In 1993, Steven Spielberg directed Schindler’s List, marking the first collaboration between Spielberg and Director of Photography Janusz Kaminski. Kaminski has worked on every Spielberg film since, and they both won Oscars for their work on Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. Kaminski’s shared filmography with Spielberg has also resulted in Oscar nominations for Amistad and War Horse. When not working with Spielberg, the Poland-native has brought his impeccable sense of lighting and camera movement to films as diverse as Jerry Maguire, Funny People, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the latter for which Kaminski also received an Oscar nomination. Spielberg and Kaminski’s latest collaboration, Lincoln, has surpassed all expectations at the box office and resulted in Kaminski receiving a Critics Choice nomination for Best Cinematography. In celebration, I recently enjoyed a conversation with Kaminski about his work on the film. Here’s what Kaminski shared with me about his process of working of Spielberg, meeting the challenges presented by Tony Kushner’s unique and excellent screenplay, and crafting Lincoln.
Jackson Truax: In 1994 you won your first Oscar for Schindler’s List. How did winning the Oscar change your life or career?
Janusz Kaminski: It changed my life and career in every aspect. I didn’t have to work at getting jobs. The jobs became more interesting. I had more chances to select better work. Nevertheless, I stuck with Steven. And I’ve done every single movie that he’s done. So it changed my life in the sense that I’ve made a really good partnership with Steven. And we’ve made some really good movies.
JT: When Spielberg sends you a script and says “This is my next movie,” what’s your first step? What are you doing or thinking, either during or after you read the script for the first time?
Kaminski: It depends on the story… With a movie like Saving Private Ryan, I did a little bit of research looking at documentary footage from the Second World War, looking at camera footage, [trying] to resurrect the reality of that period on the screen. In that case, the documentary footage was very interesting…the cameramen would take the images from far away with long lenses… What I learned really quickly was that in order to bring the audience as close to the battlefield as possible, I have to be there in the trenches with the actors. [The camera] has to be running along the explosions and seeing the movie deaths and fire and destruction right there firsthand… That would give me the sense of immediacy and would bring the audience closer to experiencing the reality of the war… With Amistad, I did a little bit of research in terms of what the environment of that period was and what the slaves experienced. What were the shackles like? What [was] the size of the prison cells? What was the light like? I do a little bit of research to try to create some kind of a sense of what’s in the movie. But you’re still making a movie. So you’re taking tremendous licenses as far as the direction of the light and the way you illuminate the scenes. I’m not using kindles and torches. I’m using movie lights. And I’m using kindles and torches to imply the direction of the light. But I’m not really lighting with that kind of stuff.
JT: After so many years and films together, you and Spielberg have a great shorthand. At that point, do you two have to do a lot of storyboards or shotlists, etc.? Or do you two know each other’s sensibilities and work well enough that the process is mostly instinctual?
Kaminski: It depends on the story. With Lincoln there were no storyboards. With War Horse there were no storyboards. But definitely with movies that require extensive action sequences or big CGI sequences… Going back to War of the Worlds or Indiana Jones, which was action almost non-stop, there were very extensive storyboards to let everyone know what the intention of the shot was. And we had to invent ways of getting those shots. We had to invent ways of creating angles to put the cameras on to catch up with the military trucks that Indiana was riding… With Jurassic Park: The Lost World, there was no technology at that point to put the camera and be able to move through the fields at the speed that we needed to move. So those movies get extensive storyboards… We use the storyboards as a blueprint. We’re not following them one-hundred percent. Steven always modifies the shots to get better shots… He’s in the process of doing…electronic storyboarding for [Robopocalypse].
JT: Each film you shoot feels very cinematic, and each film has its own rules and cinematic language. How did you find what the cinematic language and overall visual style of Lincoln would be?
Kaminski: Since the writing was so superb and the performance was so superb…we knew there were going to be long scenes with Lincoln delivering speeches and monologues and having deep conversations with his staff and with congressmen. We realized that the language was so important that we wanted the audience to focus on the language… Every time you move the camera, every time you put a cut, [you’re] to some degree taking away the audiences’ attention… We wanted to stay with as few cuts as possible. So right there, you have a certain style that had to be followed. Then again, since Lincoln was the most important character in the movie, the lighting had to focus the viewers’ attention on Lincoln. So consequently, he was…lit always the brightest. I always went to him without being distracted by color or other things in the frame… The camera moves… But the moves were very graceful and motivated by the action of the actors. Or motivated by the content of the scene. So we would start, maybe wider in Lincoln’s office with all his staff talking to him, and then the camera would gradually on the crane move closer and closer to his face and end up with his close-up. That was the style of the movie. We didn’t feel like we needed to entice the audience with quick camera movements and quick cuts… The subject matter was too important to do that.
JT: Since you and Steven didn’t want a lot of edits in the film, did you shoot a lot of coverage? Or was a lot of what you shot the master shots that are in the film?
Kaminski: We shot very little extra coverage. We shot the bits of things that I needed. But again, you’re listening to very long…three-and-a-half page dialogue scenes with Lincoln and [the] core actors. So frequently we would do an entire scene, and then come in and do another section of coverage. So we would cover an entire scene from beginning to end with different angles. But we only would use 2-3 angles to do that. Simply because Steven knows where he’s going to cut the film at which point.
JT: When you’re shooting, to what extent do you think at all about how everything is going to cut together in the editing room?
Kaminski: Any good DP wants to know the sequence of the edits… Steven, he’s extremely knowledgeable about all the aspects of filmmaking. But when you’re working other with directors who are more focused on performance and not necessarily how the scene will cut, you help the directors to get the coverage so the sequences will edit in a semi-prophetic way.
JT: Lincoln is essentially a movie that takes place in rooms. Some of them are very big rooms, and some have great significance. And some of the rooms are very intimate. And the people in those rooms are having a lot of conversations and debates. The idea of filming this movie of these people having conversations in rooms, was that a daunting challenge for you, or was it a natural fit for the way you like to shoot anyway?
Kaminski: It’s a natural fit… I like shooting intimate movies… I don’t like shooting on huge, blue and green stages… That’s just not for me. But I like working in controlled environments… You can shape the light the way it needs to be shaped. I like this movie. Just from a technical point of view it was a relatively easy movie to make, simply because we were in those interiors. We were almost filming a play. We had a chance to really refine the lighting and focus the performances and show the performances. Even as a crewmember, I was really able to appreciate the words and appreciate the acting and was moved by the screenplay. It’s not often that I get a chance to do that, simply because I’m so busy on the movie set that I listen to the words, and then I worry about the other things that are in the frame and the other scenes that are coming up. You’re always thinking a step ahead… On this movie, I really enjoyed being there.
JT: For a costume designer or a production designer, they would have to do a lot of research on a film like Lincoln. Did you do a lot of period research on Lincoln?
Kaminski: There were photos from that period, black and white photos. We tried to recreate those photos. For example, his inaugural speech was the recreation of an existing photo… Lincoln’s deathbed was the recreation of an existing photo as well… The colors [on-set] were extremely bright… I had to control the amount of information in the frame by reducing the amount of light hitting the walls. By using different color effects, like the bluish light to eliminate some of that color, because then it would start looking too fake… It’s a period movie. But the story is very relevant to what we as a nation are experiencing right now. So I wanted that relevance to be true for the graphic approach. Immediately I realized that having too much color in the frame would distract the audience and would make the film look artificial.
JT: Lincoln feels like it was shot with its own sense of reverence for the events it depicts, and a self-awareness of how important these events were. Was that intentional on your part?
Kaminski: Sure. It is a movie about Lincoln as we all know him. He’s an iconic figure. He changed the course of American history and world history. We wanted to glorify that guy. Not necessarily beatify him, but glorify him. And every shot that we made of Lincoln [did] something to do so. I had to glorify him in a good way or show him as a person who was not just a politician, who is also a human. Who’s also a father. Who’s also a husband… It’s two contrasting things: One is to glorify him. The second is to make him…personal to the audience… That’s where his charm came from, being able to relate to all kinds of people… But in the end, I always had in mind that we’re talking about someone who’s an iconic figure. And that I had to reflect that.
JT: Lincoln has exceeded expectations at the box office, and his become an awards magnate. What is it about the movie that you think audiences and the various awards bodies are all connecting with so passionately?
Kaminski: That proves to me…the nation is relatively intelligent. And that the nation wants to watch a movie that requires actual, intellectual participation, and listening to the words and not just being entertained… That’s really great. I think there’s enough of an adult audience who are starved for a movie of good content. And that has relevance to what we’re experiencing as a nation right now. We’re a divided nation… And the election was a very close call… It’s very optimistic for me that the movie is becoming a modest success with the audience. It’s a two-and-a-half hour long movie. It requires attention. Yet people are drawn to it because they love the story. They love the performance. They love the significance of this movie. It makes them proud to be Americans… It’s a movie that glorifies…what this nation is about.