Kiwi shines light on Ben Stiller's latest movie

23:43, Dec 20 2013
Stuart Dryburgh
ON SET: Stuart Dryburgh, left of camera in baseball cap, helps Ben Stiller set up the next shot. Stuart Dryburgh has worked with many famous directors during his career including Mira Nair, on both Amelia and 1995’s The Perez Family .

He shot some of New Zealand's most iconic cinematic imagery before carving out a successful career in Hollywood. Now, as Kiwi cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh's latest project The Secret Life of Walter Mitty prepares to hit the big screen, he talks to James Croot about travelling to other end of the earth with Ben Stiller.

From the black sands of the North Island's west coast, to the dark recesses of South Auckland and the gloomier corners of Central Otago, Stuart Dryburgh has been behind some of New Zealand cinema's most searing imagery. 

Those calling cards of The Piano , Once Were Warriors and In My Father's Den have led to opportunities for the now 61-year-old to work as a cinematographer or director of photography for the likes of Mira Nair (Amelia ), Julie Taymor ( The Tempest), Michael Mann (Luck ) and Martin Scorsese (Boardwalk Empire ) and now actor-director Ben Stiller on his 21st century adaptation of James Thurber's 1939 short-story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Ben Stiller
FAST FILMING: Encompassing half of the film’s running time, the Iceland shoot of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty took place over just four weeks.

Speaking from America earlier this month, the affable Dryburgh says it was subject matter that drew him to the project when he was approached by Stiller and his line producer Leifur B. Dagfinnsson. 

''It's a classic story of a downtrodden everyman who eventually succeeds. To me, Walter [played in the film by Stiller himself] is a character not unlike some of Frank Capra's from the 1930s and 40s. He's a guy who life has dealt a pretty poor hand to and he survives by escaping into his dream world. However, when he actually has to deal with the real world, he really steps up and as an audience you just want him to succeed and you cheer for him.''

Walter's vocation as a photo-editor for Life magazine also allowed Dryburgh the opportunity to look at classic photojournalism pictures and landscape photography for inspiration and shoot on film rather than digitally.  When asked which medium he prefers, he demurs, suggesting that it is ''what's appropriate for the project''. 


''I've just finished a project in South-East Asia [the Michael Mann-helmed Cyber, due out in 2014] which was a crime story mostly set at night - the shoot was very hard and fast so digital was perfect for that. However, for a film like Mitty where image is really important - in someways it's even a film about photography - we felt we need to be compelling visually and I think there's still an argument that film looks a little bit better, particularly with regards to people and their faces.''

So it is easy to chop and change between working with film and digital? Dryburgh thinks so, especially if like him you've grown up with film.

''When you shoot on film every piece of visual information is processed through your brain before it goes to the lab. That's because nobody can see the finished result, they have to visualise it. With digital you can see it already. That makes it harder for those raised only on digital to switch to film because they have got that more intellectual process when it comes to using an image.''

With a limited amount of trick photography or visual effects on display, he believes Mitty is a film that could have been made even a couple of decades ago.

''There's a scene where Walter jumps into a helicopter. I suspect people will look at that and go,  'wow, that's really good special effects', but in fact we did it live. Ben had a safety wire on so he didn't fall out but it's really him hanging onto the edge of the helicopter as it lifts off. The wind in his hair and the way the light is moving could have been simulated, but it would have been really hard.''

Dryburgh says the art of cinematography hasn't really changed that much since he made his feature film debut more than 25 years ago, with South Island-set extreme-skier drama The Leading Edge.

''It's always the same, give or take a few parameters and specific requirements. Some directors know very strongly what they want visually and where they want to put the camera and what lens to use. Others will literally only want to deal with the acting and the words. We run a lot more cameras now but it's no less a creative job.'' But what about working with a director who is also the leading man?

''It was absolutely fine - Ben did an amazing job of creating the character both as a director and actor. It does throw a little bit more responsibility onto the DP [director of photography] when he's on camera to reassure him that it's working OK or to let him know when it's not. However, these days he can review a take onset straight afterwards. I  think he had a pretty fair idea while he was in a scene. He'd say if he wanted to go one more time, give some notes to the other actors and then switched back into character. That's not something I'd want to try myself, you're basically doing two quite difficult jobs .''

Shooting in Manhattan in the middle of summer was perhaps the hardest aspect of filming Mitty , Dryburgh admits, ''although not the obvious reasons of people and traffic''. 

''It was because the sun only shines in those north/south canyons for about 80 minutes a day, so we had to spread the shooting out over several days and work out a schedule so we could be doing something useful, then come outside and shoot a scene or part of a scene.''

Then there was the four weeks they spent in Iceland shooting around half the film in a whirlwind schedule.

''We hired a number of local technicians including one whole camera team. They were terrific people and as a New Zealander you totally get them - they are very similar kinds of folks from the other end of the planet.''

Dryburgh says he also saw similarities to New Zealand in the landscape, except instead of tussock country, ''they have these vast plains of lava rock covered in moss so thick it's like an inner-sprung mattress and they are very protective of it''.

''Also, instead of tall mountains, they have smaller ones rising quite steeply from the coast and then a huge plateau in the centre of the country that is just like a huge bowl of ice, with glaciers spilling outwards towards the sea.'' 

Still keen to tackle projects in New Zealand where possible - he last worked here in early 2012 on the Tommy Lee Jones-starring post-World War II drama Emperor - Dryburgh says he also tries to get back here for a visit at least once a year. 

But for the moment he's just keen on having some ''me time'', having just returned from working with fellow Kiwi Gregor Nicholas on a Volkswagen commercial in Alaska and a rare ''holiday'' with his wife to Poland where they attended the Camerimage Festival. '

'It's an extraordinary festival that celebrates the art of cinematography. We went to a lot of movies and a lot of parties.'' The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (M) opens nationwide on Boxing Day.