Seamus McGarvey on Executing the Photogenic Signatures of ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’

We chat with the cinematographer about his collaboration with Drew Goddard and the influences that fed the energetic neon-noir.

Bad Times Chris Hemsworth
20th Century Fox

Few cinematographers have had as eclectic a career as Seamus McGarvey. He’s not beholden to style, genre, or filmmakers. If the project sounds appealing, he’ll jump on board. A trip to his IMDb page will reveal an artist eager to collaborate with singular visualists. McGarvey has shot everything from gargantuan blockbusters (The Greatest Showman, Godzilla) to intimate documentary portraits (Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, A Fuller Life). Story and character dictate his decisions. If empathy is found on the page, he’s compelled to capture it within the lens.

McGarvey met Drew Goddard on the set of The Avengers. They struck it off immediately and filed their relationship away as a potential working one for the future. Bad Times at the El Royale is their first alliance, and McGarvey was excited to tackle a screenplay fractured by Drew’s characters. Each performance offers a chance to create a signature look as a means for eliciting an emotional response.

I spoke to McGarvey at his home outside of Florence, Italy via Skype. Our conversation begins with his enthusiasm for the screenplay and his philosophy for executing the period setting of Bad Times at the El Royale. We discuss his process of crafting the photogenic signatures for each character and how shooting on film still allowed him to improvise on set. We close out the chat detailing the three disparate films that inspired the overall aesthetic of Bad Times at the El Royale.

Here is our conversation in full:

Where did your conversation with Drew begin regarding the visuals of Bad Times at the El Royale?

Well, initially you know, after I was sent the script, we had a Skype conversation. I had met Drew once when he visited The Avengers set. He’s friends with Joss Whedon, but this is the first occasion, this Skype conversation, where we properly spoke. We went through, or he told me what he was aiming for in the film. He told me about the thematic, kind of, elements to it. He told me about what he was hoping to do with the photography in concert, in collaboration with production design and costume design and coalescing all those elements together to create something that felt cohesive.

I think Drew really wanted the photography to be embedded in the script, and he wanted it to feel like, as a whole. With the writing being so intact and complex, I think he wanted from all the heads of department an assured visual sense that was not only you know, on its own but that worked alongside the other departments in parallel.

It’s a period piece. It’s set in the 60s, but it never feels or looks overly nostalgic. It’s also never stodgy. What was the philosophy for selling that era?

From the onset, Drew really wanted an assured sense of period. He didn’t want to luxuriate in some of the more – I suppose the campier aspects of that era. You know? He didn’t want that to overwhelm the themes that were running through the movie. But at the same time, he wanted you to feel like you were in a world. He just didn’t what that aestheticism to overtake what he was trying to say with the film or the characters.

The furthest he wanted to go was to really give each character a sort of photographic signature as well as a design signature and costume signature so that they became like ciphers if you like. But at the same time, his dialogue is so vivid and terrestrial that you don’t get a sense that you’re being, that you’re luxuriating in imagery for the sake of it.

How do you go about creating a photographic signature for those characters?

Drew initially had very clear ideas about color and about the kind of trajectory of color and light through the film. Starting with a sort of levity of the illumination. Bright sun and more vivid colors going on, and more complex and colliding colors. Within that, each character that appears has got a kind of color signature. Darlene Sweet, played by Cynthia Erivo, has this kind of mustard and mauve kind of signature with the green as well in there.

The reds, certainly, of Billy Lee. The black of the priest. The kind of deep brown of Miles the receptionist and the kind of the checkerboard of the one side or the tartan, right? It’s not tartan; it’s what do you call it? [Laughter] Anyway, Danny Glicker [Costume Designer] would kill me for calling it tartan, but it was kind of a pattern on his jacket, which had a very decisive look. All these characters sort of, it almost felt a little bit like Clue though, in how clearly they were defined visually. Both in color costume and where they stood and how they were. As we move between the present day, if you like, the gathering of all these personas, they all had to have very strong photogenic visuals. Then going to flashbacks with them, we could not make them confusing.

So we discussed that at length. Drew drew up a little list of what he wanted to do with color and with the color associated with each particular character, and that was a great way to embark on the film. You know, I think Martin Whist, the production designer, did such an extraordinary job with the sets because at every instance when we’re trying to frame these characters and introduce them to an audience, the set kind of just gives up these wonderful images that Martin had designed into them. They were absolutely full of great opportunities for creating imagery.

Well, speaking to color and character introductions, one of my favorite shots in the film is when we’re introduced to Billy Lee, and he has the sun behind him, and it’s this massive halo on Hemsworth.

Yes.

I love that shot.

Well, you know, it was lovely to play with that. We shot on film, and we shot using older lenses. Anamorphic C series lenses from Panavision, and what I love about them is that you get great accidents and distortions and color aberrations that really kind of feed into the mystery of a character. We shot that on a beach just up from Malibu and Drew said that “I don’t really care. I don’t want to see his face, really. Just play him as a silhouette against that light and let the light burn into Rosie’s face.”

It was really lovely to introduce one of the biggest stars in the world and not be able to see his face. I love what those lenses do with flare and with the way the light just collides around the very glass itself. It creates a sort of a mystery, and I suppose, hints of the period. Those kinds of color tones are kind of peculiar. Those lenses are particular to the time that the film was set, in 68.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re a filmmaker who likes to play around with lenses, right? You’re not a filmmaker that’s set in a particular technique?

No. That’s true, Brad. I mean, I love finding the photographic heart of every script, every film that I embark upon. I don’t want to approach any film with a kind of formulaic set of systems, of photographic systems that I know work because it’s very easy to make things look great with a particular set of lenses or stocks or approaches visually. I think that what is lovely is to research and read the film. Talk with your director and kind of sort of, mine the very idea of the cinematography that is appropriate for the film.

We talked at length. Film was the first thing we hit upon. We were like, “We really want to shoot this on film.” And actually, I know it’s become increasingly difficult to do that, and all sorts of arguments are set up against you, and Fox and our producers Jeremy Latcham and Mary McLaglen were totally behind us on the choice of film even though I think it worked out a little bit more expensive. But Drew and I very strongly felt that the textural attributes of film and the grain and the contrast and color and the particular way that film registers the color red. All these things, the subtleties of color, it’s unsurpassed on celluloid, it really is.

I feel like film easily registers the separation from the present day of the El Royale and the flashbacks. Digital can have a sameness quality, making it harder for the eye to differentiate between the timelines.

Yeah. That’s very true. You know, with digital, it’s very hard to kind of, I suppose, torture the medium. Which I don’t mean that in a bad way. I mean that the medium that you work with should be open to manipulation and extensions of the visual properties of it. I think that you’re absolutely right to say that, and actually what was weird with the shooting on these flashbacks, we discussed, and we tested perhaps finding a slightly different language. Maybe shooting on different stocks or lenses or filtering them in a particular way. And what we found was the milieu itself, the quality of light that we aimed for, lent it that sense of distance and flashback without us having to do anything beyond that.

I think that if you’re sensitive. You must be tuned into the scene that you’re trying to do, whether it’s how you move the camera, the kind of depth of field you use, the conscious use of distortions. We didn’t filter it in any way or do anything fancy in the grid really. It was just, you know, the flashback lent itself, its nostalgic nature because of where it was set and how it was photographed. The light, we were very lucky to achieve in the Vietnamese flashbacks. The cultist in the fields of yellow flowers. All those choices were made in location and in design, also depending on what time of the day we shot, and how we shot it.

So that was exciting. I love that the second I read this script, I just was so keen to work on it that I begged Drew to get me to photograph it because it’s very seldom that a script like this comes along that is so full of photographic possibilities that aren’t about showing off technique but are about letting cinematography help tell the story in the best possible way. It was filled with beauty and with truth.

So talk to me about that Vietnam flashback, because suddenly you’re in an environment that is unlike anything else we’ve seen in the film.

Yes. Well, we talked long and hard about that, and it was one of the last scenes we shot in the film. Initially, at the start of the film when we had money still in the budget, there was talk of actually going to shoot it in Thailand because there was an infrastructure there for crew and for equipment. Drew was very keen on making a very definite shift in the atmosphere and in the light particularly.

We got very far down the line of going to Thailand, at least Martin, the designer went to Thailand. Locations were found, and we almost went there, and then, in the end, logistics scrapped that plan. Actually, we ended up shooting in a ranch north of L.A. They brought in greens. It worked brilliantly for us, and it was great because we all didn’t have to travel to Thailand. Even though we all got our shots. I was like a voodoo doll covered in inoculation needles with all the shots that I got unnecessarily. But yeah, that was something we ended up doing, and it worked really well for the nights. It gave us the control, logistically; to get the equipment we needed to do the stunts that we needed to do with L.A. based crews. It just left very little chance there.

We had to shoot all those flashbacks, the Billy Lee flashbacks, that one and a few other little scenes in a short couple of days. That was a logistical hurdle that the team overcame in the final furlong when we were already tired of making the film.

When you do a film like Bad Times at the El Royale versus Godzilla or Nocturnal Animals or The Avengers or whatever, is your process the same for each movie? Obviously, the cameras and the lenses are different, but what about your method of planning the visuals?

Broadly speaking, it is kind of similar, but I become a different cinematographer with every director I work with because to properly collaborate, you’ve got to kind of inhabit a director’s mind. Every director is different, and also each script is different. The process usually starts with the usual prep. Reading, coming to the table with ideas with how you might go about things. Looking at films. Talking about other movies and other art forms. Painting, in terms of color.

Those sort of things remain constants, but what is surprising is when a director starts talking about what he or she wants, you know, it’s like that notion of one plus one equals three. That ideas that wouldn’t necessarily have come to my head kind of crystallize because of those lovely collaborative conversations that you have when your creative juices are flowing with your director. I really love that aspect of it, because as I said, it stops things getting pedestrian or familiar, and it just expands my horizons. When I did Nocturnal Animals, which was also shot on film, Tom Ford works in an entirely different way to Drew and we didn’t even bring in visual references until we’d kind of talked about the film at length for quite a while.

So it was very interesting, how Drew works. Drew is an incredibly visual director but is also a master of words and script. When I read this script, it was full of imagery on the page, but not in a dictatorial way. It was just redolent of the time. It has all the beautiful thematic elements that are so prescient to the here and now. It had elements of the #MeToo movement, the trauma of war, and in addition to that, all the religious imagery that is kind of the element of the doctrinaire. Which are beautiful tonal things in the film. If you go through the film, there are these beautiful little Easter eggs of religious imagery throughout it. They chime in with the themes of honesty, lies, faith, or the lack of it.

It’s about heaven and hell and about what’s true and what’s not. You know, all these things are lovely to see in film and to witness physically in the elements of the set. We kept seeing crucifixes everywhere, either deliberately or accidentally.

Obviously, Drew is a big-time film nerd. He brings a lot of cinematic history to his productions. Were specific influences registered in your stylebook?

Yes. Yes. We looked at a lot, I mean in the run up to principal photography, we had a little film club where we would go to Technicolor in Vancouver where we shot the film and Drew would screen a movie. Sometimes it was to look at the stuff that we loved and wanted to bring into our film, but also it was to look at stuff that maybe went too far or he wanted to caution us against. Three films that we talked about and two which we watched.

The first one was Klute, which is one of my favorite films anyway. It was just such a beautiful film. The way it was photographed in anamorphic widescreen and with lithographic blacks and pushing the framing to the edges of the screen. Really feeling the entire lateral width of the screen. That was a great influence, and I think that there are elements of, Jane Fonda’s dress in Darlene’s. So there are all sorts of things from that film that fed in.

I love the Coen Brothers, so Drew and I looked at Barton Fink. We looked at that as a way of not forgetting about humor in film, and how to enjoy a film despite the heaviness of some of the scenes we would embark on. He wanted to show, like that, lightness of touch that the Coens do so beautifully. Also because it’s one of my favorite photographed films by one of my favorite cinematographers, Roger Deakins. That film has such a strong and assured aesthetic. It’s not camp, for want of a better word, I suppose. It’s not overwrought in its sense of period. It’s just very delicately done with such an assured touch. I love that.

The other one was One from the Heart. Because a lot of the sets were built indoors, even the exteriors for the nights were all indoors. So it was looking at how to achieve that. I thought Storaro and Coppola shot those sets so beautifully on that film.

That one, huh. Once you named that, it makes sense, but it’s not a film I would have thought of off the top of my head.

Well, there were elements of the circus. The neon, that kind of dreamscape, that as soon as these people enter into this place, night falls, and the elemental aspect of rain and fire start encroaching on the film. There’s a kind of a danse macabre that happens. One from the Heart kind of has slivers of that, and we both really love it.


Bad Times at the El Royale is now playing in theaters everywhere.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.