By Junsui Films | August 2011
The acclaimed cinematographer behind such films as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus chats exclusively to Junsui Films about his career, his craft and gives a unique insight into his relationship with frequent collaborator Terry Gilliam…
Junsui Films: Let’s start with your background, what attracted you to cinematography and how did you get your break in the business?
Nicola Pecorini: My grandfather was a pioneer in Italian photojournalism and I grew up in a darkroom. I can still clearly remember the scent of the chemicals. From a very early age I got used to looking at the world through a lens. This was maybe also to do with a natural law of compensation, having lost my left eye to Retinoblastoma when I was sixteen months old.
The moment I finished high school in 1975 I started working as an assistant photographer, mainly in fashion. Things were going fine and I soon started to take my own pictures but the fashion world is extremely repetitive: same studios, same dates, same models. Not to mention the shallowness of it.
I grew extremely bored of it so in 1978 I jumped at the opportunity to move to Switzerland and start working for the Swiss State Television; 16 mm reversal film, from local sports and news to more in-depth documentaries. Looking back I must admit it was a fantastic hands-on school of learning. Technically I may have had a good background in exposures, optics and correlated issues were familiar to me, but the whole language of motion pictures, of cinematography, was totally new. It was a great way to start learning. I say ‘start’ because it’s still an ongoing process and that’s one of the reasons why I still love my craft.
In 1981 I attended a Steadicam workshop in California and it was love at first sight. After years of working mainly with hand held, the possibilities offered by this revolutionary invention blew me away. I bought one and started knocking on doors in the Italian movie industry because at that point Switzerland did not have much to offer.
I was lucky to be one of the first Europeans to have learned how to use Steadicam properly and that gave me the opportunity of working well beyond the Italian borders and jump from one interesting project to the next. I got to work with some real great filmmakers, as well as some very lousy ones… but sometimes you learn more from bad ones!
Furthermore, my friendship with Garrett Brown (the inventor of the Steadicam) allowed me to be part of the exciting early times of this fabulous tool and I was able to invest time in researching and experimenting to help it evolve into the indispensable piece of equipment it is today.
JF: Which cinematographers, photographers or filmmakers have inspired and influenced your work?
From the perspective of telling a story with a frame, the biggest influences have certainly been Henri Cartier Bresson and my own grandfather, Fedele Toscani. All the cinematographers I have worked with have had a strong influence, the good as well as the bad ones. But I can certainly single out two geniuses I had the privilege to work with on many projects: Vittorio Storaro and Tonino Delli Colli. So different in technique, approach and handling of the set yet both great, innovative, risk-taking cinematographers.
I’ve also been very inspired and learned a great deal from Roman Polanski and his wonderful work method and attention to detail. From a more theoretical point of view I have to mention the writings of the great Rudolf Arnheim, specifically his books The Power of the Center and Art and Visual Perception as well as the body of work of Henri Alekan and his wonderful Des Lumieres et des Ombres. The filmography of Luis Bunuel and Marco Ferreri, two directors that had the unique quality of make believable and poetic absurd realities.
And of course I would have loved to work with Alfred Hitchcock, his sheer simplicity is just unsurpassed.
JF: What key factors do you look for when deciding to take on a project?
First and foremost: the story! I consider being a filmmaker the same as being a storyteller. When I read a script there is one initial question I ask myself- “ is this story worth telling?” If the answer is yes, then other factors come into consideration; do we have the time, tools and structure to be able to do a good job? Will I get along with the director, the producer, the actors or will it be a pain from beginning to the end?” Because that too can reflect on the quality of the product; without harmony I’ve never seen a movie turn out great.
Further questions I ask are “Where are we going to shoot it ? Which locations? Will we have the chance to discover new experiences, people and places?” If the story does not convince me, no money, no scope, no name could change my mind.
JF: One of your most frequent collaborators is, of course, Terry Gilliam. How did that partnership come about and why do you think you work so well together?
I was immensely lucky. At the beginning of 1997 I had only one feature under my belt as cinematographer, having taken the step from operating only recently. Terry was called to take charge of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He was called late and for various reasons, production had to start by a certain date or the producers would have lost the rights to the novel.
Roger Pratt, Terry’s great friend and regular cinematographer was busy and so Terry was looking for someone new. We met, we got along great and I happened to be cheaper than any alternative! It was the beginning of a great friendship and working relationship. We share the same “wide angle view” of the world and somehow the same iconoclast vision of the world; now we find ourselves in total symbiosis, without even talking we come to the same conclusions and every time there is a conflict of opinion it’s always productive and enriching.
Another factor is that by now we have been through so much shit together (the collapse of Quixote, the battle with the Weinsteins on Grimms, the loss of Heath on Parnassus, just to mention a few) that we are still trying to go through a project smoothly… And I’m still the cheapest!
JF: Can you tell us a little bit about your experience on The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus and the creative challenges you encountered following Heath Ledger’s untimely death?
A lot has already been said and in all honesty for me it’s still quite painful to go through those events again. Heath was a great friend and a fantastic human being. I had the privilege of working with him on three features and on numerous other projects and all I can say is that I still miss him, every day I miss him.
Regarding Parnassus, in the end, the challenges were brilliantly resolved thanks to Terry’s idea and the fact that three great guys, Johnny (Depp), Colin (Farrell) and Jude (Law) came to the rescue.
JF: One of your upcoming project’s is David Michael’s M. What was it that attracted you to the project?
As I said before: THE STORY! It’s a wonderful script that I believe it’s worth telling and even though me and David never met I have the feeling that we will get along great. I love his ideas, his concept drawings, his references.
JF: You’ve been involved in some of cinema’s most visually striking movies. Is there any shot throughout your career that is a personal favourite?
It’s like asking a father which one is his favourite son! There is no answer to that one. When I was operating the single shots, they might have had more importance to me, especially very complicated Steadicam shots in which you can utilise cranes, vehicles, etc. Those were very challenging exercises but now I’m more challenged by the movie as a whole, by finding a ‘calligraphy’ that serves the story-telling and be consistent with it.
Certainly, I wish they paid me a nickel every time the crowning scene of The Last Emperor has been showed. That shot of the little kid pushing away the yellow fabric to discover a whole empire bowing at his feet has certainly become iconic.
JF: Any future projects you can tell us about?
I’m currently in Mumbai, colour timing the movie RA.One with Shah Rukh Khan. A very interesting adventure that has been keeping me engaged since the beginning of 2010 with a full immersion into Bollywood. It will be released worldwide on October 26 and it’s the most expensive Bollywood movie ever. Hopefully it will also be one of the highest grossing of all time and mark a new era of collaboration between Bollywood and Western technicians. I believe there is a lot to learn from one another.
Other than that I hope that Terry Gilliam will soon be able to get something off the ground, whether to resurrect the Quixote or tackle a new project. It does not matter, as long as Terry will be allowed to unleash his genius again.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas & The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus
are available now on DVD & Blu‐Ray. RA. One will be released later this year