Lincolnesque: Janusz Kaminski and Lois Burwell on Lincoln

The Oscar-winning director of photography and makeup artist talk about their critically-acclaimed new film and 1991's Cool as Ice.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Steven Spielberg is the biggest director in the world, and Daniel Day-Lewis may be one of the most respected directors of his generation, but they didn't make Lincoln alone. The Oscar contender was a collaboration with many talented artisans, two of which I got to speak to this month about their work bringing Lincoln to life. Janusz Kaminski has been Spielberg's director of photography on almost every film since 1993's Schindler's List, and Lois Burwell has been working in makeup for decades on films like Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan and The Fifth Element. I spoke to these two Oscar-winners about the way they developed the incredible look of Lincoln, the truth behind Daniel Day-Lewis's off-camera acting method, and just because I could, I asked Kaminski to share his thoughts on 1991's Cool as Ice, the legendary Vanilla Ice star vehicle and one of the cinematographer's earliest studio projects. It turns out he remembers the production very fondly, despite the years of negative criticisms about its outlandish outcome.

Lincoln is now playing in a theater near you.

CraveOnline: One thing I’m curious about, because Steven Spielberg has so many films in active development at one time, and you both work with him so often… Lincoln’s been on the backburner for twelve years. At what point does he begin talking to you about his ideas for a specific film?

Lois Burwell: Different points. It changes from what the film is. With Lincoln it started when we’d had a conversation, when I’d done research and we had the boards, the mood boards to show different ideas to different groups of people. That’s when we had the conversation. I think, for me anyway, in a funny kind of way it’s better. Because Steve has a great eye, he has a fantastic eye, and it’s easier for me to have something to actually show rather than have a conversation, because I’m not dealing with words. I’m dealing with images.

Janusz Kaminski: But then again, just because you have an image to show him, it doesn’t mean that that image is the image that is right. Do you know what I’m saying?

Lois Burwell: Yes, exactly. It’s a starting place.

Janusz Kaminski: It’s a stupid thing. Don’t do what he says he wants you to do, he wants you to do what…

What he means…?

Janusz Kaminski: …yes, what he imagines.

Lois Burwell: Yes, that’s right.

What sort of ideas or images does he bring to these initial meetings. Were you looking at the emotional themes or was he looking at accuracy…?

Janusz Kaminski: Rick Carter is the guy, the production designer, who really provides you with the pictorial representation of the period. He’s the one who sketches the scenes, and he does them frequently. Not that we were reproducing Rick’s drawings, but they are often blueprints for certain things. Like the White House, the big windows, and Lincoln’s figure standing against the window. Rick created that image, but the image is a very logical image. It’s not like he’s inventing the wheel, he’s just creating the visual representation for Steven, so Steven can get excited about the sets and making the movie and the wardrobe, and actually gets excited. Because twelve years, that’s a long time to… It took a long time from the actual desire to make the movie to making the movie.

You’re revisiting not quite the same time period, but similar visual themes with Amistad. It’s got a darker palette I find. What were your thoughts on revisiting a similar time period?

Janusz Kaminski: Well, two different stories, right? I think some of the interiors in the courtroom I could go very similar as I did on Amistad. And there are some similarities, the bright light coming through the window and people being silhouetted, stuff like that. So between the courtroom in Amistad and the Congress in Lincoln there are some similarities. I think probably I’m slightly more contrasty in Lincoln than I was in Amistad. I was more interested in a kind of Philippe Rousselot lighting, kind of soft, beautiful, one side light [in Amistad], but here I was more vulgar with the light. Just having that hard light coming in and people moving through that light. So there are some similarities, but then again…

Just in terms of the historical period, because you’re dealing with the same sorts of light sources. You have a lot of sunlight…

Janusz Kaminski: A more naturalistic approach towards the light source, yeah.

Daniel Day-Lewis tends to isolate himself when he’s developing a character. Did you get to work with him early or does he just get in your chair and let you transform him? How closely to do work together on his look?

Lois Burwell: Well, when we were first introduced to each other, which was actually a sort of test… It was slightly unusual in that I hadn’t actually met him, or hard a conversation with him, and then he sat in the chair and we were getting ready for a kind of screen, not camera test, but just seeing where everything went with Sally [Field]. So it was really primarily to facilitate Sally. But at the same time it was getting Daniel Day into a Lincolnesque look, because he came in with hair down to hear and a big, huge woodsman’s beard, and no wrinkles. So it was that, and then you find… He’s a fantastic actor. Just fantastic. And I really grew so incredibly fond of him, and even fonder, I think, of Mr. Lincoln, because I got to know Mr. Lincoln more than I got to know Daniel Day. I know that sounds odd, but that’s true.

Because he stays in character throughout the entire production, mostly, doesn’t he?

Lois Burwell: He doesn’t really. He does and he doesn’t.

There’s a myth…

Lois Burwell: It’s not either as simple or as complicated as it’s perceived as being. It’s his process and it’s unique to him. It’s not as if… although actually one day, that was funny, he actually made a joke about “us,” me doing the makeup, how I’m going to manage it in [my] dress, right? But it’s a joke…

Right, he hasn’t lost touch with reality.

Lois Burwell: No, exactly.

Janusz Kaminski: [Laughs] Daniel is not crazy.

Lois Burwell: No, he’s not a crazy person.

Janusz Kaminski: It’s an amazing, fascinating profession. How do you get into that thing? The greatest ones, you look at The Master, Joaquin [Phoenix] is just insanely perfect, and so is Daniel. But then other actors have a different approach. Tom Hanks has a different approach, Cruise has a different approach, you know, different approach. Not to say that their work is better or worse, it’s just a different approach.

Lois Burwell: It’s a process. They have different processes. That’s the only way to describe it.

Janusz Kaminski: I go on the set and crack crude jokes, but it doesn’t mean I’m that person. That’s just a part of me on a movie set.

What kind of crude jokes?

Janusz Kaminski: Crude jokes. Crude.

You’re dealing with turning Daniel Day-Lewis, who has a passing resemblance to Abraham Lincoln. But you’re dealing with an historical figure who’s more visually recognizable than most others. Do you have any freedom there or do you just look at a penny every day to make sure?

Lois Burwell: No, no. Well, for me, I can’t comment on how anyone else would approach it obviously.

Sure. I’m asking about your approach.

Lois Burwell: For my approach, yes, I looked to every image that I could possibly get a hold of, of Abraham Lincoln, and then basically discarded it. Because you can’t… Not “discarded” it, I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, but you can’t have that photograph there, and this what you’re copying. Because this isn’t that face. But somehow, knowing that face helps you, when you’re working on this face, bring them closer together. But if you’re copying it, you’re working on it in a funny way.

I have to ask: Janusz, I only just recently discovered Cool as Ice, and that is so unlike any other film you ever shot, at least that I’ve seen. I’m wondering what your thoughts are, looking back on that interesting production, and if you’ll ever oversee a restoration of that?

Janusz Kaminski: I think nobody will ever restore that movie, because nobody knows who Vanilla Ice is anymore. But I liked working with the colors, it was a very colorful movie. I liked working with African American faces. It was really exciting. I then making kind of a pop, kitschy movie. Again, this was not the first movie I’d ever done, but was definitely one of the first studio pictures I was making, so it was a lot of fun. I enjoyed it. And David Kellogg and I ended up making many commercials together, and we’re still friends. It’s just, you do all kinds of stuff at the beginning [of your career]. I’ve done movies for Roger Corman. Some of the movies they took my name off the credits because they were just too inappropriate, you know? I haven’t done porn but I’ve done one movie where Roger took the movie, and recut the movie with a whole bunch of nudity, and I just didn’t want to have my name attached to it.

It wasn’t even your nudity then, was it?

Janusz Kaminski: No, it was not me. But it was fun to make. I did a movie called Terror Within II. I went to Russia and made a movie [Mad Dog Coll] for Menahem Golan in 1991, where we made Moscow look like New York of a 1930s gangster movie.


William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani