Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and Make-Up Designer Lois Burwell Talk LINCOLN and Collaborating with Steven Speilberg and Daniel Day-Lewis

     November 27, 2012


In Lincoln, as the Civil War neared its conclusion in early 1865, newly re-elected President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis, in a truly remarkable, award-worthy performance) was determined to unite Congress in passing a Constitutional amendment to abolish slavery.  Facing fierce pro-slavery opposition, Lincoln employed strategy, persuasion and political muscle to get a swift and decisive victory before the impeding Confederate surrender, so as not to risk losing the opportunity to end slavery.

At the film’s press day, I had the opportunity to speak with Academy Award winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and make-up designer Lois Burwell, whose contributions to the film make a huge impact to the overall mood and feel of the story, for this exclusive interview for Collider, in which they talked about what they enjoy about their collaboration with such a consummate storyteller as Steven Spielberg, the importance of developing a shorthand with the director you’re working with, the decision not to storyboard the film, collaborating with actor Daniel Day-Lewis on this make-up for the role, and what the experience of awards season is like for them (the film is sure to receive nominations in a number of categories).  Kaminski also shared his preference for film over digital, and why he feels that way.  Check out what they had to say after the jump.

janusz-kaminski-steven-spielbergCollider:  Having worked with Steven Spielberg for so long, is it nice to have him still be able to surprise you, in what he wants and expects from you?

LOIS BURWELL:  Yes!  All the films are different, aren’t they?  So, there’s a different criteria for each different story that you’re making.  Because Steven is the consummate storyteller, the narrative drives everything.  It drives all of us.  That’s the storytelling process. 

JANUSZ KAMINSKI:  After so many years, you know what’s going to happen.  You don’t necessarily exactly know, but from my perspective, I know how we’re going to make the movie.  Since I have that knowledge, I can be more sufficient in providing the logistics of making the movie.  The schedule is always very fast and always demanding.  The only way you can make a movie in such a short time with the production values that we provide is to know what he may be expecting from us.  

BURWELL:  That’s true. 

KAMINSKI:  And that works because we know what’s going to happen.  On this movie, we chose a style that’s very restrained and very calculated and respectful of the performance.  Things became a little bit easier from the technical point of view because we were not asked to come up with these unusual camera rigs and lighting rigs and all that stuff.  It was pretty much like photographing a really amazing play.  The story was told that way.  We didn’t have any signature visual storytelling.  He was interested in a camera that’s very active.  We were very respectful of the written word and the actor’s performance, and they were so great that we really didn’t have to use any enhancements with the camera to make it more interesting.  It was just an interesting story to watch. 

Janusz, how much did you rely on storyboards versus coming up with shots on the set?

KAMINSKI:  We didn’t storyboard.  We would talk about the scene and how we were going to do it, and then the actors would walk over to the set and we’d shoot.  It wasn’t complicated.  Most of the time people were sitting.  It’s not an active movie, in terms of people’s blocking.  So, you find interesting angles that tell the story and just go for it. 

daniel-day-lewis-lincolnIs it important to you to develop a shorthand with the filmmaker you’re working with, so that you’re not constantly micro-managed, but instead are trusted for what you bring to a project?

KAMINSKI:  It would be horrible to be micro-managed!  I don’t think directors can really micro-manage people.  It’s just impossible.  The machine is too large. 

BURWELL:  They try, but they don’t get very far.  I love working with the edit.  We see rushes every day, if we can.  Our workload lets us.                        

KAMINSKI:  You can’t really micro-manage.  You’ll never make the movie in 52 days, if you micro-manage.  If you do that, you take the creativity away from people because people just really quickly become disinterested when they’re always being told how to do it.  We’re ready to go and do our job.  [Spielberg] surrounds himself with great crew members who are at the top of their game and know their stuff.  He motivates us by liking what we do, and he doesn’t get paralyzed by the process or by new ideas.  He embraces them and uses them.  The greatest directors are the greatest users.  They use people’s talents to tell the story that they want to tell.  User is a bad word, but he’s the greatest appreciater of other people’s contributions to the movie.  If the movie is good, we’re all proud of it.  If the movie is bad, we all try to disassociate ourselves.  But, this is a great movie.  I think I’ve made 15 movies with [Spielberg] and there isn’t a single one where I said, “I wish I didn’t make that one.”  

Lois, how was it to collaborate with Daniel Day-Lewis on this?  Did he have much input into how he would look, or did he leave that up to you?

BURWELL:  He’s very prepared, as far as embodying and working on historical reference, and he’s absolutely remarkable at it, but he hadn’t actually thought about the make-up, at all.  That was different.  I would be first in the cue to work with him again.  If there was a cue and I could request it, I’d ask for it. 

daniel day lewis lincolnA film like this really makes it evident how important great cinematography and make-up are to really transport you into the story that’s being told, and each clearly deserve their own recognition.  How does it feel to know that people are already saying that Lincoln will definitely receive some nominations?

KAMINSKI:  I don’t think about that anymore.  I don’t want to sound jaded, but I’ve done it several times.  It’s great to be recognized for work, and the work is great, but once you have the awards, it becomes less important.  It just gives you the ability to do better work, in my opinion.  It’s great to be talking to you and it’s great to be recognized, but even if I didn’t talk to you, or other people, I would still be fine.  I’d be content with my work.  I’m a very good critic of my work, and I know the work is good.  I would like the audience to like the movie.  What we do is create this two and a half hours of reality for the viewer to allow themselves to be submerged in this period of the story, and walk away with great satisfaction and hopefully learn something from the movie.  That’s our job. 

BURWELL:  Yes, that’s our job.  There’s something odd about that time of year.  It just seems so alien, and I don’t mean to be disparaging.  Trust me, anything like that is great.  How lovely to buy a nice frock and be acknowledged!  But, that’s not really what the work is.  The work is, hopefully, making good films.  I feel happy with our work, and that’s satisfying.  

KAMINSKI:  I’ve seen work by other guys.  I’ve seen Master and Argo, and I thought that was spectacular work.  I did my work, but I don’t think it was anything spectacular.  It was interesting and it serves the story, but it’s not like I invented some new language, like with Saving Private Ryan or The Diving Bell and The Butterfly.  I invented language that didn’t exist.  Here, I just followed the language that’s already been established by other guys.  I just maybe redefined it and made it my own. 

Janusz, which do you prefer, film or digital, and why?

KAMINSKI:  Film.  It’s just better.  That’s all.  It doesn’t matter anymore because now people see so much digital that film might look alien to them. 

Lincoln is now playing in theaters.


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