Starring Dev Patel and Armie Hamer, Hotel Mumbai is the true story of the 2008 Taj Hotel terrorist attack. Shot by cinematographer Nick Remy Matthews ACS, people make unthinkable sacrifices to protect themselves and their families.
By Vanessa Abbott and James Cunningham.
Cinematographer Nick Remy Matthews ACS (2:37) has been working with director Anthony Maras for more than fifteen years. “We’ve made many short films together,” explains the cinematographer. “His short films are always grand and ambitious.”
The pair’s success helped them transition into feature films when two of Maras’ films, Spike Up in 2007 and The Palace in 2011, picked up Best Short Film at the AFI and AACTA awards those years. Both of these award-winning short films were shot for Maras by Matthews.
The Palace was a war story shot in Cyprus. “That was the last short film we made together,” says Matthews. It was this film that not only ‘set the tone’ for Hotel Mumbai but, Matthews believes, gave the financiers faith to invest.
That short film was produced by Julie Ryan who also produced Hotel Mumbai. “Ryan has always been a huge supporter of me,” says Matthews. “Long ago I worked for her as a clapper loader on a Rolf de Heer film she produced (Alexandra’s Project, 2003). It’s pretty amazing to look back now and see how we’ve all stuck together for such a long time.”
Matthews was living on a French island off the Atlantic Coast when Ryan called him about shooting Hotel Mumbai. He’d been out of cinematography for five years and was now writing and directing. “I hadn’t really imagined I’d ever be shooting again, he says. “Having recently directed a film in Australia (One Eyed Girl, 2015), I was knee deep in the whole ‘agent circus’ in America and the United Kingdom and developing my next project.” Matthews originally declined the offer to shoot the film, telling Maras that he didn’t think he would remember how to be a cinematographer.
“At the time, the idea of shooting again seemed very foreign to me,” he explains. I was very worried I would let them down if I took it on.” However the director and producer were both insistent. “They could see the value in keeping us together, as collaborators, even though some of the American producers were looking at my resume and asking if I was the best person for the job, given I had transitioned into directing.” Matthews is very glad they fought for him. “It showed real faith and loyalty from them,” he says. “Qualities not always in abundance in the film industry; especially at this budget level where the stakes are fairly high.”
Matthews camera of choice is an Alexa. Mostly because, as he explains, it feels like a ‘real camera’. The cinematographer conducted extensive testing of lenses before pre-production on Hotel Mumbai. “I was fixated on the idea that the film had to be shot anamorphic,” he says. “Even though I knew it was going to be principally a hand-held shoot on a crazy schedule.”
“No one else fancied anamorphic much because everyone has had that annoying experience when the lens changes are slow and when a few too many shots are soft or the edges of the image are all mushy.”
To try to help his argument, Matthews produced a showreel consisting of camera assistants running around the Panavision offices in Sydney. “It was spherical versus anamorphic,” he says. For Matthews, there was no question that the action in Hotel Mumbai, much of which takes place in confined spaces, could feel more artful and claustrophobic on anamorphic. “It allowed the focus to be more selective, even on wider lenses. I really fancied that.” Thankfully, Maras and Ryan agreed.
The film was shot with Panavision G-Series lenses. “Interestingly,” Matthews explains, “these lenses are not so popular with cinematographers because they’re generally considered not quirky enough, perhaps not anamorphic enough. I actually found them to be the best of both worlds; anamorphic but also not too heavy and fairly clean at the edges which meant all the hand held work wouldn’t give people seasickness, particularly in regards the action sequences.” Now, following screenings of the film, Matthews sometimes turns to his director, smugly saying “Any regrets about anamorphic?”
The cinematographer’s collaboration with the production design team during pre-production wasn’t always smooth. “The team fancied lots of white and cream in the design, and I didn’t,” Matthews explains. “For cinematographers, you’re more often than not trying to avoid white walls! Especially when you’re trying to create a moody thriller look.”
In the end, Matthews thinks it all worked out beautifully. “We found common ground and looked after each other. The elegance of the environment works against the subject. In some ways it’s probably scarier having that juxtaposition; all that carnage in paradise.”
What that meant for Matthews was that he had to work out how to light lots of Steadicam shots in a very brief amount of time, in some big creamy spaces. “It was challenging but with a fair amount of remote iris pulling, but I’d like to think I got there in the end,” says Matthews. “I have a lot of respect for Steven Jones-Evans (Production Designer) and his team and what they achieved. I think together we created a seamless blend between the sets in India and those in Australia.”
The design team shared their work with Matthews early on, and from this he was able to design and refine practical lighting systems. “The more Steadicam intensive work I do, the more I am becoming aware of the need for very close collaboration with the design team, particularly on practicals,” he says. “Sometimes they’re all you have in a scene! I find myself increasingly telling line producers that I’ll happily sacrifice some of my lighting budget to have another few days with the practical electrician early in pre-production, and to have more money to spend on the infrastructure to control the practicals on set. Needless to say I spend a lot of time scanning catalogues of lighting fixtures in pre-production.”
Hotel Mumbai was a tough, physical shoot for all cast and crew; lots of handheld and Steadicam as well as the challenges of shooting across India and Australia. Long term collaborator, focus puller Jules Worm worked with Matthews in both countries.
“Worm handled our B-Camera, which I predominantly operated hand-held,” he explains. “Her presence is so calming to me and the set as a whole; not just because she’s incredible at her job, but also because she always keeps a level head…’when everyone else is losing theirs’ as Kipling put it”.
Matthews adds that it was a particularly tricky shoot for the focus pullers because it was anamorphic, mostly shot almost wide open, often in close focus situations and in close quarters. “Gavin Head, our A-Camera focus puller in Australia would sit cross-legged on the floor and go into a zen state with his remote and pull off the most remarkable work, he says. “Similarly, our Indian focus puller ‘Bobby’ (S. Babu Rao) was somehow looking after me with very tricky anamorphic work. It’s so important to find these collaborators in our game; those fearless people who go into battle with you and stay so focused throughout even when they’re knee deep in sludge.”
“I was also very happy to be able to continue my very long relationship with chief lighting technician Richard Rees-Jones, who is such a talented and dedicated collaborator,” adds Matthews. “He’s always thinking about story and the big picture.”
Rees-Jones travelled to India with the crew even though he wasn’t able to actually light the Indian leg of the film. He would liaise with the film’s Indian gaffer, Ramesh Sadrani, about the specifics of how they lit interiors in Australia. That enabled Matthews to achieve a seamless transition between the two countries and, “thankfully in Sadrani, Rees-Jones and I found a kindred spirit in lighting who understood the feel we’d established in Australia.”
“Finally,” Matthews says talking about his crew, “I was very lucky to have fearless Steadicam/A-Camera operator Luke Nixon with me.” Matthews hadn’t worked with Nixon before. “Our line producer Barbara Gibbs demonstrated a knack for putting the right people together when she suggested Nixon.”
“I hope we can all do many more films together, and I can’t wait for everyone to see the finished product. It’s been quite a wait for everyone,” says Matthews.
When questioned about the shooting schedule on Hotel Mumbai, “Madness!” proclaims the cinematographer. “But isn’t it always?” The crew had around forty-five days to cover two countries. “That doesn’t sound too bad under normal circumstances but this film has a massive cast, lots of stunts, relentless special effects, and quite a bit of visual effects. All elements that can sap time.”
The crew shot most of the interiors of the Indian hotel in South Australia; corridors and the opulent hotel suite that was being turned around to play as multiple rooms. “Interestingly we ended up shooting on the lot at the South Australian Film Corporation, but not using their new sound stages,” he explains. Designer Jones-Evans adapted the corridors of the administration building for hotel corridors rather than trying to build lengthy sets from scratch.
An abandoned mental health facility on the lot was also utilised. For economic reasons it was simply cheaper to in-build at the existing location rather than start things from scratch in the studio. “In the end it worked beautifully,” says Matthews.
“The fun really started when we moved to India, in the sense that much of it was location work,” says Matthews. “Dharavi is one of the largest slums in the world. We had street scenes and an enormous, run-down, pre-existing four-story high set that was adapted by the design team into the hotel’s glitzy lobby.” These were all challenging environments for Matthews; as for him interiors were mostly about practical lighting design and for exteriors, trying to add light to the eclectic world and colour palette of India, without it looking lit.
“Needless to say RGB LEDs lights like Skypanels and Digital Sputniks were my friend,” says Matthews. “Being able to dial in any colour temperature in these situations is priceless. Sadrani built a fabulous, huge hanging softbox in the lobby of the hotel; it was full of Skypanels so we were able to quickly adjust colour temperature and intensity for all the different states of play in the script.”
“During the shoot I had a running joke that I was always striving for what I called ‘anti-cinematography’,” says Matthews. “That is, whenever it looked too ‘movie-ish’ I’d change something; turn lights off, go hand-held or go to a longer lens – and sometimes do all three – until the shot felt more organic and less like a movie.”
Maras, as director, often had the same impulse. “We both hate images that are too glitzy or feel too neatly presented. We wanted the filmmaking to feel like it was just happening on the spot, in response to the action.” It was this mentality that took them through to the grade as well.
As a cinematographer, Matthews always makes sure he has colour-timing in his contract. “It’s important to me to be there when it all gets baked in,” he says. “Even though we all strive to get it right on the day, inevitably there are compromises that you have to make. Knowing you’ll have the chance later to polish a little bit, is always a relief.” Matthews worked with Marty Pepper from Kojo, another long-term collaborator, and the pair had a fabulous time working on Baselight in a suite Pepper had set up in a full-size theatre at the South Australian Film Corporation.
In the grade, they never went ‘stylised’. They never wanted to evoke the feeling of an ‘action movie’. It was more about being true to story and spaces; to the city of Mumbai, the opulence of the hotel, or the sombre feel of the staff areas in the basement. “Pepper really embraced this and delivered a truly beautiful organic end product,” says Matthews.
“I really enjoyed the night exteriors in India,” says Matthews. “I went pretty bold and drenched the streets in heavy sodium vapour from cherry pickers. I watched a lot of news archive from the attack and that was the feel of the rough video news footage. I suppose I took the feel and really ran with it and turned it into a lighting style. It’s a slightly expressionistic moment for me in a film that I otherwise was trying to keep pretty low key. I think it works. But I would say that wouldn’t I?”
We ask Matthews how he works to achieve an overall or ‘directorial vision’ while still imparting his own unique signature and perspective as a cinematographer. “That’s a tough question,” he responds. “I see my role as a cinematographer as being a conduit for the story, as led by the director, then trying to keep a low profile with the camera. I don’t ever set out with a particular concept of what I’m trying to achieve, personally. Saying that… I did just watch rushes from a film I just shot and I was reminded of some of our lighting from Hotel Mumbai! I kind of tsk-tsked myself, so perhaps we do have signatures.”
“Personally,” Matthews says, “I think the film is a powerful and complex experience that looks into the shadows of humanity. I’m really proud of what my director, our cast and the crew have achieved. But I will leave it to the critics or someone on IMDb to make their judgements.”
Since shooting Hotel Mumbai, Matthews has shot three very different features; a 1940s costume drama in New York City written by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, a thriller in upstate New York set in the 1960s starring the brilliant Australian actress Odessa Young, and he has just wrapped on an action film that was shooting in Hungary, the UK and Paris starring Outlander’s Sam Heughan and another Australian, Ruby Rose. “I’m quite happy to just take a breather for a moment. But likely, I’ll do that for a two weeks and then I’ll be itching to do it all over again.”
Nick Remy Matthews ACS is a British-born, Australian-raised cinematographer, writer and director.
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.