Between now and the Oscar nominations on Jan. 23, EW will speak to numerous contenders in below-the-line categories about their work and craft. This week, Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle discusses his genius approach to framing Angelina Jolie’s masterful adaptation of Loung Ung’s memoir First They Killed My Father, which charts her childhood journey through the oppressive, genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in 1970s Cambodia. Mantle’s delicate touch adds a distinctly human feel to the film, arguably Jolie’s most accomplished work as a filmmaker. Her vision (from a script she co-wrote with Ung) gives the foreign language Oscar submission its heart, but Mantle’s keen intuition and technical prowess stoke the film’s soul, as the camera’s perspective brims with the innocent spirit of a child dancing on the brink of darkness.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You crafted this film in record time, right? You came aboard late in production?
ANTHONY DOD MANTLE: It’s a funny story… I was meant to be embarking on a very funny film with Michael Winterbottom and Will Ferrell, and it collapsed. The same month the film collapsed, my mother passed away at age 95. Three days after I fell out of that film with Will Ferrell, the phone rang from Cambodia. I came down on very short notice, and met Angelina on Nov. 14; We were shooting, day one, the following Thursday, with background action of 600 people.
We had four days, Angelina and I, during which time she fed me her ideas, which were very clear. She had a clear vision of what she wanted to do: film from the child’s point of view as much as possible, which turned out to be quite a difficult technical challenge… working out how to get that camera fluid and free while working at a difficult height, just under a meter high, at a child’s point of view, with a heavy camera in incredible heat. We had to develop a further idea, to build slightly different cameras to achieve this look. Apart from the crew there waiting for me, I pulled in a few engineers… we welded and knocked together a rig I could use with the lighter camera, which was actually a surveillance camera converted into a 4K center, and I built this little hand rig.
You had four days to do all of this?
Yes! I landed in Cambodia on the 14th of November, and I think our first day of shooting was the 19th. It was horrendous… the only intention was to get Angelina happy… Before you could count to 10, I was in the film, with Angie at my side, with hundreds of kids running around. It was astonishingly abrupt, but maybe that was for the best.
So, you didn’t sleep well on this shoot, is what you’re saying.
[Laughs] Angelina was incredibly sympathetic and empathetic, and, above all, she was incredibly sweet to me. I’d just lost my mother, and she knows a lot about losing that particular relationship with her mother [in 2007]. Considering I was thrown out of the plane [and] it was very easy to land.
I wanted to be in my hotel reading the scripts and prepping what would normally take six to 10 weeks to do. From day one of shooting, I shot during the day, sometimes from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. or 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., and I’d sit back in my room until two in the morning embedded in the script, trying to understand how I could make it. It was a very complex situation… but we just went at it with nothing but the best of intentions. There’s always the will to do the best one can, especially in delicate psychological situations with the potential trauma [of revisiting the topic of the Khmer Rouge] attached to some of the [Cambodian] people.
You have so much experience, so what stuck out to you, stylistically, about working on this film?
I’m still a teenager in my head, but I’m seeing the words “veteran cinematographer,” which really worries me, written in the news about me! I feel like I’m heading toward the catheter and oxygen tent. [Laughs] I might be experienced, but you can’t prep a film in four days! What you can do is put yourself together in the right space with Angelina and the crew… Angelina was at the starting blocks, all ready to go, very prepared and enthusiastic and strong… we worked in stifling heat in Cambodia. It’s not easy to work there… people were fainting on set. I thought [shooting Danny Boyle’s] Slumdog Millionaire [in India] was tough, but that became a walk in the park — a run in the park.
How did you approach getting into the perspective of a child? What’s the challenge there?
Angelina is no fool. She knows what she wants and won’t stop until she has it. She’s quite a perfectionist, and there are limitations also with the Steadicam, as far as emotional movement is concerned. [But I was] thinking as a child would. You’re in the middle of a scene and words are spoken [by the adult actors], but a child would move his or her head toward something else; a butterfly might distract her, or by something else might catch her attention, and the camera has to simulate this, sometimes in quite illogical ways… So, we added to the Steadicam setup. We built smaller cameras that I operated myself in small situations where we felt we needed a stronger personality in the camera’s way of seeing what was happening in front of the character. It’s a mix of Steadicam and that… you condition your mind as an operator; you code your mind into not just thinking about composition, lights, and framing, but you have to think, I am the character, and I’m seeing this situation for the first time, and I’m attentive to something else in the frame that one wouldn’t normally be attentive towards. It’s a psychological approach.
So the camera is an actor, here.
It’s acting, absolutely! It was reminiscent of my experience with [Thomas Vinterburg’s] The Celebration, from my early days with the anarchists and the Dogme films… in that film, I became one of the protagonists. I moved my camera emotionally… It’s a protagonist’s camera. In First They Killed My Father [I was] loyal to the story we had to tell, but loyal to the emotions of our main protagonist, too.
How does the camera facilitate the character’s development, here, as a girl who comes of age as an oppressive regime rises around her?
I worked back from the obvious horror she was going to be subjected to. Angelina and I agreed to hold back on the visible violence, because the book is pretty violent. Knowing that we were going to a dark place, as this child had to survive a dreadful, horrendous experience, we had to get the audience to feel that curve and journey, so we start quite colorful and playful [in her childhood home]. The kids are dancing, they’re happy, they’re playing. The colors are yellows, greens — the bright, beautiful luscious colors of Cambodia. As a child, you live like that. You wake up every morning, open your eyes, and see what you see and you feel what you feel and respond emotionally. We started the audience with color and life and vibrancy and affection and gentility. Then there is the evacuation, which is still very colorful, because it’s about the new regime [that] pulled the color out of these people’s lives and denounced individualism, wealth, and materialism. So, we slowly decolorized and pulled things back… flashbacks take place as we go further into the darkness, dryness, and colorlessness of the area, and when she has that flashback and imagines the house with the food and all the ripe colors, that reminds the audience of where she came from. [From there] the execution [feels] almost like charcoal, like an old Bromide print. There’s virtually no color left, and it’s haunting.
The aerial shots are quite impressive as well!
The aerial [images] where it’s really dry and barren and depressing, they were inspired by some DNA photographs of tears that I showed to Angelina. A scientist had photographed the DNA of teardrops, and Angelina was open [to hearing] that. There’s something in the aerial shots that was slightly inspired by that [because] the world was crying.
This character feels lost, abandoned, and traumatized, but the audience feels her pain and confusion more than anything else, but you also feel her bravery, her courage, and her determination to survive anything, which is [universal] to all cultures. It’s very much a Cambodian story, and something we owe them, but I also think it’s a warning for anything and everything we do and not do for our children in the future… That is a great achievement, to do that much — and with [producer] Rithy Panh and the Cambodian people.
Every month I’m offered a jetpack film with Chris Hemsworth and the superhero stuff [but] I think this child embodies the characteristics of superhero, of valiance, of a warrior’s will to survive, and it’s tremendous.
First They Killed My Father is available on Netflix.