Emmy-winning cinematographer Roy H. Wagner ASC (Emmy Award for the Pilot of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Quantum Leap” Pilot) has worked on some of the most iconic titles in recent film and television history, including “Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Warriors,” “CSI: Las Vegas,” and “Elementary.” With a reputation for creating dark and dramatic imagery, it may be a surprise to learn that musicals were what first drew Wagner to Hollywood in search of a film career. Yet despite assisting his mentor, the two-time Oscar-winning filmmaker Harry Stradling ASC, on films like “Hello, Dolly” and “Funny Girl,” it would take Wagner more than five decades in the industry before he would work on his first musical, “Stand!”
Fresh off the digital release of the musical drama, we caught up with the award-winning cinematographer to find out how he brought it to life, get his take on working with Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin and learn some filmmaking lessons.
Q: Set during the 1917 Spanish flu pandemic, “Stand!” is a romantic musical, but it takes on tough subjects like the labor movement, immigration, and even racism. What was your visual inspiration for the film?
Roy H. Wagner: Director Rob Adetuyi and I looked at photographs from the 1890s and early 1900s. We determined that many of the photos were color, but the color was very muted, almost black and white. We also looked at Marlene Dietrich’s films because they were so stylistic. I always thought they were opulently produced, but in truth, they were really kind of very suggestive minimalism as to what they showed.
But the other side of it was I wanted to try to paint a picture of the opulence of the ruling class in a deeply Technicolor way. I wanted everything richly colored, whereas the immigrants and the impoverished, I wanted it almost black and white. I wanted it cold, visceral, and frightening. And for the most part, we did that. It almost acts like a visual counterpoint to the music. And I was very happy that the director agreed.
Q: For this film, you surprised people by choosing to shoot with the Blackmagic URSA Mini because, at the time, no one had used it on a major feature. I heard that you paired that with the Cartoni Lambda head. Can you talk about your experience?
RW: Initially, everybody was freaked out about it because it was not a camera used on features or at least large features. But I felt incredibly confident that that camera would reproduce skin tones properly and shoot through lace without any kind of motion artifacts. I also wanted to prove that you don’t have to spend a quarter of a million dollars on the camera to do cinematography.
It’s not about the technology or gear. It’s about the filmmaker and how you use the technology.
As far as the Lambda, I’ve used Cartoni Lambdas ever since I first discovered them. The camera operator on this film was my camera operator years before. Back then, he had one of the original versions of the Lambda, and I fell in love with it. We used the Lambda on virtually every shot in that film because I liked the ability to do nodal photography. Most of the time, when you are almost vertical, when you pan the shot, if the shot is 35 millimeters or wider, you get the sense of an arc, the camera arching when you pan because you’re not on the flange or the focal point of that lens. That’s okay, but most of the time, you want the camera to be unobtrusive. If you’re on the nodal, that means that the camera is panning. And it’s staying in the same position. It’s not arching as it pans and then arching back in.
With standard heads, it’s tough to do that because it means putting all the weight of the camera on the very back of the head. And that’s very difficult for the operator. It completely negates the balance plate on the heads. With a nodal on the Lambda, that’s not true, and you can easily balance it. So, the Lambda is not only something I use for low-angle shots. It’s something I use all the time.
I will tell you this on every project I’ve done for the last 20 years; I’ve had a Lambda head on the project.
Q: I heard you made some modifications to the Lambda to use it without an operator as a hothead? Can you explain what that means?
RW: The operator who introduced me to the Lambda, Cliff Hokinson, turned his Lambda into a hothead. A hot head is where the camera is removed from the operator and remotely operated on wheels. So, he now uses his Lambda as a hothead and is incredibly happy with that.
In fact, in one of the behind-the-scenes photographs, you can see the new Lambda next to his old Lambda, which has been converted.
Q: You’ve had an incredible career, but this was your first musical. Did that present any challenges?
RW: It’s a challenge that I was raised on because my mentor was Harry Stradling. Harry shot “Easter Parade,” The Pirate,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “Gypsy,” and “My Fair Lady.” He was an old MGM cinematographer. I was raised with that innate knowledge of doing a musical, although I’d never done a musical before this. So, I’ve had 56 years of filmmaking where I have never done a musical. I was his mentee on “Hello, Dolly” and “Funny Girl,” but I was not a director of photography. So, it was great to remind myself of what Harry taught me.
Q: You’ve worked with some fantastic people in your career, including Game of Thrones creator George R. R. Martin, when you were the cinematographer for the hit TV series “Beauty and the Beast.” What was that like? Did people realize the talent he had?
RW: Well, George and I used to talk about the fantasy genre all of the time. I gave him a book by Charles McDonalds, who defined fantasy. I loved working with him. He was very bright and already on that path to being a fantasy giant. He was already writing the foundational ‘bible’ for what he is now doing. That was a long time ago.
Q: Do you have any stories from that time?
RW: That show was groundbreaking for its time. It was the first television show that was dark. CBS was frightened because they felt like nobody will watch it. After all, it’s too dark. Our director of the pilot was Richard Franklin, with whom I was very good friends. He taught me that we had to be careful because fantasy became science fiction or horror if we went too far.
A prime example of this was when I was pitching my idea for the visual style of the story. I told the director that all the caves underground should be blue. They should be wonderfully cold, dark, and sinister. And the director said, ‘no, I want the caves to be like a mother’s womb – warm and inviting. Below the ground, it’s safe and above the ground is dangerous.’
And so, they decided that everything above ground was neutral and cold and everything below ground was warm and inviting, and you felt safe. I was going in completely the wrong direction, and Richard turned me in the right direction. It made that show uniquely different because if I did it the way I wanted it to, it would have been cold. The lead character, Linda Hamilton, would have always been in an unsafe environment underground, but she always felt safe even when she was bandaged up in the pilot. And it’s funny because you don’t see the beast until two-thirds of the way through the pilot. You don’t see him. You see a shadowed form.
Q: Final advice for filmmakers?
RW: Follow your dreams. Don’t let anybody steal your dreams, especially you.