Greig Fraser interview: the cinematography of The Gambler

Cinematographer Greig Fraser talks to us about his work on The Gambler, from lenses to shooting in Los Angeles...

In Foxcatcher, there’s a captivating scene where Steve Carell’s character, millionaire John du Pont, ushers a stable of horses out into a grey, autumnal morning. It’s a moment given a luminous, magical quality by cinematographer Greig Fraser, whose other recent film credits include Let Me In and Zero Dark Thirty.

The Gambler, the new drama written by William Monahan (The Departed, Kingdom Of Heaven) and directed by Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes) represented its own set of unique challenges. One of them was to bring tension and visual excitement to a story that frequently sees its wayward protagonist Jim (Mark Wahlberg) frittering his money away at a blackjack table or lecturing a theatre full of distracted college students.

It’s testament to Fraser’s ability that he manages to tread a delicate line: his camera is unobtrusive enough to allow the performances to shine through, but also injects each scene with style and depth.

As The Gambler opens in the UK, we spoke to him about the film’s shoot, lens choices, and turning a 10-page lecture scene into a cinematic moment.

Ad – content continues below

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about went into the planning of The Gambler. Was it a quick shoot?

I don’t think it was an unsually quick shoot for a film of its size. To be honest, I can’t remember how many days it was. I’m guessing at 35 to 40? We were fortunate enough to be able to shoot in Los Angeles, where it’s set. A lot of the time, what happens is, when you shoot in LA, you tend to be able to do things faster, believe it or not. It’s a conversation that we were having on set, about how certain things happen faster in Los Angeles, because there’s a film infrastructure there.

We wanted to make a film that was a bit classic. Not to draw reference to the 70s or the original – I hadn’t seen the original, so it wasn’t in order to do that. It was to create a classic look that allowed the actors’ dialogue to shine through. It’s such great, complicated, interesting writing from Monahan, and I think when you put that with these fantastic actors – Goodman and Wahlberg and Larsson, you just want to sit there and watch. You don’t want the camera to be moving around Goodman as he’s giving all these fantastic speeches. You want to be a bit more classic with it, a bit more methodical. That was our plan, our basic structure.

We did often consider the gambling itself as being a bit of an endorphin release so we’d use the character to help the audience understand the main character’s internal excitement by handholding the camera, or at least giving the camera a little bit of movement. You then feel that, because the rest of the film is quite still. When there’s movement to the camera, it ramps up that euphoria, that adrenaline one gets during a high-stakes gambling session. I don’t know about you, but the highest I’ve ever bet was about 50 bucks – and even that, I was freaking out.

I might be mistaken, but in Jim’s everyday life, you go for a cool blue palette, such as the lecture theatre scenes, and then you go to these warm colours for the gambling.

Broadly speaking, yes. Not always, because we didn’t want to delineate it too clearly. But in a broad way, exactly, because believe it or not, the colour of the lights in the gambling house at the start are the same as the ones in the lecture hall. Literally. The colour above the tables is the same. It was to link those two together. But in the audience, you feel the sumptuousness of that first gambling establishment. It’s supposed to draw you in, the richness and the warmth. Because then he goes and loses the whole lot. So it was quite a deliberate idea to have similar coloured lights between the two scenes, but in the audience, you don’t consciously notice that.

Ad – content continues below

Then as you go through the different gambling sessions, it goes quite cool again – particularly towards the end with the Korean gambling den.

The lecture sequences are quite long, but I liked the way you shot those – it’s a guy talking to a room full of people, and it could have looked quite flat. You seemed to make some interesting lens choices there.

Well, thank you. Because that’s a really interesting challenge for a cinematographer, when you’re reading the script and it says, “Interior: lecture hall.” Then you keep turning the page, keep turning the page, keep turning the page… and ten pages later you’re in the next scene. You’re right, because you’ve got to… I won’t say you’ve got to find a way to solve that visually, because by doing so you undermine the quality of the acting and writing.

So what you’ve got to do is take a baby step back from that, allow the performance to come to the fore, but still find really interesting angles that fully exploit the audience. At times, we’re in his head, and at times he’s interacting quite closely with some of these students. So to try to link that together, to link him with those students, and then isolate him at times, is a challenge.

It’s a hard thing to shoot, going up and down stairs. Technically, you can’t put cameras on every step – you only have two cameras. So you’ve got to pick your angle really well for each particular section that he’s in. Also, you want to give your actors the most amount of freedom.

You want to be able to say to Mark, “Go for it, mate. Run your ten minute scene, and we’re not going to get in the way.” You don’t want to have to stop and move the camera. It takes a lot of planning. We spent a lot of time in prep, planning and rehearsing that particular scene.

Ad – content continues below

Is it right that you used quite a few 70s or older lenses on this film?

We did. We used C-series lenses. I don’t know my film history, but they were built around the 70s, yes. It wasn’t a conscious decision to try and make it look or feel like the original. And since it was filmed, I have looked at a few sequences from the original film, and hopefully we haven’t made it look too similar to that. We shot it digitally – we shot it on a Lexa. And what we found was that those older lenses with the new digital sensors have the perfect combination of sharp sensor and soft lens, which allows the audience to, hopefully, to melt into the image a little bit more.

Grief Fraser, thank you very much.

The Gambler is out in UK cinemas on the 23rd January.

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.