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Inside Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau’s Approach to Period Dramas ‘Respect’ and ‘The Many Saints of Newark’

The veteran lenser talks to TheWrap about his ”story oriented“ work on both films and his humble beginnings on a naughty HBO series

Soprano could be used to describe the mezzo-phenomenal singing voice of Aretha Franklin or the family name of the most iconic mobster in TV history. The links between the Queen of Soul and James Gandolfini’s Jersey gangster pretty much stop there. But the last two months has seen the release of “Respect,” the biopic starring Jennifer Hudson as Franklin, and “The Many Saints of Newark,” a Sopranos prequel film with Alessandro Nivola as Tony Soprano’s uncle. And the two very different pictures were lit and framed by the same man, longtime cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau.

Morgenthau is a six-time Emmy nominee and industry veteran with credits including “Creed II,” “Thor: The Dark World,” and the epic HBO series “Game of Thrones” and “Boardwalk Empire” – and a smaller-scale epic HBO series as well, which we’ll discuss below.

He spoke to TheWrap about his work on these two unique projects, chatting after a full day of shooting “Spirited,” a modern retelling of “A Christmas Carol” featuring Ryan Reynolds as Scrooge. “It’s a big, wild Hollywood musical with dance sequences mashed up with comedy and romance,” he revealed. “It’s really gonna be fun.”

“Respect” and “Many Saints” were released within six weeks of each other, but your job started more than two-and-a-half years ago, right?
Yes, I worked on “Many Saints” in the spring of 2019 and then we shot “Respect” that fall and winter. We were just finishing production on “Respect” in February 2020, and then I was scheduled to do a little bit of additional photography on “Many Saints,” but then everything was shut down due to COVID. Everything for us was shut down until September of last year. 

Both films are character driven and take place in the 1960s and ’70s. Do they overlap in your mind?
The jobs definitely blend as a time in my life. It was one endless stream of work, but the work itself was on opposite ends of the spectrum. 

In which ways?
Well, both films have varied color and texture choices that are story oriented. But Liesl Tommy, the director of “Respect,” wanted audiences to see the lush, larger-than-life world that Aretha grew up in. Lots of red and ruby and jewel tones in those scenes. “Many Saints” has a cooler and more desaturated feeling. So you see bursts of cyan on the screen, blue and greens. Then in the main Soprano house, there’s an abundance of yellow-green, like incandescent light that mixes with the cooler colors. The supervising colorist on the film, Peter Doyle, nicknamed it “Jersey Yellow,” which we all loved. You see that color a lot in the North Ward, which was the Italian part of Newark. 

In both films, there seems to be a way that the camera is more fixed and controlled, depending on the scene. Is that accurate?
Yes. “Respect” is definitely more still, photographically, when Aretha is under her father’s wing. And then the camera gets looser when she breaks out and begins her music career. And by the 1970s, when she’s grappling with her success, the camera is so loose that it’s handheld much of the time.  

And in “Many Saints,” I’m thinking of the couple scenes with Ray Liotta as Sally Moltisanti, who is the gentler, incarcerated twin brother of Hollywood Dick Moltisanti, also played by Liotta.
The first character that Ray plays, Hollywood Dick, is more volatile. He did have some prosthetic makeup on for that role and we lit him in a more conventional gangster style, lots of top light. But his twin brother is a softer soul, kind of like the Dr. Melfi character of this film, so he’s lit in a more ethereal style. And we see him four times in a prison meeting room, which we filmed at a school in the Bronx. Funny how prisons and schools look the same sometimes. But yes, the camera slows down and is much steadier for those scenes in the meeting room.

There is some great makeup work in both films: Audra McDonald as Aretha’s mother in “Respect” and Vera Farmiga as Livia Soprano in “Many Saints.” But the lead characters also age in a subtle way over a few decades. How do you work to make that seem seamless and convincing?
It involves a close relationship with the hair and makeup team, though I don’t think there were any prosthetics involved with Jennifer Hudson’s performance in “Respect” or Alessandro Nivola’s in “Many Saints.” From my end, there’s a lot going on with the quality of the light and the direction of the light. When somebody is playing younger, we light them in a fuller, more rounded way. And then we allow the light to be a bit harsher as they get older. With Jennifer Hudson, honestly, the challenge was making her look older. She’s playing Aretha at about 18 years old when we first see her. And she can pull that off. As things fall apart for her, we really needed to try hard to make her look a bit rougher. The hair team did their part too.

She’s featured often in closeup as Aretha. Can you describe your experience of filming her through the camera lens?
This was my first time working with Jennifer and, I mean, what can I say? It’s an amazing creative high to work with someone at that level of their craft. She was prerecorded singing as Aretha, but then we’d be on the set and after one or two takes, she’d just start singing the songs live. Just gives me chills thinking about how soulful she sounded. It was such a thrill. And her face – there’s such a sensuality and a musicality and a poetry in it.

During the scenes in the recording studio at Muscle Shoals in Alabama, there are some cute moments when we see her building trust with the musicians in the room. Is that similar in a way to the performer/cinematographer relationship that you have with her?
You know, I never made that parallel, but yeah. It reminds me of the very first time I met Jennifer. I went into the recording studio and there were very few people allowed in there. I showed up and she wanted to know who the hell this guy was. With good reason, of course. And so we had to build a relationship quickly, from total strangers to collaborators. But the great actors understand that a cinematographer is part of bringing their character to life. I have nothing to do with her performance, but I can contribute to how she’s seen onscreen. And Jennifer understands that. 

I’m curious to ask about cinematography influences for both movies. With “Many Saints,” I thought about Gordon Willis, who shot the “Godfather” films. 
They say all roads lead to Rome. In terms of the modern gangster movie, all roads lead to Gordon Willis and his lighting on the “Godfather” films. He was the Miles Davis of cinematographers. 

In “Respect,” did you think at all about Geoffrey Unsworth and his work on “Cabaret,” with the light glowing out from the sides of the frame.
That was not an exact reference for us, though it’s a beautiful one to make. And I’ll take it, for sure. We looked at “Walk the Line,” shot by Phedon Papamichael, and Matthew Libatique’s work on “A Star is Born.” Both were very inspiring, in terns of the intimacy with the performers onstage. When you shoot a musical piece, you want to tell the story within the song that’s being sung. You want to capture all the different looks and eye lines and moments that are available. There’s a lot of richness within a musical piece. And we were hoping to achieve that same sense of being there.

There is a scene set along the beach in “Many Saints.” It includes a burst of violence that’s extremely harrowing when it occurs. What were the challenges of filming that?
Oh, that is one of the most challenging scenes I’ve ever shot in my life. I’m very proud of the way it turned out, though with a big asterisk because what happens onscreen is so horrible and so tragic. It was shot in September near Long Beach, Long Island. It was a perfectly south-facing beach, but we had dramatically changing light, as you encounter in the Northeast. Sun, clouds, wind, waves. We had actors, fully dressed, in open water, and a stunt double. We had submergible cameras in the water, plus an enormous 70-foot crane with a waterproof head on it. And we had one day to shoot the whole scene, dialogue and action. It was a 5 o’clock a.m. to 5 p.m. kind of day. Somehow we got it.

Also, in both movies, we notice a subtle darkening at the corners of the frame. Can you explain that?
Yes, vignetting. Both films were shot in anamorphic widescreen and we used large format cameras, where the lenses are tuned to darken a bit in the corners, so some of that is just the natural result of the lenses that we used. But it was also a choice I made to give each film the texture of their time periods. We also added grain on both pictures in different ways to emulate the feeling of film. And with “Many Saints,” we went a step further and added gate weave.

What is gate weave?
Film, as in actual celluloid film, it’s never 100 percent steady in the camera or the projector. Whereas digital is super solid. But gate weave allows us to give movie a slight mechanical wobble, like the quiver of a film strip running through a film camera. It’s pretty imperceptible but I think it’s a nice touch.

On your IMDb page, your first credit is for “Real Sex,” which was a series that aired in the middle of the night on HBO in the 1990s. People joked that it was HBO’s clever way of airing porn in the guise of a documentary. But what are your memories of that experience?
It’s a funny thing to think about, because at one point I was embarrassed by that credit. But you asking the question to me right now, all these many years later, I’m proud of that work. That credit means that I worked anytime I was given the opportunity, which is how you learn your craft in the beginning. We shot those episodes on 16-mm film and lit them with a small team. It really was cinéma vérité and a lot of them were directed by great documentary filmmakers, too. You know, you work on various assignments in your career – some projects are sexy and some projects are “Real Sex.” Why not be proud of it all?

“Respect” and “The Many Saints of Newark” are still playing in theaters and available on streaming platforms.