Magic Hour: An Interview with Gregory Crewdson


At Work

Still from Beneath the Roses

It’s difficult to quantify the strange magic of Gregory Crewdson’s photography, but here’s a stab: his photos, mostly of American towns that could be any dead mill town (the colors too bright, the light too spooky) create such an evocative mood that the viewer becomes part of the story. His work has to the power to linger in the brain long after seeing it: on days when the light filters just so through the trees, when an average, mundane moment takes on the qualities of eerie, ethereal beauty, it’s very easy to identify it as a Gregory Crewdson moment, a particular alchemy of the earthbound and the spectral.

The documentary Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters is a beautiful and contemplative look at Crewdson’s process, focusing on when he was working on Beneath the Roses, a multiyear project that brought film crews of sixty or so people to small towns in the Berkshires of Massachusetts to help produce his large-format photos. The film, a ten-years-in-the-making work directed by Ben Shapiro, is an intimate look inside Crewdson’s artistic process. Since that’s covered in the documentary, I wanted to talk to Crewdson about one of his big inspirations, the cinema. Crewdson invited me to his studio and home in the Berkshires, a former church hidden behind a fence, where we (along with another writer, Stu Sherman) had a free-ranging conversation starting with the movies and edging over into his work. We started, of course, with Mad Men, which Crewdson calls “the greatest work of sustained art in the past ten years, and I’d include any movie or book or art work, so that shows you what I think of it.”

When it comes to Mad Men, do you like the set design and period detail?

I think it’s perfect in so many different ways, but it’s so beautiful to look at, so exquisitely detailed and rendered. The light’s so beautiful and the decor all fits together like a complete, perfect set piece.

It’s funny that you love Mad Men so much. I have to admit that when I watch Breaking Bad—or even just seeing stills of characters, like of the wife, Skylar, on the bed—they’re very reminiscent to me of your work.

My pictures are very much influenced by movies, but it’s weird because now it seems like the opposite happens, and now it’s like the movies use my pictures as reference. It’s a dialogue or something. I guess it just happens.

At the end of the movie, where you’re working on Sanctuary in Rome, your camera is much smaller. Were those pictures shot digitally?

Those were all shot with a high-end digital camera, and I feel very much like I want to continue along that line, because of the immediacy of shooting it digitally, and also, the main reason is so I can see it as we’re shooting. That was always the big drawback shooting with the eight by ten. You can’t see, which is an act of faith and part of what’s so beautiful about that whole process. But shooting with a large-format camera dictates a certain sort of stance, which I want to disrupt. So if I have a smaller camera, I can get into locations. I can get closer.

It’s interesting to see how digital is jumping forward. I just remember something like Spike Lee’s Bamboozled in 2000, which looked so muddy.

But now things are so gorgeous. [David] Fincher has shot all of his film digitally. To me, what’s most important is the particular view of the world.

So if film requires an act of faith, does digital lack faith? Let it be known that I am asking this in a church.

It’s all an act of faith. It’s a different kind of faith. All representations, every representation is an act of faith and will always disappoint you.

Blue Velvet and David Lynch are often cited as influences on your work. I think there’s something about watching Lynch’s work with an audience that makes it seem a little more satirical and straightforward. Do you think there’s something about that aspect that takes away from the dreamscape and off-kilter factor of Lynch?

No, because I think watching movies in a theater is like a dream. It’s like a dream. That’s why when we watch a movie, we’re going into a dreamscape and when the movie breaks or something, we all let out a collective moan because we’re all disrupted from the dream.

Are there any particular experiences you have of watching a movie in a crowd?

Watching Blue Velvet in the theater for the first time was incredible. Changed my life. I think there are many defining movies. As a teenager, I saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind at the Ziegfeld Theater. There was a period of time where Vertigo wasn’t available, and then it was painstakingly re-created to match its original color scheme and luster and everything. There was a big premiere at the Ziegfeld that I saw when I was in college and that was one of the most breathtaking experiences.

Those New York theaters…

So beautiful. And to see that film, which I had only seen parts of—to see it on that scale. It was amazing.

Because of the scale of a project like Beneath the Roses, do you have a lot of foreman skills now?

No. The weird thing about that whole body of work is that I’m not particularly good with people, and that photography really is, at the end, a lone thing anyway. One thing, for sure, is that I have a very small group I work with on a continuing basis.

Although in the documentary the smoke-truck guy seemed really busy.

Yeah, he has the biggest job.

Do you do that to mess with the light?

It creates atmosphere, and you see light better. In the end, in the final pictures, it’s just barely in the air. It creates a little texture.

How do you feel about the magic hour?

Funny, because obviously it’s so beautiful, the magic hour, but the whole main reason to be shooting in that hour is that it’s the only window where you can work with the lights and daylight at the same time. It started as a practical thing, and then I started to realize how that’s such a period of transition and transformation. My work’s very much about being between places, and that’s very much about that.

Favorite magic hours on film?

Well, Terrence Malick’s the genius of magic hour. Badlands is one of the most perfect movies. He was notorious for driving producers crazy since he would shoot for only five minutes a day.

When you’re working with the magic hour, aren’t you kind of pushing all day and don’t you end up with this tiny window?

It’s why I can never make a movie. Malick’s starting to work faster, though.

Speaking of slow filmmakers, why doesn’t Wes Anderson make movies faster?

I don’t know if you know, but Wes is one of my closet friends. He usually takes long periods in between films, but he just started shooting again after Moonrise Kingdom, which is very uncharacteristic. I think it’s because the movie is a hit, so he’s striking while the iron’s hot, going straight on to the next. He’s such a perfectionist. Now we’ll see, but he might have a film by as early as next year.

Do you guys bond with being perfectionists over set design?

I think so. I think that was part of our original mutual connection, our connection to one another’s work. I think that’s it, and then just going through life together. Now he’s living in Europe, so we don’t see each other as much.

When you’re working, are there any details in your work that surprise you?

No. When you continually do the same thing in a certain sort of way—the one thing artists do whether they’re filmmakers or writers—they create an iconography of themselves, even if they’re not aware of it. It’s not until later that you realize, Oh, I use a lot of medicine bottles or a lot of nondescript cars with doors open or a lot of pregnant women, or whatever it is. You can’t give a precise sort of reason why, but after a period of time that thing just becomes part of the world you create.

Has there been any particular set design in films that stick out for you?

One of my favorite directors is Hitchcock, so I love the way all his films look—the decor, the light, the atmosphere. Rosemary’s Baby is one of the most beautiful films ever. These are all films I reference in my work when we work on a soundstage.

What are the advantages to working on a soundstage?

The negative is that it’s you—you have to make it all up. You’re not responding to anything in the outside world. The positive is that you can control it. I like the deep space—windows, doors, mirrors, a place going to another place. I’m deeply influenced by Orson Welles. His expansion of space. Everything matters. In Citizen Kane, everything’s in focus.

I read somewhere that Beneath the Roses started as an idea for a movie. How did that change?

I don’t think it could’ve been made into a film. The title started off as a film. I wrote a treatment for it. I met with a producer and he read the treatment and said, Nothing happens. I would make a movie if I found the right story, but I haven’t found it yet. I always thought that The Moviegoer would make a good movie, but I think I’m better off not making a movie. I make photos that are between film and something else.

You use the word perfect a lot, both in the movie and in this interview, I noticed. Is that something you strive for?

My life feels far from perfect. It’s chaotic. For me, art is a way to achieve a sort of ideal. My life is messy, so in art I can create order.