In a small storage closet behind the filmmaker’s lounge at the Dallas International Film Festival, Assemble correspondent, Paula Goldberg found a quiet space to have a boisterous conversation with veteran Director of Photography, Lawrence Sher.
No stranger to tight spaces, Sher started his career creating low-budget cinematic magic with independent gems such as Garden State and Kissing Jessica Stein. Since 2009, he has formed a prolific creative partnership with Director Todd Phillips, shooting critical and fan favorites including Joker and The Hangover.
In recent years, he has expanded his resume to entrepreneur with the creation of ShotDeck, a film still library that assists directors, cinematographers, designers, ad people, film students, and visual artists in bringing their artistic visions to life.
In this freewheeling conversation, Sher talked about the roots of his interest in film, his process and approach to cinematography and the intimate working relationship he has with directors.
Courtesy of Lawrence Sher
Paula: There is a TEDx talk by J.J. Abrams, where he recounts that as a child his grandmother once helped him ask his grandfather for a camera by saying, "It's better than the drugs." Did you have that kind of encouragement as a child?
Lawrence: It's funny. I had a still camera which came from my dad that I still use. With that camera, which was an old Nikon F from the late 1960s, I learned photography and motion picture photography by proxy. My dad was a doctor, he worked at NYU hospital in New York. His hobby and passion was photography, mostly nature photography. Back when I was a kid, I saw my dad work hard to give us this incredible, middle class life, and do everything to make our childhood perfect. But when I saw my dad light up from a passion standpoint, it was always with photography. In sophomore year of high school, he gave me a camera for a school trip. And I remember coming back and showing the pictures and I could see in his eyes these aren't just regular pictures. He thought I had a little something.
Paula: He knew you had an eye.
Lawrence: Yeah, the fact that I could see in his eyes that it was something, made me go - maybe I have something. So that little bit of encouragement both by giving me the camera, but also seeing in him that he thought that there's something there just stuck with me. I didn't really do much with it until senior year in high school. I broke my nose playing baseball. I was out for like eight games. And during that time I sat in the dugout with that Nikon F and I took pictures and I remember the pictures got sold to The Bergen Record, a local paper. And I was like, oh wow, that's super cool. I could take pictures and it started formulating in my mind that not only could you have this hobby of photography, but it's something you maybe could do in the future. And I think that was really the thing. That Nikon F I took with me to Los Angeles and would use it to basically teach myself cinematography. And it's still with me to this day.
Paula: And did your parents think it could be a career?
Lawrence: In a way I never really thought of it as something that could be a career until I was halfway through college, Because I went to school, in spite of all of that encouragement, in spite of all of that sort of interesting biography, I still went to school thinking I was going to be a doctor. But halfway through school I took a film class that reignited that creative flame inside of me. And from that point, because I was in college and had film major friends, I saw that people make movies. For the first time in my life, I thought “oh maybe I could be a cinematographer”. I gravitated towards the photography end of filmmaking. I started thinking, there's a path here. You go out, you start to learn it.
This is a job. I could do this. Then I became really obsessive about learning. It was, in a way, the first time where I understood what education really is. In high school, I had no interest in trying to learn. But when it was something that I was enthusiastic about like filmmaking. All I wanted to do was learn. I wanted to spend every waking hour reading, learning, practicing anything I could. I didn't go to college thinking I'd become a cinematographer, but I left college with this real passion for what I wanted to do. Those four years did that for me. It was a time of discovery and that's the most valuable thing college gave me.
Paula: It's so insightful. Some people go in knowing exactly what they want to do, but most people don't. And they find they get exposed to different people in different cultures and then they find themselves. It’s a beautiful thing.
Lawrence: Yeah. So that was what really started it for me.
Paula: So, I kind of have a little crush on your career. Because, of course, coming to the Dallas Independent Film Festival, you are marketed as the Cinematographer of Joker and Godzilla and that’s amazing. But digging a bit deeper, I discovered you shot two of my favorites. I won't even say guilty pleasures, because they're good films, but they're films that I watch over and over and over because I'm in love with the storytelling. That's Dan in Real Life and Kissing Jessica Stein.
Photo Credit: Kissing Jessica Stein
Lawrence: I love to hear those two. I mean, Dan in Real Life, interestingly enough, has that same thing where people who liked it, really liked it. And I had such a great experience making that movie. First of all, Steve Carell is amazing. Juliette Binoche is amazing. But there were also all these incredible supporting actors like Amy Ryan and the experience of making that with Peter Hedges, whose son is Lucas Hedges, now a big movie star. When we did Dan in Real Life, he was maybe ten years old or something in one little shot in the back of a bus.
Peter Hedges comes from writing plays and is a real actor's director. He did this incredibly fun thing when we made the movie. First of all, we made it in Rhode Island, in that house where they all are going to a family reunion. The experience of everyone basically living in and around Newport to make that movie was so lovely. He did something no other director has ever done before or since. He took the entire crew - including me, the production designer, costume designer, editor, and the composer - and we stayed at the house for three days, cooked together, and lived there. And then every day we would read the script and play the roles. I played Steve Carell's role all the way down to essentially every little part, which I thought was incredible. As none of us are actors, we had a chance to imagine ourselves in those roles and also explore where we should do this, which part of the house, and how we might shoot it. After that, he brought all the actors there to rehearse for a week in the house and I could watch. Making that movie was a very lovely experience. So I love that you love that.
In a way, Kissing Jessica Stein was probably my most important movie because there are so many steps that you take in a career. The first step is a movie my parents can tell their friends about that they might have seen. When asked, "What does your son do?” “Oh, he wants to be a filmmaker. He's a cinematographer.” “Oh, has he done anything I've seen?” That was the first movie that even if you hadn't seen it, you might have recognized the title.
It legitimized me to my parents and their friends. But also it gave me a title that people may have seen in the theaters, which changed things and gave me an opportunity to get a film like Garden State. Every movie, the success of it or its profile out in the world allows you opportunities for the next movie. In that respect, Kissing Jessica Stein was important and also super fun to make.
Paula: With Kissing Jessica Stein and Garden State you had very limited resources. Does working on a shoestring budget require a different approach?
Lawrence: You're mostly working on pure instinct, simplicity, all the things, by the way, that every movie should work on, even if it was a hundred million dollars. It's the benefit of a tiny movie, in that you don't overthink it and you don't overdo it either because you don't have the opportunity. With a hundred million to make a movie, a small scene might be the only thing you shoot that day. So you're going to end up shooting it as if it's more complex and you're going to do that because you can. And why not? Give the options, right? However, in some ways, Jessica Stein's simplicity, the way we exploit exteriors at times, and all the ways in which you go well, we're in New York City, production value is New York City, right? How do we at every chance try to exploit that reality?
There was a scene with Jen Westfeldt and Heather in the back of a taxicab where we literally just found the taxi, the taxi cab and gave the guy a little extra. I jumped in the front seat, turned the camera towards them and shot the scene. It wasn't like we had a whole rig. We just said, “oh, just drive around the block a couple of times.” And in two or three takes, that's enough.
Paula: You all caught magic in a bottle.
Lawrence: It was really special. And then it also has this sort of weird thing. We finished it. It was joyful. However, we premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on September 10th, 2001, and the second screening was September 12th. And the world changed in between those two screenings because it was such a movie about New York City.
Paula: Did you have a shot of the twin towers?
Lawrence: We had something like three shots. Just by the nature of where we shot. Prior to its release the following year, after it had played in Toronto and won the Los Angeles International Film Festival, I went back to New York and got some other establishing shots, since it was too hard to watch.
Photo Credit: Daughter
Paula: Besides shooting independent films and big budget features, in 2020 you shot an eight-minute short film, Daughter.
Lawrence: All on an iPhone. In China, btw. That’s where we made it.
Paula: How does someone get the Cinematographer of Joker to shoot their short film on an iPhone halfway across the world?
Lawrence: It sounds like some small little thing. It's basically an extremely expensive Apple commercial. In 2019, I did a movie called The Starling with this great director, Ted Melfi, who did Hidden Figures and Saint Vincent. Really awesome guy. After that movie, he went to Apple and pitched and got proposed to do a short film on their new iPhones. They do them every year. They are complex, but require creativity given the medium. We can color correct. We can do some things, but the challenge was trying to do something on this thing we carry in our pocket every day. So I got to go to China, make this short film with a very famous Chinese actress. It was all in Chinese. It was actually amazing. It’s a lovely story.
Paula: It’s incredible what you can capture with that technology.
Lawrence: There are no limitations, you know? I remember seeing this great movie about cinematography made maybe twenty years ago where I think it's Francis Ford Coppola who said “In the very near future everybody will have the ability to make a movie that looks amazing.” And it's now. In a way, the barrier to entry that existed when I started my career, which is the expense of making a movie, the rules and all these things, the limitations, were also a nice excuse because you could always be like, ‘it's so hard’. Now there's actually no excuse. Go make something. You have at your fingertips the ability to make something with almost nothing.
Paula: Filmmakers no longer have an access problem, they have a content problem.
Lawrence: That’s exactly right. Or just their own fear. It’s a problem in terms of getting in the way of you starting and I think people obviously have fear that they're going to make something that's going to suck, and it probably will, but that's also the reason to do it so that you can get better and can get it out of the way.
Paula: When you were finding your way as a Cinematographer, was it light or frame that interested you most?
Lawrence: It's really both. It’s funny, probably frame in the beginning because it was the thing I could control the most and I knew the least about lighting. But now I recognize, and this has been obviously a long time coming over the last twenty years, light is the thing where you have the most artistic creativity. I think it gives you the ability to be the biggest artist of sorts. I now spend most of my time thinking about the lighting. The framing stuff happens a little more intuitively because I still operate and all that. I'm interested in the frame and I'm very specific about the frame, but in a way that almost comes easier. The challenging part is the lighting, and so that's where I focus most of my attention.
Paula: Do you think you have a signature camera move or style?
Lawrence: There's a move that's not even that signature to me but it's been in every single movie I've ever done which is very straight forward, basically a false P.O.V. that the actor enters into. It's very simple. So you imagine if we're walking towards this door, you're moving towards the door, and then the actor. So it becomes an over the shoulder following somebody, and it just starts clean of them. It shows up in a lot of places but invariably in every movie. You see it in Joker when there's an opportunity to follow somebody, we’ll start with a clean and then have them enter the frame.
Lighting wise, I'd say I especially like color. So mixing color. What I guess would be called complementary. I always call them contrasting colors. Mixing warm light with cool light is the kind of thing that has shown up in all my work going way back. I feel like that would be it if somebody was trying to find something stylistically. I guess if somebody was trying to define my look outside of me, they might go there. I would actually have somebody else define it and tell me.
Paula: I was looking at different clips and what I appreciate about your work is the ability to find rawness and beauty in the lens, even when the subject matter or subject itself is dark such as the subway scene in Joker. There's a lot going on that’s heightened, but also very real.
Lawrence: Generally speaking, I'll draw from realism, but I'm looking for a sort of magical realism. I've had people say, I don't think I'll hire him because his work feels a bit dirty. That's probably because I come from a place, even with comedies, where I generally want to start from something real. Whenever it feels like it's too artificial, it just throws me. But I don't want it to feel like a documentary. I want it to feel beautifully real. I want it to feel magically real or lyrically real. I want it to have a little something that is cinematic in the realism, you know?
Paula: Yes. Perfect example is the wolf pack scene on the roof in The Hangover. You have Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Justin Bartha captured in one shot. And then when you cut to Zach Galifianakis, you do something interesting. It’s just him, but the shot is wide, there is so much space to his left, it’s as if you're trying to capture Vegas itself as a character.
Lawrence: Capture Vegas and also the fact that he's an outsider, right? He's the outsider trying to fit in. It takes the movie for him to join the pack. That’s what the scene’s about. By the way, that same premise is present in Garden State. Zach Braff's character is in a place of pure isolation. Everywhere Zach is, he's basically alone in the frame and everyone else is filled with people. That was a conscious choice. In the same way, a screenwriter creates subtext underneath the actual text. That’s my process. Together with the Director, I create rules to help guide our decisions as we break down the scenes in creation of the film..
Photo Credit: Garden State
Paula: How does your pre visualization of a project work?
Lawrence: I start by breaking down the script. When I read the script, I take notes on everything that comes to mind, including making a shot list. The Director isn't even involved yet. I'll make notes in the margin. When I am breaking down a movie, I create a Bible that starts to formulate any ideas that come to mind. It could be a shot or an idea. It could be, Oh, this feels like slow motion, this feels handheld, this feels long lens. Whatever comes to mind. After reading it the first time, I refer to reference material to try to spark my mind, visually.
Over time, I created this website called ShotDeck out of necessity. In essence, ShotDeck is an image database that identifies the 200 or 300 most significant shots in a movie. Those shots can just be references that you need to get a feel for. In a diner, for example, if you want to see several different diners, you can discuss the type of diner we're looking for, the kind of coverage, and the kind of angles we like with the Location Manager, Production Designer, or Director. I used to rent or buy used DVDs. If I were making The Hangover, I would buy Ocean's 11. You know, I'd buy What Happens in Vegas and I'd buy California Split or Lost in America. Now 95% of it doesn't provide me any inspiration or might provide me inspiration on what we don't want to do. But it starts the flow of ideas and starts the conversation with the Director as to what was the inspiration. So sometimes you're actually getting inspired by it, right? Sometimes you're doing it as an homage.
So sometimes you're looking for a reference to make it feel really specific. Sometimes you're just looking for something that you know is looking to spark your imagination. And sometimes it's reference material, it's painting, it's other photography, and then it's just your own imagination by putting all those things together. That's the first step. And then usually the Director and I will go through and turn the page on the script and get more specific. We’ll then visit locations and get more specific, then you'll get to the shooting day. You'll usually throw a lot of it away, but you'll still have all those ideas you were thinking about for months. It will still be the best part of the preparation, even if you throw it all away.
Paula: You talked about Peter Hedges having this very unique rehearsal camaraderie. Were there any other Directors where you were surprised by their process of working?
Lawrence: You know, I had a really great fortune of coming in to fill in for like the last nine days of shooting on a Cameron Crowe movie, Aloha, with Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone. Amazing cast, but the movie didn't quite perform. But he loved music, as you would suspect. It comes from a guy who used to write for Rolling Stone. And so he would literally play music while we were shooting. And like a deejay, he would pod it down for the dialog. So let's say it was Bradley Cooper and John Krasinski in the kitchen having a conversation. He'd have music and then he'd pod it down. That was sort of their cue to start the dialog. They might say three or four lines. When there was a pause he wanted, he would pop the music out. It was as if you were listening to the soundtrack in real time. And it made for operating or just experiencing the movie super unique. I thought that’s a cool, cool technique that I had never seen before.
Paula: Have you ever worked with a Director - you don't have to name names - who you felt like they were not into any collaboration. And that you would just simply be a hired hand?
Lawrence: I've probably tried to gravitate away from those kinds of movies. I remember there was a movie in which I was pretty deep in the interview process, and it was between me and somebody else. And in the last interview I had with the director he showed me that he had storyboarded the entire film. And I said to him because I thought, Well, this likely isn't going to be a great movie for me. I said, ‘I'm probably not the best fit because you've got it all worked out already. One of the things I can really help provide is sort of in real time and within the space and watching the scene progress and see it really develop the scene as we see it on the day’.
I've worked with Todd Phillips on seven movies, from The first Hangover to Joker, and he used to always say that filmmaking isn't science, it's jazz. And so our thing is like jazz. We'll talk about the scene. We'll even write shot lists out. We don't really storyboard, but we've done previz in the past. However, basically, when it comes time to shoot the scene, we let it all go and watch the actors. We let the actors help drive the process. We'll watch. It will change. It will develop it, and we'll play jazz on the day and discover what the scene is and it constantly evolves, which I find exhilarating. It’s become a real part of my process. Even working on a movie like Black Adam or Godzilla I haven't had that super stringent thing. I just think I would do the movie and I would carry it out, but it wouldn't be as satisfying.
Photo Credit: Joker
Paula: When you're working on something like Joker, Black Adam and Godzilla. Now these are iconic characters. Comic book characters and some that have been on film before. Do you feel any need to pay homage or pull from past interpretations of the character?
Lawrence: I don't think we were drawing from previous Godzillas when we made Godzilla: King of the Monsters. It was like its own thing. And certainly Black Adam didn't exist in anything except the comic books. There were a couple images, like the one of him on the throne that I wanted to recreate because it was an iconic image. I had that picture up on my phone and wanted to try to find the angle that feels right. So there were some specific homages to that. With Joker, not so much because we were very much not making a comic book movie.
The only thing I remember was flipping through, during the location scout, the Killing Joke graphic novel and thinking, well, this movie won't be a comic book movie, but it has the opportunity to create iconic images that could feel like if you just laid out the screen grabs somewhat like a graphic novel. You could look at an image and understand the story being told. But we definitely weren't drawing from previous incarnations of Batman. The one tie-in is when Bruce Wayne’s parents get killed in the alleyway, because it's part of the canon of the comics, and been in three or four other Batman movies going all the way back to the Jack Nicholson one to Zack Snyder's versions, and even Chris Nolan.
I remember before we shot it, thinking, should I watch those? And I went on YouTube and watched all of the alley scenes when they die. And I wish I hadn’t because they got in my brain in a way, like to go, Well, I don't want to do that. I don't want to do this. We should probably do that. I feel it’s the one scene in the movie that doesn't quite feel like the rest. Even though as a guy who built this website, ShotDeck, I love reference material, often what I like it for is for the way it inspires me to think of other ideas. I'm not taking the reference material to mimic it straight up. It’s really just a leaping off point for conversation.
Paula: Let’s talk about technology. On a film like Godzilla or Joker what was useful in the process?
Lawrence: There are so many technologies. Interestingly enough, one technology I didn't use on either Godzilla or Black Adam, which I thought was the most transformative besides things like the LED volume, which is probably the most transformative technology that we've started to use in the last ten years, which is instead of blue screen, instead of green screen, you now have basically tiny, tiny pixel monitors all strung together and a huge wall. That acts like a real time background and adds to the reality in the moment.
There is a technology called NCAM where you can actually show through the eyepiece on blue screen or even in a regular environment, such as out in the parking lot, you can see comped in Godzilla. So you could see Godzilla really tall and you could operate up there and then go down to Millie Bobby Brown. And I thought that was one of the most exciting things I've ever seen technologically. But even on both those movies, $200 million movies, it's just too time consuming and too expensive. Even on a movie that is like that. This technology is so amazing. And yet even that technology is either too slow or too unaffordable for huge movies. I thought that was kind of amazing.
As far as technology, besides those two things, previz is probably the most valuable thing to Marvel and DC kinds of movies. Not a movie like Joker, but more like the Godzillas and the Black Adams, which are phenomenal because of the technology. It basically was developed for gaming and it looks amazing. I keep seeing clips of The Last of Us. Like shot-by-shot from the game next to the Pedro Pascal live action version and to some extent, sometimes the one from the game looks almost better in wide shot. And so that technology which is mostly Unreal Engine builds all these like photo real but also you physically put a camera with a lens in the right aspect ratio and field of view. You basically make the movie in advance of making the movie on a computer which is pretty incredible. I'm not a big storyboard guy, I like shot lists, but the ability to pre-make the movie, depending on what it is, is pretty awesome. In spite of the thing I mentioned about jazz, I'm all about jazz. But in some of these movies where you don't have an opportunity to do jazz because you're making them so piecemeal, having the ability to figure it out in advance is fantastic. And even on a movie like War Dogs, we did a little section of the movie in previz because the studio, Warner Brothers offered.
So we took one little scene where they are at this gas station and get chased by these guys and trucks and a helicopter comes in. We took a couple of weeks to previz the whole thing. And it was kind of amazing. And then shooting went incredibly fast because we followed the previz. It still felt exciting because there were a lot of moving parts.
Photo credit: Niko Tavernise courtesy of Warner Bros
Paula: And you're still making the choices, the artistic choices.
Lawrence: It was lovely without a crew of 300 people standing around, right? It could just be me, Todd, and a previz editor. And we were able to go “it's a little slow here, that's an unnecessary shot, we need a different shot here, let's edit it differently in that regard.” It's actually great.
Paula: What is the best hack that you have found on set that makes your working life easier?
Lawrence: The hack to me, which is more of a technological hack, which has become so important because 90% of your job on set is communication. They came up with these brand new communication headsets in which we all can wear these tiny little headsets and we have a belt pack. They can talk to everyone in the crew quietly, like in a whisper talk. But you can basically designate all these different channels to all the different departments. That has become our lifeblood on set because it allows us not to scream and it allows the set to be quieter and the communication so much better. We only started to use them on Black Adam, which was three years ago, and now I can't even imagine making movies without them. So that fundamentally is a simple thing, but to me it’s changed everything.
Paula: And finally, if someone right now, if there's some 18-year-old starting college, getting their film degree, wanting to be a shooter, what should they do?
Lawrence: There's no path. I can tell you that, because everyone wants to know the path, Right? But every path is different. My main thing is to find your community and that community is going to help you. First of all, that community will meet another community. Each of us has circles of influence, and those circles will be where you end up making movies for the rest of your life. Every job you have on set, if you're enthusiastic and have a good attitude and are cool to be around, will lead to the next job. You never know what relationship is going to lead to what. That doesn't mean every relationship is transactional. It just means that you're trying to make things. And every opportunity you have on set is an opportunity to learn something. And it's also potentially an opportunity to meet somebody that'll get you the Joker sometime in the future.