Rodrigo Prieto
Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Rodrigo Prieto: “It’s all about emphasizing emotions”

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Short Profile

Name: Rodrigo Prieto
DOB: 23 November 1965
Place of birth: Mexico City, Mexico
Occupation: Cinemaographer

The Irishman is streaming on Netflix now.

Mr. Prieto, in your opinion as a cinematographer, which emotion is the hardest to convey visually?

Solitude is relatively easy, anger, fear, excitement; these are emotions that are easy to conjure up with an image right away. I think shame is a really hard emotion because while I can imagine an actor portraying that, from a camera perspective it's an interesting challenge. Shame is a trickier one. It's always fun to figure that out, but I try not to force it, I try not to come up with something immediately.

How do you go about figuring it out?

I just try to let it happen little by little until something is revealed and we go in that direction. It comes from reading the script, from talking to the director, from going to the location. For me, the essence of storytelling is to take the audience on a emotional journey. And I think cinematography is all about underlining those emotions and emphasizing them in a way that the audience will never be aware of. So that's why for me it's important to understand, let's say, the emotional concept of a movie and of every scene. Then I tap into my own experiences and memories of my own emotional states in different parts of my life and try to remember visually what that looked like. I think that then I try to reproduce that with lighting — because after all, light is energy and emotion is energy. So, I often try to utilize the energy of lighting to transmit emotional states.

“It's an act of empathy towards the director. That's what I enjoy about it!”

Do you have to personally relate to the story in order to better represent it?

Not necessarily. For instance, Wolf of Wall Street is a movie that I would have never expected that I’d do, or that that subject matter would be something that I'd really want to get into and tackle. And the strange thing about this is that I've done two Wall Street movies: one with Oliver Stone, and then one with Martin Scorsese! (Laughs) But that is precisely what I find interesting, to get outside of my own experience and explore something completely different! I think it makes me grow as a human being. You know, trying to get into Wolf of Wall Street author Jordan Belfort's perspective… That is a character I wouldn't want to be friends with — yet, it was very interesting to be with him for months, and try to put the camera in his perspective.

Frank Sheeran in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman also comes to mind: he is an abhorrent criminal but you still end up rooting for him.

Exactly, and I think that is a characteristic of Scorsese's movies, where he is able somehow to make us be, not complicit, but be inside the head of a character that you could easily find despicable and yet you're able to understand what they're going through. The only way to do that is to be with their emotions.

So it’s more about relating to the director’s vision than the story itself?

Totally. It's an act of empathy towards the director. That's what I enjoy about it! For instance, I find it compelling when the director, as a storyteller, is expressing something that might even be from his or her darkest personalities through the script, because I think we all have different personalities that are part of ourselves. Then, it feels like each character gives a voice to one of those different personalities within the storyteller. And therefore trying to understand what the director feels about these characters deep, deep, deep down is what I try to tap into.

Michael Ballhaus said that ultimately the cinematographer has to accept that the director has his own ideas and has to be very tolerant towards that.

Right, and I try to be very open from a spiritual level to these things that are moving in the soul of a director. I try to tap into that. There has to be a really deep understanding in order to make the movie work, I think.

On the other hand, the director also has to trust his cinematographer.

There does have to be a complicity between cinematographer and director. For example, in the movie Alexander when Alexander gets impaled and he's dying, I proposed to Oliver Stone this idea of shooting that scene with infrared film because in my mind, when you're near death, you might see things that humans aren't capable of seeing. And one example of something that exists but is simply not visible to us is infrared light. So we shot that section with infrared color film and it looks really bizarre — but surreal and interesting.

“Everybody’s work is aimed at that lens and it's my responsibility to capture everything that everybody is doing and then enhance it.”

It’s like adding another dimension to the story.

Right, everybody’s work is aimed at that lens and it's my responsibility to capture everything that everybody is doing and then enhance it. I certainly bring in my own stuff to the table. What’s interesting is that I've worked on movies that are from all different cultures and all different perspectives in different countries. And you could say, "Why would this Mexican guy be the right person to photograph The Irishman?" Or Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution for that matter in China, or 8 Mile in Detroit but I actually think the fact that I’m from Mexico means that I can bring something extra to the story.

In what ways?

Well, I think it is possible to, from any cultural background, tap into these basic human emotions that are universal and then also bring something from your own experience — in my case, growing up in Mexico City, the way I felt and saw things, for instance. That's why I appreciate that the film industry is becoming more and more of a diverse community. I think that is great, that we are all able to create stories for humanity rather than just for this specific people from this country and this specific group, you know?

It's no surprise that some of the most interesting big-budget American films have had crews that were very diverse, in terms of cinematographers, film composers, and costume designers.

And it also goes the other way too. For instance, some American directors have done really very interesting films set in Mexico, like John Huston, John Ford with The Fugitive, Julie Taymor with Frida, which I participated in. It's always enriching when we look at different cultures and we try to understand and express our own inner feelings through a different perspective. I see nothing wrong with that. Some really worry about cultural appropriation and that's sort of the woke way of viewing it. But I believe that we're all human beings in this one planet and I do believe in sharing this experience together.