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Why ‘Living’ Star Bill Nighy Is a Cinematographer’s Dream: He ‘Commands Space’

TheWrap magazine: ”He’s got a gravity to him that becomes very evident when you’re around him,“ says DP Jamie D. Ramsay

This interview with “Living” cinematographer Jamie D. Ramsay first appeared in the Below-the-Line issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Oliver Hermanus’s “Living,” a 1950s-set remake of Akira Kurosawa’s classic film “Ikiru,” translates the Japanese master’s backdrop to the same time frame in which the earlier film was released (with a screenplay adapted by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro), only this time with a mild-mannered British bureaucrat (shatteringly played by Bill Nighy) battling mortality.

“Stepping into the shoes of Kurosawa was both an honor and quite a frightening journey,” said cinematographer Jamie D. Ramsay, who won the Bronze Frog at Camerimage this year for his striking work in the film. “And I believe the only way to do it justice was to depart from a direct homage and allow his filmic hero to sit in the background in our subconscious, so that we were allowed to go on a journey and create something new.”

“Living” sets the tone early on with an opening-titles sequence full of archival footage that places the audience in 1953, the year in which the picture takes place. “The purpose was to very quickly and smoothly create a visual context for where we were in that world, and it was a great way to position the viewer within the story.”

A scene from "Living"
“Living” (Sony Pictures Classics)

But the greatest effect Ramsay and his collaborators had amidst all the sensitive captures of shadowy light and perspective was its superlative leading actor, who conveyed inner struggle in carefully calibrated moments of stillness. “Bill commands space and he’s got a gravity to him that becomes very evident when you’re around him, even though he’s got a charisma that makes him seem light,” Ramsay said. “Oliver and I would create a stage for the actors. It was about finding the right feeling, knowing when to be away from him, when to give him the silence and the peace to be alone with himself.”

living bill nighy
Bill Nighy, “Living” (Sony Pictures Classics)

Ramsay’s work was also on display in 2022 with the caper comedy “See How They Run” (set in the same era as “Living”), and his work will soon be seen in Andrew Haigh’s much-awaited film “Strangers,” starring Paul Mescal and Claire Foy. But high on his wish list of projects is something along the lines of arthouse science-fiction, a genre he thinks is woefully underseen in modern cinemas. “I feel like you get this split with sci-fi,” he said. “It’s either arthouse and the world isn’t that big, or it’s event-driven and it’s too big. I’d love to be involved with a film where it’s deeply ingrained in the two and do something really special.”

Read more from the Below-the-Line issue here.

TheWrap magazine below the line issue cover
Photo by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap