Steven Bernstein on the unifying intelligence of directing
Steven Bernstein, Director of Photography on such films as Monster, Like Water For Chocolate, and White Chicks, talks to us about his varied career, working with first-time directors, making his own switch to directing, and his latest feature Last Call, starring Rhys Ifans, Tony Hale, Rodrigo Santoro, Romola Garai, and John Malkovich.
Never underestimate the power of the word 'pub'. And certainly not the appetite that most people working in film and TV have for a pub. In a time when our access to them has been blocked by a pandemic, starting up a virtual pub for filmmakers on Clubhouse seemed like a no brainer. If you build it, they will come.
And one evening, our pub was indeed visited by Steven Bernstein. The prolific Director of Photography turned Director, who has filmed and directed just about every genre of Hollywood film there is - the Oscar-winning drama Monster, comedy hit White Chicks, and even Mexican indie classic Like Water For Chocolate - popped in for a pretend pint that turned into a wonderful group chat about film, which led to our chat for Exit 6.
Within moments of speaking with Bernstein, it's clear he lives and breathes cinema and visual storytelling. As such, you can't help but feel he would be just at home in a lecture hall, as he would be on a film set. What set him down the path to the latter?
"I had been writing since I was young, so there was a predisposition or an interest in some sort of creative expression. Then at university, as was popular then, the thing to do was to go out and see important independent films at grungy little cinemas somewhere. I began seeing French films, Nouvelle Vague, and important independent American films. I mean Scorsese was really making a name for himself then, Coppola and others were making films that were different than the studio system had engendered, it was that independent revolution in America. Obviously, independent films had been going in Europe for some time and American cinema had been different, but not at this time period, so it seemed like a possible means of expression.
"It was about that time I was in the UK. A producer had this idea of recording bands so that labels could look at them and decide if they were worth investing in. I had the gear, so we began shooting some of these. They became more and more popular, we shot some big bands, then there was a whole phenomenon at the time where everybody who wanted an important music video shot, was shooting in the UK. That led me to commercials and most importantly to a guy named Tony Kaye, who became a legend as a commercial director. We shot a commercial called 'Dog, Cat & Mouse' for British Solid Fuels, which won the Cannes Golden Lion and the D&AD award, and then I was kind of launched which lead to features.
"I shot some films in the UK, one in Ireland, and then I had a very good friend named Gabriel Beristain, who was a Mexican that had come to the National Film School in the UK. He had been offered a film in Mexico, which he couldn't do after getting his break going to Hollywood, so he recommended me. So, I went to Mexico and shot a film called Like Water For Chocolate, which became this international phenomenon and that seemed to be a passport for my potential work in Hollywood."
Bernstein did indeed head to Los Angeles after the success of the film, but it was his first time there. Not knowing anyone in town, he proceeded to write letters introducing himself to everyone who might need his services. He was eventually taken on by a small production company for an 'awful' super low-budget feature, but one that would lead him to much better places.
"It's funny how it works. I met a lot of people on that film, including the production manager who knew of another very small, independent film. A kid from New York had got a little money together and was looking for a cinematographer who had a European sensibility and a highly stylized look, which was what I was known for from commercials, music videos and Like Water For Chocolate. So she introduced me to Noah Baumbach, and I shot Noah's first three films Kicking and Screaming, Mr. Jealousy and Highball, and of course Noah became a phenomenon.
"Then I began getting more and more calls, including one from Ernest Dickerson for who I shot a big studio action film called Bulletproof. That's how I met The Wayans Brothers, who then asked me to shoot all their films, which lead to Scary Movie 2, Little Man, and of course, White Chicks - which I'm asked about more than any other film I've done - then all the other films after that."
It's at this point in his career that things become interesting, in terms of the work he's offered and the opportunities that are made available to him.
"It gets very strange in Hollywood. They they don't have time to do careful detailed analysis of what your strengths and weaknesses are. They look at what you've done before, and they offer you that in the future. Part of that is to do with insurance policies. I don't a mean physical insurance policy, more a career insurance policy for mid range studio executives. They don't want to hire someone who fails because they'll lose their jobs. So they're not really interested in hiring someone who's a genius or imaginative or iconoclastic, they want a safe pair of hands. So once you've shot a comedy, you'll get hired to shoot other comedies. Once you've shot it an important drama, you get hired to shoot other important dramas.
"So after I did Bulletproof, which was comic action, I got lots of offers for both comedy and for action. After I did Monster, anything about psychopaths, serial killers, dark dramas, I was I was offered. I worked with a lot of first-time directors, so I kept getting offered work with first-time directors."
For any filmmaker looking to tell a story in a new genre, it sounds a bit like a 'chicken and egg' situation. How do you go about making the leap?
"That is good fortune, or good interview techniques. Bulletproof was an important film for me because it was my first really big studio film. The director was Ernest Dickerson, who was Spike Lee's cinematographer for a long time. He had all these different people coming to meet him to shoot the film, but when I came in, as a cineaste, we began talking about European films, Italian neo-horror, and obscure Japanese and Korean films that we had seen but no one else had. I had a connection with him that others didn't. He responded to me, and I said to him, and he hired me. Not that Universal wasn't providing obstacles to this British American DP who had done some independent films, but not a major studio film. Ernest pushed very hard for me, and gave me that opportunity and made a difference."
"You know, you do your show reels, and you try very hard to demonstrate your skill set, you hope that will be enough, but it's never enough. They want to see the whole film, they want to see how you handle the whole scene. They want to know whether you can deal with major artists. You could be a great technician, but then say something awful to an actor or actress. Those are the things that make them nervous. But I convinced them, along with Ernest, along with the award-winning commercials, along with Like Water For Chocolate. It was just a perfect storm of enough small things that lead to something much, much bigger."
"How you transition from one type to another once you've done one film, still remains difficult. Even though I shot Monster, and action films like Murder at 1600 and SWAT, people see White Chicks, and some art-inclined directors think that makes me a Bulgarian! And vice versa, if someone's got a comedy they're thinking, 'Oh, you might be a little bit dark'. Or because I've directed, my chance to do cinematography would be very difficult now, because they'd be worried that I want to direct. It's a minefield. Even if you get a break, and you do a comedy action film, suddenly the little dramas disappear. I stopped getting offered independent dramas after I did Bulletproof because they thought I was a studio guy. No matter what you do, you'll have some advantage, and then something to your detriment."
Bernstein is now very much a director, and hung up his spurs as a Director of Photography. However, having worked with a lot of new directors in his time, including Patty Jenkins, he has some advice for those starting out on their first features.
"It's interesting, and the experience of different ones is different. They're all naturally a little bit frightened, I would think. I don't mean to be disrespectful to any of them, but taking on a film is a big thing, and I would always try to have as much time in pre-production with them as I could so we could plan every sequence out. Then even if we didn't use the plan, I knew that they were having to think about things like, 'Are we going to move the camera or not? How much time does it really take to light a scene? How much time are we going to have to do this sequence? If you had to pare this back, what would you do?'. And when you're doing that together in a room, it's easier for them to reveal what they don't know, and get what information from me they want to extract. Then when they're on set, they don't have to be asking me the questions that might subvert their ability to lead the crew.
"By the same token, when I direct, my own technique is always tell everyone what I don't know, what my weaknesses or vulnerabilities are. The hardest thing is to sustain a myth about yourself, so if you don't have to do that it takes all the pressure away. So I would gently encourage them to do that. All the first-time directors I worked with were very characterful people themselves, and although they didn't necessarily have a lot of experience directing films, they certainly knew how to lead people. Patty Jenkins, had come out of the AFI film school, so she knew something about film, but of course, never directed a feature before. But my God, she was strong, a great leader. At the same time she was gentle, always very respectful of everyone, but very clear about what she wanted. When she didn't know something she'd ask, we'd have a quiet conversation, and I would give her options. That's what I do with most first-time directors."
"The other thing they generally worry about the set politics. There are so many people watching and judging. Producers concerned about money, Assistant Directors concerned about schedule, and if anything, I would have to help them navigate that. The crew's never going to love you all the time. They're always going to think they know better. Don't worry about that, just charge forward. Most importantly, provide a vision. Tell the crew at the beginning of the day what you intend to do. Don't worry about how it's going to be done technically, leave that to them. What they'll be looking to you for, and every director whether first-time or not, is the unifying vision. You don't have to have special technical ability or experience to provide that. Their job was principally making judgments about other people's work, rather than doing or knowing how to do the work themselves."
As a director who is also a very experienced Director of Photography, is there an intimidation factor working with new DoP's?
"Yeah, all the time. And the other way around for me as well with with Ernest Dickerson, who shot Spike Lee's films, I thought he was going to be judging everything that I do. And Ernest said something very important to me, something I've used subsequently, he said, 'Make your choices. You're an artist. I'm here as director to facilitate and I will support your choices'. I say that to every one of my department heads. I'll give the overall vision, but if you have a better idea, put it forward. My job is to be the unifying intelligence, not the sole intelligence. I'd rather you take a risk and fail, than make fear-based decisions.
"In a studio system, virtually every decision is fear-based. They have so many people working on a film, it's fortunate they still managed to make movies. Everyone is frightened about losing that game. So are you going to take a big risk? Unlikely. So, they hire brilliant people, bring them into the system, and then everyone begins compromising their vision because they're so frightened of failing. It's a very strange thing. As a good director, you want to facilitate the inverse of that. Take risks. Fail together gloriously, or by some happy accidents succeed. We took huge risks on Monster, and we won an Oscar. We took huge risks on Like Water For Chocolate, and it became the highest grossing foreign language independent film of all time. I believe you have a better chance of succeeding, ultimately, if you take risks. You also have a better chance of failing, but that's the game."
He was more than willing to take risks on his new feature Last Call. The film, written and directed by Bernstein, depicts the self-destructive demise of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, played by Rhys Ifans in a tour-de-force performance.
"I think dance is the most kinetic, visceral, and the most primal form of filmmaking. It's everything that you want to do to engage an audience without using the spoken word. So I put a tango sequence in the middle of Last Call, I shot in black and white, and when I finished it, I went to the cutting room and was suddenly overwhelmed by this act of absolute self-destructive madness. Black and White films are hard to distribute, but one with a dance scene, about a poet in the in the 1950s? I panicked. What if it doesn't make any money? What if it can't get a release? Fortunately, the film got a happy ending, but still, taking risks inevitably makes us terrified, but we should press on anyway."
The film also boasts a stellar supporting cast that includes John Malkovich. Writing and working with actors are the main reasons he sees his days as a cinematographer behind him.
"It's the thing that prevents me from ever going back to cinematography properly. I love working with with actors, and I love writing. And the combination of great actors saying things that I've written is a satisfaction that I can't find anywhere else. When I wrote Last Call, it was originally intended for the theatre, but when I saw John Malkovich saying words that I had written, in a big close up in black and white, there's nothing that could equal that pleasure.
"I gave John hundreds of pages of backstory about the imagined life of his character. Then he came back to me with his version of the backstory, and we bounced backwards and forwards. We were on set one day where he and Tony Hale were doing a scene together. I was loving the energy, and I said, 'Let's do a little improvisation the moments before the conversation that I've written'. So, the three of us were sitting there with our pencils, looking at the script, thinking about the improv, looking at the playback of the improv. We combined it all together, and then shot the scene."
Having had the opportunity to learn so much about filmmaking as a director and a cinematographer, if he had the chance, what advice would he go back and give himself at the start of his career?
"Practice positive habits, and don't ignore information in front of you about projects you have doubts about taking. Force yourself to see the world as it is, rather than as you want it to be."
You can follow Steven on Instagram: @StevenBernsteinDirectorWriter