Veteran cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s versatility could not be more evident than in his most recent work, which called for filming a 1920s Osage Nation in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon and shooting the candy-colored Barbie Land of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. Born in Mexico City to a bicultural family (his mom is an American from Montana), Prieto caught the cinematography world’s attention in 2000 when he won the Camerimage Golden Frog for Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Amores Perros. Since moving to the U.S., he continued lensing for Iñárritu while also collaborating with Pedro Almodóvar, Oliver Stone, Ben Affleck (on the Oscar best picture winner Argo) and Ang Lee, whose Brokeback Mountain delivered the DP the first of his three Academy Award nominations. Pietro, who is also this month’s THR Titan, has also earned Oscar noms for two Scorsese movies (Killers is their fourth collaboration). The filmmaker calls Prieto, 57, a “kindred spirit,” albeit a relentless one: “Never once has he said to me, ‘That’s too difficult, we can’t do that,’ ” says the director. “When we were shooting Silence, we were in the middle of a typhoon. The door of my trailer burst open, a guy in rain gear came in, he took off his head covering, and it was Rodrigo: ‘We’re almost ready to shoot.’ I was speechless.”
His Barbie helmer calls him an “incredibly precise technician with the soul of a deep and true artist.” Adds Gerwig: “We came up with the concept of Barbie being ‘authentically artificial,’ and every frame of the film was a way to explore that idea. I cannot wait to work with him again.”
Marking another career step, Prieto, who is THR’s first cinematographer Titan, is now in postproduction on his feature directorial debut, Pedro Páramo, an adaptation of the 1955 novel of the same name by Juan Rulfo.
Who were some of your influences in the cinematography community?
Néstor Almendros was a big influence. His penchant for naturalism was something I found really interesting. In Mexican cinema at the time, cinematographers were still using lighting techniques from the ’50s and ’60s, so I felt that most movies in Mexico looked very antiquated. Néstor Almendros really spoke to me, pushing what you could do in cinematography to put the audience in the film and for an audience to believe that what they’re watching is a real story. Also Sven Nykvist and then Vittorio Storaro was a big influence, so much more expressionistic. I’ve developed a style that’s maybe a mix of all of them. I really try to have emotional cinematography, if you may, where the lighting, camerawork, choice of lenses and textures underline the emotions of a scene and a character.
Would you discuss the influences of the directors you worked with?
With Alejandro [Iñárritu], that collaboration has been very exciting. There is something in the way we sat down and invented the shots. We always imagined stuff with a sound, and it could be because he’s very musical, and I am, too. When I operate a camera, I feel it like music and sometimes hum melodies. We really focused on the rhythm of the shots and what would eventually be the edit. With Scorsese, there’s something that I’ve carried through the rest of my career: If you’re going to tackle a subject, don’t shy away from the warts and all, the extreme nature of it, the ugliness, but also the vulnerability of the characters.
How would you describe the visual style of Killers of the Flower Moon?
One thing that began revealing itself was that we tried to be as true as possible. We really focused on the research. There is always an interpretation, no matter what, it’s not a documentary. We are representing the story, just as people would shoot newsreel footage about the Osage. So that led me to think that we could use the colors of the beginnings of still photography, which was around that time. I thought with the descendants of the European settlers, we can represent their world through that type of color. We emulated Autochrome, invented by the Lumière brothers. We created a lookup table [for color grading] to emulate that color for those sections of the movie. And we wanted a separate feel for the Osage when the white people aren’t around. For that, we simply kept the natural color using a lookup table.
But then, at a certain point, Scorsese said, “I like this, but how do we evolve the look?” We decided that when Bill and Rita’s house blows up, things really unravel. We changed the look to [where] the image becomes much more contrasty and with less color, so it’s harsher. I felt that would track with the emotional moment. Sometimes I put Ernest — Leo [DiCaprio]’s character — in harsh, overexposed light to make him feel uncomfortable.
Tell us about creating the very different visual style of Barbie Land.
One of the first conversations we had, and I think that carried through, is that we wanted the camera to be innocent, the feeling you get when you open up a box with a toy — that sort of frontal way you see a toy. We decided the camera would always be frontal or sideways or behind, never oblique angles, with wide-angle lenses so that you feel you’re right there, and there’s nothing hidden. We decided Barbie Land would always be sunny, but always backlit, too. Because when you take a photo of a person and the sun’s on their face, it looks uncomfortable, but if the sun’s behind their head, it looks pretty, and the light on the face is soft. It’s perfect, since in Barbie Land every day is a perfect day. So when she comes down from the top of the dream house, on a perfect day, that camera follows perfectly and widens out just precisely to see her get into the car. But later in the movie, when things start malfunctioning for Barbie and the day is not perfect, the camera is doing the exact same shot, but [Barbie] falls out of frame because it didn’t know what was going to happen. That was a little bit of a joke, one of the things that came out of our design.
You shot a few music videos for Taylor Swift earlier in your career. What was that like?
I think she probably first picked me because it was a video called “The Man,” and the inspiration for the video was Wolf of Wall Street. She’s wonderful. I did some other music videos with her, “Willow” and “Cardigan,” and it was great. She really has a very keen sense of how she wants to express her music and her lyrics. Visually, she imagined it all. I was there just to bring those images and make them real. I think she’s a very good director.
You’re now directing Pedro Páramo, which is in post.
It’s an adaptation of a famous novel [that is] very important culturally to people in Mexico, because most everybody reads it in high school. I loved it back then. This is the third time it’s been made into a movie. Mateo Gil, who’s a writer from Spain, had an adaptation; we worked together to give it my perspective. It was very challenging, because it spans many decades and includes ghosts. I co-shot it with a dear friend, Nico Aguilar, who has done some second-unit work for me in the past. It was a beautiful experience.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.