After multiple delays, No Time To Die finally released last year to major box office success, earning over $770 million worldwide and placing it as the 4th highest-grossing film of 2021. Along with this, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence’s highly anticipated return to the big screen debuted at the end of the year with Don’t Look Up, which smashed the record for the largest week of views in all of Netflix history. Now, what do both films have in common? Well, they are lucky enough to have been shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Linus Sandgren.
Sandgren is perhaps most known for his beautiful work on Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, which earned him the Oscar. His other credits showcase his talent in an eclectic range of genres with films like First Man, American Hustle, and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. We were lucky enough to sit down with Linus Sandgren and have an insightful chat about the inner workings of No Time To Die, and how he went about shooting something as idiosyncratic as Don’t Look Up. We discussed what it’s like, as a cinematographer, to choose the right shooting formats, whether that be 35mm, IMAX film, or digital. Sandgren is coming off the heels of an incredible year, and those who love either No Time To Die or Don’t Look Up will find much to appreciate in our exclusive deep-dive below.
What were the initial conversations between you and Cary Joji Fukunaga like when you were first brought onto No Time To Die?
Linus Sandgren: First, [Cary] and I talked a lot about how he wanted the film to feel like a great ride, in both a visual and emotional way. To try and blend what is considered normal in an action film, or in a Bond film, there’ll be suspense, thrilling moments, and humor, but in this case, to cry. Also, we discussed a lot about what Bond films, and what their world, should feel like. It’s an adventure film, it’s set in reality, so it should feel raw and real. But it should also at the same time be slightly heightened. Like, you go to places that you haven’t been, that exist but are exotic and most people won’t go there.
[Cary] was very much into creating, for example, stunts and such things – all very realistic and not anything that wouldn’t be possible to do for real. Therefore, a lot of it had to do with Bond actually fighting for his life, unlike when it’s sometimes based on the abilities of his gadgets and technical solutions. Here, it’s more of his physical struggle. A metaphor for his inner struggle with this fight for his life.
Linus Sandgren: We had those discussions, but we also wanted to really connect the cinematography to the film’s emotional journey. For me, that is always important. That is the reason behind why you make your choices; you don’t just create the mood because you want to create a mood, it has to be based on the script and the story. Because Cary was also writing, he tried to integrate that into the script. Depending on the scene, he tried to find a location, environment, and time of the day that would be connected to what was going on emotionally in No Time To Die.
For example, Madeleine (Léa Seydoux), at the beginning of the film, is placed in a lonely house in the middle of nowhere, in a snowy landscape. It could have been summer, but it wasn’t because that memory is horrible for her. It’s like a horror story kind of memory. Therefore, he placed it in the snow, in isolation, and in the middle of nowhere. Visually, the film is connected with what is going on inside of the characters. That was a lot of the work, trying to see how we could connect the varying scenes so that you go from one location to a completely different one, seamlessly. And the story also goes that way to where you’re thrown from a love scene into a hardcore action scene.
A big challenge that I faced was working against nature to maintain a specific style. The Norway scene, in the beginning, for example, was so important that it was cloudy and still. So we could make the landscape feel moody, eery, and dark. But we ended up having a lot of sun and wind in those scenes, so it looked like a postcard from Santa Claus (laughs). So it was really troublesome to shoot in that location because the weather wasn’t with us. But we found moments when it wasn’t cloudy to shoot and make it work.
In regards to your original question, it was all about how to connect the cinematography to the story. The script was still being written while I was starting to work on the film. They had the main story, but they were still modifying scenes as we were going on scouts. Like a day scene could change to a night scene to make it better. For instance, the opening after the titles at one point was a day scene, before it became a scene at dusk or twilight. So we did also romanticize everything a little bit. I wanted to base it on naturalism and reality, but heighten it slightly by stylizing real environments into something slightly different.
You touched on a lot of things there, especially in regards to locations. So I wanted to ask what it was actually like shooting across the world and was it a huge task juggling all the different sets?
Linus Sandgren: Yes, we did a lot of scouting as we had a lot of locations, not in England. And because of that, logistically, we had to get the crew together and scout those locations which was a big task to take on for production. For example, to get to Italy, at least 12 people, minimum, were needed for scouting. It was the same with Jamaica, we went there multiple times as well as Norway and Scotland. So that was tricky.
The other thing was that Cary was very specific sometimes, for example, in the opening sequence in Norway, about how to approach the villain who was going to be visible to the camera from inside the house. It was the same with the reveal of the house in the beginning, which follows the villain walking as he descends down a hill. So we were looking for a house that was like this as we really wanted that scene to look that way. We scouted and scouted, but we could not find a house and we ended up actually building that house in London and shipped it to a lake in Norway that had a hill like we imagined. So problems like that we caused for ourselves. Also, the lake itself was icy when we were shooting and it got snowy over Christmas. The whole lake was covered, so we had to remove the snow in order to see the ice. But then another problem happened as the weather started to get sunny and warm. We couldn’t put too much weight on the lake at the point of shooting because of health and safety. So we had some issues like that on every location as we wanted to do everything in-camera, as much as possible.
Linus Sandgren: Another example is that we planned out this ambitious action sequence that we wanted to take place between alleyways. We walked around the town we wanted to use to lay out how we could shoot the whole action sequence. And on top of that, we didn’t want that town to look too modern. It’s a rural, old town but it has a lot of signs and lights that are modern. So we needed to modify it by removing signs and lamps. At night, we even lit the whole town with these light sources that are like flames. We turned off all the lights in the town and then put in our own lamps across to light up everything. So we did stuff that you don’t always do because it’s just too much to take on for production.
But now, the tradition on a Bond film is that you do it right, you do it the way it should be done and if you can afford it. Doing things for real was great, but also a lot of work. In the Italy sequence, we wanted to enter the town by going through a tunnel and arriving at the town. But that tunnel didn’t exist. So in order to do that effect, we built a tunnel on location. We had this 200-foot long scaffolding tunnel and we shot it with a long crane. We tried all kinds of things, like using a helicopter with a cable or a drone. On top of that, we wanted to shoot on IMAX and there’s restrictions for aerials using it. So we ended up with a camera on a long crane on a vehicle, following the car. That is only one shot, but it took us so much effort to do it. It’s not even meant to be a visible effect or anything. That was how we wanted the shot, so that’s how we did it.
Location scouting was all very logistical. When we went to Jamaica, we realized that we could shoot some of the Cuban scenes there as well. We also designed and built, in a bay, what would be the perfect retreat-style home for Bond to retire in. The rest of the Cuban town was built in Pinewood, London. Everything was built from scratch. Also, we had lit and shot the set twice as we shot first without Daniel Craig while he was away as he had hurt his foot. When we picked up again, in October, we had to re-light the whole set like it was before as we had filmed in June and then pulled out all the lighting. That set was massive, we used like ten mobile cranes with lightboxes, but everything was really to just made it look a specific way.
You brought up filming on IMAX, can you talk about your choice of shooting formats and how you would use them to enhance the scope of a film like No Time To Die?
Linus Sandgren: The format is the base, it can maximize the effect of everything. So when your scenes are intimate, then we’re very close in a close up, normally. The problem with IMAX is that it’s very noisy, actually. It’s hard to shoot a whole film on IMAX currently because those cameras are very noisy. If you do scenes with intimate dialogue, it’s ruined and you have to dub it later, if you’re too close with the camera that is. For example, in other IMAX films, like [Christopher] Nolan’s, when he shoots 15-perf he usually uses 65mm 5-perf in dialogue scenes that are meant to be IMAX scenes. Those cameras are silent, so you can use them when filming dialogue.
The Bond universe feels almost romantic in the sense that it’s not a “romance” but a romantic action adventure. I think anamorphic 35mm is what most Bond films have been, in the past, and that suits Bond very well because the format is epic in itself. Also shooting on film, to me, is a bit more expressive. It just gives more expression to everything, especially with colors and contrast, it’s just richer. So thinking 35mm anamorphic, it’s similar to what Nolan did in The Dark Knight as that film is in 35mm, but in certain sequences, the format is expanded both for the detail and the IMAX theater experience. I mean, that’s why IMAX is amazing. No Time To Die is a sort of ride where you want to be intimate and then sometimes very expansive, and we let the audience be absorbed in the expansiveness of the IMAX shots.
The opening sequence is all in IMAX. We saw a cool opportunity because the opening is always special in Bond movies. Although almost all the shots are in IMAX, there are shots in there that are 65mm 5-perf because it’s in the car and there’s dialogue, but it’s very intimate dialogue. In general, the whole sequence is in 15-perf IMAX and is considered an IMAX sequence. The same goes for the Cuba shootout scene when they’re in the Spectre meeting and then suddenly it’s this Hitchcock moment of Bond in the spotlight. And that’s when we open up into IMAX again. Hopefully, when you’re watching it in an IMAX theater, it feels like you’re really immersed in the image. But I think the film works great in 2:40 as we always composed it in 2:40, the same sort of framing as in cinemascope or anamorphic 35mm. The only actual addition with IMAX is that you get the big image in theaters, it’s more immersive.
Moving away from No Time To Die, you also shot Don’t Look Up, which broke new records on Netflix. Continuing the conversation on film format, can you talk about your aesthetic choices and collaborating with Adam McKay?
Linus Sandgren: I always think that the director’s vision and ideas, in combination, set the rules for the choice of format and how you want to light it. Is it a naturalistic film? Should it feel heightened? Should it feel supernatural or stylized? It depends on each director and what the story asks for, in my and the director’s opinion. Budget restrictions are always a compromise, but at least you should always have an intention with the choices. I always have intentions with choices, down to the stop I want to shoot because of the look or film stocks. So you create a language, which is really important.
I don’t feel right if I just grab a camera and we go out and shoot the movie, as I’ll have no clue why I’m doing what I’m doing. For example, Don’t Look Up is obviously part satire, but it’s also really important. That was the question I had for Adam [McKay] from my point of view, I asked him, “Do you feel like this should be taken seriously, as well as being comical?” And, obviously, he wanted that. So I proposed that the approach should be like shooting a suspenseful thriller and the comedy will hopefully come through. I looked at films like Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View. If I find inspiration from movies, it will be older movies, but in general just great films. So that was the main approach, as well as shooting on 35mm anamorphic but in the most realistic way possible. Our goal was, “Let’s just shoot as if we didn’t light it.” To show the real world in a naturalistic way, even more naturalistic than No Time To Die. But then it was also important that Don’t Look Up takes place all over the world. I know Adam’s editor Hank Corwin loves footage from all over the world, like montages of footage. We wanted to integrate that.
There’s a big part of the story that’s about this, sort of, iPhone reality of the world where people film themselves and everyone is always on camera, everywhere. We wanted to tell a story that’s happening now. For example, in the TV studio scenes, we will be with our film cameras behind the TV cameras or behind the actors shooting them in the studio lighting. We tried to make that a point as well, where some footage is obviously from 4K TV cameras that is super sharp, colorful, and artificial. We wanted to make the audience feel the difference between everything that comes at them. The problem within the world of Don’t Look Up is the media and the internet, all of this has a more superficial look. So we tried to make a clear change from the TV and media world which is really sharp and crisp, compared to the softer, more humane, darker real world.
We wanted to mix all these formats and shoot it both ways. In moments, for example, where someone gets really nervous, we get annoyingly close. In instances like this, I would have this eight-tonne camera with a macro lens on and I’m like one inch from Leo’s eyes when he’s realizing that the comet may hit Earth. So there is a mix of visual choices as we would follow our instincts. For example, we shot some details of hands, we shot lots of small details of things that [Hank] could cut to. It’s kind of a film shot for leaving a lot to the editor to decide how to work with the footage. Therefore, scenes were usually shot in multiple ways, to leave room for editing. No Time To Die was more designed and looks very much to me, the way we intended to tell the story when we shot it. But Don’t Look Up is more of a combination of things he found in the editing. It’s two different styles of approaching a story, depending on what kind of film it is.
Linus Sandgren: It’s always about finding the right format that I have in mind. With Don’t Look Up and the TV cameras, I was like, “Let’s shoot the TV scenes with a TV camera, even if it doesn’t look good.” But that’s not what cinematography is about. It’s more fun to shoot or see pleasant images, of course, but it should be appropriate. The use of iPhones, photos, TV screens is very appropriate for Don’t Look Up. If we shot everything on 35mm anamorphic, including the iPhone shots, that would be weird as it wouldn’t look as real.
If you look at First Man, that’s a perfect example where the format was important to me. It was really the smaller format, 16mm, that would be the most intimate, which we used even in the space shuttles because we wanted to be as close to the actors to create intimacy. The images are raw and real. Also, 16mm is so poetic and beautiful with all its flaws. When you go out of the space shuttle, to the moon landscape where you can clearly see it in IMAX as there’s nothing there, it’s just super dead and dark. It’s just more powerful to work that way, even if it’s subtle. It’s still important to make those decisions to try to emphasize those emotions in the story.
You’ve worked with a range of highly acclaimed filmmakers, how do you go about choosing projects and do you have a wish list of directors to work with moving forward?
Linus Sandgren: My choice to work on each project is a combination of the script and the director. But there are often other reasons, like if it’s a challenge. I like doing things I haven’t done before. I tend to not be so much into something that is very much similar to something I’ve done, especially like another musical. It’s not that I don’t like musicals, but I feel like that has been such a big part of my life lately that I would rather do something that is not exactly similar to that. But on the contrary, people tend to want you for work you’ve done because it’s similar to what they want. Despite that, I love to look for something different.
It could be any size really for me, that doesn’t matter. It could be super low budget or higher, it’s more the challenge of something that feels different from what I’ve done. Like when we did The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, it was a kid’s movie but I could imagine it becoming something magical. So I was intrigued, even though it wasn’t a film that I maybe normally would watch myself, but it would be interesting to take on that type of challenge and see what I could do with it.
But it’s not always that the scripts are so clearly great, it’s not until you meet the director and talk with them that I feel really inspired, normally. It’s usually a mutual decision between the director and myself to work on a project. Because in my experience, the director and you have to connect. Not everything comes your way and it’s hard to know what’s going to be available, and sometimes you just stumble upon things. I was almost on another project, but I didn’t do it. And then a few weeks later, Cary reached out for Bond. You don’t always know what’s next, it’s really unpredictable.