Polish cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and director Steven Spielberg have been inseparable since Schindler’s List. It’s almost difficult to imagine what a modern Spielberg film sans Kaminski might look like.
Their most recent project, War Horse, will be released later this month. And while there are moments that are unequivocally Spielbergian or Kaminski-esque, the film is also unlike anything else they’ve ever made — it’s easily their most (purposefully) old-fashioned collaboration to date.
Recently we interviewed Janusz Kaminski about War Horse, The Adventures of Tintin, directing an independent film called American Dream (starring Nick Stahl), and more. Check it out below:
Screen Rant: War Horse seems to be a film that visually harkens back to an old-fashioned aesthetic, like the films of the forties or the fifties. There were also segments that, to me, recalled specific films like All Quiet On the Western Front and John Ford westerns. Were there any films in particular that you were referencing or inspired by when designing the look for the film?
Janusz Kaminski: No, no specific references. Those directors were so important in creating the vocabulary of film [that, when we’re creating something new], we immediately go to those directors. Not necessarily because we try to imitate their work, but because they were so [influential]. It’s very hard to go to Monument Valley and not think of John Ford’s films. Actually, the John Ford point is right there, you know? […] No, we have not looked at any particular movies [in creating War Horse], but again, it’s hard not to see the similarities between those movies [because of those filmmakers’ influence on the industry].
Very few people make exterior movies anymore. It’s always action films driven by action and quick editing. This movie is not that. It does have action as well, but we allow the audience to appreciate the environment where these characters are from because the lens shapes the people, as we know.
(WARNING: War Horse spoilers below!)
SR: There are a lot of striking visual styles in War Horse that sort of complement each other. Is there a particular section or visual style in the film that’s your favorite?
JK: I like the ending of the movie, simply because it’s such a demanding scene emotionally, and yet [the look] is all done on camera. I like the work not to be manipulated digitally. And it’s all done on camera [in that scene].
SR: Do you mean when the mother and the son reunite?
JK: Right, when the boy comes back with the horse and the father’s by the fence [and the sun is going down] – it’s all true craftsmanship and knowledge of what that image should look like and how to get it [organically]. You just [have to] wait for the right time of day. You get the sun setting there. And really, you have five minutes to do it. Because the sun is setting so rapidly, you don’t really have time to analyze. […] I’m very proud of that scene, simply because it was very daring. And I like doing daring stuff.
SR: Movies don’t do that anymore.
JK: These days, you’d probably shoot it in the daylight and manipulate it in the post. That’s [how] most people would do it. [I did the same thing with] with ‘Diving Bell and the Butterfly’. No CGI. It’s all live photography. And I like that, it’s very challenging and exciting to be able to do that.
SR: There’s one scene in the movie where the horse is running frantically through the trenches and all the explosions are sort of lighting up the screen. Did that scene utilize CGI to a greater extent?
JK: No, [there's] very little CGI. What happened there – because the horse was running very close to the trench, we had a rider. So in few instances, we had a rider dressed in a green suit. The rider would guide the horse through the frame, and through CGI [we removed] the rider. But that’s about it.
SR: Currently, you’re shooting Lincoln. What’s your approach to shooting that, and how does it differ or compare to previous period dramas you’ve worked on with Spielberg?
JK: I can’t really elaborate on that.
SR: How was the experience creating the cinematography for a film like The Adventures of Tintin as compared to live-action films?
JK: You know, I had very little involvement with ‘TinTin’. Very little involvement. So I can’t really elaborate on that either. We exchanged a couple of ideas and stuff like that, but that’s about it. I just think … consulting on ‘Tintin’ was very interesting because you try to … not educate, but inform the animators [about] what the lighting looks like, but [in the end] they do it themselves. I don’t actually go and sit there with them. [We] just had a couple of conversations.
SR: Maybe you don’t want to answer this, but do you have a least favorite project you’ve worked on?
JK: Not really. I mean, there are films that are difficult. There are films that would actually affect your personal life because of the length of the production, how long [you’re away] from the family. So yeah, there are those movies. But only because of the distance.
SR: Do you have a particular favorite project?
JK: I mean, if you take away ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan’, I like ‘Minority Report’ a lot. […] ‘Munich’. Love ‘Munich’, man. That’s a very underappreciated film.
SR: Totally agree.
JK: Really fantastic film, ‘Munich’. So yeah, if I would say, what’s the most underappreciated film, I think ‘Munich’ would be the one. And ‘A.I.’, I love ‘A.I.’
SR: I think the last American film you directed was Lost Souls in 2000. Do you have plans to jump back into the director’s chair any time soon?
JK: I just directed another picture called ‘American Dream’ with Nick Stahl. Just finished shooting principal photography right before I started ['Lincoln']. It’s not being edited right now because I’m working on [that]. It’s a small little movie made for under a million dollars. Totally independent feature.
SR: Do you know when that’ll be released?
JK: Probably never. [Laughter.] Never in the United States because there’s no room for independent cinema. [It] probably will [go] somewhere in Europe. You get 3000 entries [to] Sundance, and how many movies get [screened]? So, I’m a realist. I’m very much realistic in terms of if this movie will be released in the States. Probably not.
SR: Even though you do work with other filmmakers besides Steven Spielberg, I think it’s fair to say your cinematography has become sort of synonymous with his work. Do you ever feel like breaking away from that and going your own way?
JK: Why? There’s no reason. It’s good. And, you know, occasionally I do movies with other directors. I did ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ for Julian Schnabel. I did a movie with Jim Brooks (‘How Do You Know’). I did a movie with Judd Apatow (‘Funny People’). So I do get a chance to work with other people, which is always enjoyable, always pleasant. But still, Steven makes the types of movies that I’m interested in as well.
SR: Why do you think that is?
JK: Well, [he makes] human movies. Movies [...] that reflect the life we wish it would be, not necessarily as it is. And the happy ending, you know. Life is a tough thing to begin with, and I like the happy ending.
SR: They haven’t all been happy endings – Munich.
JK: ‘Munich’ is not a happy ending.
SR: Do you have a favorite Spielberg movie?
JK: I like them all, they’re all different.
SR: You’ve got to have a favorite.
JK: I do like ‘Munich’, man. It’s a really wonderful film. I mean, there’s ‘Schindler’s List’, there’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’. But ‘Munich’ – of all the other films, Munich would be the one that’s really, really amazing storytelling.
SR: Do you have a favorite Spielberg film from before you became his right arm, so to speak?
JK: ‘Sugarland Express’ was pretty amazing.
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War Horse hits theaters Christmas Day.