The Gambler – Greig Fraser interview (exclusive)
Interview by Rob Carnevale
CINEMATOGRAPHER Greig Fraser talks about working with Rupert Wyatt and Mark Wahlberg on The Gambler and some of the many challenges it represented.
He also discusses his respect for Wahlberg, revisits one of his own personal favourite memories of working with Brad Pitt and the late James Gandolfini and what he considers to be his own biggest gamble, professionally speaking.
Q. What kind of visual challenges did The Gambler represent? And did you enjoy tackling a film that wears its ‘70s influences so proudly?
Greig Fraser: Oh absolutely! I think the thing that drew me to it was working with Rupert, which is a fantastic thing for a DP [director of photography]. I saw his first film, The Escapist, and absolutely loved it. I thought it was a really classic, beautiful film. And also being given the ability to work with somebody like [Mark] Wahlberg, who is a completely fantastic actor, human, professional, everything… name everything that he is and he’s top of the field. So, what were the challenges that were presented? Well, in my mind, and in Rupert’s mind, we weren’t making a remake – that wasn’t at the top of the tree in terms of our importance.
But we did want to explore the idea that we had a great script with a lot of great dialogue and we really wanted to give that dialogue and air to be able to present itself. We wanted Mark and Brie [Larson] and John Goodman and all those other great actors to really be able to sit there and be able to act their hearts out and feel like it’s all going ot come across on screen. So, we wanted to make sure we were going to keep the camera i one place. The ‘70s were a very amazing time for filmmaking because it felt like the cameras had gotten small enough that you could hand-hold a camera if you really wanted to, bit people were still working off classic ‘50s and ‘60s filmmaking… you know, dolly track and classic pushes in and tracks. So, that was a really great time for filmmaking because you had the freedom to move the camera or not move the camera depending on what was best for the scene. So, we were really trying hard to be a bit more classic with the camera. So, we hand-held at times and we kept the camera still at times, when it needed to be held still.
Q. Had you seen the original and were you encouraged to? Or was it more the case that you avoided watching it as you weren’t really doing a remake?
Greig Fraser: No, I avoided it. I hadn’t seen it and I avoided watching it. It’s completely different. The original is set in New York, and this is set in LA, so we really wanted to present an image of LA that was not like LA. I think we made a few rules that you should never see a palm tree, because it’s LA. We did break that once when we were in the casino car park. There’s a really beautiful shot of the car park where the car is driving in and there happens to be a few palm trees in the midst of this desert of cars. So, we kind of allowed that. But as well as [it being] an ode to William Monahan’s amazing script, it was also an ode to the city of LA; an ode to a city that Rupert and I have adopted as our home. Rupert’s from the UK and I’m from Australia, but we both live in Venice Beach. So, we’ve both kind of adopted that city, which some people feel is quite an ugly city, but we feel it’s stunningly beautiful. So, it’s a bit of an ode to thgat beautiful.
Q. How was working with Rupert and how open was he to your ideas?
Greig Fraser: Well, he was very open to ideas but he also had a lot of strong ideas too and I think that’s the mark of an excellent director, where they can come into a film with a lot of strong ideas and they can bend at times if they feel that someone has come up with a better one. But they can also stay true to the idea when they feel like they need to. He did exactly that. He’s a really fantastic director of the crew. He’s a really good leader of the crew and he’s a really good leader of the cast. I think the cast really responded well to him. I think he really responded well to the script and he really worked with the actors to just make sure it was properly told. So, it was a great experience. I do tend to think that the Australians and the English do tend to have a bit of a common language and I felt like he and I being in charge of a group of Americans was a really interesting dynamic. So, it was great watching that dynamic in the US and in LA.
Q. This is a very different performance from Mark Wahlberg in that it’s obsessive and more restrained. How did you go about enhancing this feeling? And what was your working relationship like with him?
Greig Fraser: Well, Mark Wahlberg is nothing but a professional and nothing but the sweetest man on the planet. I think everything about him… he works so hard and he’s so talented. I was explaining this to somebody while we were shooting. Was it Thomas Edison that said ‘genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration’, or something like that. I don’t want to be misquoted on that. But he’s such a hard worker and such a professional… there’s a 10-page scene in there that he knew word for word for word. I was blown away. Not only did he know the words, he had such subtlety with his performance. I’ve been very fortunate enough to be witness to some amazing performances in my career and Mark, every time he opened his mouth, the subtlety of each performance changes. Rupert might come to him and suggest a different reading of a certain line and you’d hear the whole tone change. He’s a very flexible fella, which I really appreciate, particularly in Hollywood where some people aren’t. He’s just a complete professional and insanely talented… it’s almost a little bit inhuman because he’s so talented and so hard working… the girls love him. I don’t know how one man can get so lucky!
Q. What’s the biggest gamble you’ve ever taken professionally?
Greig Fraser: Oh, that’s a difficult question – and a very good question. Hmm, I don’t know about that actually. Very often, as your choosing films, or as I’m choosing my films, you need to respond to what your heart says and what your instincts are saying because ultimately your instincts are all that you’ve got. And there have been times, and I won’t name films and I won’t name projects because that’s not fair, where something comes along and it’s four months out of your life, and its away from your family, and it’s terribly paid, and it’s all these things, and your instincts are saying ‘do it, do it… if you don’t do it you’re going to be pissed at yourself’.
But there have been a few of those projects where everything on the page says ‘xxxx’ and everything instinctually in me has gone tick, tick, tick. So, I sort of see that as a bit of a gamble. A film is four, five, six months sometimes out of your life and it’s away from your loved ones. You never get that back. I’ve got two kids and you never get that time back. So, to do something that maybe logically is not right… I’ve done a few of those but I’ve been extremely fortune enough to listen to my instincts an the gamble has paid off. Whether or not it’s paid off in my career, or whether it’s paid off internally… if I get to the end of the fm and watch it and go ‘I’m really glad I did that film, or that project’. It’s not just films either. There are short films and shorter projects too where the same thing applies.
Q. You’ve done some amazing films throughout your career, including – most recently – Foxcatcher. So, how was working with Bennett Miller and what was the biggest challenge on that movie for you?
Greig Fraser: Um, Bennett is an insanely talented director. The challenges on that were significantly different to something like The Gambler because Foxcatcher was away from home, for a start. And it’s quite dark material. It’s very, very dark and foreboding material. And it’s impossible to really have a deep understanding of the material without being affected by that darkness. There have been a couple of films that I’ve done where I’ve been sucked into that darkness and Foxcatcher is one of them. I did a film called Out Of The Blue, which is a New Zealand film about a mass murder. It’s a true story, which was the same situation where you get sucked into the darkness.
But you need to in order to be able to properly respond to a scene or to the story. So, that was a challenge. I think that each film presents its own challenges in the sense that you get there in the morning and there’s a couple of bits of paper with some lines of dialogue on it and you’ve got some actors that kind of have an idea of what to do, so the challenge is often about trying to mould and sculpt that into a scene that then fits the preceding scene and the scene after, and the entire tone of the film. And that’s one of the things that I particularly love about working with Bennett… to mould and sculpt those scenes from my point of view, which is the visual. You don’t suddenly want to bring a steadicam out when all you really want is an imperceptible dolly track. You want to be attuned to what that scene needs at that point of time.
Q. What is your favourite memory of working on The Gambler and what new thing did you learn to take forward?
Greig Fraser: My favourite part of the film? Sometimes there are certain scenes that you do that you just go ‘wow’. There was a scene with John Goodman and Mark Wahlberg in the nightclub where they’re watching the races and I remember watching that scene… there’s a few scenes in my life that I’ve just been astounded by. I did a scene with James Gandolfini and Brad Pitt in Killing Them Softly and I remember going away from that thinking, ‘I’m so fortunate in my job to have born witness to that particular performance or that point in history’. And for me, that is a strong point in history. And that particular scene with John Goodman and Mark Wahlberg, I thought I’d just born witness to one of the great performances and I’m very fortunate.
The Gambler is released in UK cinemas on Friday, January 23, 2015.