A twisted trip in COSMOPOLIS

Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, ASC and director David Cronenberg have collaborated on 10 features since first teaming up for the thriller DEAD RINGERS almost 25 years ago. Their work together has varied wildly from the melodrama of M. BUTTERFLY to science fiction of EXISTENZ; from spy thriller EASTERN PROMISES to historical drama A DANGEROUS METHOD. But one aspect of all their work together has been consistent--they've all shot on film. Until now.

COSMOPOLIS, starring Robert Pattinson as a brilliant but morally questionable billionaire, is the first digitally-shot feature for both men. Suschitsky utilized ARRI ALEXA cameras for the entire shoot -- nearly 70% of which is set inside the retro-designed stretch limo Pattinson's character rides through turbulent city streets. Shot primarily inside a real limo on a soundstage, the film consists in great part of strange encounters with the hero's wife, lovers and business associates during an increasingly bizarre trip.


COSMOPOLIS, starring Robert Pattinson as a brilliant but morally questionable billionaire, is the first digitally-shot feature for director David Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, ASC. 

ARRI: What made you and David Cronenberg go the digital route for COSMOPOLIS?

Peter Suschitzky, ASC: We'd talked about it for a considerable amount of time before. We'd both felt that in previous years the state of digital cinematography wasn't ready for us. What persuaded me that the ALEXA camera was brilliant was a music video directed by Sam Taylor-Wood (NOWHERE BOY) where I used the camera to follow a person from an interior corridor out to the street in the bright sun. The tolerance of the camera for extreme changes in exposure and contrast was very impressive. A few days later, I shot another music video directed by Oliver Dahan (PIAF) with the camera and that finally convinced me.

I knew that COSMOPOLIS was going to be one of the most difficult of my career because we were going to be shooting in the back of a limo for so much of it and I knew I wouldn't have room to hide many lamps. The sensitivity of the camera would be an ally for me so I wouldn't have to struggle to get images in that situation.

ARRI: How did you shoot inside the car? Did you have any leeway at all to cut away portions of the car and get some kind of lighting in there?

PS: We did "cheat" and take the roof off a few times but we did that perhaps only twice and that was to get the camera into a position it couldn't get to otherwise and not for the lighting. We were also able to take half of the back out occasionally for the same reason. But even so, it was still quite limiting in terms of where we could light from.

ARRI: Were you able to work with the production designer [Arvinder Grewal] in the design of the car.

PS: Yes. My main concern was getting light in there and having some options in terms of the lighting sources to vary the exposure and contrast between scenes, so we worked together on getting practical lights integrated into the design.

ARRI: So how did you light the car interior?

Mostly with tiny units. Some LED lights and sometimes a 150-watt tungsten light with diffusion or bounced. The car was also designed with these (TV monitor style) panels. I was also able to put some lamps outside the car but it was tricky since everything outside the windows but that brought its own problems [related to the exterior plates that would be composited into the shots in post].

ARRI: You also have a character in a black suit inside a dark interior.

PS: It's never ideal from a cinematographic standpoint to have black on black. I would have preferred to have the suit be made a slightly shiny material or be a somewhat lighter shade but in this case I did not, to my chagrin, get what I wanted. [Instead], I tried to get some light behind him or to the side to at least create some kind of separation.

ARRI: What did you rate the camera at? Did you meter the way you would for a film shoot?

I rated the camera at 800 but I didn't use my light meter for the first week or so of shooting, but soon I realized it is not wise to rely totally on what you see on the monitor. Since then I have started to use my meter again. My D.I.T. on COSMOPOLIS, Jasper Vrakking, was very helpful but I realized that sometimes something very dark might look very good on his monitor but on a big screen, after color grading, there might be a little bit of noise if the exposure of the scene was not a full one. I'm very happy with the way the ALEXA sees into the shadows, but I've returned to using my meter as if I were shooting on film.

ARRI: One of COSMOPOLIS's non-car sequences takes place inside a big nightclub with a lot happening in shadow and bright strobe lights flashing all over the place. That seems like the contrast would be challenging for any imager.

PS: The nightclub scene did not present any contrast problems. I simply mixed a discreet amount of bounced light plus the practical lights. The camera performed extremely well here, handling the contrast far better than film could. 

ARRI: Did you use filtration on the lens?

PS: I did use a very light Pro-mist as it seems to take any hardness off the image. Twenty years ago, when I first experimented with HD video, the camera seemed to see below the first layer of the actors' skin! But nothing like that happened with the ALEXA. It looks like a film image.

ARRI: Overall, how would you characterize your experience shooting your first digital feature?

PS: From day one I felt that I never want to go back to film!

ARRI: Really?

PS: Yes. An important factor to keep in mind is that today even if you shoot on film your movie won't actually be shown on film. Not in the United States and Canada anyway. It will be projected digitally, which means you have to digitize the film. And side-by-side I think the true digital image looks far better than the digitized film image, which ends up looking like a dupe, several generations from the original. So I'm afraid it's goodbye film for me unless a director really has an excellent reason for shooting on film.