Robert Elswit is a busy guy. While directors rarely make more than one film a year, cinematographers are often responsible for two or more. If you’re Mr. Elswit, both might get Oscar nominations for best picture — he was the director of photography for “There Will Be Blood” and “Michael Clayton.” Now he’s filming “Duplicity,” Tony Gilroy’s follow-up to “Michael Clayton,” but instead of kicking back on his day off, he’s spending it talking to reporters, promoting the DVD release of There Will Be Blood (Paramount, $34.99 two-disc, $29.99 single-disc).
What’s more, the genial 57-year-old sounds more than happy to do it. He loves talking about his work.
Mr. Elswit won the Oscar this year for his work on “Blood,” but he says he’s more proud of the fact he was DP on two best-picture nominees. He was happy to win, of course, but adds: “The nomination, as everyone is tired of hearing and saying, is the big thing.”
It was his first win but second nomination, after 2005’s “Good Night, and Good Luck.”
“Blood” also earned its star an Oscar. Daniel Day-Lewis astonished audiences as Daniel Plainview, an oilman in turn-of-the-century California. The two-disc edition has a slide show of vintage photographs selected by writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson and set to a startling modernist score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. Mr. Elswit says such photographs did help to create the film’s dark atmosphere, but he adds, “It was more an amalgam of other movies or other filmmakers and not so much the actual period detail.”
Even more important was the amount of time the cast and crew spent in Marfa, Texas, where most of the movie was filmed. “We weren’t just showing up at a location we’d scouted two months earlier, which is often what happens in movies. We lived there,” Mr. Elswit says. “It’s what movies used to do years ago, in the ‘30s or ‘40s. You took a train out to Monument Valley, everyone pitched a tent, and you stayed there until the movie was done.”
Mr. Elswit’s work is more on display here than usual: The first 20 or so minutes of the film are virtually silent. “Paul’s idea was that we were going to create a history of the oil industry from the time people first started digging in the ground with their hands and how precious metals turned into oils,” he says. “It’s wonderful filmmaking.” It’s a bold and risky way to start a film.
And, Mr. Elswit reports, the wordless sequence was at one point over twice as long.
“Blood” was Mr. Elswit’s fifth collaboration with Mr. Anderson. This period drama felt like a departure for the director of “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” and the cinematographer agrees. “They’re not comedies exactly, but they sort of are,” he says of Mr. Anderson’s past work. “There’s some place in the film where he lets you know it’s OK to have fun.” No such moment exists in the unrelenting “Blood.”
This spring, Mr. Elswit’s work will be seen on the big screen in two films. David Mamet’s “Redbelt” opens next month. “I love him,” the cinematographer says. “He’s not a visual stylist, he’s an old-fashioned storyteller.” He says the director often works with small budgets, which provides a different kind of challenge. “I’m trying to get it done on time, and I’m trying not to screw it up,” he laughs.
He also worked on Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones documentary “Shine a Light,” opening today, with some other notable cinematographers under Bob Richardson. “We were really working as camera operators, which is unusual for us — we usually have responsibility for more than that. It was fun. No pressure. The pressure was on Bob and Marty. For us, it was more of a social event. In cinematography, there is a kind of a camaraderie that doesn’t exist among any of the other crafts.”
Reservation Road (Universal, $29.98) — Critics weren’t too impressed by “Reservation Road,” directed by Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda”) and based on the novel by John Burnham Schwartz. Even those that didn’t like the film, however, praised the performances. Mark Ruffalo stars as a lawyer who kills the 10-year-old son of a couple played by Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly in a hit-and-run accident. He struggles with the guilt, but the thought of losing visitation rights to his own son keeps him from confessing. The coincidences pile high — Mr. Phoenix’s character hires Mr. Ruffalo as his lawyer — but a top-notch cast, including Mira Sorvino as the ex-wife, puts them into play. The DVD includes some deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.
The Private Life of a Masterpiece: The Complete Seasons 1-5 (BBC Video, $99.98) — If you can’t afford the time or money to take university courses in art history, this British series might be the next best thing. It’s not a chronological look at visual art, but rather a series of in-depth studies of individual masterpieces. It’s also much more entertaining than the average lecture. You get the history of the composition of great works, but also some of the gossipy back stories — Picasso was questioned when the Mona Lisa was stolen in 1911, the CIA promoted the work of the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock. Masterpieces include Michelangelo’s “David,” Hokusai’s “The Great Wave,” Munch’s “The Scream” and Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte 1884.” The seven-disc set includes all 22 50-minute-long episodes of the series, which ran from 2001 to 2006. Kelly Jane Torrance
The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep (Sony, $28.96 two-disc; $38.96 Blu-ray). This is a perfect, innocent fairy tale. Big — somewhat cute — Loch Ness sea monster is raised by lonely boy Angus in 1940s wartime Scotland. Army men are preparing for a German invasion of a nearby loch by installing nets and heavy artillery. But guess who gets caught instead? The special effects are amazing, the depiction of wartime Scotland rings authentic, and the talented cast includes Emily Watson, Ben Chaplin and brief appearances by a narrating Brian Cox.
The special featurettes are a real treat too. They include the making of the sea monster — described as a cross between a dino, dog, eagle and giraffe — and the intricate complicated measures it took to make the interactions between monster and boy seem real. They include blue-screen jet skis and scuba diving (which young actor Alex Etel had to learn, along with swimming). There are also interviews with a contemporary Loch Ness monster hunter and tourists who flock to the loch for the remote chance of seeing… something. Says director Jay Russell (“My Dog Skip”): “We want to believe something exists because we have a need for magic in our lives.”
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