Australian cinematographer Ross Emery ACS shines with Woman in Gold.
The battle over the famous ‘Woman in Gold’ painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt – a painting known as Austria’s Mona Lisa – is the subject of Ross Emery ACS’s latest film. The film wowed its audience at Camerimage during a special screening last November – a thrilling experience for Emery, who also performed jurist duties at the festival.
Emery, whose previous work includes Bait (2012), The Wolverine (2013) and I, Frankenstein (2014), worked with Simon Curtis, the English Director of My Week with Marilyn (2011). Emery says Curtis was a wonderful director, “We’ve become close and our working relationship on this film was inspiring. There are few other people I’d want to take such a long walk with.”
Woman in Gold tells the true story of Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), an Austrian-Jew who escaped her homeland during World War II. She later mounted a successful legal battle against the Austrian government to reclaim ownership of five iconic Gustav Klimt paintings belonging to her family. The works, stolen by the Nazis, were then illegally retained by the reformed Austrian government. One, a painting of her aunt Adele (the ‘woman in gold’), was originally commissioned by her uncle as a gift for his wife. Altmann lost most of her family during the holocaust.
Tatiana Maslany and Helen Mirren portray the younger and elder Altman, while Ryan Reynolds stars in the role of her lawyer.
With an enormous slice of Austrian history and a complex legal battle to handle, it was important the film have a sense of scale. “Sometimes these kinds of scripts are small, delicate stories,” says Emery. “The Weinstein Company wanted to open it up and make sure it didn’t all occur in one room with a window.”
To ensure the film’s expansive approach, Emery needed to communicate three distinct time periods in Altmann’s life – the 1920s, a time of family warmth, joy and growth for Altmann in peacetime Vienna; the 1930s, when Altmann became a newly married 20-year-old in the shadow of Germany’s impending occupation; and the present day, crossing between Altmann’s new life as a Los Angeles resident and her legal battles in Vienna.
Each era in Woman in Gold needed to reflect Altmann’s memories and emotions, so each epoch required its own distinct look and feel. “We shot the 1920s sequence on old Cooke spherical lenses, to give that age a particular look,” says Emery. “The colour palette was inspired by Gustav Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer painting. We took the hues from the painting itself, which is gold and black, with an art nouveau feel to it.”
The 1930s sequences were influenced by newsreel footage of the day and the colour palette of Agfa colour film used at the time. Colours are softer, the reds almost crimson and blues react differently.
Emery muses about the interesting parallels to America, which was infatuated with Kodachrome film during this period. “It’s a distinctly different look, which places you in the time. That’s something I’m very keen on, as I love breaking down the technology so there’s a real relevance to the time period for the audience. The only other devices we used for this era were Mitchell diffusion filters. They were actually made in the 1950s and give a slightly old fashioned, softened glow.”
Contemporary scenes, however, featured a much sharper look, and it’s here Emery’s take on Altmann’s worldview really shines. His portrayal of Los Angeles is a step away from the traditional English notion of Los Angeles being a Disneyesque city of perfection.
“If you know Los Angeles, especially in the 1990s, there was more smog around. It had an orange and brown hue to it. The dry desert seeps in. I didn’t want to have Maria Altmann standing in the front yard of her house amidst green grass and blue skies, because her life wasn’t idyllic. Los Angeles was her prison. It needed to reflect the bleakness her life had taken on.”
In contrast, Austria is portrayed as the more luxurious, cultured surroundings. “Maria would have preferred to live her whole life in Vienna. She was Viennese and she loved the city,” says Emery. Her heritage carries through into her Los Angeles home. The production sets are dotted with elements of her old life in Vienna. “We worked hard on bringing sunlight through the doors of her L.A. home, especially later in the day, so it feels like California intrudes into the memories of the old world she attempts to surround herself with.”
To tie the look together, Emery shot in an anamorphic ratio using Hawk Anamorphic lenses on Arri Alexa cameras. He made the choice to use the wide ratio, as “it gives you a big screen feel. You get the sensation of an event and it’s a great palette for telling stories that have a larger scale.” His use of anamorphic lenses, meanwhile, removes the sharp, digital feel of the Alexa and gives the image a more textured, gentle feeling.
“It’s one of the things we’ve been discussing at length at Camerimage,” Emery says. “We’re now capable of making an optically perfect lens and some people have come very close to doing this. The problem is you put an optically perfect lens on a very high-resolution sensor and you have an image that is hyper real. A little extended through. It’s too sharp. It’s too crisp. There’s no distortion and a lot of people, myself included, don’t like that.”
For the Australian, when it comes to Camerimage, he’s smitten. “I’ve met people here whose names I’ve been seeing on films and reading about in magazines for the last twenty years. Suddenly you get to meet them and you end up having intensely interesting, in-depth conversations, because you have this common thread of cinematography.”
Despite it being his first visit to the festival, Emery also participated as a judge of the Director’s Debut competition, which he enjoyed immensely. “What I’ve seen is ten of the most interesting films I’ve ever watched. I’m astonished there are people out there who are willing to take such risks. It’s like these directors have taken every film textbook they could find and put it in a big pile and set fire to them. So it’s very refreshing. I think it’s possibly even more interesting than the main competition.”
I love it when the end credits roll and the camera department comes up. Everyone applauds! It’s just wonderful.
The camaraderie of the festival also took him by surprise; given there is no conflict or competitive ego evident between cinematographers. “Everyone is incredibly respectful of the work and we’re complimentary about each other. There’s no conflict. Rather, everyone is keen to connect, learn and celebrate with one another”.
“I love it when the end credits roll and the camera department comes up. Everyone applauds! It’s just wonderful. After being in the camera department for so long, to be in a place where our work is elevated the recognition is deeply rewarding.”
For the effort that went into Woman in Gold, Emery’s applause is well earned. Achieving cohesion across so many eras is no small feat. Emery had to put a lot of faith in the abilities of the crew he worked with – faith that paid off.
“We had a very intelligent crew. For example, the Dolly/Key Grip I had on this film, Alex Coverley, was quite a young guy who watched rehearsals and had a copy of the script in his hand all the time. As we began setting up shots Alex would have a conversation with me about the way the camera should move, on which line and on which point. He’d even say, ‘the character would be thinking this, so don’t you think we should ease in at this point?’ Here’s a young fellow who’s thinking like a director. I love it when that happens.”
Ross was also fortunate to have Jem Rayner as 1st AC and Jodi Smith as 2nd AC in the London and Vienna portions of the shoot. “I’ve worked with both Jem and Jodi a lot over the years and to have such superbly talented people around you is very comforting. Shooting films is tough work and having people there that have your back is paramount.”
Fellow Australian Jason Ewart, who moved to England a few years ago with his English wife, worked Steadicam and performed B-Camera duties. “Jason did an outstanding job. B-Camera operation can be a tricky job. You need to come in sporadically and have to perform. Jason was impeccable. He gained the director’s trust quickly and did some amazing work whilst being an absolute pleasure to work with.”
Collaboration with his grader to ensure a smooth Digital Intermediate (DI) was also important to achieving Emery’s look. Working with Technicolor’s Peter Doyle in London, the two connected closely, early in preproduction discussing how each time period should look. From their talks, Doyle created a set of look up tables (LUTs), which Emery was able to show other departments to ensure the looks he wanted could happen and stayed consistent from pre through post-production.
“For example, where our 1930s look was quite desaturated, it meant the makeup department could be a little bit heavier in terms of rouging, because they knew that it wasn’t going to be highly-coloured film,” he says. “Conversely, in the 1920s section, which was quite golden in the skin tones, they knew they didn’t have to overly apply warmth to the skin tones.”
That’s not to say everything went smoothly though. There were a number of key points where Emery had to fight to achieve his vision, insisting upon specific camera movements and styling. His understanding of Altmann’s perception of the city, for example, heavily influenced his portrayal of Los Angeles. Similarly, the scene of her wedding dance in Vienna was a difficult plot point to convey.
“Everybody in that room knew that the Nazis were about to arrive. The impending chaos was palpable. Some people on the production wanted it to just be a simple wedding dance scene. Others, including myself, wanted to convey the desperation the people were beginning to feel. This family wanted its last hurrah, yet they were keenly aware the Nazis were coming and their lives were disintegrating. My camera movement was specifically designed to build that feeling. While the characters are trying hard to be ‘happy,’ everything is beginning to spiral out of control.”
My camera movement was specifically designed to build that feeling.
Emery is happy with the results of his determination to get the right looks for certain scenes in the film. “When I first read the script I enjoyed it, but on second reading I suddenly started seeing all these opportunities to do something that challenged me as a cinematographer. It’s like sometimes you want to remove yourself a little bit, because it makes it harder for you. We have an ideal, an idea in our heads when we first read a script. It’s rarely possible, whether it’s physical limitation, budgetary restrictions or creatively impossible, or because we have conflicting ideas from other people. But from the first moment you read the script, your work can only go in that direction.” Ultimately, Emery’s constant pushing to achieve this vision paid off. “On this film I probably came as close to achieving my original vision as I have on any of the films I’ve done so far.”
The final scene takes Altmann on a walk through her past. She enters her old apartment in Vienna, which is now a funky office space. As she revisits key life events, the mood shifts. Time melts and magically Adele Bloch-Bauer is watching her family members – alive again. Her father plays cello, her uncle reads aloud, and once again she whirls through her own wedding dance. Yet this time there is no sense of impending doom. She ends the walk standing below the painting of her aunt Adele.
For Emery, this last scene encapsulates the major theme of the whole film. She has reached the end of her life and she knows she doesn’t have a huge amount of time left. Her great regret in life was that she had not originally fought to reclaim her family’s possessions.
“If Jackson Pollock does a painting that becomes a commercial property, bought and sold by a gallery, or a government, or an insurance company, then it’s a commercial matter,” says Emery.
“But this was a painting of a family member. For Altmann, it’s not that it’s Klimt. It’s just a family possession. The value is meaningless to her. She says, ‘It’s a picture of my aunt and it should come back to my family.’ That’s what spurs her on and gives her the strength to fight and reclaim it.”
And it is in this final ‘walk’ that Altmann’s happiest memories, and the values she fought for, are finally returned to her.
Meredith Emmanuel works for Emmanuel Bates Communications and is a valued contributor to Australian Cinematographer Magazine.
Harry Stranger works with cinematographers globally and has written for a number of publications.