You may not know the name John Mathieson off the top of your head, but you’ve seen his work. As a cinematographer, Mathieson has been responsible for shooting some of the better films of the modern era. He’s twice nominated for an Academy Award, first for Gladiator and next for Phantom of the Opera. Music fans might know him from his work on the video for Siouxsie and the Banshees’s “Peek-a-Boo” and Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box.”
For decades now, Mathieson has been one of the hardest working men in his field, capturing moments both big and small on film for the enjoyment of billions around the globe. Most recently, he was responsible for shooting Logan, Hugh Jackman’s final outing as the famed X-Men character Wolverine, and on May 12 you can see his work in Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.
I recently spoke with Mathieson as he braved the cold and fury of Boston winter to discuss his work on Logan, King Arthur, and the evolving nature of his field as new technology takes movies to bigger and bigger places. He comes across as a craftsman, a kind of stalwart workhorse who brings visions to life through a strong work ethic and commitment to his trade, on which he has much to say.
In regards to Logan, I’m curious how much of a collaboration it was between you and director James Mangold. Did he give you a lot of freedom?
For me, you arrive on a project and you want to know what it’s about and you want to know how it’s got to be done. You don’t come in [like] “Right, I think it should be this,” because by the time the [director of photography] comes on the director’s been on it for maybe a year or more. They’ve already talked about this and they have the production design on board and they start designing things and thinking [about] where these people live. So you think about what that’s going to be like and what the interior’s like. They don’t live in nice houses in Austin, they live in some old toxic factory in Mexico. What’s this character do? What’s he like? He’s a tragic character, a taxi driver. He works at night, he’s anonymous, wants to mind his own business, he drinks too, much, he’s obnoxious. He’s a pretty foul character if you don’t like him too nicely. These people, they don’t look glamourous or wear fantastic, Superman outfits. They’re kind of dirty old clothes, torn clothes. They need a wash, they need a haircut, all these guys, they look like hell. There’s a lot of texture; there’s a lot of grit and dirt in it.
You know the phrase “gritty realism” gets thrown around a lot with superhero films these days, but Logan seems to take that seriously. It’s dirty, it’s raw, it’s post-apocalyptic. What was it like to help bring this to life and help show that side of superheroes?
A lot of that is in the script. That’s their character, that’s their life. When it’s gritty realism, that’s who they are. It came to life because that’s what was written down, I suppose. The way they relate to each other. They’re just down on their luck. They live somewhere they don’t want to live in. They’re fugitives, they’re on the run. It was there for me to take hold of. You know as I was saying, the art direction did that. They put a lot of texture in it. We walked into New Orleans—we don’t say it was New Orleans, but that’s where we went—and you’ve got this heat, and moisture, and paint peels. We went to a lot of grubby interiors which have a lot of gritty realism.
I like all that, I pick up on it. It helped me, I think, being a foreigner. When you arrive from the soft-toned counties of England, this all seems very visceral and hard. Things are rusting and peeling. You take a walk in the desert and everything’s spiky and nasty and will bite you. England’s got a lot of lush grass, but there’s nothing like that here. Out there, it’s tough. That was good for my eye, because there’s a lot to feast on and point the camera at. That happened just by being lucky to be the foreigner put in that situation. You observe things in a different way. People that live there probably don’t see those things because they become sort of used to it. They get too familiar.
There’s a lot of movement and a lot of action in Logan, especially with the Laura scenes. She moves so quick and I know a lot of that was CGI but was any of that terribly difficult to get shot?
A lot of it was really real. We had a couple of stunt girls, who are very agile, who of course older than Laura and bigger, but incredibly fit. They were very ninja-like, dancers. They doubled for her, but she did a lot too. There was a certain amount wire work. There wasn’t too much CGI on that. You can see by the fighting there’s a mass and a weight to something. Laura spins around a lot and when she lands on someone’s shoulders and whips her leg around their neck and breaks their neck, you actually felt that happen. That’s what she was doing. We were throwing her or the stunt doubles around in the air and they were real things.
When someone gets hurt in this film, since the characters are much realer, you can associate strong feelings with them. These flawed characters who try to do the best they can but they screw up. When something violent happens, in that situation, it feels more violent. It’s not a fantastic world where everything is fantastic marvelous like a lot of these films. It’s about real people, real situations. As much as it can be. When the violence happens, that violence in turn feels much worse. It’s not any more violent than these other films, but it just feels worse because these people are very real. It slaps you on the face when something like that happens. Of course, we do kill people. We don’t kill lots of people like some of these other films do, but when we do kill people you get very sad because they’re real to us.
I did read about how a lot of this was shot with doubles and then they would use CGI to overlay the faces of the characters on. I was wondering how that affects your job. Do you have to shoot it in a different way?
It works out. Garret Warren, he was our stunt coordinator, he had a couple of guys who work with Hugh [Jackman] all the time. Hugh, of course, plays himself and himself, he plays the X24, the automaton, the new killing machine, and he plays [Logan]. So what you do is have to shoot one side with Hugh playing Logan and the stunt double as the X24 and then you swap it around and the double puts on the Logan wigs and costume and you shoot the other side. So a lot of that stuff you can just get away with shooting over the shoulder.
So it was kind of done old style. People used to do those things with twins and doubles in films. There was ultimately face replacement at times, but a lot of it was the doubles, and those doubles were very good. At a distance, you couldn’t tell. When you get fast moving and stuff like that, that hides a few of your sins.
I’d say it was probably more trouble with Dafne because you had so many other girls. With Dafne, when you’re on her you’re on her. Hugh can do his own stunts, he can do his own fighting. With Dafne you have to do some face swapping. But they weren’t full CG people. These were very much physical effects. That’s why I think it does feel heavy and violent, because there were real people there.
Generally speaking, though, how has the rise of CGI affected your job or the way you work?
It has affected it. I mourn films with massive amounts of extras. If you were to do Gladiator today, it was quite a few years ago, and I always think that modern film was heralded by films like The Matrix, which came out about the same time. Gladiator was 50 shots [of CGI]. The average X-Men would be something like 1,800 shots. When we were building sets for Gladiator, building Rome, [director] Ridley [Scott] didn’t really understand. He understood and matte painting and basic works and glass paintings in front of a camera, old style. CG was around, had been around for a while. Jurassic Park had been made. But he was not really that sure about it. He always thought it’s better to build things that are real. I mean we used models but most of those things were built. The Colosseum went to over 60 feet and I had to tell its designer, Arthur Max, ‘Stop building!’ I couldn’t go to the top of the Colosseum because they kept building up and up. That sat 3,000 people and we had days with 5,000 people in the market. These were big things and we had a few shots [of CGI].
I think that’s probably why Gladiator will stand the test of time, because so much of it was real. There were some CGI shots and you can look at them think ‘That would be better,’ but on the large part, the film was physical and real. I do mourn that. You wouldn’t do that now. You wouldn’t build that high. You wouldn’t have 5,000 extras. Even with Kingdom of Heaven, we had something like two cavalry detachments in the king’s personal escort. You’re in the desert and you’ve got 140 horses coming towards you, you understand what cavalry in 18th century battle is all about. That, again, you probably wouldn’t do that now.
Imagine doing that. Building castles and having 140 horses and 5,000 extras and lots of people chasing you with scimitars all around. That’s a real event. That really happens when you shoot it. I know it’s for a movie, but everyone gets up in the morning and they break the walls down and everyone rushes in and they all slice each other with their swords. That sort of movie making is, unfortunately, sort of easing away from us. It’s simply cheaper. The prices have changed. To get all those horses out in the desert, they need stabling, and you’re building roads, you need huge catering, you need big medical departments to look after you if you get too hot or get injured. All those expenses, they now cost more than to do things in CGI. Which is a shame. Everyone loves an epic film now and again.
Some producers are so lazy and they’ll just put you in the studio with green screens. They’re not really interested in going on location because it’s so difficult. It’s just easier to stay in Pinewood and do green screens and send some small unit out to get the background. But most films don’t really transport you in the way that film that’s really made on location with real old beautiful costumes. That really transports you to some other place. Not all films, of course. Like Gravity, which is a wonderful film, but it’s space and no one much has been there so you got to believe it. I saw that again the other day, and it’s wonderful, but it’s a total digital effects film. Logan, as you say, it’s got that gritty realism. We were doing something else.
With all that talk about epic films, I was wondering about your experience with King Arthur, which is coming out soon. Can you talk at all about that yet?
It’s in post and I haven’t actually seen it. I made it over two years ago and I haven’t seen a frame of it. I should’ve done my post-production part by now but I haven’t. I don’t want to speak about it and for you to print it and then your readers think, ‘That didn’t happen, he clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’ [laughs] I really don’t know what I’m talking about right now. But that is not an epic film, that’s a good example of a film that was shot in studio. But it will be epic. It’s a huge adventure. There’s a lot of fantasy in it.
Visual effects designers now are also creating characters. They’re creating, of course, monsters, but they’re also creating some demonic creatures that speak and do this and that. That is a huge consideration. This is a very new, well not entirely new, but it’s becoming very much more present and pushing its way into traditional filmmaking. I really don’t have much to do with that. I’ll have to put my elements in it if I’ve got one of my actors there, but really these things are being governed by the visual effects supervisor. As I said, if Gladiator were to be made now, that side of it would be much bigger than what we did. That technology side has become such more powerful and easier to use.
Anyway, it is a huge special effects film. I haven’t seen it and I think there’ve been some big decisions made in editing, so I can’t comment on how big that is. But I know it’s bigger than it was when we shot it. It’s a changing field. Ironically, the older directors are dealing with the advanced technological stuff and the younger ones are making films running around with a Canon D5. They’re the ones who understand [the technology], but they don’t have the budget to do it.
That’s how it works I guess. You’ve got to start small before you get big.
It is. When we started, what we’d do, we’d just rewind, we’d double expose. You want to put a creature in, you left half the frame dark, you rewound the film, and you re-exposed it. If you were shooting two men like we did in X-Men, you’d black off half the lens and shoot it and then you’d send them off to make up and rerun the film and get back to the camera and turn around and expose the other side. Those rules still kind of apply but we were much more hands on. And of course, it was cheaper to do that. It wasn’t cheap to make films, it never has been. But it was cheaper to do the limited effects we could do. We got really excited about that sort of stuff. Making stuff disappear and cheap effects. They’d be laughed at now, but we thought they were splendid at the time. We did what we could.
Logan is now playing in theaters everywhere; King Arthur: Legend of the Sword opens May 12.