Interview, Ben Kutchins -
The Medium of Transcendence
Hey Ben! Thank you for joining us. In our last conversation, you mentioned that because of your parents, meditation has been a part of your entire life. Can you share more about it?
Early in my childhood, my parents became interested in Buddhism and we started visiting different Buddhist temples around Northern California. They studied Theravada Buddhism for a few years, and we then spent some time going to a Tibetan Buddhist temple. I remember that I loved the quiet nature of the practice, focusing on being aware of your breath, and the idea of the interconnectedness of all things. A kid can relate to being a bear or a tree or a rock, it felt like playtime. I remember that temples felt like a fantasy world that was easy to disappear and play in. There were young monks that I hung out and became friends with and I was doing a little meditating, but the chanting is what I remember most of all. Eventually, my parents became really focused on Zen Buddhism and I spent most of my summers growing up at a place called Tassajara, a beautiful monastery in the middle of an enormous national park in California. It was a huge part of my family’s life for a long time and it still is. I was ordained as a Buddhist at 13 years old and around the same time, my parents became Zen Priests, which means that they are teachers and senior members of the Zen community. They moved to a monastery full time when I left for University, so it's been a big part of my story.
Now, how do you feel meeting monks who were your age when you first started going there?
I feel simultaneously happy, sad and I am jealous, mostly I wish I could see the world through their eyes. The greatest disappointment about getting older is that it takes practice to stay open-minded and see the world with new eyes. I hate having to remind myself that we’re all just beginning. We start thinking we know stuff as we get older yet I am pretty sure that I know absolutely nothing.
What kind of thoughts kept you away from meditation becoming an integrated part of your life in the beginning? Are there still some overwhelming moments that make you wobble?
Our culture is not really conducive to a meditation practice. We are told from childhood that this moment is not enough, multitasking is a virtue and we should always want more than we have. I’ve always been a very easily distracted person and struggle to have discipline in my personal life. I also needed to break with my old religious ideas at some point and do something that felt natural to me. The Zen practice that I learned as a kid can be really rigid, so these days I do my own thing. I don’t study Buddhism, but I do sometimes read Buddhist books. I am interested in religion but I am not really a supporter of organized religion, it's contradicting I know. The most persistent thought that keeps me from meditation is that I don’t have enough time, which is a lie I believe every time.
But most of the Buddhist practices, especially Zazen, is about how one can become disconnected with time. What do you think is fundamentally keeping you away from it then? Is it the fear or life or death?
I had a moment recently that I became extremely aware that all my fear is actually just fear of death. And all that fear keeps me from living, which is pretty crazy if you think about it. I say that, but I think I’m living a pretty good life, it’s just filled with chaos like most people’s.
I have read an interview in which you said that "(While filming) everything else falls away and time doesn’t matter. There is no moment where I’m thinking about the external world or what I should have for breakfast tomorrow. ", now that's an experience much closer to meditation. At what point exactly does your work become your meditation and how does it transform you?
When I am shooting, I have the ability to focus in ways that are difficult in the outside world. I can be fully in the moment with the crew while we are lighting or setting up a frame. I can be fully in the moment with the director discussing the scene. I can be fully in the moment watching the actors perform. I am like a kid on set… I’m having so much fun and can get fully engaged in the storytelling. When I allow myself to disappear into the story, it makes for some the best moments. When I allow myself to let go of all the boring cyclical thoughts that spin around my head, life is a lot more fun. It’s easy to think that the chatter in our minds is who we are, but it’s mostly just noise.
Speaking of it, what do you think is the relationship, at least for you, between being totally present in one moment and creating an expression of it in the next moment? How does that influence/shape you as an artist?
I think it allows for openness and vulnerability which is maybe the most important element in my relationship with the work and with my fellow storytellers. Filmmaking is a highly collaborative medium and that is one of my favourite parts of the whole thing. It’s like jazz when we are all working together and putting trust in one another. When it is about the collective creative energy rather than individuals fears and insecurities, there is no place I’d rather be. It’s made me more picky about who I collaborate with, you have to search out the people that are coming from a positive place and nurture those relationships.
Let's go towards Ozark, which is one of the finest series I have ever watched. While watching, I felt that even though the characters kept losing control over the environment more and more - I still felt a great amount of calmness within each scene. Did I get the right essence as a viewer? Tell me, how do you translate that precision of a script on screen?
In general, I tend to lean towards the subtle version of camera movement and lighting. For Ozark, I really wanted to lean further into a slow burn aesthetic. The world of the Byrde Family is chaotic, so I thought maybe the most interesting thing is if the camera is not frenetic and searching, but rather calm and precise. We tend to choose a unique composition and let the camera stay put and let the actors leave the frame and come back in. With lighting, I let them disappear into the shadows and come back into the light. We are watching rats in a maze and they probably won't make it out alive. I think it’s been about paring it down to its essence and letting the constant feeling of dread come from the out of the stillness. The past two seasons of Ozark has really been an exercise in restraint which I think asks audiences to lean closer. That being said, we maintain a fine balance, the camera has a perspective and keeps audience feeling as though they are part of the story. It's a tricky thing to make it feel like a first-person experience and keep still at the same time.
So how do you develop the camera movement and style?
Each story is unique and deserves its own love and attention. I am never trying to replicate something I have seen or repeat something I have done before. I am looking into the script and spend a lot of time talking to the director about tone and character. I don't tend to spend a ton of time talking about the specifics of a particular shot, but prefer to spend time discussing the feeling behind it. The technical part will fall into place naturally when there is an understanding of character and story. My prep often involves looking at a lot of still photography references and sometimes watching clips from other films. These references are not to search for elements to imitate, but help create a place for the conversation to start from. For Ozark, Pepe Avila del Pino (the amazing DP who shot the first two episodes), Jason Bateman and I discussed shooting with limited coverage to create a distinct style not often seen on TV. We also talked about slow subtle camera movement and how we should always make an effort to reveal information to the audience in the most interesting way. The colour palette was something that mimics an old Fuji film stock that I used to shoot with but the specifics of the look were developed over the first season using a combination of in-camera LUTS and post-production colour. It took a lot of searching throughout the season to find the style that ended up being the look of Ozark.
Do you sometimes indulge in learning/understanding psychological aspects of a character while developing your style? What are you chosen mediums for that?
I think the most important part is to watch the actors. We should be in unison and the camera should dance with the actors and respond to their performance. If someone is smooth and moves like a dancer, maybe you can use a looser handheld feel. If they are jagged and unpredictable, maybe its best to let the camera be smooth and steady. But there are no rules. You have to come up with bold ideas and be willing to throw them all out if they don’t feel right. I think we all have an inner voice and we just have to learn to trust it. Sometimes during a take where something doesn’t feel right, I’ll be whispering to myself “what is it… what is it?” I’ll wait for the camera to cut and then I have to respond and respond quickly, so I don’t break the flow of the performance. Maybe it’s a note to the camera operator or the actor regarding blocking, but it has to come quickly so that I don’t break the rhythm.
I think as a DP you have to be able to imagine the perspective of a character, how does it feel to be afraid, to feel powerful, to feel joy… and these can’t be generic feelings. They should be unique to the story and the character, and they should be ever-changing and developing depending on the scene. If it feels honest then you’ve what you’ve been looking for.
I have felt that in some of your work, the story essential revolves around characters that are dreaming very individually. What do you feel about that?
I’m not sure what that says about me… (laughs). I guess I see that we are all living in our own reality. No two of us see the world in the same way or dream in the same way, so in the film world, I guess I am trying to give everyone their own unique perspective. I like a bit of magical realism that simultaneously feels grounded. I want the films I shoot to evoke personal memories and feelings in the audience, so I tend to lean into something that feels like a dream or an early memory. I try to listen to the actor's performance... and ask the character questions; "What is your earliest memory of crying as a child? What is a time when you saw something magical and it took your breathe away… what did these things look like? Did you pull on your mom's long white dress and wrap yourself up and disappear into it? Did you feel safe in there?” Each of us has a unique perspective and deserve our own distinct point of view. I was talking to a director just the other day about a character's POV shot and discussing how we would make that shot tell their story. There is no generic view in my mind, there is always the dream or the filter of our sorrow and our joy. Perspectives should be distinctive and personal to each character.
Are there any directors or cinematographers that have created stories that you would want to shoot today?
I don't spend much time idealizing or fantasizing about being one set with certain people… I’m generally good at losing myself in whatever story I am telling, but There is some nostalgic part of me that wishes I could be on set with people that taught me storytelling. I’d love to have shot a movie with Orson Wells… or a Samurai movie with Kurasawa..Or a movie with Kubrick. They are filmmakers who took great risks and made incredible images. They showed me how to tell a story before I had any idea what I was even watching. I’ll always remember a scene from The Seven Samurai, where two young people are falling in love, and they’re laying in a field of flowers. The beauty is in the details of that scene, not in an insert of the flowers, there aren’t any, but how he evokes a memory with simple photography, it feels like our collective memory of falling in love, something we all share. We strive to create images that are iconic and infinite… things that will hopefully still resonate long from now.
..and are there any (from the 60 films) that you shot during your time at NYU? Would you want to re-introduce any one of them?
Shooting student films was a great opportunity to make mistakes, so I’m not sure that there any of that I would want to revisit any of them. I learned a lot and made some lifelong friends along the way, though.
Before I ask you the last question, I must ask you, How would you compose silence on film?
It would be nature. No people, no animals, just trees, water, mountains, deserts, oceans, lakes, rivers, rocks, lava, leaves, flowers, rain, snow, sun..
Lastly, what would you suggest or share with other cinematographers?
Don’t get lost in the technology, as it’s the least interesting part of what we do. And don’t worry what others think of your work, when you’re shooting, focus on the feeling of the moment.
ALL IMAGES - COURTESY OF NETFLIX
Jessica Miglio, Jackson Davis, Eliza Morse.
Interview with Ben Kutchins