Steven Spielberg has triumphed once again, as we stated in our Lincoln review. Two of his most loyal and creative confidants, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and make-up designer Lois Burwell, visited recently with Movie Fanatic for an exclusive look inside an artistic whirlwind that has created genius once again after decades of collaboration with a film master. Few know that this particular project actually began long ago.
"We started 12 years ago with tests with another actor and I’ll tell you this much, the movie was going to look totally different because my aesthetics were different, and Steven and I saw it in different ways than now,” Kaminski said.
With Lincoln, they had a script by Tony Kushner, based on the definitive biography of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. “For this movie, it was much more organic and much less manipulative on film. In the end we decided to go with a really honest approach. The story was so great. The actors were so great. You didn’t have to manipulate that image too much to improve the story."
With Lincoln there were particular challenges for Burwell. Even though there are few photographs of our most popular president, the man’s look is still permeated in our consciousness. “I can’t describe it. I can’t tell you what the process is, I can only tell you that you look at enough images of Abraham Lincoln and then you have that,” Burwell said.
Then, you toss it aside. “What you can’t do is have that in front of the mirror and then apply that to this person. There’s something in between which is something of an amalgam. You don’t want it to be monumental -- like he’s stepping off of a monument. You want it to be a person.”
That bare bones approach also applied to Kaminski. “All the photos of Lincoln from that period were official photos. With this movie, we wanted to show Lincoln in a more humanized way where his hair is not perfect. His jacket’s got some dirt on it or his nails are dirty. That reality -- Steven was interested in that. He didn’t want to idolize the guy,” he added.
As told to us in our Steven Spielberg interview, the filmmaker wanted every inch of film to reflect one of the lowest moments of our nation. “Steven was interested in making sure we know it's operating in dark territory. The lighting reflected that as well. It’s a dark period of our history, so the light had to reflect it. He was sure of what he was doing. Lincoln knew it was hard. He dealt with so much darkness and he knew that he had to enlighten the nation.”
Kaminski, after shoots as battle-torn as War Horse, Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, welcomed the opportunity to not only shoot a film rooted in war, but also the political battle that loomed large over the final months of Lincoln’s life as he got the 13th Amendment ratified.
“We do things that are technically very demanding in other movies, but not in this movie,” Kaminski said and smiled. “But in other movies we’ve done, like in War Horse, we’re standing in the mud, in the rain and there’s stuff falling on you!”
Burwell wears those War Horse battle scars as well, but is quick to use it as an example of how Team Spielberg manages to work so cohesively as a unit, regardless of the locale or elements. “It was horrible,” she said and laughed, remembering the rough shoot from the comfy confines of the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills.
"I remember standing on War Horse and it was bitter cold and my team was out there often for ten hours. It was brutal. I’ll never forget how someone always brought us something to eat. It’s not that you’re conscious of it, that’s just how we are. The thing is we all care for each other because that’s what happens. You’re all creative and therefore, you start to merge somehow."
Kaminski first worked with Spielberg on Schindler’s List, and he won his first Oscar. The second Academy Award would arrive courtesy of Saving Private Ryan. Meanwhile Burwell joined the traveling collective of cinematic talent with Saving Private Ryan. Both report that the process has remained the same, and gloriously so. “The routine is always the same,” Kaminski said. “The first week, you think, ‘Oh my God, we got ten more weeks to go.' Then it goes really fast.”
“It’s true,” Burwell concurred and laughed.
They both admit growing more and more artistically as they continue their respective careers working with Spielberg. “We’re learning because each movie is different. You’re doing constantly new things,” Kaminski said. “It’s very rewarding, inspiring, respectful and gracious.”
Burwell has found that sometimes makeup departments can be relegated to the rear of the importance charts, but there is no such hierarchy on a Spielberg set, and that was as abundantly clear on Lincoln as it was with her first film with him.
“Sometimes the makeup department isn’t perceived as a vital part of filmmaking. On Saving Private Ryan, people were going to have their chests ripped open and gun shots and all that,” Burwell said. “He makes everyone, and I felt it right away, feel a part of the team.”
As the man who shoots what Spielberg sees in his head, Kaminski has taken away one thing above all else in the decades he’s collaborated with the master. “It’s so refreshing to see a director who takes the script and without changing words makes the meaning totally different by having his actors do specific things,” Kaminski said. “It’s always great to watch him work.”