Trevor Hogg chats with Bobby Bukowski about a busy year of collaborating with four different filmmakers who each had a separate cinematic project…
One cannot accuse Bobby Bukowski of having a boring life as he went from studying Biochemistry with the intention of pursuing a medical career to a photographer’s assistant in Paris which resulted in him documenting a pilgrimage of sacred sites led by the Dalai Lama to being a bike messenger while obtaining his Master of Fine Arts degree to a cinematographer. “It’s been a good life,” observes the native of New York City who has also taught at New York University TishAsia campus located in Singapore. “The question that always arises from curious minds is, ‘Why do you do it that way?’ The academic query is a pertinent one. “It’s good to remind oneself to throw everything up in the air and say, ‘What is this story and director asking me to do?’ As suppose to what am I going to impose onto this that I already have in my bag of tools.”
“Vigilance and openness are necessary tools in what I do because I have to observe closely what’s going on a set, particularly between the director and actors, remarks Bobby Bukowski. “I also have to be on a set in way that I can receive anything that’s happening and interpret it through the camera.” Still photography teaches a lot about composition and light. “When I’m shooting photographs these days it has to do with seeing a situation I would like to emulate on a future film,” explains Bobby Bukowski. “They’re in a file so I can call up a lighting situation that I have encountered in my daily life and show it to a director.” Bukowski observes, “On any film, locations set the raw material of your visuals. Often I’m imploring location managers to find spaces based on how I want to light.”
Digital filmmaking requires a different approach than with film. “I find that as with any tool there’s a learning curve to it,” notes Bobby Bukowski. “As with film emulsion and the digital sensor, the scientists who have created these things have stringent kind of rules for how to use them.” Artistry is achieved by challenging conventional thinking. “If you try to apply the rules of film lighting to the digital process it isn’t a good idea because things end up looking over lit. Especially with the Alexa which I am using a lot these days, lighting becomes more of a subtractive than additive process.” A major technological and creative leap forward over the past 10 years is the growing importance of DI (Digital Intermediate). “When I’m capturing something digitally I would say 70 to 80 per cent of the work is done but I know that the rest of it I’m going to be dealing with in digital post, for example, colour; the process is amazing because it’s where you can subtly manipulate the image.”
Screening at the 39th Toronto International Film Festival were Rosewater, Infinitely Polar Bear, 99 Homes, and Time Out of Mind, all of which had the same cinematographer. “I was at events for all of those films and this was the first time I was at the festival,” states Bobby Bukowski who had an opportunity to work with first time director John Stewart who is best known for being the host of The Daily Show. “One of the producers on Rosewater was a woman named Lila Yacoub and she produced Rampart  which I had done in Los Angeles with Oren Moverman. As with all good producers Lila thought about, ‘Who are the people that go together in a way that this film can happen?’ She introduced me to John, I read the script, it was a simple interview in his office, and that was that.”
Rosewater is based upon memoir Then They Came for Me co-written by an Iranian-Canadian journalist who was interrogated for being a spy by the Iranian government. “The man who the story is based upon, Maziar Bahari, was on-set with us all of the time so he was definitely not only a technical advisor but was someone who could suggest to us the intensity of the mood that was going on at a certain time,” remarks Bobby Bukowski. “The thing that Maziar kept talking about was that one of the corrosive effects of being held captive is the extreme boredom that ensues, the sameness of everyday. Words like boredom they excite me as a cinematographer because I can start to think about, ‘How do we create those feelings?’” With the exception of shooting the demonstration scene a single camera was utilized for the other sequences filmed in Jordan during Ramadan. “I had a great focus puller because I had brought him from New York but my lighting and grip crews were quite inexperienced which meant that I had to design the lighting in a simple and elementary way because if I hadn’t it would not have gotten done. But the interesting thing about being forced to do less is that simplicity is often quite beautiful.”
“When I showed up in Jordan for the first time John, the production designer [Gerald Sullivan] and the producers had scouted a prison where those rooms were available,” recalls Bobby Bukowski. “When I went into them I said, ‘We spend so much time in these rooms that our options of camera positions and lighting are going to be so restrictive that the room is going to design film for us as supposed to us as filmmakers designing the film.’” The interrogation room was built with particular cinematic requirements in mind such as the position of the window. “Different weather conditions can affect the intensity of the light in room so if it’s a cloudy day it would be a cooler room. If it’s a sunny day it would be a warmer room. The idea John and I spoke about was that the interrogator has the privilege of sitting in the full light of the window and Maziar is placed as far from the window as possible; he’s not even allowed the luxury of daylight.”
Some dancing takes place by Gael García Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries) who portrays Maziar Bahari. “It was a scene when Maziar realizes that there have been all of these people outside of prison who have been actively trying to release him,” states Bobby Bukowski. “It’s a celebratory moment. All of the elements in his life that cause him joy were supposed to be present.” Initially, John Stewart envisioned his lead actor being accompanied by the famous singer-songwriter and poet responsible for the tune Dance Me to the End of Love. “At one point he wanted Leonard Cohen to be there and looked for a Leonard Cohen lookalike. It was becoming impossible so John had a great idea that the soundtrack would be playing the Leonard Cohen song with Gael García Bernal responding to that in a jubilant dance taking place inside of the cell.”
Filmmaker Maya Forbes was emotionally attached to her feature debut Infinitely Polar Bear which recounts her experience of growing up with a father who was a manic-depressive. “I felt the thing that was limiting us sometimes was the fact that the director would say, ‘That’s not exactly how it happened,’” notes Bobby Bukowski. “Often, exactly how it happened wasn’t the most interesting or creative option to go with. There were a lot of discussions about representing the truth in an emotional way that we could do differently but still achieve the intention of that emotion.” Mark Ruffalo (Zodiac) plays the part of the bi-polar parent. “Mark is an amazing guy to work with who is completely open and warm. Mark is a trained technician so he is aware of everything that is happening on a movie set.” Zoe Saldana (Guardians of the Galaxy) who was cast as the mother and wife was also a good collaborator. Zoe was an open, compliant, and eager human being.”
A documentary style was incorporated for 99 Homes which revolves around an evicted father (Andrew Garfield) trying to get back his home by working for a corrupt real estate broker (Michael Shannon). “It was the approach that Ramin Bahrani [At Any Price], the director, had responded to; he had seen the films that I had done with Oren, The Messenger  and Rampart. Rampart was 85 to 90 per cent in my hand. It’s also a method that Ramin favours from a social realism way of capturing film. We talked about Frederick Wiseman’s [At Berkeley] documentaries.” Bukowski served both as the camera operator and Directory of Photography. “I don’t know how it changes things because literally I’ve been doing it my entire career. The great thing about it is that I’m right in the middle of the action and can be responsive to what the actors are doing without this intermediary of having to explain to someone how I would like it done. What it adds to the capture of the film is my intuition as an artist.”
“The intention of Time Out of Mind was to isolate a man in New York City and having him ignored as the extreme rush of life happens around him,” remarks Bobby Bukowski who collaborated for the third time with Oren Moverman on the project about a homeless man who attempts to reconnect with his estranged daughter. “At first it was Richard Gere [Primal Fear] who believed that he could be on the street like that and not be recognized. Our first day was intended to be a test of our method because Richard needed to convince Oren that it would work. We put him in the middle of Astor Place which is a busy section of downtown Manhattan at rush hour, put a cup in his hand and he was begging. Not a single person of those thousands of people who passed him gave him more than a look. At that point we realized that the method we had devised for the film would work. I was employing 300 to 900 mm lenses which are normally used by National Geographic to capture lions. We were distant from him and zoomed way in.”
“I’m so excited about visually about Time Out of Mind,” reveals Bobby Bukowski. “New York City is familiar to me because that’s where I was born and raised. New York City is a loud and vibrant place. It’s a rigorous discipline in that film because we decided early on that we were going to shoot the film as a series of stills. The camera moves very little. Sometimes it pans and tilts. The camera doesn’t move on a dolly until the last shot of the film. In creating these ideas of stills Oren was concerned with how we would create movement in the frame. What we wound up doing was slow zooms in and out to create some animation of the frame. We were also multiplying the layers of action in the frame by introducing a lot of reflective surfaces. If the characters were inside a restaurant we were normally outside shooting against the glass and it would be a reflective angle of a traffic street so it became a natural imposition of people over the action of the actors.”
“With all of these films the beautiful thing about them to me is that they all deal with quite pertinent social issues,” reflects Bobby Bukowski. “Oren’s film Time Out of Mind is about a homeless man, Mya’s film Infinitely Polar Bear is about mental health, John’s film Rosewater is about the incarceration and squelching of free voices, and then we have Ramin’s film 99 Homes which is about the victims of the housing bubble bursting. They’re all films that have a great social awareness and because of that as an artist it puts the onus on you to do a good job.”
Rosewater images courtesy of Nasser Kalaji, Laith Majali and Open Road Films. Infinitely Polar Bear images courtesy of courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. 99 Homes images courtesy of Broad Green Pictures. Time Out of Mind image courtesy of IFC Films.
Many thanks to Bobby Bukowski for taking the time for this interview.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.