Guillermo Navarro interview: The Resident, Twilight: Breaking Dawn, At The Mountains Of Madness and more

Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro talks to us about The Resident, Guillermo del Toro, Twilight, I Am Number Four and a whole lot more...

Question: when is working on a Saturday evening a good thing? Answer: when said work involves interviewing Guillermo Navarro. The man who brings Guillermo del Toro’s worlds to vivid and beautifully creepy light is not only one of the hardest working cinematographers out there (it appears he’s barely taken a holiday in the last ten years, judging by his recent output), he’s also one of the most exciting.

When the chance to speak with him over the phone came up last week, it was hard to say no. Navarro’s latest feature is The Resident, the first fully-fledged Hammer horror film for over thirty years. (Ffittingly, it has Hammer torch-bearer Christopher Lee turn up and say hello.)

So, while we were keen to ask how it was working with cinema’s most iconic Dracula, it was hard not to find out anything we could on his upcoming del Toro collaboration, At the Mountains of Madness. Or, what we (and Navarro himself from the sounds of it) thought was their next collaboration. But a lot can happen in a week.

You’re in Vancouver at the moment for Twilight, is that right?

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Yes, I’m doing Breaking Dawn here.

And that’s the two films back-to-back? That sounds like quite a long shoot, a real test of endurance.

I know, I know. I’m barely surviving it! [laughs]

So, how long have you got to go on those?

I have about six weeks to go.

And The Resident comes out here in the UK this week. How did you get involved with that? Did the director, Antti Jokinen, call you? Can a director call you if he wants to work with you? Is that how it works?

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Well, pretty much. It’s either through my agent or through personal connection. But yes, Antti Jokinen approached me and I read the script, which was slightly different from what the movie ended up being, and I was very interested in it. And then I got more interested in it when the cast grew to the level that it grew. I always wanted to work with Hilary Swank, so it was a very good challenge at that point. So, I took it.

And what’s interesting in this film is you’ve got a few scenes where Hilary Swank is on one side of the frame and Christopher Lee is on the other side. It’s a brilliant contrast of her looking quite luminous and beautiful and him looking quite, well, macabre.

Exactly. [laughs] I’m glad you said it.

But in a good way, obviously. He’s got so much history in his face.

Absolutely, absolutely. That is him. And it was a fantastic experience to be in front of such an icon like him, you know? And it was very, very encouraging to have him over. And his part was great, and he was very professional, very honest, very nice.

Do you sometimes look at actors and say, “I’d love to see that face in the frame”?

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Yes, of course. I have to try to accommodate, especially first the story, and then what atmosphere and mood the actors should be playing in. I go more for that than just trying to make them look great each time.

And with Antti Jokinen, this is his first feature film. Does it change the dynamic for you when it’s a debut filmmaker? Is there more for you to do?

It is harder. It is more work for me in that sense. But on the other hand, I felt very good with him and I was very pleased to be able to push him along and give him my experience. I mean, sometimes we were stuck on things, because the problem was also it was his script. 

The writing process is one and the filmmaking process is another one, and it is a different language. So, it is very hard for a writer to cross that bridge and that, added to his first directing experience, was tough. And I think he pulled it off very well. I like the movie.

So, how early do you get involved, then? Once the script’s done, do you ever sit down and input into it?  Like you said, you must have such experience now in how a story works.

Yes, exactly. Because, in that sense, I believe that cinematography is the language of the movie. So, it is what is going to be told with images. And this movie, in particular, had the added element of going into a very limited perspective of things.

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It’s a story told by a subjective person, where we see the evolution of events through the eyes of one character and then we see it through the eyes of the other one, and the perspective of how he is spying on her.

It created a whole world of opportunities of how to shoot the movie and that was very challenging and interesting.

There must be some directors who are much more visually minded in how they tell a story. 

It is a very different experience each time. There is no such thing as rules for that. I’ve worked with directors who have a tremendous visual take on things. My strongest work is with Guillermo del Toro, who is a very visual director. 

And Antti was a very good combination of that. He has a very strong take on how the visuals have to accommodate this kind of narrative. And that was a part that flowed very well. I was completely in sync with that.

But there are other directors who are more into the text than the visual, and that creates a conflict of language.

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That must be an interesting mix, then? You putting your ideas forward and the director having their own ideas?

It’s always like that. Things are evolving and moving constantly. The filmmaking process is very alive, and when you start having mandates either from studios or producers who are there to discuss a set of rules, that becomes an obstacle. 

Because the process of how to tell a story and how to block a scene and which is a moment that you really need that close-up of that actor, it’s caught there in the process of the rehearsal, of understanding the story and to keep a very clear understanding of what part in the big picture you are doing that day or that shot specifically.

You cannot get lost in the particularity of that event. You have to have a more total vision of the movie, which is, for me, pretty much my first step when I read the script. 

When I read it, I have the experience of having images and almost seeing the movie before my eyes. Then I feel I can do the movie. That happened here.

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When you read a script, do you sometimes see the challenge as well? Because I imagine this film had a challenge of being largely in one location, so you have to make that location very interesting.

Can you  imagine? I mean, eighty percent of the story takes place in that apartment, and it was a movie with a lot of budget restraints and limitations and it was very hard to pull it off. And it’s a difficult process, filmmaking. And it’s not really a matter of ‘the resources are tough’, because you have these problems when you have a really big budget as well. It’s really the same issue and it’s really not measured by that. 

It’s measured pretty much by the ability that the filmmakers have clarity in what they’re doing and the actors are on the side of the movie. You can also be in movies where the actor is really in his own thing and his own clash of personalities, etc, etc. 

But here we felt that everybody – When you see the movie, you feel that you are completely in it. Everybody belongs to the movie.

And you’re someone who seems to be working a lot, when you look at the films you’ve done and the films you have coming up. How does it work when you’re on a film? Are you looking ahead and doing work on the next one? Or are you very separate in how you work on films?

Well, once I get into a film, I try to do most of the conceptual visions in the preparation of the movie, and then when I shoot it, the experience of being in the flowing process of how the movie has a life of its own by then, I try to follow that.

For instance, when I finish this movie, I’m going to do a movie with del Toro. So, I’ve already had a couple of meetings with everyone, I have a script I’m reading and re-reading, etc.

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So, yeah, I always have a process of being contaminated by the next project.

And that’s At the Mountains Of Madness you are referring to, with del Toro?


That sounds a fascinating project. 

Fascinating, yeah.

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So, does that bleed into Twilight at all? In a good way, say, in terms of what you’re thinking about in Mountains might get channeled into Twilight?

It’s a completely different thing. I mean, I treat every movie completely separately. I don’t bring a bag of tricks with me to solve it. I try to really find what the movie needs and what kind of approach I take. And if you see my movies, they’re all different. And I’m very glad I don’t stick to one genre or one kind of thing. I really made a big effort to do a lot of different things.

Because I do believe it’s not about having your signature on each project. The movies should be completely different, because every movie, it has its own identity

And Mountains must seems like a very different project from the outset because it’s, from all accounts, being shot in 3D. Is that the plan?

It is the plan, yes.

So, is that changing the way you’re thinking about it? 

I haven’t really got into that yet, but yeah, I’m a little bit concerned. It’s much more time consuming and more problematic to just get the things in the chamber floor that you’re normally accustomed to working in the dynamic of. So, I’m a little concerned that that’s going to affect that.

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How excited are you then about At the Mountains Of Madness? You’re working with del Toro, your long time friend and collaborator. It’s a huge project. It’s 3D. Do you get excited?  

Oh, absolutely. I get a high off that. It’s a fantastic opportunity. I mean, each time that I work with him, wonderful things happen. So, it’s a huge privilege working with him.

And another film you’ve worked on recently is I Am Number Four.  What I found interesting was the power that the hero in that had: light coming out of his hands. It seemed like a cinematographer’s dream superpower. 

Well, that was a very big challenge. We had to come up with a solution that –  Really, the source would emanate from his hands and we added some visual effects help, but it was huge research to do that. And I’m very proud of how it works. It was very hard to do and it worked like nothing. Like it was effortless.

So, it took a long time?

It was the hardest trick to come up with, definitely. The hardest thing was to make the movie interesting, and I had very good young talent, and that’s always good, and energy. I had a very good producer, which in these days is a miracle. And it was great.  The relationship with the director was very good. The movie went along very well, I think, for that. 

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And that is also one of those things we were talking about, that I mentioned doing all kinds of genres. And I’m also interested in, especially, finding projects that have either a period piece involved or parallel reality, so I can create images from scratch and not just document them. And this is when we have that opportunity too.

So, things people have never seen before, in that sense?

Exactly. So, in that sense, yes. In that sense, it’s coming up with a film language that will allow you to cross those bridges of parallel reality.

Pan’s Labyrinth is a perfect example of that. But even movies that are in people’s imaginations, like even Twilight that I’m doing now, we are adding a very strong visual proposition to it. And it comes from that. 

This is not regular people in regular conflicts, or regular lives where you just go out and document it. We have to create them. And Mountains of Madness is all that.

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One of the things I really enjoyed about I Am Number Four was the opening, a chase scene where I was really trying to see what was happening. It felt like my eyes were really working. A lot of your films seem to make the most of the least amount of light needed and make people work a little bit harder to see what’s going on. Is that something you’re trying to do?

Absolutely. In many occasions I decided that my lighting has to be about less and taking things away than adding. And that contributes to –  if that was to contribute to that sensation for that moment, then, yes.

And is it common for directors to say, “That sounds great. Let’s take all the light out”?

There’s always resistance to change to new things. Always. There’s fear, there’s trying to play it safe. And I am always a very strong advocate to take my chances.

Guillermo Navarro, thank you very much.

The Resident opens in cinemas on Friday 11th March.

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