When cinematographer Guillermo Navarro won the Academy Award in 2006 for his work on the dark fantasy film Pan’s Labyrinth, it was only the second time in the history of the awards that a foreign language film with English subtitles earned the distinction.“Pan’s Labyrinth is one of the best movies I’ve done,” Navarro told me during a phone interview to discuss his new project, the sci-fi action film I Am Number Four. “I think it’s going to be a movie that stays in people’s minds for a very long time.”
Since winning the illustrious Oscar five years ago, Navarro, whose work also includes Desperado, Jackie Brown, and Hellboy 1 and 2, says he has been searching for projects that will allow him to develop a parallel reality from scratch.
“I want to design and create images as opposed to working on a contemporary piece where realities exist right outside your window and all you have to do is register them,” Navarro explained. “A movie like I Am Number Four offers that to me.”
During our interview, Navarro, 55, talked about his intrigue with the moving picture, how his home country of Mexico helped develop his professional drive, and whether he thinks audiences today appreciate exactly what a cinematographer contributes to a film.
You’ve worked with Guillermo del Toro and Robert Rodriguez on more than one occasion. Does the director you will work with have anything to do with making a decision on what project to work on next?
The decision to work with specific directors has to do with the project. In the case of [Guillermo del Toro] we had a very long relationship. I believe in him as a filmmaker. He is a very visual director and someone that understands the contribution that cinematographers offer is important not only for the creative process, but as a film language. That is the kind of relationship I like to have with a director.
Were there specific influences in your life growing up that peaked your interest in the photography of films?
In my case, I was always interested in photography. I started doing still photography at a very early age. I was very passionate about it. I had my own dark room when I was 13 years old. I was always pursuing photography. Then that changed into motion photography. I became very intrigued in resolving the equation of dealing with images that are moving and are not necessarily accommodating the same space as a still photograph where everything is more convenient. I fell in love with that challenge. I could see that in the conceptual process. It completely convinced me to pursue it, especially when I saw the work of [Vittorio] Storaro (Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor). That was the work I wanted to do.
How do you think growing up in Mexico had an effect on you as a cinematographer?
Growing up in Mexico gave me a lot of my drive to do things. When you’re growing up in a third-world country the adversity is a lot stronger. When you want to overcome that to reach your needs and your dreams you have to fight for everything. In that sense, I’m sort of a product of adversity. That gave me a very strong drive to pursue things and get them done. That was probably one of my biggest assets when I moved to the U.S.
What about from an aesthetic point of view? Do some of Mexico’s cultural influences naturally find their way into your work?
Yes, the Mexican culture is very visual as far as colors and smells and everything. It’s a very sensual culture. All that is part of my cultural package. But I can’t think of something that is a recipe or a direct influence for something I did in a movie. It has to do more with how you see the world from where you grew up. I feel more strongly about Mexico giving me the drive to get out there and conquer what you want to do. Now that I think about it, there was some influence in a movie I did back in Spain with Guillermo del Toro called The Devil’s Backbone. It is a period piece and is set in a parallel reality. It’s a movie that could have very well been placed in Mexico in another social conflict. It has that influence of color and texture.
Your colleague Roger Deakins has been nominated for nine Oscars, including the one this year for True Grit, but has never won the award. Do you think this is his year?
I have no idea. You never know. He certainly is due. I can’t think of anyone else who has been nominated so many times and doesn’t have it. I think at this point in his career it makes no difference. He’s one of the most celebrated and recognized cinematographers in the world and has been for many years. He’s up there regardless.
Your next two films are the final two chapters of The Twilight Saga known as Breaking Dawn. Since you were not involved in the first three movies, what is your mindset going into this one as the new guy? Do you want to create that parallel universe like you talked about from scratch or do you feel more limited by the work that came before you and by what fans of the series are expecting?
No, I don’t feel limited by that. The book itself allows for the story to be propelled and I’m pushing that. I can’t really talk about it much, but I saw a very big opportunity to have a strong contribution in it.
When an average moviegoer watches a film most will notice obvious elements like the acting, special effects, and maybe the dialogue. Do you think the average moviegoer understands what cinematography is? Do you think more people today can appreciate a cinematographer’s contribution to a film than they did when you started your career almost 40 years ago?
I think audiences appreciate the cinematography of a film. It not necessarily that they have to pinpoint things and say, “Oh, this is that,” but good cinematography allows them to read the movie. The cinematography is the language of a film. They don’t necessarily have to understand what cinematography is as long as the movie can be read in the right way. I think audiences now are much more sophisticated and aware of the process, but if the movie works and is coherent the cinematography has already done its job.