Martin Ruhe was the man that legendary photographer-turned-director Anton Corbijn entrusted his vision to when he began the proceedings on his second feature, the George Clooney-starrer, The American (2010). Martin had previously worked with Corbijn on music videos like Coldplay's "Talk" and on his debut feature, the lush black and white Ian Curtis biopic Control (2007). He then filmed the Michael Caine-starrer Harry Brown(2009) and Julie Delpy's The Countess (2009).
His dextrous skills at generating atmosphere and using the landscape given to him to arrive at the director's vision have earned him great praise from critics and cinema-goers for The American.
Valluri: Tell us a bit about yourself. What is your background and where did you do your education? What was your first experience of cinema and what drew you to pick up cinematography?
Ruhe: I wanted first to become a director. My parents did not have a lot of money so I thought the shortest training would be best, so I decided to go for a school which trains camera assistants. Then I started working as a runner for a camera rental in London and then moved to a motion control studio. Then two years of studying in Berlin at that film school. When I discovered what DOPs do in London I knew that's what I wanted to do. That never changed!
Valluri: When and where did you first meet Anton Corbijn? You have collaborated with him in both music videos and in feature films. What is it like working with such a legendary photographer, especially when you yourself are a photographer?
Ruhe: We first met through a friend of his, Herbert Groenemeyer. He's one of Germany's greatest stars. I had done some music videos for him and Anton saw them and liked the way they looked. Herbert also has composed the music for The American and he had a small part in Control where he plays the doctor who gives Ian a lecture on the side effect of the drugs he has to take. Herbert also was one of the lead actors in Das Boot (1981).
Valluri: The film Control, thuough presented in rich Black and White was shot originally on colour filmstock. Anton was heard saying that the tests done on B&W filmstock were like 'Super 8'. How different is it when a film is shot on Black and White to when a film is shot on Colour and then corrected to Black & White in post?
Ruhe: The reason that's so is that B&W film stocks have not been improved for many years now, so the original black and white stocks are quite raw and grainy and do not offer a lot of latitude. After our tests we felt that it would be as if the footage looks from another time, maybe dated but we wanted to take the audience to that time and not have any formal distance as if the story comes from sometime early. It had to be now.
Valluri: In Control, there is an iconic long tracking shot of Sam Riley's Ian Curtis getting out of his home and walking down to his workplace where halfway through the take, the camera moves from being in front of him to his back revealing the word 'Hate' painted on his jacket. Please tell us how this shot was accomplished.
Ruhe: Quite simple, we used a steadicam. It's the only steadicam shot in the whole movie. Remarkable that its the real house where Ian used to live and the real place where he used to work! That's how small his world at home was. The other outstanding shot is the only crane shot in the move, again two-minutes long. It's the end shot and again its a real location from Ian's life. It is the crematory where you still find a grave stone of Ian with fresh flowers on it.
Valluri: Anton has said that he envisioned The American as a 'western'. The isolated rural-Italian landscape, the emphasis on the anatomy of the guns and even the Sergio Leone film playing inside the café all add to the same feel. Did you perceive the film as a 'western'? What was your approach as DOP to create the atmosphere in the film?
Ruhe: Anton and I watched some movies together. We liked No Country for Old Men (2007), it was a great example of a simple feel and filmmaking which guides you subtle and lets things happen. That was maybe a start but when we came to Italy everything was very different plus we never want to copy another film. That would be boring. So we spent a lot of time in prep traveling to these places taking stills and let the landscape burn into us. We tried to shoot the film as simple as possible and create a beauty which comes from where the story takes place.
Valluri: The film also has a subtle grainy, 1970s look to it. What filmstock did you shoot on and what was your usual lighting setup? How much did you rely on shooting in natural light?
Ruhe: Cannot agree on grainy look! Maybe not a great copy? The filmstock was Kodak Vision3 500 ASA for nights and 250 Daylight for the rest. On day exteriors we tried to do minimal lighting. We had to do quite a bit at the river to keep everything consistent but most of the time we did little. Lighting daylight can easily become either too obvious or stylized, you have to watch out. Sometimes it's better just to work with negative fill.
Valluri: The great thing about The American is that it almost doesn't have any handheld camerawork, which has become a staple of action films across the globe these days. It's just so wonderful to see the camera be so still. What is your view on the usage of the handheld camera?
Ruhe: It always has to come from the story! On Control, we used handheld camera only for the concert scenes, in The American only for a few moments in the chase. I think it's important to make conscious choices as a filmmaker and not go with any kind of fashion because that's "en vogue" at the moment. I loved the Bourne movies for their energy and authenticity and they re-invented the action movie again. It also worked great on The Hurt Locker (2008) but I hated when the last Bond movie started to look like a Bourne movie. I think each film should have its own soul and its own language. That's what we tried to do on The American.
Valluri: What are your thoughts on Video? With the recent advancements in technology, with the Red One, digital projection and 4K resolution; Where do you see the future of shooting on film going?
Ruhe: Film is by far still the best. I have shot one film called Harry Brown on a Sony F35 for budget reasons. It was ok. I also saw The Social Network (2010) which was shot on the latest Red (it's the first film on Red which actually looks ok) but still you look at the skin tones and the detail in the faces and you see the difference. It looks very often as if there's a layer or a coating on the faces, almost as if you had bad make-up or simply too much of it.
The video technology has improved a lot but film is still the best. In everything. No compression, whatever video format comes next, on film you have it. Plus you can put a film camera in a box, throw it off a house into the water, pick it up and it still works. Try that with a Red.
The other thing people tend to forget is that you shoot a bit slower with video. You have more monitors, more cable, a data wrangler who did not exist, partly he's also there to make sure you have the data because sometimes- especially with Red- it's not that reliable. A lot of the camera take quite a few seconds when you push the button to really turn over. It always feels slower to shoot on video.