1 May 2012

What Am I Doing Here? Sean Bobbitt, Cinematographer

I am curious about where individuals derive their personal set of mores.  How they set their compass to live a good life, a purposeful life.  And how they reconcile their own existence upon this earth.

It’s been my observation that many people change tack throughout their lives – either throwing out wholesale the beliefs of their parents to adopt new ones, or none at all.   Some seize on science to embolden an atheistic approach.  Others seek New Age philosophers. Yet others reaffirm the faith of their forebears.

In this first of an occasional series What Am I Doing Here?, the award-winning cinematographer Sean Bobbitt talks about the ethics that have informed and shaped his life.

Sean Bobbitt

Born in Texas, but educated in both England and the USA, Sean Bobbitt is the cinematographer who filmed the raw and uncompromising Steve McQueen films Hunger - about the Northern Irish hunger-striker, Bobby Sands - and Shame, a depiction of sex addiction.  Other films, for example Wonderland, The Killer Inside Me, United 93 as well a long list of TV credits which include Nicholas NicklebySense and Sensibility, Unforgiven and episodes of Spooks and The Canterbury Tales have displayed his considerable skills in different genres. 

Films he has worked on that are due to come out within the year are: The Place Beyond the Pines, (directed by Derek Cianfrance and starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper and Eva Mendes), Hysteria (directed by Tanya Wexler and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Felicity Jones, Jonathyn Pryce, Hugh Dancy and Rupert Everett) and Byzantium (directed by Neil Jordan and starring  Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan  and Sam Riley).

Nominated this year for a BAFTA award for Crack House, he has also won a BIFA for Hunger, a BIFA nomination for Shame, BAFTA nomination for The Long Firm, RTS award for The Canterbury Tales (The Man of Law’s Tale) and RTS Yorkshire nomination for Unforgiven.

But cinematography is, in fact, the second part of a career which saw him first as a news and documentary cameraman, a role which took him to the most conflicted spots of the globe.

Sean, in the first part of your professional life, you were a news cameraman.  Were there any events that were real epiphanies for you?

It’s been more of a gradual process.  Yet, coming out of Beirut in 1982, after the invasion of Lebanon and the siege of Beirut, in which probably 40,000 innocent people were killed, I was enraged.

I can remember having a discussion late one night with my father and being very angry at him for not letting me know that things like that happened in this world.  To which he replied: “Why would I destroy your childhood by telling you the world can be a really horrible place?”  He’d spent all his time making money to try and protect us from such things, even though as children moving around in the Middle East and Africa, we’d witnessed poverty and violence.  The anger was completely unfairly focused on my father at that point, because I had always looked up to him as being the power that explained.

Lebanon was the first of many, many civil wars that I covered that, ostensibly, have religious justifications to them.  But were actually just families against families, or individuals against individuals, plying for the wealth of that nation.  But religion was the rallying point for both sides.

Did you yourself grow up with a religion?

My brothers and I were brought up, baptised and confirmed as Roman Catholics, but at around the age of fourteen or fifteen we were given the choice whether to carry on.

And what was your choice?

Not to.  I had done a lot of reading - psychology, sociology, but also looking at the history of the world and the number of conflicts and deaths that had occurred through  religious ideology.  The whole spiritual element seemed to me to have been subverted by political control. 

Would you say it was the symbolism of the Catholic rituals that you were rebelling against?

It wasn’t a rebellion. I was also reading a lot of Lenin and Marx, religion is the opium of the people, and to me at the time there was a lot of sense in that.  But I didn’t feel that people who did believe were in some way beneath me.  I could see, looking back historically, the need that mankind has to put faith in something and, to me, religion is simply one of the methods by which, as a gregarious community, we come together. And we need to come together.  It’s a primal instinct we have.

And so at that point, how would you say you met that need in yourself?  What did you then put your faith into?

I don’t think I put my faith into anything as such.  I think also as a by-product of the fact that we moved around a lot of different countries, I’ve always seen myself as a bit outside and looking in to different cultures and societies.  I haven’t felt the need to become part of a larger group for any specific reason.  If there were a religion that I would be attracted to, it would be more towards Buddhism, where the emphasis is put on the self.   I don’t feel any great need for there being an overall set of rules that I need to conform to in order to have a perfect life.

But rules do allow civilised behaviour to occur.

Absolutely.  But rules can also subvert.  Some of the most uncivilised behaviour history has ever seen has been based around one group of people disagreeing with another group of people’s rules.  And so, from a historical perspective and specifically a modern historical perspective, and having witnessed a lot of conflict, the conclusion that I’ve always drawn is that politics and religion are both inherently, I was going to say inherently evil.  But that might be a bit extreme.

Inherently divisive, perhaps?

Inherently divisive, and open to an incredible abuse of people’s ideology.  There is a lot of validity in the Ten Commandments, and having been taught them as a child, it does tend to be the basic tenet of your morality.  It’s the one thing that from an early age you are brought up to understand and believe, and it sets a baseline.  But that would have come from my mother, who was a Roman Catholic.  My father is a very practical classic American self-made man.  So his morality is much simpler.  And was something that was imbued in us from an early age.

How would you characterise his  morality?

It’s one mainly of respect. That you respect your elders, that you respect others. That you would treat them as you would want them to treat you.

Did that rage that you later expressed to him, after your experience in Lebanon, manifest itself in any way? Did it lead to a hardened resolve?

When you are working as a journalist, you try not to take sides. And that has always been something of interest to me – that there is always another side.  It’s trying to find the other side and find what the truth is. I’ve never come across it, but in the end you find layers of truth that you’re able to believe in.  Until they’re torn asunder by another revelation.

There was one other thing that happened that was specifically in relation to my own animosity towards the Roman Catholic Church, which has grown over time. I was filming a documentary in the Vatican, funded by a Polish group who were in the process of trying to beatify a Polish nun.  It was at the time of the Polish pope, John Paul II.  They had raised two million dollars to make the documentary as part of the beatification process.  They’d brought in a public relations company and hired a big-time director and screenwriter.  That in and of itself I found really disconcerting.

We were taking the equipment down into the catacombs of the Vatican where there is a small chapel to this nun.   As we passed through a long hallway of very high vaulted doors, all of which were sealed down either
side, I asked one of the Swiss Guard: “What’s behind those?”  And he said: “Every time a Pope dies, all his personal belongings are taken and they are sealed away forever.”  And I said: “What do you mean?   His clothes?”  And he said: “Everything.  Everything he was ever given - works of art, books, anything.”  

So, anything that had been given to the Pope was sealed behind these doors and rotting away forever.

What struck me was that those gifts were bought off the back of poor peasants in primarily third world countries, and particularly in Central and South America where huge Roman Catholic populations were giving their money to the Church on a regular basis.  They always seemed to be getting very little back, except for a promise that they might not go to hell when they die. And this wealth is being left to rot when these people are starving?  For a religion that’s supposed to look after its believers, how can you justify that? 

Nevertheless, the great palliative of any religion is the bandage over the difficult question about death.  Have you been close to it yourself, has death ever been staring you right in the face?

Many times.  At the precise moment, I simply never accepted the possibility that it was going to happen. 

Can you give an example?

Being pulled out of a car at gunpoint and being put up against the wall.  The soldiers were about to execute me.  This was in Beirut in 82, and they had my soundman against the wall as well. The guy who had the gun to my head was actually trying to build up enough anger to pull the trigger.  Luckily, one of the other chaps saw my ring, which is John in Arabic. And he looked at me and said: “John”.  And I said: “Yes, that’s my name.  And this is my friend Nick.”   Now, Nick in Arabic means fuck

Once we both had names, and once they laughed, they couldn’t kill us.  And from that point on we became great mates.  And every time we stopped at that checkpoint we would have to have tea and a chat. 

But at the time I remember thinking I’m not going to die like this.  He’s not going to pull the trigger.  I’m not going to let him pull the trigger.

On another occasion, a year later, we had arrived in Tripoli, in northern Lebanon.  The Israelis had bombed a training camp on a small island and killed a lot of what were called at the time Tawheed, which were a precursor to Al-Qaeda -  very fundamentalist, religious Sunnis.  We arrived at the port just as they were bringing the bodies in.  We were the only westerners in probably 200 square miles – me, my soundman and our Lebanese driver.  We got out of the car and quickly realised that things were really bad, and so got back in to drive away.  But the brother of one of those killed also got into the car, in the seat behind me. 

He grabbed my head and put a knife to my throat.  He was whispering verses of the Koran and was going to slit my throat.  I had a knife in my boot and had my hand on the knife.  All I could think of at the time was: as soon as I feel the bite I’m going to stab him in the eye.  He’ll probably kill me but I’ll kill him too.  That’s all there was. There was no oh God I’m going to die.  It was very practical. 

And he noticed my earring.  And he noticed my soundman had an earring.  And he said to my driver, who was in tears because he knew we were going to die: “Are these guys gay?”

The driver - and he says he has no idea why - answered: “Yes they are, and they fuck like snakes all the time.”  And the guy laughed.   As soon as he laughed, he simply couldn’t do it. 

You’d never think the situation would be defused in such a way.

Well, it’s always been laughter.  Newtownards in Northern Ireland.   Ian Paisley marched his Third Force around the square in their paramilitary uniforms.  There were three camera crews.  I was in one of them with a Canadian correspondent, Clark Todd.  The security forces had completely disappeared, it was just Ian Paisley and his lads.  Paisley had given us an interview, the other crews had already left.  He came over to us and said: “I think you should go now.”  But as we turned to go, everyone linked arms around us and wouldn’t let us out.  He came back and he shouted: “I told you to go! Now go!”  At that, the crowd turned on us and started beating the shit out of us.


I don’t know.  It was just a place of hatred.

But you’d been giving them the benefit of the doubt, had been filming them.

Absolutely.  But that sort of crowd hysteria has no logic.  You know, he was a demagogue.  His power and control, again on a religious basis, was terrifying.  I remember hearing Clark begin telling one-line jokes and thinking, my God, Clark’s gone crazy.  There was a lady standing on the periphery shouting: “Kill the taig bastards!”  I was holding the camera and being pummelled and kicked, and was trying to stay up because I knew if I fell down, that would be it. 

And one of the guys laughed at one of Clark’s jokes. 

That’s all it took.  Everything was defused, except for the lady who was still yelling: “Kill the taig bastards!”  And the guy who laughed turned round and smacked her and said:  “Oh shut up, bitch,” and it was over.  Just like that.

Those were the moments.  Isn’t it usually the aftermath, when quietly, somewhere else, these things come back?

There’s a physical manifestation because the terror comes afterward.  While it’s happening there’s no time to be afraid. 

And you’re probably completely in the present moment.

In ways that you will never be again.  And that’s the horror.  You become addicted to finding those moments of heightened existence.  Afterwards, it’s anger.  Total anger.  I can remember after the incident at Tripoli, going back to the hotel room and pulling out my knife and ripping up the hotel room.  Just slashing it to pieces as a way of getting it out of my system.  But at no time in any of those incidents did I think of God, or salvation, or the afterlife. 

You know, for years I have blocked the memory of filming the aftermath of the Sabra and Shatila Massacre.  It wasn’t until a couple of years ago when I was talking to my sound man of the time that he confimed, yes, we were at Sabra and Shatila. I’ve subsequently seen the images that we filmed but can’t remember filming them at all.  And thank God.  Because the sheer horror of piles of dead mutilated bodies - men, women and children - is something you don’t want to be carrying with you as a recurring image.  And a lot of my friends do, and have severe psychological difficulty because of it.  To the point where three of them committed suicide because they simply couldn’t live with these things any more. 

When you see things like that, it’s very difficult to believe in any God, to believe that  religion is of any value because within the context of the Middle East you have recurring massacres that are based on religious ideologies.  What’s the point?  Why do you believe, when all it’s going to do is kill you and your family and all your friends?

So what does it leave you with, then?  You talked about anger, but in a way you have the means of redress if you are recording events.

Redress comes in many ways.  Most of these people get what they deserve in the end.  A lot of the Lebanese warlords who we spent time with all died horribly, and their families as well.  You live in that world, and you die in that world.

But I always said I would stop doing that aspect of the job when I stopped crying.  I found myself not crying any more at the sight of it, and quit.  That’s when I moved out and moved more into the documentary world.  You still have your own personal humanity which you have to protect. 

I’ve seen enough of death.  I know what it looks like.  I know what it smells like.  I know physically what it is and that’s really unpleasant.  I’ve no idea if there’s anything afterwards.  If there is, then that’s a great bonus, if there isn’t, we won’t know, so why worry?  And to swing it back to religion, it is that manipulation of that unknown which I find really reprehensible and it’s done in every one of the religions.  You look at so many religions where, within Christianity you have the concept of Heaven and Hell, the same in Islam, the same in Judaism.  In all of them you have this reward system for your life on earth and how prepared you are will allow you some great peace upon your death.  And that just seems bizarrely unlikely to me.

So you changed the nature of your work, to do documentaries and eventually moved into film-making.  A journalist, you said, is seeking truth, but only ever uncovering layers of truth.  Would you say you were moving into a world where you had, paradoxically, more opportunity to uncover truth?

The world of documentaries is the same as news, it’s just a much longer form. So you had more time to explore a subject and look at it closely.  To visually craft elements of the storytelling is what interested me.  It was that artistic part as well as the intellectual part of being able to delve more deeply, and then use that information to inform the visual elements. 

Now the ultimate embodiment of that is fiction, where you’re not confined to the realities of a location or situation and you are responding to a story, specifically an emotional element within the story and using that to inform the visuals.  You’re moving further into abstraction, into artistry, and also into a very complex technical world.  As opposed to simply responding to everything around you, which is what you are doing in news and documentaries, you are actually creating.  I was sick and tired of responding.  And wanted the challenge of creation. 

And it’s a different way of creating truth.

Absolutely.  And what’s been interesting is that some of the film directors I’ve worked with are driven and inspired by this quest for truth, which, by the simple introduction of a script and actors and a camera, is impossible.  Because there is no possible truth you can actually create.  It’s all a façade.  It’s entertainment.  Though you can have small victories, and the victories become very important.

In the film Hunger, there are moments that perhaps illustrate what you’re saying.  I’m thinking of scenes done in real time, the man sweeping the corridor of the prison, the extended conversation between the priest and Bobby Sands that lasted for about…

…sixteen and half minutes.

That could be a way of depicting truth, of suggesting to viewers that they are not being manipulated.

And Steve McQueen, who is first and foremost an artist, is always striving to - I don’t think I’ve heard him use the word truth – he’s always looking for the heart, or the core.

His films, Hunger and Shame, are interestingly unembellished in that Hunger doesn’t contain a lot of back story, the story takes place almost entirely in the prison, and in Shame we’re following Brandon through his sex addiction and not really getting what is possibly a crucial back story with his sister.  We’re left to fill in the blanks.

Well it’s contained within a real time, or it’s relative, inasmuch as there can be real time. What interests me in that sort of film-making is that it’s up to the audience to make the effort to figure it out for themselves as opposed to sitting back and having it wash over them and entertain them.  I think that’s what creates an emotional response in an audience.  There’s no judgement placed upon the way in which the camera watches things.  So the end result is, by its very nature, that you can’t know it all and hopefully, that’s what people remember. 

There’ll be an element of that they might dislike intensely.  I’ve met people who have hated both Hunger and Shame, and as far as I am concerned?  Fantastic.  It has elicited an emotional response.  There’s no point in making a film that leaves the viewer indifferent. 

You’ve had opportunities to work on films which are at the cutting edge of bringing difficult themes to people.  Hunger is an uncomfortable film to watch for many different reasons.  Films like that are not frivolous.  Aren’t they picking away at truths, as much as documentaries might be?

For me, that might be the definition of a good film, one that challenges the viewer.  It doesn’t have to be in a negative way, but one that makes you think.  That doesn’t mean that it has to be unpleasant.  There are great films that have themes in them that are positive.  Slum Dog Millionaire in some ways could be considered trivial – but in other ways gives so many people hope, that there is an aspirational aspect.  People felt good at the end of the film.  That’s not a bad thing.

Have you found -  in the way that when you were filming in Lebanon and the scenes you saw enraged you - that you have had to put parts of your conscience temporarily on hold? Like when you’re filming violent scenes, or sex scenes, where in any other context you would be considered a voyeur?

It’s professionalism, pure and simply.  You fall back on it being a technical process.  Which is what a lot of film-making is.  You’re not engaged emotionally in the elements so it simply becomes a part of a process.

Have you had any kinds of epiphanies of experience when you’ve been filming drama?

No, because it’s not real.  No one’s dying.  Anger comes through being witness to things that are unfair, where innocent people are dying because of something they have no belief in, have no interest in, but are simply sucked into - a maelstrom that is imposed upon them, usually by groups of old men.

No one’s being shot at, no one’s going to be maimed, no one's going to be hurt. This is not going to change anyone’s life for the worse.  It is simply a performance. 

Performances can carry responsibilities, though.

Absolutely.  Ultimately the responsibility is, how great is it?  It’s simply flickering images put up on a screen.  You can read more into it if you wish, but ultimately that’s all it is.  It’s a chimera.  It’s a technical trick.  The truths, if there are any truths, are what we project on to it, although there are exceptions. 

For example, in Hunger, when Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands is pulled out of the cell, beaten, humiliated, and goes through the ritual, it was very strong stuff.  But it had been meticulously researched with not just prisoners but guards who had been there at the time. The filming of it was very distressing because it was real, and after the third take, Steve McQueen burst into tears and said: “Stop it, we’ll not do that again,” because one of the stuntmen, who was ex Special Boat Services and not a romantic character at all, was completely shaken. He said during the scene he had become possessed by something.  So yes, there are moments of heightened reality, but usually film-making is actually quite mundane, and very technical.

I imagine that when Michael Fassbender got so thin in order to portray the progress of the hunger strike, it would’ve been painful to see.

It was.  We treated him with immense respect.  He had lost that weight through sheer willpower, and when he wasn’t on set, he was lying down, and so before he came on set, we made sure everything was quiet, everyone was very calm.  And also, psychologically, he was in a very odd place, because his body was  beginning to break down.  He was being monitored by doctors the whole time, and was being told that he had to stop.  But he was happy to go further.  He had quite a religious experience. He said it was really a life-changing thing for him to go through.

There must be moments like that that are affecting to everyone on the crew.

But again, inasmuch as they happen, they’re real, but they’re contrived because they wouldn’t happen but for the fact we’re making a film, so it’s an odd twisted world and you constantly have to remind yourself: this isn’t real, this is entertainment. 

I was wondering if you have ever seen the themes of your own life being played out in drama.

I don’t think so.  Again I don’t see drama as being of great personal validity.  It would be more to do with books than with cinema, and more to do with theatre, even.  A book, because you create that world in your own mind and get completely lost in it, and theatre, because it’s kind of real people doing real things.  It’s the live performance. In cinema and television, I know that the actor has done that scene six times, seven times, and that they’ve taken the best performance.  It’s very difficult for me to completely suspend my disbelief. 

And editing is also incredibly manipulative.  It is how we tell stories visually. Hunger is such an unusual structure and the power of Shame is in the way in which it is edited, and the restraint shown by the editor in not cutting the whole time.  Which is the standard form.

And which seems to be particularly Anglo-American.  European cinema does not seem to edit in the same way.

No.  There’s a film that I shot last year, The Place Beyond the Pines, - American film, American money, American director, Derek Cianfrance – but a very un-American aesthetic.  Derek is such an unusual character and his influences are Eastern European, as opposed to western European, although he has absorbed things from all over the place.  He is a hunter for truth and is unique in that regard.  It is quite brutal as well, because you don’t move on until something is there, and it can take a long time for something to appear and so the actors are put through the ringer, along with everyone else.  But hopefully, there will be elements of the performance that will ring true. 

Is that film going to be out soon?

They were hoping to get the film ready for the Cannes Film Festival, but I’m not sure.

Hysteria is another of your films that will be out imminently.  Is that the one about vibrators?

Yes.  A true story. A funny story. It is what it is. It doesn’t set out to be anything but a romantic comedy.  And it was good script, a clever script, because it takes a potentially embarrassing taboo subject and makes it amusing without being smutty at all.  There are no great insights to be seen into the history of Victorian psychoanalysis, which is basically what the story is from.  It pokes fun at what we know now to be the truly surreal beliefs of the Victorians. 

Then there’s Byzantium, which is a vampire film, a very different film with a very tender love story in it, two love stories – between a mother and a daughter and between a young woman and young man, but cased in this truly contemporary world.

How do you enjoy working in all these different genres?

That’s the beauty of the job – the sheer variety.  Each film is unique.  One thing that I’ve always strived for is not to be categorised as only doing one type of film.  The first feature film I did was called Wonderland which was hand-held, using available light, very much in the early  French New Wave ideology, but with elements of the Dogme Movement as well.  For years, all people wanted was for me to redo that film.  And I refused.  And the next thing I did was a period drama, Nicholas Nickleby, because I was always insistent that I’m not a one-trick pony.  I’m a cinematographer, I should be able to interpret any story and bring it to the screen, not just a specific genre. 

Byzantium, one of the films you mentioned that's still due to be released, was directed by Neil Jordan.

Yes, who would be one of my choices of director to work with.  Fantastic.  I can remember seeing Angel all those years ago, and the impression it left with me was so strong and so powerful, that some of those scenes I can still see.  And that’s been twenty-five, thirty years? 

Did you just pick up the phone one day, and he said:, “Hi Sean, this is Neil Jordan”?

Yeah.  We skyped.   The agent told me Neil Jordan wanted to talk to me.  I was in upstate New York doing The Place Beyond the Pines, he was in Budapest, and one Sunday I skyped him.  We spoke for ten minutes, and he said: “I think we’ll make a great film together,” and that was it.  I fell off my chair.

You were involved in Game of Thrones as well.

I did the pilot for that.  I’ve never done episodic television.  I did a couple of episodes of the first series of Spooks, but never a whole series because, for me, that’s death. 

Is that normal for a cinematographer?

Everyone’s unique.  If you want security, if you’ve got a family and children, then you’ll want to do a series, and something like Game of Thrones you would die for, because it will go on for six years.  To me, six years of the same thing, I simply couldn’t do.  It’s the variety, and also the breaks in between I need.  Otherwise I would go mad.

The thing about these series is that they want consistency. So you develop a visual continuity, but for me I’d rather create that first in the pilot and then walk away and let someone else get on with it, than to be that person who then has to supervise that repetition for years after years. 

When you were young, did you think you had a gift for…a way of seeing things, for filming?

Not at all.  At university I studied literature and philosophy to begin with because that was where I wanted to go. But unfortunately, both my tutors were appalling.  In retrospect, they may have done me a favour.  It wasn’t that they killed the subjects for me, but they showed me what the subjects really were, and I killed them for myself.

Then I drifted into theatre arts.  Someone said to me: “You have to do Intro to Television because the guy who teaches it is crazy,” and he was the most inspirational person I’ve ever met in my life. He changed the course of my existence.

In what way was he inspirational?

He made really complex and technically challenging things simple to understand and fun.  But at the same time with a very strong sense of right and wrong. It was when television was going through big changes and it was just fascinating because he challenged you always to do things and not just to theorise.  And then if you did them wrong he told you: “Look you screwed up and this is why, so let’s try it again,” and encouraged people.  It was a vibrant place to be. 

Then, for fourteen to fifteen years, I had the idea I wanted to be a director.  All the time I was a news cameraman, a documentary cameraman, I was thinking this is just the training ground.  I think if you scratch the majority of cinematographers you’ll find someone who thought they wanted to be a director. And there is a history of doomed cinematographers who moved into directing.

Was there a moment that changed that?

Again, another inspirational teacher called Billy Williams, who’s one of England’s greatest cinematographers.  I’d been fired for the first time in my life when I’d been trying to move out of news and into the world of documentaries and also into general entertainment.  And I started on a series called Saturday Night at the Movies, on ITV.  I shot the first episode and they fired me because of a whole litany of problems on that day of shooting which started with a flood in Hammersmith.

So I went off and did a seminar with Billy Williams at the International Film and Television School in Rockport, Maine and after ten days, that was it.  It suddenly all made sense.  I’d been a cameraman for fifteen years but it’s all this reactive as opposed to creative thing.  And there I was shown how to be creative and what the tools were and what the techniques were.  It was inspirational.  And at the end of it I suddenly had aspiration.  I was going to be a cinematographer doing drama. 

From that point, it took me five years to get into drama, because it’s a very difficult transition.  There’s one producer in London who still refers to me as “that news cameraman”.  People want to pigeonhole you. The low point in my life was when I was turned down by The Bill, and I was desperate. I would've done anything.   I’d tried to get into children’s television.   I tried - you name it.

And when The Bill turned me down – because in cinematography terms, that’s kind of the lowest of the low – I had resigned myself to the fact that it wasn’t going to happen.  And then a week later, Michael Winterbottom contacted me and Wonderland happened.  

You’ve worked with him a number of times – on Genova, and The Killer Inside Me.

He’s a great inspirational director.  Unique in his approach to film-making.

How did he find you, then?

He was looking for a documentary cameraman specifically to shoot Wonderland, and my name was recommended to him by two people independently. So we met, I shot some tests, they were appalling, I didn’t think I got the job, we shot some more tests, and he gave me the job.

Are you now at a point where you can pick and choose your work?

I’ve always picked and chosen.  A lot of people don’t.  I’m still a new boy in the drama world.  I’ve only been doing it for ten years, so I’m only just finding my way in, and also the technical skills of a cinematographer take a long time to develop.  I feel that when I stop learning and start doing the same things I did on the last film, in the same way as when I stopped crying, then it’s time to move on.

I’m very lucky because I’ve come from the journalism side, from filming important information that the world should know.  And some of what we were able to show  - not just me personally because there’s a collective within these organisations – has changed the way in which the world has looked at and done things.  And that is a great privilege.

I’ve come from a context where it did matter – people’s lives were at stake - to drama, where it doesn’t matter.  It’s completely and totally trivial what we do, it is entertainment, it is ultimately of no value to the furthering of mankind.  In some ways to me, that’s an absolute.  How can I justify my existence by doing something that is totally without value?  And I try not to think about that too much, because….

How are you justifying your existence, then?

I try not to.  I teach and I mentor and I try  in other ways to give things back – it’s a dreadful cliché to give things back – but in some way to assuage my own guilt.

Your guilt about what?  Is it that Catholic guilt?

It’s all based on that Catholic guilt!   My guilt about having a fantastic life, having a privileged existence when so many people don’t.  It’s intellectually stimulating and fulfilling, it’s financially rewarding, and I get to travel around the world.

Do you think that you are now well-balanced?  Where do you work out your sorrows and your griefs?

We all have sorrows and griefs and it’s very important not to shut them away.  I work them out through my friendships and also through pure escapism.  I fish.  And fly fishing is just a magic way of being with yourself and your own thoughts, completely diverted into an exercise that puts you in a position of peace and tranquillity, usually walking up and down a very beautiful river, surrounded by nature and running water. 

And it also gives me the time to allow my subconscious just to work things out for itself.  I never chose to go to war, it just happened one day and I had no idea what I was letting myself in for.  It’s not a good thing for your average person to do.  It really screws you up. That level of fear, that level of adrenaline for extended periods of time - just everything about it creates a disconnect with the real world, particularly when you come out of the war situation.  Normality is never the same again.

How did you cope with that initially?

Very badly.  Fast motorcycles.  Drugs - and drink, primarily.  Looking for the high.  Looking for the adrenaline. Looking to it in order to forget, but always wanting to get back.  It’s very self-destructive, the  whole cycle that you get drawn into.  But in retrospect, thank God I did it.  I've seen more of humanity, and more of inhumanity, than you ever need to see, but I think it gives you an understanding of human nature and your own nature.

Do you think it’s given you wisdom?

I don’t know what wisdom is.  What would wisdom be?  A knowledge of truths?  But I don’t know if you can have a knowledge of truth.  Every time I’ve come across something I thought was a truth, subsequent examination has proven it to be something else. 

What would you define as your life’s purpose?

I don’t think I do have a life’s purpose.  I guess my 'purpose' is to survive.  That’s all it boils down to.  And hopefully to find some pleasure and enjoyment in doing that.

What is the glue, the engine for your life?

Integrity.  Trying to be honest and consistent.  Not only to others but also to yourself.  I think that respect is a big part of that as well. I hate in any way to define myself through my work, because I think I come first and the work comes second.  But the world we live in tends to define you by what you do and what your reputation is within that job.  I would like to think that my reputation is of someone who is hard-working, honest, fair and, hopefully, a little talented. 

It may boil down to how you do something rather than what you do.  Which is very Buddhist. 

I think that’s very important.  When I was sixteen I had two weeks in an office as a summer job.  And I knew from that point I simply could not live in that environment of repetition, of being stuck indoors, of constantly being under the supervision of someone else.  All of that I just saw as being the death of my spirit.


  1. This is insanely insightful and incredibly powerful. I can't believe it doesn't have any comments. Beautiful interview, from an aspiring cinematographer to his newest inspiration. And of course to the Woman in Goggles.

    1. IJ - thanks for this great comment. Of course, all fingers are crossed for Sean Bobbitt to get an Oscar nomination for 12 Years a Slave.