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Interview: Talking ‘Raised by Wolves’ with Cinematographers Erik Messerschmidt and Dariusz Wolski

Helming the camera departments of perhaps two of the hottest awards contenders of the year, Erik Messerschmidt and Dariusz Wolski have been garnering much acclaim for their work as cinematographers on Mank and News of The World. However, prior to those projects, they both had the opportunity to work on Ridley Scott’s latest sci-fi epic, Raised by Wolves. A visionary challenge that involved the creation of many alien worlds, terrains, and an unconventional atmosphere, their work on the series is able to showcase their talents to an impressive degree

Below, you can hear our roundtable conversation with both Erik Messerschmidt and Dariusz Wolski. Here, we discuss their shared experiences on Raised by Wolves, their inspirations and journey to get to where they are today, their general career, working with famed creatives as frequent collaborators, and their newfound award frontrunner success!

Diego Andaluz for Awards Radar: What first inspired you both to become cinematographers?

Erik Messerschmidt: I think it just felt right. I was interested in science, I was interested in art. I loved when I started in the theater in high school, I was doing theater, lighting and set building, and then I got more familiar with filmmaking,  I started to be curious about what it was, and cinematography just seemed right. Itt just felt like it checked all the boxes for me. It took a long time for me to kind of figure out what cinematographers do.  every film is different, every working relationship is different. When I was young, and I was sort of trying to figure out what to do with my life, it just felt right.

Dariusz Wolski: [For me], that was a really long time ago. Probably when I was a teenager. My sister was a painter, so I was kind of inspired by her and it was just trying to find a job that doesn’t involve going to a bank and doing bank hours, you know. So that’s pretty much it.

Before working as directors of photography, you both had worked as gaffers, camera operators, AC’s and more, so I’m curious to hear, what were your journeys like from wanting to pursue this career to landing your first major jobs?

DW: Well, I went to film school in Poland, which is quite prestigious. So when you go to that school, everyone feels like they’re great cinematographers already. And then I came to New York, and there was a reality of paying rent and just being able to survive. So I started working in pretty much anything as long as it was close to the film industry. I mean, my gaffing experience was very, very low budget. And one thing led to another and then my real beginning was in music videos in late 80s, in Los Angeles, believe it or not, [for me], New York was more of a more of about, just learning how to live in America. The most interesting thing that I was doing was working for BBC as a camera assistant, and a gaffer, which just involved very simple lighting, interviews and stuff. So it wasn’t really about that. It just basically introduced me to the variety of work for the BBC interviews,  from politicians, to scientists, to artists and stuff. So that was very inspiring. But the real cinematography work started, in low budget movies in New York, and then music videos. And that led to commercials and then like two more movies there!

EM: My journey was a long one, it was longer than most probably. I spent a lot of time coming up through the ranks, and I learned from other cinematographers, and I worked for them. I was a gaffer for a really long time. But I did work as an operator, I did work in second unit dp, I worked as an assistant, and a grip and a dolly grip. I spent a lot of my young life as a movie set grunt, you know? I’m really glad I did it that way. Because  it was a long period of discovery for me, but it gave me a really good foundation to learn  from some of the greats, so I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.

With Raised By Wolves, both of you have experience working in both film and television formats. As a cinematographer, how does that switch affect your creative process, and what differences did you notice in terms of both your relationship to the directors and showrunner as well as the general production? 

EM: Well, it varies with every project, I think in feature film anyway,  you’re with one filmmaker, generally, for the entire experience, so you’re able to work very closely with that one person, and you’re supporting their particular vision of the story. In television, in most cases, you might work with many directors, who are ostensibly carrying the torch of  the [showrunner’s pilot team]. You’re a bit of a translator in that situation, you’re sort of supporting their idea as well. So also supporting the show, and the showrunner and making sure that their vision of the show perpetuates through the story, so it’s definitely a different dynamic,  but every show is different. And, in the case of Raised By Wolves, we had a really good roadmap to follow. The show was new too, so sort of finding its way in the process of discovery that you go through on television, certainly in the first season of television. It’s kind of exciting to be in that situation, because all the directors are bringing something to the table, and you’re kind of developing it together.

DW: I didn’t see much of a difference. I was quite fortunate because my television experience before Raised by Wolves was a long time ago, and I don’t think ever as a cinematographer, maybe as an operator camera system. So basically, moving to doing TV, there wasn’t much of a difference for me, because I came with Ridley Scott and I have a relationship making feature films. So we technically treat it like we normally do, just prepping the movie and treating like you shooting it yourself. Knowing that we are designing something that’s going to just carry on, that was actually a very exciting part. Because you’re just shooting two episodes, but you are designing a look that’s gonna be followed]. We just gave it to other people to continue and they did a fantastic job. I mean, on my side, I was so lucky to have [two cinematographers] that just continue my work and just left their mark on it. It was very smooth and yeah, I mean, it’s fantastic.

EM: Yeah, that was a great challenge, I was following the work that Daruisz had done with Ridley, and Ross Emery had shot a couple episodes before I got there, so the show was often running before I arrived. But, every script offers its own set of challenges, and each director brings something different to the table. So you’re working within the boundary lines of what the show and what Ridley wanted it to be. There was a lot of encouragement from Ridley and everybody at Scott Free, and everybody at HBO to explore and try things and push the envelope as much as we could. I think all of us felt like we had the opportunity to bring ideas to the table and expand on the world that Ridley and Dariusz had put together in the opening episodes.

Raised by Wolves is a strikingly ambitious series, both in terms of narrative but specifically the visual scope of it. What visual influences did you both have in mind when working on this project? 

DW: That’s a good question! Ridley has a huge tradition of doing sci fi, and I [had done] three sci fi movies with him. The most interesting thing that we came up with was just the design of the spaceship that is completely different than everything anybody ever saw. Like the little capsule, they arrive on the planet, it just doesn’t have any textures, [in a] very minimalistic way. Then, the juxtaposition of super high tech with starting a civilization on the unknown planet, which is a medieval village with very high tech elements. That was just basically the idea. And then you go into the whole post-apocalyptic world on earth. A big ship that brings the rest of the humans to this place that’s kind of based on some kind of a modern mystic Noah’s Ark. That was that these were the kind of ideas.

EM: Yeah, and we were really motivated by the location, it certainly looked different than any place I’ve ever been in the world. We’re trying to look at it from the vantage point of a foreign place, an alien planet, and how we could exploit the location to help transport the audience to that place. I think there’s a little bit of a anthropomorphic kind of style to the show,  there’s a bit of following these people as they develop their own their own society in a way, so there’s a little kind of observational filmmaking being done, I guess, you might say, and certainly, I think if you look at these early episodes, it definitely has those aspects. Then as we get to the later episodes, where a little bit of the fantasy starts to take shape, we were able to expand that scope slightly and explore some different themes. All the inspiration really came from the scripts and the locations and what Ridley had done and that was certainly for me, it was like, what can we take that from a production design standpoint and exploit? 

You both have also formed strong collaborative bonds with two of the most influential filmmakers of our time. Dariusz with Ridley Scott, and Erik with David Fincher. How has working with strong creative voices like them over the years influenced the way in which you approach your craft overall?

DW: I just listen to him. I always admired his work, and this was probably our sixth or seventh collaboration. So there’s a bit of a shorthand, just we refer to the same thing in terms of art and visual art, movies, so it’s not very difficult.

EM: I think that when you have the privilege to work with directors like David or Ridley  that have a strong point of view, they have a really good technical understanding of the mechanics of cinema. It’s a privilege for a cinematographer, because you can really have detailed conversations with them about something you’re trying to accomplish. For me, my work with David and certainly the work on Raised By Wolves, we could look at things in a very detailed fashion in terms of what we were trying to accomplish, because the people we’re communicating with understood the process and understood what we’re dealing with on a day to day basis. So, , for me, it’s an absolute joy and, certainly I’ve learned a tremendous amount from David, which I’ve been able to apply to other work. So , it’s been fantastic. For me, that relationship has been fantastic.

On top of your recent television project, Raised by Wolves, you are both frontrunners in the 2021 awards race with News Of The World and Mank, respectively. These are both films in which the cinematographic aspect of it influenced the overall atmosphere of the film more than most recent releases, so I’m curious to hear, how did you approach crafting the look and feel of those two respective projects?

EM: [For Mank], we talked a lot about what the film could be, what we wanted it to be, and  pulled a lot of references. I sent David images after images of film stills. Every project is different. Sometimes you look at paintings, sometimes you look at fine art photography, sometimes you look at a combination of fine art, photography and film, in the case of Mank I think it was almost entirely film and, and films of the period. But we were trying to transport the audience and bring them back to that time period,  using some techniques of the period, and some modern techniques to do that. But at the same time, there’s elements of modernism in the storytelling that we debated but we felt comfortable using so there  there’s a bit of a mix, I think. And a lot of that has to do with the way we were telling the story and some of the blocking choices we were making, the camera choices we were making, but I’m glad you enjoyed it, we certainly worked hard on it.

DW: For me, it was just being true to myself, to my own aesthetics, to how I see the world, and with Paul Greengrass who is a talented director,  I think the most important thing is to listen to the directors, and listening to Paul, knowing his movies, his single perspective way of telling this story in a very natural way with whatever I bring to the game, so that’s why it was very interesting to work with Paul. It was two different worlds meeting together and finding something special.

In this day and age, we’re seeing that the line between the mediums of film and television has begun to shrink more and more. Apart from the previously mentioned epic scope of Raised By Wolves, your latest projects, News of The World and Mank, are both getting their biggest releases on streaming (Mank on Netflix, and News of The World on VOD). What are your thoughts on the industry’s recent accelerated pivot to streaming and home releases?

EM: I’m certainly traditional in the fact that I adore the cinema, and I love the cinema experience. I love the collective experience of sitting in the cinema with an audience. Right now with what’s going on in the world, I think the opportunity to bring your work to the audience period is a blessing and so any way that we can get our work seenis fantastic. I think there is a fair argument to be said, to support the idea that there is a blurring of the line, but, in the end, I think you just want to reach people, and you want your stories to reach people, and you want studios, who will support your storytelling. Netflix have certainly been, that I think HBOMax has certainly been that,  in terms of giving filmmakers the opportunity to tell their stories. That I think, right there, is really our priority, to have the opportunity and the platform to tell our stories, wherever they get shown to you. You hope they get shown on the biggest screen possible, but that’s not always the most important thing.

DW: Well, there’s no escaping from the technology that has improved tremendously. The quality is pretty amazing. When you add the COVID Situation, where people can’t really go and experience movies on the big screen, it’s kind of a saving grace, concerning what’s happening in the world. But I hope that when COVID is over, movie theaters will be appreciated even more. I hoped that the movies that were meant to be theatrical will have a chance to be seen again in theaters after COVID is over. Of course, they’re not gonna be major blockbusters, but they’re still beating. That’s how it should be.

Regarding the future of the industry, I’ve also seen that you are attached to the upcoming Gucci film with Ridley Scott. Have you already begun to work on that over the pandemic, Dariusz?

DW: I’m actually leaving this weekend. I read the script, we discussed it, in the early stages of the whole thing, and then I have sixth weeks of prep to just really get into it and start working on the details,and always being in touch with [Ridley Scott] and the production designer has been really important. 

That’s great to hear! So, what advice would you both have for aspiring cinematographers during these times?

EM: Become as cinema literate as you possibly can, and talk about movies with as many people as you possibly can.Look for filmmakers that you have shared sensibility with, and look for creative partners where you can do good work together. That’s not always easy, but that’s where I think most people find success, is when they find someone that they can connect with and  and work with and that’s really what it is in the end,  with cinematography, there’s plenty to be said for your individual skill, but it has everything to do with your relationship with the director and the producer and how all of you come to the final product.

DW: When you start out in this business, it’s always so overwhelming, it’s so competitive that it sounds like it’s impossible. But, just stick with it, stick with it and find your way. Everyone somehow, if they really want to [pursue that career], they find their own way. The great thing is that the technology is so incredible, and so readily available right now,  because a long time ago, to get a piece of film, a 35mm camera, was quite a big deal. was quite a deal, in contrast to the digital camera, which is accessible and has an incredible quality of image.Technology is so liberating, and it’s allowing people who would never have a chance to do anything to express themselves.

Thank you so much for coming on here and taking the time to speak with us. It was a pleasure talking to you both!

DW: Thank you!

EM: Yeah, thank you, you’re very kind. It’s my pleasure!

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Written by Diego Andaluz

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