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Since the Seventies Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller has steadily established himself as a creative risk taker, collaborating with the likes of Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, Lars Von Trier, on films such as Paris Texas, Down by Law, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, and Breaking the Waves; and most recently with Michael Winterbottom on 24 Hour Party People. Not bad for a man who says that he decided to become a cinematographer as a way of getting out of the Army.
Here he gives us a rare insight into his technique and why he favours black and white:
What was it like working on 24 hour party people?
“Michael (Winterbottom) had asked me twice before to work with him but I was busy on other films. Then we met up and he interested me in the story of Factory Records and the Hacienda. I was especially keen to work in this rougher and fresher style he had in mind. Shooting a film can be very mechanical, it’s all slate, camera, action, cut, then you prepare, and repeat the whole process over and over. You lose momentum, but Michael wanted all the shots improvised and we managed to keep the pace going. I got into the history behind the story too, and Manchester, but not the rain. ”
You’ve often said you like to create situations where ‘happy accidents can happen’. Why?
“These can end up helping the way the director wants to tell his story. Like in Breaking the Waves. We were very much operational with the cameras for the sex in the toilet scene, and worried we had fucked it up, but the result ending up being just what Lars Von Trier wanted, it bought about the sense of drama he was after without that polished look.”
So what is Lars Von Trier like to work with?
“Lars has a very clear idea of what he does and doesn’t want. Like on Dancing in the Dark he had us use 100 DV cameras to film the musical scenes, we all had the freedom to move 360 degrees, and all those camera shots were perfectly in synch with each other so we could easily cut between them, it was very magic. So was Björk, I liked her very much, she was a very professional woman, and a good actress.”
You also collaborated extensively with Jim Jarmusch on many of his films, what was your most memorable experience?
“There are many. I liked working on Down by Law (with Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni) where I felt it was important to be shooting in black and white. Colour should only be used if it supports the story otherwise its just exotic background wrapping, giving superfluous information. Its like a poem, you leave out what you don’t need. And because we shot in such an exotic location (New Orleans), it would have been a completely different film if it was in colour, making the audience look at the landscape and the surroundings rather than the people. Jarmusch was very receptive to this way of thinking.”
What’s distinctive about the way Wim Wenders works?
“He often barely had a script or a storyboard, and would nearly always shoot in buildings already occupied by people, never studios. So I was always working with natural light and more intimate surroundings but I like that sense of realism so if there’s not enough I would open up the lens rather than add extra lighting.”
“I also like to work chronologically as he does, without any rigid time scales imposed so you can work in more of an organic way. You can bring in new people too, you can get a feel of the film and develop it as you go along.”
What advice do you have for young filmmakers and cinematographers?
“Don’t rely on new technology, its only a tool, a means to an end, don’t let it make you lose sight of where you are going. Don’t over do it, keep things simple.”
“Don’t have a second agenda, be honest, keep the integrity, at least to yourself, and always ask yourself why you are doing a certain project, do you really like it, do you know where you stand? I try to do this on all the films I work on. But of course there were certain times when me and my gaffer have asked ourselves ‘what on earth are we doing here?’”
“Oh, and always ask the director why you are shooting in colour (if you are) then at least you know what you’re working with and you’re not just a zombie following rules.
What film has particularly inspired you?
“Fellini’s 8 ½. It was beautifully shot in black and white.”
Robby Müller’s credits include:
Coffee and Cigarettes
24 Hour Party People
Dancer in the Dark
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
Buena Vista Social Club
Breaking the Waves
Beyond the Clouds
Mad Dog and Glory
Until the End of the World
Down by Law
To Live and Die in L.A.
Kings of the Road (1976)
Alice in the Cities (1974)
Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty Kick (1971)
© Tina Bexson