John Seale: Shooting Reality

November 26, 2019
At the recent Screen Producers Australia’s Screen Forever conference, we spoke with the Oscar-winning cinematographer behind Dead Poets Society, Rain Man and Mad Max: Fury Road.

One of the most lauded cinematographers in the world, the achievements of Australian luminary John Seale AM ACS ASC speak for themselves.

The Queensland-born DOP’s CV reads like a list of some of the best-regarded films of the last half-century: Witness. Dead Poet Society. The Talented Mr. Ripley. The Perfect Storm. Mad Max: Fury Road.

Spanning over six+ decades of movies including working with Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford, both twice; and 5 Academy Award nominations including 1 win, his varied career includes films with Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Witness, The Mosquito Coast, Dead Poets Society), John Boorman (Beyond Rangoon), Sydney Pollack (The Firm), Barry Levinson (Rain Man), Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) and George Miller (Lorenzo’s Oil) – for starters.

Seale’s last work as cinematographer, the George Miller-directed Mad Max: Fury Road, was the first film the acclaimed craftsman filmed with digital cameras. The resulting movie was nominated for 10 Academy Awards.

Speaking about his thoughts on the craft, we caught up exclusively with the storied filmmaker to discuss the situation in cinematography today, maintaining optimism, finding the visual style of Rain Man, working with Peter Weir on Dead Poets Society, and exclusive details about a new project.

You’ve been a key lensman in your field for over three decades. Noted cinematographers such as the Italian cameraman Vittorio Storaro (Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now, Reds) have gone on record to say the art of cinematography is being impeded by digital innovation as filmmakers aren’t placing as much importance on lighting due to capabilities of modern cameras; that lighting is being underused as an aspect of filmmaking. Do you agree?

I’m afraid I have to, at this stage, agree a little. I haven’t been filming digitally mostly. I did Mad Max: Fury Road digitally, my first digital film ever, and haven’t done anything since on digital, so I’m a little bit behind trying to talk about it. But I do talk to a lot of people in the business and on the grapevine, and they’re offering much the same thoughts, that a lot of producers, studios and money people are thinking that because most films are shot digitally, and because digital cameras can really handle low light levels, you don’t need to light anything more. After watching the evolution into the digital world, I have this little feeling in my mind that an awful lot of it is what I’m calling “digital dullness”. You can shoot low-light, but it ends up flat. I don’t like that. I think we should be doing better than that. And people should provide budgets to allow for lighting.

You came out of a very important time in American and European Cinema, with innovative and unique cinematographers working such as like Raoul Coutard (Contempt, Shoot The Piano Player), Nester Almendros (Claire’s Knee, Days of Heaven) and Conrad C. Hall (Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). Were these practitioners an inspiration to you or your photographic style and your desire to get into cinematography?

Yes, I think my learning process of lighting was very old fashioned, came out of those guys. It was a very formal way. However, I realised that I didn’t like that formal style. There are some aspects of that I did like which is continuity, the flow that I felt that we visually should maintain, lighting wise. But I didn’t agree with a lot of the older rules. So, I did break that tradition a little bit.

I love the look of available light because it’s the reality of life and the situations that we would like to put actors into, so the audiences think “that’s real, that is happening”, which is what we want to go for. But there is this terrible moment where it can go to flat and just end up gluggy and doesn’t have any craft of photography in it. The lighting of a film should be enhanced. We can’t lose that craft.

I don’t think we should always try and strive to make everything beautiful and perfect. Because life isn’t really. I remember in very early days of the ‘60s and ‘70s in Australia, the cameramen were shooting great stuff, but the scripts couldn’t keep up with them in the depth that was needed. People used to say to me, “have you seen so and so cameraman’s new film? It looks fantastic”. And I’d say “Well, what’s the film like?” I feel that the cinematography of a movie should match the script.

What do you think of the major movies today, and what’s been made compared to when you started?

I think they’re in a quandary. I think that the big studios just want to do Marvel comics, because that’s the big money spinner, and the real films of reality and life are struggling to find the money. But they’re still being made, people are persevering and still making them. And some of them are wonderful. I’ve been watching an awful lot of stuff and more coming up now with this year’s films being nominated for the Academy Awards. I do vote on that. There’s an awful lot of new ones that I’m dying to see. Can’t wait to see.

I did race along to see Gemini Man because of Ang Lee’s incredible thoughts on the modern approach to technological visualisation. However, the technology took me out of the film’s reality. It’s too sharp. There’s no motion blur. It was not good visualisation of the story. Downton Abbey was very real and created an era of the past, which it did beautifully. I feel that the English cameramen are keeping hold of the craft and recreating the past, and doing very, very well at it. The Marvel comic things, most of it is CGI now. It’s not reality.

You’ve got a unique and varied list of films in your CV stretching five decades, including working with director Barry Levinson on the seminal film Rain Man in 1988. Do you have any highlights from your many great films?

I loved working on Rain Man because Dustin and Tom as the lead actors were ad-libbing. They are bouncing off each other, which shows that both, I felt, were in their characters and therefore they could change the script. There was also a writers’ strike on at the time, so they weren’t allowed to change a single word of the script. Dustin and Tom ad-libbed because they couldn’t change the script, one might say. Barry Levinson as a director was very laid back. We didn’t have a style for the film. We both agreed in a way that it’s a very contemporary film. It was totally modern day. Of that year. We thought “let’s go shoot it. Whatever is given to us. Let’s shoot it”. And in a way, I love that, because I’ve always loved the idea of shooting available light. Because that’s the reality of the situation. That was as close to shooting available light as any feature film I’ve ever done.

Dead Poets Society was another great experience where we worked with natural light. Peter Weir, our director, had a lot of story to tell. And we had to shoot it in a very short time. And we went as fast as we could. Back then, I think we had only one camera coverage. I think we had 21 setups a day with a single camera. And that was 10-hour days. In shooting that, I relied as much as I could on available light, and then supplemented it. So, there was, I hope, still a semblance of craft in there.

Have you have you had any discussions with George Miller about more Mad Max films and possibly working together again?

George has got two scripts; I’ve read one of them. And they will be made. George takes his time, which is fine. Although I’ve retired, I talked with George on Fury Road about a small ensemble film that he wanted to do between the next Mad Max films, and he rang, six years later, after Mad Max, and he said, “I’m doing it and I’d love you to do it”. I always said if he didn’t think I was too old or senile, that I’d love to help. I wasn’t expecting the phone call to be honest. And we’re in “pre-pre-pre-production” at the moment. And we’ll be shooting I think in May next year.

That’s the production with Tilda Swinton, Ten Thousand Years of Longing?

It is. I think with George, he’ll do a big film and a penguin film and a Mad Max, and then he’ll do a lovely little ensemble film. And he’s gonna do it again. I love that. It’ll be very different.

You’ve had a storied career. Are there any other projects that would make you come out of retirement, or that you’ve seriously thought about committing to?

No. I’ve found a lovely peace one might say. I’ve made 50-60 odd films over 65 years. That’s enough for me. I’ve got five grandchildren. The trouble is the films that I was involved with were filming for so long. Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone, I was 11 months door to door in England shooting that. I was away from home for 11 months. That’s nearly a year out of your life. So, I don’t want to do anything like that again. I want to be near the grandchildren. I want to be able to say to my wife, “let’s go to see this festival”. And we can schedule it. If I say yes to any film that’s longer than 11 weeks, which George’s film is, then we can’t do that. I think it’s time that I should be allowed to do that.

Leave a Comment