If you’re chasing your dreams I hope you’re doing it with passion. Without it, you can lose focus and inspiration. Doing what you love and making your mark on the world requires commitment, dedication, discipline and a genuine love for your work. Being the best doesn’t happen overnight. To earn that title you have to prove it amongst the best in your field. Only then does the title of being the best feel deserved. I was the best long distance runner in grade 7 and 8 but I grew up in a small town and the mayor wasn’t even aware of it, so it doesn’t have much of a bearing on this story.
When you want to be the best in the film industry, not only does the mayor hear about it, the entire entertainment world also knows your name. It is a title that commands respect, honour and tremendous acclaim. I recently spoke with Oscar winning cinematographer Guillermo Navarro. He had won his Oscar for his work on Pan’s Labyrinth. His body of work includes a plethora of blockbuster films including many directed by another award winner, Guillermo del Toro as well as other films directed and produced by Robert Rodriguez. His accomplishments as a cinematographer are his gift to everyone that watches movies. He was in Vancouver last summer directing and working as cinematographer on the made for TV movie, Cocaine Godmother. This was his first made for TV movie as director and DP.
Cocaine Godmother is a retelling of the true story about Griselda Blanco, a drug lord and pioneer in the Miami-based cocaine trade. Catherine Zeta-Jones plays the Godmother and the story is set in the 1970’s.
“Thank you for taking the time to talk to us about Cocaine Godmother. Considering this story takes place someplace else, why did you choose to film it in Vancouver/”
“It was a production decision to film in Vancouver because of the incentives offered by the province. Once the decision was made to film in Vancouver, it was a matter of finding resources to make the movie. It came down to the location department and art department to create the illusion that you’re somewhere else. We ended up filming over 90 percent of the movie there, which wasn’t easy because the story takes place in New York, Miami and Columbia. It’s about choosing the right moment, right corner and the right locations.”
Guillermo Navarro grew up in Mexico City before coming to the US and making his mark in the film business.
“You have a highly successful career. Can you tell me how it started?”
“I began my career as a photographer before being drawn into cinematography. I am self-taught mostly because there were no film schools in Mexico City, where I grew up. My career as a DP started to take off in my late thirties. I first met Guillermo del Toro years ago on a film. He was working on prosthetic make-up back then before he became a director. We built a great relationship and I worked on his first film.”
Some of Guillermo’s most notable work has been on both Hellboy movies, Pacific Rim, Desperado, Pan’s Labyrinth, From Dusk Till Dawn, Spawn, I Am Number Four an so many others. He’s made his career out of being the best DP in the business and no wants to include directing as he moves forward.
“What is the biggest difference between film and TV?”
“In TV you need to allow room for commercial breaks.”
“What are some of the challenges you come across as a director and DP?”
“As a director on set, there are problems daily. You need to be able to roll with it and find solutions cause you will have adversity everyday. It’s a matter of character to keep things moving forward in the right direction cause you have all kinds of limitations, from locations to resources to lights. There’s always something going wrong. You have to remain very alert.”
He’s worked with Robert Rodriguez on Desperado and then continued to work with him on 3 more films.
“What did it felt like to win an Oscar for Pan’s Labyrinth?”
“It takes a while to sink in. It is the most prestigious award because you’re up against the worlds best. You don’t feel like you’re amongst the best until you’re there. It felt like an out of body experience.”
The film, Cocaine Godmother took just over 40 days to shoot but he told me he’s worked on other films that have taken over 100 days to shoot.
“What attracts you to certain films?”
“I look for pieces where there’s opportunity for a world to be created. Where you’re not just documenting reality. I try to find period pieces where you have to recreate a past or a future or where you can create a parallel reality or a whole world on its own. We did that with the 2 Hellboy movies and several others. Cocaine Godmother was no different. It was a story that takes place in the past.”
Guillermo Navarro also teaches a master class to other aspiring DP’s. He tries to inspire them. The one thing he stresses in his master class is, understanding that this profession is really a language. It’s not just a frame that you’re shooting. There are many rules and it’s really a story telling tool and not just capturing the image but also creating the image. Pearls of wisdom for any cinematographer starting out.
“What is most important when coming to a movie set?”
“You have to be very familiar with the location in advance because you don’t have the luxury of time. You have to understand the location and understand the scene. What is it that you need to tell at this moment? You cut it into pieces and then you figure out which ones to place together. It’s very important to plan it down to the details because there is so much to do every day. When I work on a film I try to figure out, what are the visuals that the story requires? I try to create a language for the movie that I’m doing. As a DP, you’re constantly making adjustments because you need to have it right at the beginning and the time to do it. It’s important to be able to foresee in advance what it is that you need.”
He says it’s very important to have a close relationship with the actors, as a director and cinematographer.
“Is there anyone on your bucket list that you’d like to work with?”
“I wanted to work with Coppola but I was too late for it. I’m quite satisfied with the directors I’ve been able to work with.”
“In terms of advice for other new cinematographers, what would you tell them?”
“They need to be well prepared before they show up. When the opportunity comes along they need to know what to do. You need to know the technique and know the storytelling. When that opportunity comes you might only have one shot so you have to focus on that. You have to remember that there are others that are just as skilled and are also competing for the position, so it’s your time to shine.”
It’s very easy to understand how Guillermo became one of the best in his field. Being prepared in advance is certainly key for any profession. If you want to be the best, you need to stand out and work harder than everyone else.
“Do you think DP’s get enough credit?”
“There should be more recognition for DP’s. If it doesn’t happen through the lens it doesn’t happen at all. They’re really instrumental for a movie to exist.”
He left me with one more piece of knowledge. He says as long as you have a camera and a lens and a way to make it work, you can do a lot. He is living proof that movie magic exists because of great cinematographers. Without their skilled eye for detail, we’d never appreciate movies and stories the way they’re meant to be told.
He is currently preparing for the upcoming film, Dr. Dolittle. He’ll be working as the DP. It was a tremendous pleasure speaking with him and I regret not telling him about my latest screenplay but maybe we’ll have a chance to talk another time if he decides to make another film in Canada. I’d love to do it again!