Camerimage Winner Frederick Elmes Talks ‘Hunters,’ Capturing New York in the 1970s

Marta Balaga
·4-min read

Cinematographer Frederick Elmes, who was named as the winner of EnergaCamerimage Film Festival’s First Look – TV Pilots Competition on Saturday for his work on the Amazon series “Hunters,” spoke about the show’s first episode “In the Belly of the Whale” during an online Q&A earlier this week. Elmes explained that the story – following a diverse band of Nazi hunters in New York in 1977, who discover that war criminals are conspiring to create a Fourth Reich – was actually based in reality.

“The stories were told to [the “Hunters” showrunner] David Weil by his grandmother, who [was a Holocaust survivor] and has experienced much of the turmoil of that era. It’s not based on any factual document, but it is researched by him and he was very concerned that his grandmother’s story should be told. That was really the motivating force for [director] Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and me – it was to get behind his vision,” he said.

Counting Jordan Peele among its executive producers and starring Logan Lerman, Al Pacino, Lena Olin, Jerrika Hinton and Saul Rubinek, “Hunters” was renewed for a second season in August.

“Luckily for us, Amazon was very supportive – they gave us more than one hour to tell our story and Alfonso is very, very good at fitting all these details together and setting up some patterns that can be repeated later in the series,” said Elmes, who is known for his collaborations with David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch, most recently on “The Dead Don’t Die,” as well as “The Night Of,” which scored him an Emmy.

“It’s not very common to get that extra time. I think they really liked the show and they were dedicated to making this story work. David developed all the characters but we had to make sure all the pieces fit together and the little incidents we could build into the first episode would then play out through the next. The script was very important to us and we stayed with it,” he said.

Elmes, who lived in New York in the 1970s, admitted the subject matter was very exciting to him. As well as a chance to work with Gomez-Rejon.

“He loves to move the camera and he loves to take chances. If a scene is not so complicated, he often takes it one step further and makes it play as one continuous take for example,” he said.

“I think it was a personal journey. In the early 1970s, the city was in poor financial shape, the stores were closing. It was a bad, bad time, it was dangerous on the streets in some neighborhoods. It’s much more gentrified now. What’s lost is that back then, there was a real underground scene of independent film and art that was very alive and vital.”

Trying to capture that period, he also wanted to “spice it up a bit” with colors that seemed almost unnatural.

“I brought this idea to Alfonso, to try to alter the reality of New York a little bit and make it almost like a graphic novel. I would look at them not so much for the story as for the shading, the colors, trying to understand how I could ‘steal’ some of these ideas. It was fun to be a little experimental in that.”

Elmes noted that while it was their job to establish the world the characters live in – including the mansion of Al Pacino’s Meyer Offerman, who recruits Lerman’s Jonah Heidelbaum to join the Hunters – it was also about setting the stage for future conflicts and tension that Weil had in mind for the next episodes.

“It needed to carry a sense of mystery about what we learnt in the pilot and what we didn’t learn. Our job was to tell the story in a way that convinced everyone that they wanted to know more,” he said.

“Those are the best stories: ones that have this element of reality, and in the hands of a writer and a director who can make these characters human, it doesn’t matter how quirky or strange it is. [In ‘Hunters’] we tried to get people to feel the story.”

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