Australian cinematographer Nicola Daley ACS (Pin Cushion) collaborates with Alan Caso ASC (Six Feet Under) on landmark series Paradise Lost. Here, the duo interview each other upon the series’ completion about working with each other and about crew diversity.
Interview with Nicola Daley ACS and Alan Caso ASC.
ND: When you were getting your break, when you were starting out, how did you get hired?
AC: I got hired many different ways. First I worked not only as an operator, but as a gaffer, so I made connections in both those ways, from a number of different people. Connections and people you meet and work with, this is the core of how we all get work in this business. Sure, we have agents, and they work hard at networking us. But it is the personal relationships that really get us work, that keep us working – that and one’s reputation.
ND: What do you think is so important about having a diverse crew as a cinematographer?
AC: It’s extremely important. To have an all-white, male crew is to be surrounded by people who have shared a similar or even identical life experience and world view as yourself. That puts you in a very narrow place of creativity and viewpoint. To have an inclusive crew surrounding you opens entire new world views, artistic sensibilities and an entire range of voices. Like the difference between playing a piece only with the middle C octave as opposed to the entire keyboard of multiple octaves. To deny oneself all these notes, is the antithesis of creating and performing real art and telling important stories.
ND: What was it about my work that made you want to work with me?
AC: Looking at your reel and the material on your website showed me that your taste in lighting and composition were very close to mine and very much on par with what we were going for as far as a look for Paradise Lost. You modelled faces beautifully, and kept the lighting simple, sourced and natural. Your compositions were evocative, asymmetrical with good use of negative space, but also you weren’t afraid to use symmetry and centre punching when it was a choice. Most importantly you knew how to use wide lenses; always a prerequisite when working with me.
ND: What did you learn from me on the set of Paradise Lost?
AC: You taught and reminded me that you must stay tuned into the director’s needs and process. You must be vigilant about it, particularly during pre-production, that it is important to spend the extra time then to get as much into the head of the director as possible. You were very adept at dealing with difficult situations that the directors would sometimes find themselves in, because you always made an effort during prep to grasp the intricacies of a director’s process.
Due to that, when issues came up during the shoot, your ability to work with the director as opposed to just putting your own process out there made for smooth and amenable solutions. Also, by flagging these things early with a director, it gave you time to factor in your own needs, like how you would be able to apply your visual texture when there was a crisis with the director. It made for a more manageable situation. I sometimes tend to power my way through obstacles, always respectfully mind you, but I can see how I can sometimes miss opportunities to have better solutions because of that.
ND: What were your preconceptions of working with me?
AC: The interview with you was so delightful for everyone on the Skype call. You came across as the genuine article; what you see is who you are. You are intelligent and hugely experienced not only technically and artistically, but in real world experiences, which you brought to the production. You are a problem solver, socially and politically attuned with a strong moral compass. You understand the politics, not only on set, but of people and life in general. You can only have that if you’ve seen a good bit of the world. So, any preconceptions I had were found to be pleasantly true.
Those very qualities gave Paradise Lost something more, something better than it would have had without you. Your voice made a difference and I am grateful that I had shared the cinematography and the experience with you.
What was your experience working with me? Did you have any preconceptions? Are there things I could have done better to make your working experience more rewarding. Was there anything I could have done to have provided a more creative and better work environment?
ND: I had seen your speech on crew diversity at the ASC Awards and, in fact, amongst all the female cinematographers I know the video of your speech had gone ‘viral’. In my mind you were famous! The first thing I wanted to do when I met you was thank you for that speech and tell you how much it meant to so many of us and what an impact it has had on us. It was a beacon of light.
Apart from that I had no preconceptions. It was a brilliant experience working with you and I’m very grateful to have had that opportunity. You were completely inclusive to me and welcomed me from the very start, and I thank you for that. Just keep doing what you’re doing. We, as women, only ask for equality and we only ask for allies.
AC: You’re English and Australian, yet we worked together in America, which many cinematographers around the world aspire to do. What was involved in getting permission to work in the United States?
ND: I got the job on Paradise Lost and then got my O1 Visa based on that. I’m sure people also do it the other way around, get the visa and then the job. I had signed with my agent the year before on the back of the success of a feature film I had shot in the United Kingdom called Pin Cushion. That film had opened Critics Week at the Venice Film Festival in 2017.
AC: What did you learn from me?
ND: I learnt a lot from you about lighting big sets, about how to plan to light these. I hadn’t had a job before where I had so many large sets. I also hadn’t shot anything before as high budget as this series, so there were some learning curves. I learnt a lot from you about slant focus lenses; I hadn’t used these before, and you shared with me how you were still learning about how to use them – in terms of movement of the actors, and what you can feasibly get away with within the plane of focus.
You also highlighted to me how we also see in a different way, and how all of these dreamings, these visualisations are valid. As a cinematographer we delve into the world of imagination, of dreams and so why not have a cornucopia of different viewpoints?
AC: Do you think audiences should look carefully at what we did together on Paradise Lost?
ND: I think Paradise Lost is a great example of two cinematographers collaborating together.
Actually, in our industry this doesn’t happen all that often. From the beginning you were so open, creative and collaborative that it is completely inspiring, and it pushed me to do better work, to think outside the box and challenge my own preconceptions. It’s absolutely no good being a closed shop. It you are, as a cinematographer, open and free with your creativity then you will become a better artist and inspire people along the way. I think we learnt from each other and I think that cinematography is a craft that you can keep learning throughout your whole career. That is one of the things that fascinates me so much about our art and excites me every day I go to work.
AC: What is your approach to hiring and crewing?
ND: You and I share the same philosophy on hiring; that a diverse crew is the way we represent a multitude of voices in storytelling. People always say to me “It should be a meritocracy” and I always agree and point out that the big problem is that right now it is far from a meritocracy.
I have been doing a couple of second blocks on television shows where I inherit the crew and I look at the list for my departments and it’s one-hundred percent white men. As a head of a department, one has a responsibility. Everyone can do their part to enact change. It’s time to think about these issues. So, let’s all work together to make the film and television industries just that; a place where numerous diverse voices can be heard. Let’s open our arms to people of colour and to those who identify as gender non-binary. How can this harm anyone? Let’s not be fearful, let’s open our arms to new possibilities, as this is how great films are made.
AC: Beyond being seen, what can women in higher industry positions do to curb the rate of attrition in the industry?
ND: I always try and make my crews 50/50 if I can. I look beyond the normal lists I am given for crews no matter where I am in the world. I question existing lists. If we all did this then we would instantly make the film and television workforce more diverse. In terms of the rate of attrition then obviously things like bullying and harassment need to be taken very seriously and not just paid lip service to. The #metoo movement has done so much in this regard, but more can be done.
This is not just about women in higher industry positions, it’s about men and women in higher industry positions making a positive change. This is not about repressing anyone or denying anyone jobs, this is about being inclusive and widening the film and television industries so as a creative industry we can reflect this diversity, not just behind the camera, but in front of the camera and in the very fabric of the stories we tell. This only benefits everyone, how can it not?
AC: What do you feel needs to change in the industry in the crewing process?
ND: Everyone in a position of hiring anyone needs to just think about the diversity of the people they are hiring. Have a conversation with your friends and colleagues about it. I was talking to a good friend of mine who was working in events and televised events and she contacted someone to get a list of outside broadcast crew. She got back a list of all white men, so she just asked: what about women, what about people of colour? Question the lists you are given. I’m often told there’s no women crew, it’s just not true. They just don’t exist on the ‘traditional lists’ that are provided.
AC: Do you feel the barriers to being a non-white, non-male cinematographer have changed?
ND: I think it is slowly changing. The bad attitudes are still there, and I still experience them. I certainly hear stories about how some people think women just aren’t good enough. My 31-year-old brother said to me a couple of years ago, “but you don’t get that kind of criticism in your job, do you?” I laughed at him and said, “of course I do”. Then I asked him if he had ever in his life been told he couldn’t do something just because of what existed between his legs, he looked at me blankly; no of course not.
We need to have a multi-pronged method of changing perceptions. We need to challenge the status quo on who we hire. We need to combat bullying and sexual harassment in the work place and we need to raise the profiles of women, those who identify as gender non-binary, and people of colour so they can go on to shoot bigger projects and rise to the level of winning BAFTAs and Oscars. If we are to be a truly inclusive industry, then I challenge every single person reading this to question what you do every day in terms of hiring people.
Nicola Daley ACS is an award-winning Australian cinematographer based in London with extensive experience in drama, documentaries and commercials. In 2017, Nicola filmed the acclaimed British film ‘Pin Cushion‘.
Alan Caso ASC is an Emmy-nominated American cinematographer best known for his work on the television series Six Feet Under.