On Chesil Beach DP Sean Bobbitt discusses collaboration, composition, and his strong opinions on the anonymity of coverage. Read the rest of our On Chesil Beach Special Issue here.
The classical, widescreen tableaus in On Chesil Beach are a speciality of cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. Most famous for his long-term collaboration with director Steve McQueen — on Hunger (2008), Shame (2011), 12 Years a Slave (2013), and the upcoming Widows — Bobbitt is a master of delicately intricate compositions. Yet what’s most impressive is his range: “My job is not to tell the director what to do; my job is to do what the director wants to do.” Despite his mastery of meticulous filmmaking, he started in documentary and used that more off-the-cuff style in films like Wonderland (1999) and The Place Beyond the Pines (2013), moulding himself to the vision of his director.
His work in On Chesil Beach subtly differentiates the film from your typical British period piece by not conforming to traditional film grammar. Much of it may look like a beautiful painting, with the seemingly endless horizon of Chesil Beach providing the backdrop for the film’s climactic scene. But this is a film that privileges ideas over shallow visual opulence. Bobbitt brings themes of class, social expectation, and gender to the fore in the way he shoots the film, using different shooting styles to contrast the very disparate homes that newly married couple Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) grew up in, and framing the couple to capture their precarious power dynamic as they navigate their fear of sex and intimacy.
I spoke to Bobbitt about his experience working on the film, working with a team of collaborators to develop a film’s aesthetic, and his strong opinions on the anonymity of coverage.
Seventh Row (7R): How did you get involved in the project?
Sean Bobbitt (SB): Initially, the idea of yet another British period drama didn’t really appeal to me — until I found out that Dominic Cooke was directing. I had met him once before but hadn’t had a chance to work with him. In that first meeting, I’d been so impressed by Dominic that I always said that I would love to work with him if I could.
The initial chat I had with Dominic reassured me that I was making the right choice. He had such a deep emotional understanding of what the characters were going through. It’s not about frocks and furniture. We all enjoyed Dominic’s sense of collaboration and his ability to very clearly and succinctly communicate his ideas so that we were all moving in the same direction. He’s able to explain it in such an eloquent, simple, but at the same time, heartbreaking way. I found his telling of the story absolutely compelling.
7R: How did you approach developing the film’s aesthetic with Dominic?
SB: A lot of the time, when you talk about the script, people leap straight to the visual, but with Dominic, it was about the emotion. It was about the dramatic arc of the characters and what the story was really about. I found that very refreshing and stimulating, to approach it initially from a purely intellectual point of view as opposed to a purely visual point of view.
For me, it’s about understanding the story so that the look evolves out of that understanding, as opposed to coming up with the concept of a look and trying to impose that upon the story, which I always find less satisfying.
In our ongoing series Behind The Lens, we talk to cinematographers at the top of their game about their work on a specific film, as well as how this compares to their work on other films. We’ve interviewed Jakob Ihre twice (Louder Than Bombs, Thelma), Joshua James Richards (God’s Own Country, The Rider), Tom Townend (You Were Never Really Here), and Magnus Jønck (Lean on Pete). We also wrote about the best cinematography of 2017.