we often discuss the decision-making process behind key shots and scenes. So be forewarned – SPOILERS lie ahead).
What is the first set you remember being on and what do you recall about that experience?
The ones that I probably have the most lasting memories of would be either Tell Them Willie Boy is Here (1969) or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). My father was a camera operator for Conrad Hall on both of them. I remember going to the sets and meeting (Robert) Redford and (Paul) Newman – I didn’t know who they were but they were cowboys and that was cool. I remember trains that blew up and fat ladies that screamed and discovering what balsa wood was and breakaway candy glass that you could smash on people’s heads. My dad would bring some of those props home for my brother and I to play with. And also, on a more nostalgic, personal level, Conrad’s kids were there too – which was Kate, Conrad Jr. and Naia, all of whom ended up working in the industry and all of whom I’ve worked with off and on throughout the years. In fact, Conrad (Jr.) was my camera operator on Fight Club.
So you were exposed to the magic of movies at an early age. What were some of the films that were important to you growing up?
There was no VHS or anything like that in those days, but we had a 16mm projector and my dad would get the old classics (in front) of us as much as he could. We’d get (16mm prints) and be able to watch The Wizard of Oz and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. But I think more than the movies themselves that inspired me, it was getting to visit the sets. A lot of them were on location and there was adventure and new environments. It was exciting. I just knew that there was something in it. I didn’t know what it was yet, but I knew that I wanted to be part of it someday.
Do you remember the first camera you ever owned?
I had a Bolex Super 8 when I was in junior high school and we made five or six pretty bad movies. (laughs) Later I had various Nikons and then went to film school at USC and was able to graduate from Super 8 to 8mm then to 16mm and 35mm. But even before I got accepted to USC, I was working in the industry as a (camera) assistant. So I’d worked on a number of projects before film school and I had even started Buckaroo Banzai (1984) with my dad, though he and the studio didn’t finish the movie together.
Also, there was a really cool thing that we used to do. There was a lab in Hollywood called RGB and they had short ends of all the movie film that people would shoot and you could go load (the short ends) into your own 35mm still camera. Fifty feet of short ends could give you four or five rolls of 36 (exposures) each and then you’d go off and shoot and learn about color temperatures and exposure and contrast without actually having to take out a 35mm (motion picture camera) package and shoot something live action. Even on Blade Runner I shot a whole bunch of stuff just snooping around the sets and it’s the same stock my dad was shooting so it looks really good. I didn’t do anything, I just put the camera where his was. (laughs) That was a great learning experience. Unfortunately that’s gone, but then most of film is gone now too.
Gone Girl is the first feature shot entirely on the Epic Red Dragon. A few of the camera’s improvements over the Red Epic are additional dynamic range, 6K capability rather than 5K and new color science. How did each of those upgrades influence Gone Girl’s look?
It’s a great camera. The 6K added a larger buffer zone for us. We photographed everything in 6K 2:1, but for a 5K 2.40:1 (extraction) and then ultimately down-resing to 4K and 2K (for exhibition). So by virtue of having the extra frame boundaries around us (by shooting at 6K), it allows David to stabilize the majority of frames (in post), which was something in particular with this movie that seemed relevant because it was such a calculated story with calculated characters and we felt like every camera move had to have purpose.
On this particular movie we found ourselves in (practical) locations that had multiple (light) sources that were out of my control, but with this new color science we could mitigate some of those offsetting colors and then if you make some good choices you have this really beautiful palette that was perfect for what we wanted in this movie.
The extra latitude was also great, but it was offset a little bit because we used (the Dragon’s Optical) Low Pass Filter so you almost end up (with similar latitude as the Epic).
Were there specific shots in Gone Girl that you don’t think you could’ve achieved without the Dragon?
One of the harder scenes for me was the abandoned mall when the cops go looking for clues about Amy’s disappearance. That was actually a real vacant mall and you could see three different stories and you could see 300 feet in each direction. It was an enormous space and with the amount of time we had – and believe it or not there’s financial restraints – coming up with a way to make you feel this shadowy, underbelly world that existed down there but still get the scale of it was challenging. I was forced into making some interesting choices and part of that was using smaller light sources spread out over a greater distance so you really could appreciate the scale of this cavernous building. Looking back at how little light we used and how much depth we got, I don’t think that would be possible on any other camera.
Jeff walks us through a few shots from Gone Girl.
The Shot: In the film’s opening image, Amy turns and looks almost down the barrel of the lens at Affleck’s Nick Dunne (and, by extension, at the viewer). Gone Girl essentially has two unreliable narrators and our identification shifts between them throughout the film. Why start the movie with the audience seeing the world through Affleck’s point-of-view?
The notion was to be as much in his point of view as possible and to have her in the first shot be as innocent and angelic as we (could make her appear) because at this point you don’t know anything about her yet or the sociopath that lies beneath the surface. With the first lines (of Affleck’s voiceover), he lulls you into a sense of security and makes you think what he’s saying is going to be a compliment, but then it becomes something unsettling at best.
It’s a very striking bookend to the movie, especially once you’ve lived this two-and-a-half hours of their non-linear narcissist path to come back together. In truth, they’re probably perfect for each other.
The Shot: The couple’s backstory in Gone Girl is told through a series of flashbacks described in Amy’s diary. In this first flashback, Nick ushers Amy off the streets of Brooklyn and into an alley where sugar is being loaded off a truck. Several bags fall onto the ground, sending particles of sugar into the air as Nick and Amy have their first kiss amid the saccharin snowfall.
At this point you’ve already seen the beginnings of the dysfunction of their lives together, so you have to educate the audience about how they got there in the first place and this whimsical, charming moment shows you how they fell in love. It is one of those wonderful, very fanciful, not-necessarily real moment that happens in a movie.
Is all the sugar CG?
No, some of it was real. We couldn’t quite get it to be as animated as we wanted so there is enhanced sugar in there and also in that shot the Brooklyn Bridge in fact isn’t back there so that’s put in (in post).
One aspect of your work with Fincher that’s interesting is the unconventional way you use color temperature. Most films would bathe this type of scene in warm, amber light, but instead your key light comes from a green fluorescent work light.
If you go back two shots, they’re coming down a very busy New York street that is saturated with different signs and different tones with warm streetlights so it sets up a bit of a romantic version of Brooklyn. Then they round the corner into the back alley where the late night workers are downloading the sugar and this magical thing happens where they’ve dropped a couple bags – they seem really bad at their jobs (laughs) – and the sugar goes up. We could’ve been a little more idyllic about it and have that as a softer tungsten light, but there was something about it being the backside of (the Brooklyn) you just saw and this is his secret that it felt appropriate to have a different tonality. You still have warmth in the background with the practicals on the wall and the bridge has the tungsten lights going across it, but this just seemed right for them at this moment.
The Shot: A medium close-up of Nick as he discovers Amy is missing. He’s side lit to leave half his face in shadow. Nick is frequently lit this way, never allowing the audience to feel completely at ease with him.
Well, he’s not exactly innocent either. But also, he’s really a gentle giant. (Affleck) is 6’6” and his shoulders are huge and we needed to make his (character) vulnerable and we needed to make him somewhat sympathetic so that you do have some empathy for him in this struggle otherwise the movie doesn’t work. So it was always in the design to make the camera (angles) slightly lower to try to exaggerate things. We only used about three or four lens sizes throughout the entire movie. As opposed to doing an (extreme close-up) on a 100mm lens, which kind of takes you out of the world, we made choices like using a 40mm (with the camera closer to the actor) so you still see the character in their environment.
The Shot: Amy, now free from her old life, floats leisurely in the pool while scarfing down junk food. This is the point at which, to me, Gone Girl begins to get darkly funny.
Just her character at this point being so opposite of the put-together control freak that she is normally is hysterical. It’s not (inspired by) this at all, but this (frame) reminds me of a Wes Anderson moment where you have this very graphic, symmetrical shot of someone doing something completely out of character so it does make you laugh.
It’s a movie with super dark humor. It’s funny when you’re doing it and you’re in those moments, but when I actually got to see it with a group of people for the first time there were quite a few more laughs than I anticipated.
The Shot: Amy lures ex-boyfriend Desi into the bedroom in order to dispose of him. What follows is the most horrific scene in the film, yet in keeping with the use of contrarian color temperatures it’s illuminated in the warmest, most pleasant light in the film.
This was an experiment because the first two-thirds of this scene are to lull the audience into a sense of romance so we chose to light it almost like a fashion shoot – a single source built into the bed’s headboard which was the motivation for all of the light in the room and then we let the walls and everything else fall off.
It would’ve been really easy to backlight this and use those two practical (lamps) that are at the bottom of this frame as the source of light and then the scene would be all mystery. You’d understand what’s going on, but you wouldn’t really see it. But there was something more disturbing about being so upfront with (the violence). When she does actually cut him you’re so present and part of it and I think that was imperative because this is the point in the movie where you really understand how psychotic she is and to what depths she’s able to go.
Want more Fincher and Gone Girl? Check out our gallery of more than 100 set stills from Fincher’s career, take a look at our breakdown of Gone Girl’s special effects or continue onward for a collection of frame grabs from the film.
Though greens and blues are an important part of Gone Girl’s palette, the film’s dominate tone is yellow.
As Cronenweth discusses above, Affleck’s protagonist is frequently presented partially in shadow to accentuate his vulnerability while also maintaining an element of doubt as to his innocence.
Additional frame grabs, arranged from coolest tones to warmest.