In Silence, prolific cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto brings his keen visionary eye to tell the gripping and visceral tale of two 17th-century Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver), who travel from Portugal to Japan on a mission to find their missing mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). The priests’ convictions are ultimately tested, as they encounter harsh atrocities in the hostile land where Christianity has been outlawed.
We spoke with Rodrigo — who earned his second Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography for the film — about his visual and historical inspirations for Silence, which released this week on DVD and Blu-ray, and what it was like joining up again with director Martin Scorsese on his passion project that was decades in the making. ~Ashleen Grange
First and foremost, this is a beautiful film. As a viewer, I can’t begin to imagine how each individual shot came to be. Where did you draw your inspiration for the look of this film?
The first thing was visiting the locations. That was where we drew our first inspiration, because the characters are immersed in this environment in Japan. We really wanted to show the sense of place of being there. Secondly, I did some research into Baroque arts of the 17th century, particularly for Spain and Portugal, because I thought it would be a part of the priests’ world view. Then, I also looked at Japanese screens of the Edo time period for the latter part of the movie. The view of their environment shifts, from this Baroque-inspired imagery, to a more Japanese feel.
You have worked with Martin Scorsese before on Wolf of Wall Street. However, that is a very different film from this one. What was it like working with him on Silence?
We also worked on the pilot for the series Vinyl for HBO, which was about rock and roll in the 1970s, so that also was extremely different. Very soon after that, we started prepping [to film Silence] in Taiwan.
The common thread is the passion of Scorsese. He is always very interested in how to visually tell a story, and the cinematic language of the film; how the different camera angles, and camera movements — or even lack of movement — help propel the story. In Silence, Scorsese tried to purposely change his typical cinematic language to something that felt more appropriate for the story. A big part of that was being objective to the priests’ experience, so the camera was usually placed exactly where they were, from their point of view.
Also, the sound design of the film is relatively quiet, and the camera does not move a lot, so that when it does, it has a very powerful significance. It was pretty challenging to keep it that way, because when you stay on one angle for long periods of time, as an audience, you can see the “tricks” much more quickly, as the camera just holds there.
One scene that really stood out was when we are first introduced to the Inquisitor, arriving in the village. It evokes such an eerie sense. Were you going for that horror-movie feel?
It’s very interesting that you say that. We really wanted to evoke with every image, every sensation of the characters. We did want that feeling of foreboding for the villagers, and the priests as well. When we were filming that shot, the fog rolled in — it wasn’t planned that way. Just a natural fog in a valley in Taiwan where we were, and we already had half the scene without fog, and it was sunny. We loved how the scene looked with the fog, and we decided to go back and reshoot.
Do you feel added pressure working on films set during a specific historical period?
Yes, especially with a director like Scorsese, who is very keen on making sure everything is extremely accurate. All of the research that went into the film was very painstaking. He wanted to be sure that every piece, every prop, every build from the production design was vetted by a series of people who were experts of Japan during that period. They were there on set, and would look at everything, and make sure that it was correct.
In terms of the lighting, I am also very particular in making sure that it feels as natural and realistic as possible. There were scenes that were very long, and would normally happen within six minutes, which had to occur over two days. I actually shot a scene in a patio in a Japanese temple, and I had to light it at night. Instead of shooting in the day time, I chose to shoot it at night, and create the whole lighting, and make it look like a sunset.
These were the kind of things that had to look authentic. The light sources were typically little oil lamps that were like candles, and they were what the villagers would use in their huts. I had to be respectful of all of that, and really make it feel realistic.
You have worked on a variety of different films throughout your career. Is there a shot from Silence, or any of your other films, that was particularly challenging to film, and were proud of when you saw the completed scene?
Many times. On this movie in particular, there is a scene where there is a crucifixion on the edge of the ocean in this rocky place. It was extremely challenging to film it safely and it was also incredibly scary. Scorsese essentially told us what shots he wanted, and now it was up to us as a team to figure out how to execute it. To achieve that, it was a combination of visual stunts, and also visual effects. Shooting partly in a water tank in Taiwan, or sometimes on location, or a mixture of all sorts of things. We came together, and I think it is seamless, and I am very proud of that moment.
Another movie that comes to mind is Alexander, with Oliver Stone. The scene that we shot in infrared color, the battle scene — that was really challenging. When we saw the result it was extremely exciting. When you don’t know how to solve something, or how it will work, and then it does and you’re able to figure it out, I think those are the most exciting.
You are collaborating again with Scorsese for the upcoming film, The Irishman. Again, quite a different film from the rest. What can you tell us about that?
That’s a very exciting story in itself, and the history of the book it’s based on, I Heard You Paint Houses. It’s an era that I am really interested in, and it’s important for us to explore those times right now, socially and politically. I am very interested to see what we come up with. I still don’t know what look we’re going to give it, but I know it will be very challenging, and I am very excited to start.
And we’re all very excited to see it as well! Thank you so much for speaking with me. All the best!
It was a pleasure, thank you so much!
Silence is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.