Interview With ‘Game Of Thrones’ Cinematographer Robert McLachlan
By Dr. Zaius
Wednesday, May 31st, 2017 at 6:00 pm
Robert McLachlan has been behind a camera for over 30 years. Throughout much of the 1990s and 2000s, he was the Director of Photography on series like The Commish and Millennium before working on a number of films, many in the horror genre (Final Destination 1 & 3, Willard etc). In the last few years McLachlan filmed some of TV’s most epic scenes, as DoP on the hit HBO show Games of Thrones for a number of episodes, as well as HBO’s latest hit Westworld and Showtime’s Ray Donovan. I got a chance to speak to McLachlan last weekend to talk about his career and role in making these modern classics.
Check out the interview below.
Geeks of Doom: Hi Robert, it’s great to speak to you today. Thanks for giving us a few minutes.
Robert McLachlan: No problem at all.
Geeks of Doom: I’ll get right to it, I know you’re working on Game of Thrones season 7, so come right out and tell us, how does it end?
Robert McLachlan: Hahaha, very funny, you know I think I’d be beheaded if I gave away any spoilers. They’re very clear about that when you go to work on it.
Geeks of Doom: I figured, but hey, it was worth a shot. I can totally imagine that being a part of the contract though. This is the show which killed Ned Stark in season 1. Let’s stick with Game of Thrones, is everything wrapped on the final season?
Robert McLachlan: Yes we wrapped, I was there in Belfast and Spain principally from beginning of last August until right before Christmas. And I just got back here, there was some special effects work we had to finish up, but then I needed to come back here to start season 5 of Ray Donovan. I’m alternating between those two, I actually sat out Game of Thrones season 6 for Westworld.
Geeks of Doom: I noticed that, but I have to admit I have not seen Westworld yet, although everyone I know especially my father raved about it. I was going to stick to Thrones first but since you brought up Ray Donovan let me ask you; what is it like going from the sprawling sets and scope of this magical world on Game of Thrones to the grounded realism of Ray Donovan? Can you get into the contrast of filming shows like that back to back?
Robert McLachlan: Well, they are obviously vastly different, but at the time I think of Game of Thrones as a medieval noir whereas Ray Donovan is LA noir, so they both kind of lend themselves to fairly moody photography, especially when it’s grounded in the context of the story, and not just arbitrary for the sake of it being pretty or getting dark pictures. Both of those shows totally lend themselves to that. I really enjoy going between them and getting that contrast. Good photography has to be grounded, not just in the story and script but in the subject you’re photographing. So if you’re in a big dark medieval castle with no electricity, that’s really going to inform the way you light it and when you’re in an LA back alley late at night, that’s going to inform the way you light that too, so as a cinematographer much of the time I’m responding to what I have to photograph. I’m trying to make myself as invisible as possible. I feel like I failed if people are watching the show are caught up in and engaged in the story, and commenting about the beautiful photography, then I haven’t done my job. I should just disappear into the storytelling.
Geeks of Doom: You know it’s really interesting because I spoke to another cinematographer earlier, and he said something very similar. It’s very strange to a layman how you want to go out and do the best job possible, all the while in a way that does not detract from the other elements around you.
Robert McLachlan: Exactly, you’re right. Francis Ford Coppola made a speech to the American Society of Cinematographers, and he likened the cinematographer to the first violinist in the orchestra partly because that’s the person who can tell if conductor knows what he’s doing or not, in our case the director, and also because if any one piece in the orchestra is too loud or too strident then the whole piece is ruined. I think you see a lot of showy photography these days. I’ve seen some amazing looking movies with some amazing eye candy, but at the end of the day they weren’t particularly good movies, and I think that’s because the cinematographer didn’t do their job.
Geeks of Doom: That’s really interesting. Mentioning “noir,” I think back to the classic film noirs from the 40s and 50s like The Third Man and The Maltese Falcon. Those movies were all about lighting and shadow and great cinematography. Did you get a lot of influence from those films, and were a fan of that era of films?
Robert McLachlan: Oh yeah, I really appreciated those a lot and I think I went through the thought process of my influences when I was working on the show Millennium in the late 90s with Chris Carter. That was also a very dark and moody show, one of the darkest and moodiest on TV at that point. Those were the guys who did X-Files.
Geeks of Doom: I was a monster X-Files fan.
Robert McLachlan: Oh, I was just asked to come shoot the reboot of it up in Vancouver this fall, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to make it.
Geeks of Doom: Is that a continuation of the short series that came back last year?
Robert McLachlan: Yeah, they’re going to do 10 more episodes this fall with some of the best writers who have worked on it including Chris Carter, Glen Morgan, and Darin Morgan. They’re doing episodes so it’s going to be really cool. What I was saying was, as a kid I lived by the Canadian-US border, and there was this little independent TV station in Bellingham Washington, and every night at 5:00, they had “The Big Show” where they’d play an old B-movie and it would be interrupted by Walter Cronkite at 6:00, and then we’d get the conclusion to the movie after that. Those movies were almost always lower budget crime dramas with real noir lighting, and originally Warner Brothers did a lot of these because they didn’t have a lot of money and resources and they couldn’t afford very good sets. They had to hide the fact that the sets were kind of shitty so they had to keep it moody, but of course it also served the story because these are dark stories about human nature. I think as a kid those had an impression on me. Those were certainly more visually interesting to watch.
Geeks of Doom: I used to love those ratty 40s and 50s dark noirs.
Robert McLachlan: Exactly, I love them. And the wonderful thing about Game of Thrones is obviously, it’s full of intrigue, and dark human nature. So you have this contrast between the dark moody castles and the amazing sets they build, and then you have these stunning exteriors of Iceland, Northern Ireland, and the plains of Spain. It’s just delightful to watch. But I think people are so caught up in the story because it’s not style over substance. A lot of the other fantasy shows tend to be because they don’t have the resources or quality of story to put in front of the camera.
Geeks of Doom: It does balance everything, and that’s why in part I think the show is as popular as it is. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you were the Director of Photography for probably the two most famous episodes or at least most infamous scenes in Games of Thrones history; The Red Wedding and Cersei’s Walk of Shame. You were there for both of those,
Robert McLachlan: I was.
Geeks of Doom: When those scenes are happening right in front of you and you’re behind the camera, are you aware you’re a part of some of the most iconic television, maybe ever?
Robert McLachlan: I think I did with the Red Wedding, somewhat less so because it was so meticulously planned. The thing with the “walk of shame” was we had so many, we had hundreds of extras and we had 2 days in a couple of locations in Dubrovnik (Croatia) to film it, and it was cold. The obstacles were quite substantial, and we had to work so damn fast and you kinda couldn’t sit back until we finished the last few shots. We shot that in order and then it sunk in that “whoa that was really something.’ But the Red Wedding was a completely different story. We had a month to plan it, and I think as much or more than any scene I’ve ever done, I really nailed it photographically. The thing was we obviously didn’t want the audience to see what was coming, the ones who hadn’t read the books. I didn’t want to tip my hand photographically, in fact photographically I wanted to move the viewer astray. I wanted them to think they were getting the happy ending they were dying for.
Geeks of Doom: Well you got me. My wife read the books, and I turned to her after with my mouth open and was like “How did you NOT tell me that was happening!”
Robert McLachlan: What we did was… the show is dark at the best of times and we tried to keep it cold and moody like it was last time we were there in season 2, so the audience didn’t know what to expect. Then, for the wedding, things were warming up and I added more warm light to it, kept it as natural as we could and by the wedding banquet, when that starts we put an unnatural amount; by Game of Thrones standards, an unnatural amount of light in so there were no dark shadows in the background lurking. I got the art department to overload the set with candelabras and torches about 3-4 times the normal amount we would use for one of these scenes, so it was unusually bright and festive, again, not by Disney standards, but definitely by Game of Thrones standards. You got this bright and happy feeling, and you don’t want it to stay like that when the bad things happen, so I got this idea of having all the extras and actors grab the candles and candlesticks and so forth and march out with the wedding party as they go off to the bedding chamber for the bedding ceremony. As they left, they took all the light out of the room and left it dark and moody and then the shit happens. That way, when we pulled the rug out, the audience went down so much harder. I was pretty happy about that. But in terms of the effect it has on you and whether you know if you’re doing really amazing; we shot that scene in order too, and the last part was the cutting of Catelyn Stark’s throat, and the seasoned veterans mostly British crew… everybody was in tears. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Geeks of Doom: Wow, that really speaks to the gravity of the moment. I’ll tell you, you probably lost out on a second career as a wedding photographer after that.
Robert McLachlan: That’s just as well because I did a little of that when I was broke, when I just started out and I f*cking hated it.
Geeks of Doom: What do you have coming up? Are you starting season 5 of Ray Donovan?
Robert McLachlan: I’m about halfway through it actually, and I really enjoy it. We shoot at Sony Studios and our boxing gym set is on the same stage where Dorothy melted the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz, so it’s kind of fun to go to work in that environment. At the end of the season the show is actually moving to New York. So we’ll be there in August to shoot the season finale, and then the whole series will be shot there.
Geeks of Doom: Oh cool, where in New York? That’s where I am.
Robert McLachlan: I think we’ll be based in Brooklyn, but we’ll be shooting all over. You know in the case of where we are now in Los Angeles all the iconic LA locations are our co-stars, so we’ll probably try to do the same thing as much as we can with New York.
Geeks of Doom: Well that’s really cool, I live in Brooklyn and there are tons of great places where filming is taking place.
Robert McLachlan: Well get back to me in July, and maybe we can talk on set and get some coffee.
Geeks of Doom: That would be great, thanks. If I could, I’d like to ask you about some of the work you’ve done in the past. I was looking through your IMDb page and almost got a tear in my eye since you did cinematography on The Commish, and that was a favorite of mine that I used to watch with my grandmother. Aside from that though, I am first and foremost a horror movie guy, and I saw you worked on a lot of pretty cool horror films from the Final Destination films, to Willard, Cursed, etc. Can you talk about some of your experiences working in the horror genre?
Robert McLachlan: I think the first one that was massively successful was the first Final Destination movie. The great thing about that was that no one knew the premise of that one. In the sequels, everyone knew what was coming. But that first one was really gratifying because it was written by James Wong and Glen Morgan who had written some of the definitive X-Files episodes, and created some their most memorable characters when they were staff writers with Chris Carter. They knew horror inside and out, and I don’t remember if it was Glen or Jim’s idea. It’s brilliant and because it brings me back to the Red Wedding, but let’s try not to make this look like a horror film. In fact, the studio execs were not that happy with my dailies for the first week or two. It didn’t look like a horror film, there was no moody lighting, it wasn’t low key, it wasn’t spooky. The thing is… if we made it look spooky, everyone is going to expect something bad to happen and we wanted the audience completely surprised when a girl gets smacked by a bus in the middle of the afternoon sun. That was the point of it, and I think it worked well. Obviously, that informed the sequels. We didn’t do Part 2 because we were doing Willard at the time, but then we came back and did number 3. We didn’t do number 4 because I was in Mexico City with James Wong filming Dragonball (Evolution). I did like six movies in a row with those guys.
Geeks of Doom: I noticed that, I’m a huge fan of those movies. Final Destination 3 has some of my favorite death scenes in the whole franchise.
Robert McLachlan: Which one?
Geeks of Doom: The one at the drive-thru where the car fan goes through the guy’s head for one, and the one where the guy is working out in the gym and the workout equipment squashes his head.
Robert McLachlan: Haha, that was my idea.
Geeks of Doom: Really? That’s awesome
Robert McLachlan: Originally, the weights were just supposed to come down and we were scouting gyms and I saw this one where the weights went up and down like heavy cymbals and I thought wouldn’t it be great if the cable broke and they came down and squished his head. So the production designer Mark Freeborn went right ahead and built a weight machine that did exactly that. I thought that was quite fun.
Geeks of Doom: I loved how the camera keeps the audience watching the swords hanging on the wall, and I remember thinking the swords are going to fall and impale him and then, nope, the weights crush his head. Well listen, thank you so much for taking time to speak with us today. I really appreciate it. Good luck with Ray Donovan season 5 and Game of Thrones season 7 and last chance if you want to spoil it…
Robert McLachlan: No thanks. I think I’ll keep my head.
It was great getting to talk to Robert McLachlan. The man has worked behind the camera of some of film and TV’s greatest moments. He is continuing to bring his experience and expertise to some of television’s biggest current hits on landmark shows like Game of Thrones, Westworld and Ray Donovan. He gave a tremendous insight into what his role is as a Director of Photography and cinematographer and I look forward to seeing him continue to create beautiful and harrowing imagery in the future. Season 7 of Game of Thrones returns to HBO Sunday night July 16th. Ray Donovan season 5 returns to Showtime on Sunday, August 6th. Westworld is available on HBO GO or available for purchase on Amazon.
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