Cinematography is a hidden galaxy in the universe of filmmaking. Audiences are quick to shout out ‘Tarantino’ and ‘Anderson’ in trivia pursuit, but subconsciously bypass the directors of photography’s placement. It’s fair to say, one must be thick-skinned to pursue a career in controlling the outlook of a film. With an understanding of the gruelling competition, and having digested recent statements that females only represented 2% of cinematographers in the top 100 grossing movies of 2019, I envisioned women having to buckle into an armoured suit for this line of work. British Cinematographer Polly Morgan drew her sword at an early age and has been adding her creative flair for 20 years behind the camera. From across the world in Los Angeles, she spoke to me in lockdown about being among the few women to strike through to victory.
Danny Boyle once said, “To be a filmmaker, you have to lead. You have to be psychotic in your desire to do something.” As we began the call, I was wondering if Morgan had always had that passion to be behind the camera, “It was always my focus. When I was a teenager it was really difficult to have any idea of what cinematography was. It was difficult to find out anything about the film business back then.” Morgan tells me of her experience growing up in the UK working in film and television as an assistant for six years. She waved goodbye to Sussex when her love for American movies resonated. As she puts it, 'I loved Allen Daviau at the time" which helped her jump ship to California to study filmmaking in-depth.
As we discussed her progression, the term ‘money makes the world goes round’ seemed to echo in my ear. She commented on her movements through the industry, “I remember being overwhelmed and excited. My first movie Junkie was made with £17,000. Then the next was £80,000, £250,000 and then £400,000. Then the £1.2 million came...and we had Jessica Biel staring…it was well produced and organised. We had the movie stars.” As her budgets grew larger, she managed to stretch her imagination into the battlefield with movies like '6 Balloons' and 'Lucy in the Sky'.
When I approached the topic of gender equality within film making, Morgan didn’t shy away from the elephant in the room, “I definitely felt working as a woman in the camera department, was a very rare thing. In England it’s sort of a sense of humour, it’s all a bit of fun. I definitely knew that being a Women DP wasn’t common.” It seems that within the mosh pits of production crews, people weren’t used to seeing a woman high up in the decision making process, “I remember when I was doing ‘American Horror Story’ for me to walk on there as a women DP with two large units… it was a big thing. People would think I was the runner. Actually no I’m the DP.”
It’s not surprising to hear then that actors had to take a second look at Morgan’s role within the structure, “Very frequently I work with actors that say I am the first female DP they have worked with. I worked with Piers Bronson...he said I was the first female DP he had seen.”
One of the biggest films Morgan has shot is the silent survival thriller ‘A Quiet Place 2’ in which she praised working alongside director John Krasinski, “John is a very visual director, which I love. They are the people you really want to collaborate with, they care a lot about the images and telling the story of the camera. It was demanding, he pushed us, but it was exciting.” I was intrigued if having directors, like John, star in the film would have caused animosity between the two creatives, “Not really no. When we shoot it, John would come over and watch it back and will give a note. We didn’t play back. He trusted me. When directors also act I think it’s a lot of pressure on them, It enforces trust. They look to you to say, well how does it look?.”
As we shared our enjoyment for BBC’s ‘Normal People’ in lockdown, I asked Morgan what impact she thought the pandemic was going to have on long form content filmmaking, “As artists all of a sudden our creative outlet has been taken away from us. I think it’s empowering we are taking charge of ourselves. This era, in 10 years time we will look at the content that’s produced and it will be a marker of what it's like to live in now. Maybe things will change now. I think there is a lot of fear.”
With BFI’s recently released movie ‘Women make a film” and directors like Kitty Green and Autumn De Wilde directing moves for 2020, I asked what advice Morgan would give to women starting to see themselves following these major careers, “Being vulnerable and emotional as a women helps us be different storytellers than our male counter parts. Dig into that emotion and express it. Be confident in your work. I would say this job is not for the faint hearted… it’s going to be a rocky road and it is for everyone. Just know that everybody from the top from the bottom are all going through the same experiences.”
Like many film fanatics out there, I’ll await the light at the end of the tunnel with the release of ‘A Quiet Place 2’. In the meantime, as she spends some quality time in lockdown with her newborn, I wish Polly well in continuing to express her passion into this blackhole universe of imagination.
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