How Rodrigo Prieto Balanced ‘Flower Moon’ and ‘Barbie’ and Became Hollywood’s Most-Trusted Cinematographer: ‘He Always Delivers… Absolutely Nothing Stops Him’ 

Rexa Vella

How Rodrigo Prieto Balanced ‘Flower Moon’ and ‘Barbie’ and Became Hollywood’s Most-Trusted Cinematographer: ‘He Always Delivers… Absolutely Nothing Stops Him’ 

When Martin Scorsese was making “Silence,” his 2016 drama about a pair of Jesuit priests spreading the gospel in Japan, a typhoon hit the area, bringing with it biblical showers. As the filmmaker braced himself for news that the bad weather would mean he’d have to abandon plans to shoot that day, there was a rap on his trailer door. There stood Rodrigo Prieto, Scorsese’s long-time cinematographer, outfitted in heavy rain gear. Despite the deluge, he was radiating optimism.

“We’re almost ready,” Prieto reassured the director. “Just a few more minutes.”

Prieto’s calm demeanor and his commitment to getting the work done, no matter the elemental hurdles, left Scorsese speechless.

“He always delivers — he interprets what I’m asking for and he brings it to life,” Scorsese marvels. “He’s always positive and he thinks and works quickly. And absolutely nothing stops him.”

That’s certainly the case on “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Prieto’s latest collaboration with Scorsese. It’s a ripped-from-history saga, one that depicts a wealthy Osage community that is systematically murdered for and robbed of oil rights. Making the movie left the duo laboring for 100 days in the oppressive heat of the Oklahoma plains. It was a challenging shoot, made more complicated by its narrative daring. Prieto and Scorsese embraced a fiendishly inventive approach to telling the story — one that mixes in scenes of shocking violence with newsreels and radio shows that are straight out of its 1920s setting. It’s also a work that seamlessly moves between epic vistas of the wide-open prairie with intimate domestic scenes of a couple who share a dangerous bond.

Dan Doperalski for Variety

“With Scorsese, things are very intuitive,” Prieto says during a long chat in a utilitarian West L.A. conference room that’s devoid of any kind of cinematic grandeur. “We’re very technical, and we’re very careful with our choices and our decisions, but then sometimes things are a gut feeling. And I find that exciting.”

Prieto’s work on “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which he shot back-to-back with one of last year’s biggest hits, “Barbie,” landed him his fourth Oscar nomination (he’s never won). It also highlighted his status as the go-to director of photography for cinema’s leading auteurs. This soft-spoken, decorous family man has been tasked with helping the likes of Ang Lee, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Spike Lee and Greta Gerwig find fresh and exciting ways to tell stories. And when Taylor Swift was looking for someone to help her find the right images to bolster her lyrics, she tapped Prieto to shoot music videos for evocative songs like “The Man” and “Cardigan.” Like Scorsese, these creatives turn to Prieto because of his painterly approach to composing shots, as well as his unflappability.

“He’s emotionally supportive,” says Ang Lee, who worked with Prieto on “Brokeback Mountain” and “Lust, Caution.” “There were times where I was having a meltdown, and he was just there for me. There’s so much pressure when you’re making a movie and there’s this expectation that you need to be in control, telling the crew to do this or that. And he helps me think things through and build out what I see in my mind.”

Lee suspects that Prieto serves a different role based on the people he’s working with, and that he’s able to adapt to their specific needs and personalities. That may be the case. Certainly, Prieto’s range behind the camera is vast — moving effortlessly from the gritty, hand-held intensity of Iñárritu’s early work to the swooningly romantic compositions that Lee favored in “Brokeback Mountain.”

“He not only has complete mastery of his craft but also a deep understanding of the emotional territory to which he must subordinate all his extraordinary technique,” says Iñárritu.

And in “Barbie,” which Prieto shot right after “Killers of the Flower Moon” wrapped, he gave the images a candy-coated sheen that made Barbieland such a delicious place to visit. That cinematic confection presented its own difficulties, however.

“Rodrigo had probably the hardest job trying to diffuse the pink,” Margot Robbie, the film’s producer and star says. “Every shot of Barbie is backlit or inside lit, which gives you a beautiful effect, but you have to be a very talented kind of cinematographer to be able to play with light in that way. He had to keep covering everything that was out of frame in gray felt to stop it bouncing off all the pink.”

Of course, playing with light, manipulating its gradations and learning to master its mutable beauty is what’s left Prieto so in demand. But even with his busy dance card, he’s still found ways to embrace challenges that are outside his comfort zone. He’s deep into post-production on his feature directorial debut, “Pedro Paramo.” Based on a seminal work of magical realism by Juan Rulfo, which in turn inspired an influential 1967 movie from Carlos Velo, the story was a favorite of Prieto’s, who had been looking to move behind the camera.

Dan Doperalski for Variety

“I see myself as a filmmaker and storyteller even when my role is only being in charge of the cinematography of a movie,” he says. “Directing gives me additional tools to express how I perceive and experience the world around me, and how it makes me feel.”

“Pedro Paramo” follows a man who promises his mother on her deathbed that he will meet his estranged father. He encounters him in a village that is a literal ghost town, one populated by the spirits of the dead. It’s a tough story to adapt for film, both because of its cultural importance and its fantastical storyline, which made Prieto decide that he wanted to put all his focus on directing instead of trying to also serve as his own cinematographer. He turned to Nico Aguilar, who had worked on films like “Witch Hunt” and “Phobias,” to be the film’s DP. But he still felt some anxiety as he found himself on the Mexico City set on the first day of shooting, preparing to call the shots on his first feature as a director.

“It was scary and exciting,” he says. “We had a lot to achieve even on that first day, so we jumped right in, including a very emotional scene. The performance of the actors was excellent, and right there I thought: ‘OK, we have a movie.’”

The 58-year-old Prieto’s love for filmmaking began at an early age. As a young boy growing up in Mexico, he was fascinated with the extraterrestrial visitors who routinely touch down on Earth in science-fiction stories. He still remembers one of the first photos he took, a bit of pre-digital trickery inspired by the movies he loved. Prieto threw a Frisbee up in the air, captured it as it hovered in space and ran in to tell his mother that he had photographic evidence that UFOs exist. The hoax didn’t work.

“I thought she was going to be cool, but she said it was a Frisbee,’” he remembers. “I realized then that you have to be a little more sophisticated if you want to fool anybody. I guess it’s become a life quest to make things like that look more and more realistic.”

Prieto spent his spare time shooting stop-motion movies on his father’s 8mm camera. inspired by classic films like “Jason and the Argonauts” and “Clash of the Titans,” he and his brother Antonio would gather their miniature monster models made from clay or Plasticine and make film dioramas. Looking back on it now, Prieto quips, “Perhaps I could have gotten into visual effects.”

Prieto later attended Mexico City’s Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica, having the good fortune to get an education in moviemaking while the country’s film industry was experiencing a renaissance.

Killers of the Flower Moon
Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone
Credit: AppleTV+
AppleTV+

Several short films followed, as did advertising work, which was how he met Iñárritu, part of a rising generation of Mexican filmmakers. “I loved working with him because he did very strange and out-there commercials,” says Prieto. “But I realized at a certain point that he started shifting the writing of his commercials to be more dramatic. They used to be weird comedies that were slapstick, and bizarre. And now they were little dramas. I remember thinking, ‘He’s going to do a movie.’”

So when Iñárritu made the leap with “Amores Perros,” he asked Prieto to handle the camerawork. “I couldn’t have imagined anyone else,” says Iñárritu. “He is the perfect collaborator. A complete artist and a wonderful human being. Two things that nowadays are rare to coexist.”

When it came time to shoot the car accident that ties the film’s major characters together, Iñárritu relied on Prieto to figure out a way to give the scene a documentary-like naturalism. “All of it was shot listed, even though it seems improvised, it wasn’t. We designed that scene together,” Prieto says.

Years later, that scene, an unbearably tense chase sequence that culminates in a horrifying collision, would inspire other directors’ approach to action scenes, including Ben Affleck, who told Prieto that he used the movie as a reference when making “The Town.” “It’s bizarre to see these young guys from Mexico City trying to figure it out, not understanding how things are done, and that becomes an influence for other people,” Prieto says.

“Amores Perros” served as a calling card. Shortly after the film’s release, Spike Lee asked Prieto to shoot “25th Hour,” one of the cinematographer’s first major Hollywood movies. It was also one of the first films to shoot in New York City following 9/11, and Prieto and Lee set about capturing a shellshocked city still grieving from a terrorist attack that had murdered thousands of civilians and left a crater in its heart. Lee, who has the five boroughs in his DNA, says the project benefited from the fact that Prieto wasn’t a native New Yorker. “A lot of times that could work to your benefit when people have fresh eyes, and they might see something that New Yorkers might not see,” he says.

Prieto says his dominant memory of the shoot was an intense “fear of failure,” a sensation that’s followed him throughout his work. And though his colleagues say that he is a calming presence on stressful sets, Prieto confesses that it’s an illusion. To punctuate the anxiety, Prieto likes to use humor. Dad jokes are his go-to, and he’s not above deploying a good pun. “Rarely do I laugh as much in life as when working with Rodrigo,” says Iñárritu.

Iñárritu and Ang Lee both say that as Prieto’s schedule has filled up, it’s become harder to get him to join their projects. “Once Scorsese hired him, it was impossible to get him back,” Lee jokes.

Rodrigo Prieto had to get inventive to lens all the pink of Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie.” Warner Bros. Pictures

He’s worried that now that Prieto has caught the directing bug, it will be impossible to hire him. “It makes me bitter,” Lee says with a laugh. “Now that he’s directing, he’ll never be free.”

Moving behind the camera has been a learning experience, one that’s made Prieto better understand the crushing pressure that directors labor under — the kind he was so adept at alleviating.

“The most challenging part of directing is managing time,” he says. “You always want to get all the angles you dreamed of, while dealing with delicate emotions with the actors, and all the while the clock is ticking. Focusing on the essentials and letting anything else go, that is what you have to keep in mind to maintain some sanity.”

Prieto has found the experience to be artistically rewarding and he’s eager to direct more movies,
but he isn’t giving up his day job.

“I love being a cinematographer,” he says. “I plan to keep shooting movies.”

After all, it’s his nature. He’s always thinking about composing a shot and how to wrangle the shadows to give a moment a moody hue or to find a distinctive way to illuminate a face so that every flicker of emotion registers. Even as Prieto sits down to reflect on his life and career, he finds his thoughts drifting.

“I observe lighting all the time — that’s a professional deformation,” he admits, as he leans back in his chair. “I was seeing how the light from outside was reflecting on the furniture and thinking what lighting would I have to put it to recreate that? That goes into my subconscious.”

Brent Lang contributed to this report.

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