Working on a Mike Leigh film is as singular an experience for director of photography Dick Pope as it is for the actors. "When I go there on the first day of shooting, I have very little idea of what's going to happen," he says of his duties on Leigh projects such as Life Is Sweet, Naked, Secrets & Lies, and now Career Girls, which October Films released last month. "I have only the briefest outline of what the story's going to be about. You have to be courageous, really, and expect anything, because anything can happen."
The British director is famous for developing his films over months of improvisation and rehearsal with his cast members, first separately, and ultimately as a group. Only then is a script set in stone, a final touch that often occurs on the day of shooting, says Pope. "Then they'll bring the scene to the floor, and everybody who needs to see it will see it en masse as a rehearsal," the DP explains. "Then Mike and I will work out how we're going to shoot it with the actors, and once that happens, Mike will go away with the actors and continue rehearsing while I light and prepare."
Since Leigh films are always shot on location--often small flats or other cramped rooms--"I tend to use lamps that are environmentally friendly, mostly smaller units," says Pope. "One has to be very careful of the temperatures you create in small rooms, because the actors have to be able to act." For daylight interiors in particular, that leads the cinematographer directly to Kino Flos. "Apart from the soft light that they give, they also are very cool lamps. I carry quite a range of them, from the smaller units to the banks of ten 4' tubes." Night interiors are generally lit with an array of instruments, from Kino Flo tungstens to 300W Arri juniors. Larger HMIs are reserved for bringing in light from outside, to balance daylight scenes.
Pope says his preferred lighting style is to "never use direct light, I always use bounce light. Now, it might be hard bounce, or it might be very soft bounce. I like to think of it as directional softlight." Because of the way Leigh's films are shot, the DP usually creates a lightweight scaffold rig close to the ceiling of the location. "The actors might be employing the whole room, and if I'm relying too much on what's on the floor, as soon as we turn around, you're in trouble," he explains. The actors' key lights, however, are always on the floor.
Career Girls is a small-scale project focusing on two characters, Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge) and Annie (Lynda Steadman), college-age London flatmates in the 1980s who have a weekend reunion 10 years later. The film continually flashes from present to past, and Pope says that most of his discussions with Leigh had to do with creating contrasting looks for the two time frames.
The most marked distinction is that the flashback scenes are all handheld, while in the modern sequences, the camera is supported by tripod or dolly. As always on a Leigh film, Pope did his own operating, and in the flashbacks, "I was forced to do all the close dialogue scenes where there was a sound problem with the Moviecam Compact, which is a heavy beast when it's on your shoulder for hours on end." Where sound wasn't so much an issue, he could use the lighter Aaton 35.
Another difference between the 80s and 90s scenes had to do with color and quality of light. "The world the girls lived in as students was one of dingy bedsits where there's no money about," says Pope. "I also thought of the music by The Cure, and pop videos and advertising of that period--steel blues and cold colors and ProMist. Their world now is much more sophisticated--clean lines, much more pastel colors." All of the flashback scenes were shot on Kodak 5293 film, with the present on slower 48 or 45 stock. "I wouldn't say I changed the lighting that much on them," the DP adds, "although I probably gave them a harder look which was accentuated by their punky-type makeup in the 80s, and a softer, more saturated and richer look for now.
"In terms of working with Mike," he continues, "this is important: Whether it's then or now, it's got to be believable. I don't think natural is the right word, it's kind of hyperrealistic, but he sets up with those actors a world that the audience just believes in completely. In terms of lighting, I try to tell the story in a believable way that never jars."
Though his other feature credits include An Awfully Big Adventure, Nothing Personal, and Beeban Kidron's upcoming Victorian love story Swept From the Sea, Pope has worked for years as a documentary cameraman. "I grew to love it--working with small units in faraway places, on-your-toes kind of filmmaking," he says. "I'd already been working in fiction movies for quite a few years before I met Mike, but that's something I can take on board with him: not knowing what's going to happen next, and being prepared for anything, really."