Steven Spielberg’s The Post packs a powerful punch, and not just because of its stellar cast — Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Carrie Coon and Bradley Whitford.
The historic publication of classified Pentagon documents took place in 1971, but its clash between presidential suppression and the power of the press feels equally urgent today as we live through times when Trump constantly tries to undermining the freedom of the press guaranteed by the first amendment. At the heart of the story, is Katherine Graham (Streep) the publisher of The Washington Post who must deal a skeptical all-male board who doubt her ability and her decision to go to press by publishing the Pentagon Papers. She faces sexism and rises above it, as Kay evolves through the story with confidence to emerge victorious and vindicated.
Legendary Janusz Kaminski has now worked with Spielberg on over 15 films. As a cinematographer renowned for his expressionist lighting, he has captured the chaos of the beaches of Normandy, the momentous events of the Civil War, the horrors of Nazi Germany and dazzling visions of future dystopias. I caught up with Kaminski to talk about how he applied his philosophy of lighting to key scenes in The Post. Kaminski walks us through lighting the newsroom of the Washington Post to the homes of Graham, Bradlee, and McNamara as well as how he paid homage to The Parallax View.
Read my chat with the Oscar-winning cinematographer below:
During the discussion at the DGA screening, there was mention of the time-frame in which the film came together from the script to filming. What was that like for you as a cinematographer and working with Steven without having much time for pre-vis?
Steven only tends to storyboard on films where there are a lot of action driven scenes or effects driven scenes, normally we don’t storyboard stories as such. This is a non-effects driven movie. It was done fast from the script to rewrites. He was working really hard in terms of doing the rewrites with Josh Singer. Steven is such a hard worker and he always works. To me, he’s such a role model in many aspects but particularly with his work ethic. He comes to the set early. He works during lunch working on the movie, making edits. We are used to the fast pace and working instinctually and that’s the nature of our relationship. We both understand the story we’re making. We always agree on the movie we’re making and then we use our instinct based on years of experience to tell that story.
As far as The Post it was very clear that nearly half of the movie took place on the floor of the Washington Post newsroom. We knew the camera had to be fluid in order to travel from one place to another or watch actors acting through a narrow space. The lighting had to facilitate the needs of the camera. So, when we were doing this 360 scene with a reporter carrying a shoebox containing the Pentagon Papers and the camera is following him through the office floor, the lighting had to be designed in a way to facilitate the story.
I used overhead lighting and played with the color temperature of the light so it wasn’t too colorful. I wanted the whole Washington Post to have a pale light simply because the workers were overworked. They smoke, they drink coffee, and probably drink a lot of booze. Their lifestyle was very consuming. They were passionate about the work hence I was being very active with the camera when it came to that particular location. The skin was pasty and pale so the lighting had to reflect that.
Once we left the Washington Post floor, I could be more cinematic. I could play with the contrast, filtration, different lenses and color. The aim was to create a sense of reality outside of the office.
Kay Graham came from a privileged position — not just money, but also intellect. She had dinner with the Kennedys. She had to be lit almost in a statue-like way. She had nobility. The look with her hair being specific, her clothes, and her makeup was always great. She looked larger than life. As I was the person lighting her, I had to make her look as good and as elegant as possible.
With Ben Bradlee, he too spent vacations with the Kennedys, but he was much more part of that journalistic lifestyle. Kay was more periphery. Her office was separated from the working floor. There were more wood and more personal touches in her decor.
Ben wanted to be right there. His office was right next to the floor and he was the working man’s man to some degree. He had that desire to be with the guys. He needed to look handsome because my job is to make actors look as handsome as possible even if they’re crying and depressed because we’re making movies, not documentaries. There was less fuss with Tom’s character. As you know, I’ve worked with him so many times I know his face very well. I know what lighting works well with him.
You’ve talked about lighting the characters. Talk about lighting the houses and the contrast between Ben Bradlee’s house and Kay Graham’s house.
There are three different houses. There’s Kay’s home, Ben’s home, and McNamara’s home and they’re all very different in my opinion.
The light with Kay is more inviting and intimate when she’s home at night, entertaining. When she’s on the phone having that crucial conversation between Ben Bradlee and the others. She’s on the phone in this warm, elegant light.
With the scene when she’s just woken up and having a conversation with her daughter, it’s very symmetrical.Kay is on the left side and her daughter is on the right-hand side, and there’s a window dividing the frame with beautiful sunlight coming through. I put a little bit of smoke in there. To me, it was very cinematic, but it felt very morning like.
The doorbell rings and Tom Hanks arrives. Kay and Ben move to the living room and they’re having a very frank conversation. I didn’t want to continue the same approach as the scene that preceded with her daughter. There was much brighter light this time and I didn’t want to be emotional with the lighting because there’s a frank conversation happening.
That’s a basic philosophy of lighting. If you want to create mystery, you use shadows. If you want to be transparent you have fewer shadows.
Later in the film, there’s a scene with Kay and McNamara that occurs in the foyer, but they move into the sun room. It’s an interior room where people can enjoy the exterior lighting during the day and it’s very white and very pale, in an almost clinical way.
Kay is telling McNamara important information about publishing the papers and she’s saying it’s not going to portray him in a positive light. She’s informing him, not asking him. It needed to be clinical in the lighting, in the same way, a doctor tells a patient they have three months to live, and that’s my approach.
We go to Ben Bradlee’s house where we see him with his wife played by Sarah Paulson and she’s an amazing actress. Those scenes are more traditional and conventional. But when you have the workflow scenes where everyone is in the room deciphering the papers. The characters are moving across the floor. There are two cameras working that scene, I lit it through the window to facilitate the needs of that scene. Often we have to light it so we can see the actors performing rather than using metaphors.
Earlier, you said you’d worked with Tom Hanks before and you know how to light his face. What was it like working with framing Meryl Streep for the first time?
Fortunately, I’ve met her a few times prior to the movie, so I wasn’t intimidated. I was very respectful. She voices her opinion about this administration and she’s a role model and someone who inspires other women.
We developed this mutual respect for each other and facilitated each other’s needs. For me, it was fascinating to see her process and what she goes through. To see how she incorporates a table or a table and what she does to ground herself as the character. They all do it, but it was amazing to see. There might have been one or two occasions where a chair wasn’t placed the right way and she would say, “Well this chair has not been placed the way it should have been.” She’s using it as an element of storytelling, so it was fascinating to see techniques between her and Tom Hanks and all the other guys.
Talk about creating the ’70s look and what you shot on.
It’s not that hard to do the ’70s if you have amazing costumes and makeup and amazing sets. Everything in the frame was facilitating that period. It was easy for me. We have beautiful objects in front of us and it was easy to reflect that.
There was one scene where I paid homage to the movie The Parallax View by Alan J. Pakula. The film had a very specific feel, and there’s a scene in our movie when Ben Bagdikian is on the phone, he’s having a conversation on the phone, part of the city landscape talking on this pay phone, the camera is across the street shooting through architectural elements crossing the frame and then we zoom in to Ben Bagdikian and that was my homage to the ’70s with the zoom, with making the images slightly blue, it was slightly dirty, there was some wear and tear in the buildings. It looked very real. If you asked how I did it, that’s how I did it, by choosing locations that are not clean and pristine and felt gritty.
All the other stuff, I didn’t have to do as much as you’d think.
Was there a particular scene that posed a challenge?
Usually, it was the group scenes. Towards the end, when Kay says, “This is my newspaper.” That was a pivotal scene in the movie, but it was a big scene with the characters and there was no place to hide the light. That’s usually the hard scene for any cinematographer.
The Supreme Court scene was hard too. I’ve shot the Supreme Court in Steven films before and it’s the Supreme Court where you have red curtains. In this instance, we shot at Columbia University at the old library. We were fortunate where we could place big lights on the big viewing platform and ruminate the space with those lights. Knowing we were going to be shooting from all sides of the room, I placed lights according to the direction.
What I liked about that scene was how it came out contrasty and raw. I purposely introduced more shadows and contrast. It felt real without being beautified.
How has your relationship evolved with Steven over the years in terms of having aesthetic differences?
The beauty of relationships is we both see the story for what it is and we’re both making the same film. We have similar aesthetics. For me, it’s amazing to see how he morphs from a director from one movie to another. He’s always surprising me towards his approach to directing and how he works with actors, and how he blocks a scene. It’s easy to see him maneuver from the upcoming movie Ready Player One, a big extravaganza with motion capture to this very intimate and important movie with The Post. The relationship has not really evolved or changed where it’s become full of respect for each other. For the past 22 years, it’s been working really well.