By David Hennessy
Acclaimed director of photography Seamus McGarvey from Armagh was delighted to be nominated for an Oscar for a second time last year, even though it meant he lost $100 in a bet to director, Gareth Edwards.
Seamus, whose acclaimed work on Atonement had already earned him a nod from the Academy, tells The Irish World how the Welsh director was more confident the Northern Irishman’s work on Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina would be recognised than McGarvey himself: “I was shooting Godzilla and Gareth said: ‘I bet you you get an Oscar nomination tomorrow’. And I said: ‘I bet you $100 I don’t’. And luckily and gratefully, it was announced I had got an Oscar nomination so I had to come in and present him with $100. It was the best $100 I ever paid. I might bet against myself (again).”
Working as a DOP since 1990, Seamus McGarvey’s work includes epic cinema like Atonement and Anna Karenina, moving dramas such as The Hours, We Need to Talk About Kevin and World Trade Centre and book adaptations like Nowhere Boy and High Fidelity.
McGarvey was drawn to working on Godzilla by the impressive debut of its director, Monsters, where the special effects, direction of photography, production design also came from the director, Edwards: “I was so impressed by Monsters. It was low budget but that doesn’t matter. We all start on low budget films and money doesn’t make a good movie. You can see the imaginative film makers early on and Gareth is definitely one of those people. He had certainly done his ground work by laying the foundations of visual effects and expanding his expertise in that area but beyond that, he is someone who has an innate talent for telling a story eloquently. So often, especially with visual effects, it’s all about explosions and the story, the narrative gets left by the wayside but what I noticed in that film is that I was drawn in by the narrative drive but also it had an emotional core and I felt really emotionally involved.
“He’s one of the hardest working directors I’ve worked with but he’s also someone who is not affected by the big studio behemoth, the juggernaut: It’s quite scary.”
Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Bryan Cranston, Godzilla, currently in cinemas, cost $165 million. Even with his experience, can Seamus get thrown by the scale of such productions? “I always do. When you’re driving onto the set and you drive past lorry after lorry, trailers, trucks, I just think: ‘Look at the size of this, the money that’s being spent’.
“I find it hard to abandon my fear when I get on one of those big sets like The Avengers, Godzilla or this PAN but when I get in, it’s familiar territory which is really the same whether I’m doing a Lynne Ramsay film We Need to talk About Kevin or The Avengers or Godzilla. As soon the clapper board goes click, you’re in the silent inner sanctum of focus where magic hopefully happens in front of the camera. That’s a real privilege and kind of the joy of my job: That I get to witness these things crystalising right in front of your eyes that hopefully lots of people will see and get enjoyment from if you do your job right and the story is good. I don’t think about the scale of it when I’m shooting. If I did, I’d have a nervous breakdown.”
Featuring aesthetic feats like a carnage creating tsunami and the adrenaline rush of where the camera falls vertically at speed with the free falling soldiers, the re-imagined monster movie involved many sequences for Seamus to think about: “Action sequences are very challenging because they involve the contribution and collaboration between several departments in the team. “My greatest collaborator, and I am theirs, is the visual effects department. On a film like this myself and the visual effects supervisor have to go into it hand in hand, in constant dialogue, because so often in the past when visual effects were kind of pasted on afterwards not necessarily as an afterthought but they very often in the worst films sat apart from the spirit and magic of the rest of the film. That’s something I really wanted to avoid.”
Godzilla features Bryan Cranston who uses the same presence that kept audiences compelled through five series of Breaking Bad when he plays nuclear plant supervisor Joe Brody who loses his wife in a mysterious work incident. It also stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Brody’s son, a bomb disposal specialist, who discovers that his disgraced father has been right all along when he spoke about a cover up at their old home and workplace.
Known for films like Kick- Ass, Taylor-Johnson had already worked with Seamus on Nowhere Boy and Anna Karenina. Godzilla could spring the 23- year- old Buckinghamshire actor onto even bigger things: “I’ve always been aware that he had that talent. When I met him first on Nowhere Boy, I was so impressed with how he threw himself into the role: The early John Lennon before fame and all the push and pull of his emotions. He really got it and I thought: ‘Wow, this is magnificent’. Very often, actors see things as spring boards, they’ve got career aspirations and sensibilities. Aaron launched himself into the role and embraced the role, not the idea of what it may lead to. I think he does that with every role he does. I think his performance in Godzilla is great.”
Seamus has an even longer working relationship with Aaron’s wife, Sam Taylor-Wood with the two working together since she was exhibiting fine art in the early 1990s. Seamus has recently directed photography on Sam’s eagerly awaited screen adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey: “His wife Sam Taylor is probably the most enduring collaboration I’ve had with any director because I shot a lot of her photographs and installations for 20 years now, it’s really been a long friendship.
“When we did Nowhere Boy, it was great to see them get together. It came out of the blue but I’ve worked with them several times since. He’s just such a lovely guy and great father and it’s just lovely to see that.”
Mentioning Sam, how conscious is Seamus of the high levels of expectation for the film version of EL James’ novel, starring Jamie Dornan? “I know (everyone’s talking about it). Hopefully they won’t be disappointed. I can’t really talk about the film but I do know it’s going to be a very sexy film,” he laughs like he knows that could be putting it mildly.
“Sam had a unique approach to her photographs and the installations, they always had a deeply psychological side to them. There was always something that was deeply personal there but also psychologically sexy and I think it was very wise of the studio to hire a director like Sam to shepherd this hugely anticipated book through to cinema which is a different media. I know it’s hotly anticipated but I hope that she has, and I’ve helped, to make something that stands alone but is based on the revered book that has such a fan base.
“It’s a great responsibility when you know that there are all these people just desperate to know but the difficult thing is the imagination proliferates and every reader has his or her notion of what they’re seeing in the writing and obviously a director’s vision might not accord with that but if audiences can give themselves up to Sam’s reading of the book, I hope they won’t be disappointed because I’m very excited about it myself.”
Seamus began his career as a stills photographer before training in cinematography at the University of Westminster. He began shooting short films and documentaries. An early piece, Atlantic, directed by Sam Taylor- Wood was nominated for the Turner Prize.
“My advice to any aspirant film makers is to firstly look around you. I grew up in Armagh and everything I think about is always kind of linked with there: The way I feel, the way I think, the way I talk, the roots are all in Armagh. That’s where I come from and that’s where your vision is set. So I would say to young film makers coming up: Look around you, that’s all you have to do because the epic is in the every day, the epic is in the parochial, the epic is in the here and now that you’re living. It doesn’t get bigger, it just gets different.”
One time it could have seemed closed off to many but Seamus sees the industry now as more accessible than it’s ever been: “I think the film makers coming up now are in a privileged position because when I was starting out, the only thing I could afford was a super 8 but now they’ve got all these cameras, they can do anything with, people throw them around and emulate Hollywood but here you can buy a camera for very little and photograph something that can be broadcast, put in the cinema, that can change people’s lives, that people can identify with. Stories need to be told, I think particularly in Ireland, particularly in Northern Ireland. There’s a few films that have come out that I think of as meaningful, that aren’t corny old scripts but I think there’s an opportunity for people to tell their own stories and do so in a very moving way with new technology. It’s just incredible what’s possible.”
Right now, Seamus is shooting PAN with Joe Wright. Wright and McGarvey have combined on Pride and Prejudice, Atonement and Anna Karenina with the latter bringing him award recognition. They are currently working together again in London on Pan, a fantasy drama starring Hugh Jackman and Amanda Seyfried: “It’s great because Joe’s an old friend of mine and we’ve done four feature films, shorts and numerous commercials so there’s a great rapport between us. There’s a democracy of ideas when we work together, there’s no pride and that way we get to push the boat out occasionally, it’s a good exchange. We usually get quite creatively excited during the round table discussions when ideas are thrown in and either absorbed or abandoned.”
On his success working with Wright, Seamus is modest: “That’s the thing. When you work with a visionary director, your cinematography appears good. I’m a better director of photography with Joe Wright not only because we get on so well but because he thinks with the camera as a conduit to his imagination. Joe is very specific about a shot and the meaning of a shot so he thinks very carefully about editing and music beforehand and I think that comes across. I just got in and it was quite a taxing day but I’m still looking really forward to getting back to work tomorrow even though I feel like I’ve been in a boxing ring all day.”
Seamus worked with Oliver Stone and Nic Cage on World Trade Centre. Has he ever been star struck? “I’ve worked with people like Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz and all these amazing actresses but the only time I’ve ever been star struck, and it wasn’t star struck in that classic sense but, it was somebody that I so admire and it was Vanessa Redgrave when we did Atonement. She was only there for a day but she came on and did this performance that was so incredible, I was just agog and it’s just such a privilege to witness a great actor who is a great person and whose politics I admire greatly. She was such a lovely person, I remember in between takes she was sitting on the ground having a cigarette and I sat down beside her and was talking to her and she was so direct and unassuming and not the huge star that she is. I thought: ‘That’s why her performances are so profound, she retains her humanness’.”
It’s positive reception has already seen a Godzilla sequel announced in the last week. The Irish World ask Seamus if he will be on board? “They haven’t called me about that but I would be on it like a shot. If Gareth asked me to do Magic Roundabout the Movie, I would do it. I would do anything with Gareth, he’s amazing.”
For the full interview, see the May 31 Irish World.
Godzilla is in cinemas now.