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Immersed in Movies: Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski Talks 'Lincoln'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood January 23, 2013 at 2:35PM

The stripped-down, theatrical approach to "Lincoln" allowed Janusz Kaminski to light with an intimacy and ambiguity that's unique in his celebrated collaboration with Steven Spielberg (he's photographed every one of the director's live-action movies since "Schindler's List," for which he won his first Oscar).

However, if the opening battle stylistically recalls the brutal Normandy invasion in "Saving Private Ryan" (for which the cinematographer earned his second Oscar), the minute and a half of hand-to-hand combat is really much more primal. "You have black soldiers; you have white soldiers and it becomes the essence of the Amendment," Kaminski suggests. "It's about ending the Civil War and ending the slavery, a vicious portrayal of killing somebody where you feel the blood gushing out of someone's chest. And you feel the sounds of someone being drowned in the water by the hands of a soldier."

Kaminski also enjoyed the comic relief of the political operatives trying to finagle votes from lame duck Congressmen because it took us outdoors for a breath of fresh air. "That's a signature storytelling of Steven. And it always works. I remember in 'Schindler's List' there was a little montage where the Jewish black marketers are buying stuff and selling to the Nazis and bickering about shoe polish in glass jars in the church."

But there are aesthetic differences between Kaminski and Spielberg and, surprisingly, the cinematographer occasionally lights brighter than the director might want it. Yet somehow they meet each other half-way. Still, when it came to Kaminski's favorite scene, a reflective moment between Lincoln and General Grant (Jared Harris) on a porch with the troops going by in silhouette, he got his way."

"There's the discomforting reminder of the war happening outside the frame with the shadows of troops moving across empty space. But it was problematic for various departments. The sound department was complaining that I was using the troops to create shadows and you don't hear them. Steven was a little concerned that it was disturbing to the actors. But when he realized what I was doing with that metaphor, he embraced it. He is not paralyzed by people's ideas."

Thus, "Lincoln" was an uncommonly emotional experience for Kaminski, who found being so close to the camera like watching a play and more conducive to creating a series of tableaux.

"Lincoln: An American Journey" featurette:

This article is related to: Lincoln, Production , Immersed In Movies, Features, Steven Spielberg

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.