Focusing on events leading up to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania, Justin Kurzel’s Nitram is filmed by cinematographer Germain McMicking ACS, winning both the AACTA Award for Best Cinematography and Best Film.
By James Cunningham.
Nitram is the new Australian drama directed by Justin Kurzel (Snowtown, True History of the Kelly Gang). Focusing on the events that lead to the Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania which left 35 people dead in 1996. The film stars Caleb Landry Jones as Nitram, alongside two-time Academy Award nominated Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia. Nitram premiered at the this years Cannes Film Festival where Jones won Best Actor for his performance. The film does not depict the actual mass shooting, nor does it refer to the killer, Martin Bryant, by name. Nitram is Martin spelled backwards.
Cinematographer Germain McMicking ACS has been carving out an impressive career, shooting films such as the acclaimed Holding the Man in 2015, Berlin Syndrome in 2017, the third season of HBO series True Detective in 2019 for which he was Emmy-nominated for Outstanding Cinematography for a Limited Series, and most recently Simon McQuoid’s Mortal Kombat in 2020.
McMicking’s involvement in Nitram was born through the local film rumour mill. “I had heard from some crew friends that Justin Kurzel was searching far and wide for a cinematographer for his new film, and I should hit him up,” explains McMicking. “To be honest, I’ve never been all that fond of that approach. But I was really interested in working with him. He’s an incredible director. I knew the subject matter would be challenging and would draw some great cast and other talented collaborators.
The cinematographer put his shyness aside and called Kurzel. “It was quite an amusing and humbling conversation,” says McMicking. “I clearly remember him saying ‘In all honesty I hadn’t even thought of you, but yeah it could be really interesting’.”
“The initial hit to my ego put aside I laughed, and let Kurzel know how keen I’d be to see the script,” he says. “I read Shaun Grant’s fantastic text, loved it and spent some time discussing the themes and characters with Kurzel and things progressed from there.”
Kurzel wasn’t keen to reference any other films specifically, or to set too much in stone from the outset, but for the look of Nitram to develop fairly organically. “I do remember his desire to approach the film from almost two seemingly different perspectives, to visually hold a strong sense of reality and somewhat the feeling of a fable,” explains McMicking. “He wanted the film to be both very beautiful, but roughly hewn and fragile all the same.”
Through their discussions, Kurzel spoke a lot about how to evoke the feeling of the era of 1990s Australia and Hobart, and the pair looked all manner of Australian stills photography of the time such as the the work of Warren Kirk, Rennie Ellis, and the incredible suburban landscapes of Bill Henson. “We talked about colour and light, and poured through the some beautiful textural references production designer Alice Babidge put together, but mostly we just spoke about the script and character and what he wanted each scene to feel like,” says McMicking.
“I think together as we kept discussing the film, the less we found ourselves gravitating toward having any really set rules about the cinematography,” he says. “It wasn’t like ‘this is a handheld film’ or ‘this is all on sticks’, if was more intuitive and born out of a response to the performances and environment.”
Having said that, McMicking explains that there is somewhat of a shift in camera language throughout the film. “Earlier in the story we are generally more handheld, and the camera often feels physically closer to the characters, being drawn through their environments with them. Later in the film the camera slows down and becomes more formal, and observed, with more dolly, crane and static compositions.”
Kurzel along with producers Nick Batzias and Virginia Whitwell, all achieved a minor miracle in getting the film up and running. Nitram was filmed in November of 2020 during a Melbourne lockdown. As Geelong was outside Melbourne’s ‘ring of steel’, they team were able to set up a production hub for the crew at a local conference centre and have us the entire cast and crew live together, separated from the local community.
“The production schedule was fairly short being just twenty-four days across four weeks,” says McMicking. “The shoot felt fast, which added a fantastic energy to it. I guess that all of that influenced the cinematographic approach. Our set ups needed to be fairly simple, or if they had some element of complication to them we had to be incredibly well-prepared. As things invariably change, the crew had to be ready to shift gears very quickly.”
McMicking continues, “After only day one we all discovered how nimble we needed to be. I remember our very first shot was to be a somewhat simple doorway scene of Nitram (Caleb Landry Jones) meeting Helen (Essie Davis) for the first time. Somehow it developed into a shot which followed the characters throughout the entire length of the house, combining three scenes into one. It certainly set the tone for things, and fortunately it all fell into place very quickly. We had an incredible crew.”
A strong collaboration with the film’s production design team was integral. McMicking and production designer Alice Babidge would discuss their thoughts on everything from window dressings and colours, particular practicals and the qualities of their light, and to Babidge’s thoughts on the positioning of furniture or objects in a room.
“Babidge is a bit of a genius and took on the roles of both costume and production design on the film. No small feat,” says the cinematographer, who had the pleasure of working with Babidge on the Holding The Man where she was costume designer. The pair would back-and-forth about the potential blocking of a scene with Kurzel, about ideas on where the light would fall and where they hoped characters would go.
“Her work on the film was nuanced and layered, and always driven by reality and story,” says McMicking. “Babidge and her incredible team put together a rich visual reference document, displaying the vision for the period, colour and texture. This was all up on the walls of a large central conference room in the production hub, so all of us could swing by and look at stuff and be inspired, and consolidate the vision.”
Besides one stunt sequence, nothing in the film was story-boarded. Everything else was shot-listed early on in initial phone and Zoom calls with the director, then applied and expanded once locations were found. “I think this was quite key to successfully navigating a short pre-production and shoot time,” says McMicking. “Prior to scouting we already had a strong idea of how the scenes would be covered, and the kind of spaces we were looking for compositionally and emotionally. Of course this could all be thrown out the window if something new and more interesting was revealed through the process of blocking and shooting.”
During pre-production, Kurzel had spoken about his love for the visual qualities of super-16mm film, and the feeling that it could suit Nitram. McMicking did some genuine investigation into whether it would be possible, but unfortunately at the time Neglab in Sydney couldn’t facilitate us, as they couldn’t access the necessary chemicals from the United States due to Covid.
“We tested a number of different digital cameras and formats at our two main locations in Geelong,” says McMicking. “The ARRI Alexa Mini in super-16mm mode, with super-16mm lenses was really interesting to us, especially on closer shots. However we felt the resolution fell apart too much on our wider landscapes. We also tested Alexa Large-Format with H-Series glass, which although beautiful and immersive, felt a little too resolved and fought against the period feeling we were looking for.”
Ultimately the Alexa Mini S35 felt like it had the right balance of resolution and texture. “We coupled it with a set of vintage Panavision Ultra Speeds, which are beautiful and lyrical,” says McMicking. “There’s a certain softness and character to them, and I love the way they open up the shadows and bring some interesting halation to the highlights. The smaller form factor and weight of the Alexa Mini also allowed for the more instinctual following of performance when shooting handheld.”
One unexpected aspect which came out of camera tests was how Kurzel and McMicking were drawn to the unusual 1.55:1 aspect ratio, which utilises the full sensor of the Alexa Mini at 3.4K. “So many of the suburban landscapes we had referenced from the time we were 35mm stills, and we loved how the increased vertical space held so well,” says McMicking. “Then as we scouted locations we found that so many of our locations just felt better captured within that 1.55:1 aspect ratio. We also loved how it tended to centralise our characters more and poetically hold the air above them.”
McMicking sourced a number of domestic camcorders of the time, which Nitram (Jones) begins to use to document aspects of his life. “This was so much harder than I had imagined,” he says. “So many of the thirty-year-old Hi8 and Video8 cameras have hit a stage where they are completely falling apart, but eventually we found some options that worked. It was worth it in the end as I don’t think you can really recreate that ‘quality’ in post-production. It’s pretty unique.”
Cam Gaze was the focus puller on Nitram. “That was a really tough gig on this film, as many of the scenes were filmed unrehearsed, and often my camera movements or reactions to performance were totally different between takes,” says McMicking. “This with fast lenses and often low light would’ve been a nightmare. Gaze took it in his stride and he did an incredible job. We’ve worked together forever, all the way back to the film Hail (2011), so we have a great shorthand. His team who were also an incredible support were second assistant camera Jensen Cope alongside data wrangler and video split operator Darcy Gooding.”
“Simon Hawkins was our key grip, also amazing,” says McMicking. “Although the film is fairly handheld, it has some quite intricate dolly, crane camera movements throughout. Hawkins managed to pull off at least one massive build per day with his limited team of himself, Kieran King and James Royle-Young. It was really impressive.”
Nitram was entirely shot on location in and around the city of Geelong and Winchelsea. Locations were mostly suburban, with country environments standing in for a ‘feeling’ of Hobart in the 1990s. “A location will pretty clearly speak as to the motivation, texture and colour of the lighting, as do aspects of the production design such as practicals, window treatments, curtains, but most importantly the mood and feeling of the light is based on story and character,” says McMicking.
The two key locations in Nitram are the starkly opposed worlds of Nitram’s parents house and that of Helen (Essie Davis) the introverted Tattersalls heiress who befriends and takes in Nitram. “We wanted to the parent’s house to have quite an austere and impenetrable feeling to it,” says McMicking.
“It’s sombre and very plain and neutral in it’s lighting. We approached it quite simply and mostly bounced large HMI sources or Sky Panel LED fixtures off bleached muslins or Ultra bounce, and through curtains that Babidge had dressed in. There were barely any floor lights or practicals within this location, which also helped facilitate some quite complicated handheld sequences following Caleb Landry Jones and Judy Davis, Nitram’s mother, in continuous takes throughout various rooms in the house.”
Helen’s house had a very different approach to lighting. “It’s grand and eccentric. Full of life, beauty and possibility,” he says. “We found an amazing 19th century mansion out in the countryside, which we all fell in love with. It was oozing with texture and had these incredibly over scaled rooms and windows.”
Initially, during the day Helen’s house is full of light. For these day scenes the cinematographer poured a single source either an ArriMax 18K or a 20K tungsten fresnel on a knuckle boom through one of the mansion’s large windows, before rounding things off simply with some passive fill. “It was always a fairly simple approach,” he says. “Later, as Nitram’s world breaks down, the windows are more curtained and the light more contained with the corners of the room falling away into shadow.”
Kurzel and McMicking both felt that Helen’s world at night should have a ‘womb like’ feel. The lighting for these scenes was very practical or motivated from the practicals designed in the space. “We mostly used practicals, or lite-mat fixtures through lace, or un bleached muslin to soften or break up the quality of the light and keep things warm,” says McMicking “Crispian Hayler was our gaffer, who I’ve also been working with forever. He was great at doggedly pursuing the aspiration to always keeping the light textural and emotional. His crew of Simon Zagami, Tony Iaria, and Dan Coates were equally fantastic and focused.”
Making this film wasn’t easy for cast or crew. The tragic events of Port Arthur twenty-five years on are still very raw for so many Australians. “During production, we all faced criticism for our involvement in the film,” explains McMicking. “But we had all read Grant’s script, and intimately knew of Kurzel and the producers’ intentions, and the important message they were trying to communicate. I was comfortable in my choice to be involved and stand by it, and am incredibly proud of the final result.”
Besides all the controversy surrounding the production, there were moments personally for the cinematographer which were incredibly challenging. “I felt that I had to at times find a way to remove myself from the inevitability of the story, but that of course was very tough,” he says. “Given the intimacy of the filming process with Jones, I felt I had to constantly try to be in the present and disassociate from the hideous ultimate end. To revile his character from the outset just wouldn’t have worked. It felt that to find some understanding of the events you had to engage the present character with respect and humanity, until he begins to cross that line.”
“I think one of the most traumatic and difficult moments for me was a scene where you witness the sheer mass of weapons Nitram has accumulated, and what it ultimately meant. I think for a lot of the crew it was fairly gut wrenching moment.”
Working with Jones was an incredible experience, and highlight for McMicking. The actor is perhaps best know for his performances as the superhero Banshee in X-Men: First Class (2011) and alongside Francis McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017). “Jones’ performance in the film is truly remarkable,” says McMicking.
“I feel we worked together really well, and we very quickly fell into a rhythm. Kurzel was keen to allow Jones as much freedom as possible, and so in the earlier sections of the film we had the camera stick to him, and react and respond to him as intuitively as possible.”
One particularly challenging and rewarding scene stands out, where Nitram returns home to pack his things up and clear out, much to the confusion of his parents, played by Davis and LaPaglia. “It was a great scene where the handheld camera follows the various characters through different rooms of the house in the middle of a conversation which develops into an argument,” explains McMicking.
“I remember that no two takes were the same, and the camera was free to play to the varying performances and perspectives of the different characters. There was no conversation about who was on or off screen, as it was possible for anyone at any time. The cast were completely present throughout, and it all felt so real. The entire cast were outstanding and performances were all equally mind-blowing.”
McMicking was lucky enough to be at the grade for some time on Nitram. They primarily focused on the projected version of the film, as this was Kurzel’s priority, and then graded the HDR version from that reference. “Edel Rafferty worked as our colourist, and her work was outstanding,” says McMicking.
“I’ve known and worked with Rafferty for many years in commercials, but this was our first feature project together. I’ve always loved what she visually brings to any project. We spent some time building a show LUT based off camera tests we shot at some key locations prior to the shoot. There’s a certain softness and texture to her work which feels very human, and for me connects emotionally.”
Working with the material at hand was Kurzel and McMicking’s focus for determining the final look of Nitram. “We didn’t stray too far from what was captured on the day, and the LUT developed early on,” he says. “I feel the grade was more about recognising what worked emotionally in the images at hand, and then subtly working with those to balance them, and carry the look of the film throughout.”
McMicking was interested in finding a world through which held a sense of nostalgia, and distinctly Australian time and space. “I think the closest film stock I could compare the look to would be something capture on the old 5229 500T Expression film stock,” he explains. “The final images rendered with softer blacks and more neutral colours, a look as though printed on paper.” Post-production work was completed at Soundfirm in Melbourne.
“This film was such a privilege to work on and I adore it, so it’s hard to pin point a single scene or shot as a favourite. But two scenes do come to mind,” explains McMicking. “The gun shop scene is remarkable, where Nitram manages to buy an array of high-powered weapons with no more authority than a bag of cash. Theres something so understated about the performances in this scene, and matter of fact as to what is transpiring. Juxtaposed with the ultimate fatality of this story, it’s an incredibly powerful and tragic scene.”
“Another scene I’d note is a very small one with Nitram and Helen playing with her menagerie of dogs on the front lawn in the late summer sun. There’s a tenderness and intimacy between the couple which is so beautiful, and offers a sense of hope and possibility. It’s a heart-breaking moment as you almost forget about the inevitability whats to come.”
The team behind Nitram set out to treat the subject matter with respect and care, and an abundance of artistic curiosity was a key priority for all involved. “I feel that we captured some incredible performances, and made a great film which hopefully further stimulates the discussion on gun control in Australia, and ensure that this terrible event in our history isn’t forgotten or ultimately repeated,” says McMicking.
Nitram received it’s Australian premier at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. The film will be theatrically released in Australia on 30 September, before a later release on the Australian streaming service Stan.
McMicking has just completed work on the new television series Wolf Like Me for Made Up Stories and director Abe Forsythe.
Germain McMicking ACS is an internationally acclaimed and Emmy-nominated cinematographer, earning Best Cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015 for his work on the film ‘Partisan’.
James Cunningham is editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.