Wildlife DP Diego Garcia Gets Into "the Soul" of Actor-Director Paul Dano

Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal in Wildlife.
Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal in Wildlife. Courtesy IFC Films

Much of what makes Wildlife, the feature directorial debut by actor Paul Dano, so distinctive is its look. Portraying suburban Montana in 1960 and the disintegration of a small family through the eyes of the only son, Wildlife needed a crew with a delicate touch to capture the characters in an idyllic setting and era as things fell apart. They worked with costumes, production design, performance, and of course cinematography. Mexican director of photography Diego Garcia, whose work has ranged from the surrealism of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul to the harsh confrontational style of Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, was Dano’s man.

In October, Garcia visited Miami during Miami Dade College's Miami Film Festival's Gems on behalf of Wildlife's Florida premiere. He also received the festival’s Art of Light award and gave a master class to aspiring filmmakers one morning. During the talk, the audience was treated to an expansive consideration of Garcia's career via clips from his early American indie film work (Fogo) to his recent efforts in world cinema (Neon Bull and Cemetery of Splendor). Garcia spoke of an organic, sometimes even abstract relationship between camera, sets, and actors.

He said he enjoys long takes with an active camera, calling it “a continuous dance with the characters. It feels alive because it’s constantly moving.” He also spoke of how painting and music play a role in inspiring his movements and play with light. For a cameraperson, he said, “It’s not about the story. It’s more about taking you into a hypnotic trance.”

Garcia first met Dano via Skype, and said he quickly felt a connection. “[Dano] seemed to be a very sensitive person. He was looking for a true collaborator.”

Speaking exclusively with New Times after the near-90-minute talk, Garcia was eager to share more. “I think he’s a true director,” he continued about Dano, “not only a talented actor but like a true director with a lot of potential, but very honest with what he wanted to do.”

He said Dano showed him several movies to influence Wildlife’s look. Dano was big on Asian cinema, including Still Life by Jia Zhangke, which influenced how they composed many scenes. “Like the distance from the lens to the characters,” said Garcia. “This relationship in the space, and the natural way that it’s shot.”

The actors, who include Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan, needed that space to perform in the long takes Garcia loves to shoot. To give them that room, Garcia spent a lot of time setting up lights on set. “For me to allow the actors to do their thing without cutting,” explained Garcia, “and [not interrupt by saying], ‘Oh, I have to move that light,’ so for me it was more about lighting the house more than the shot and let them be free, to give them room to move freely. There’s some dramatic moments when Carey moves all over the place, and the camera goes with her, so for me it was important to give them freedom, room to move.”

Wildlife also has a distinctive color scheme of pastel blues and pinks. Shadows seem to have been filtered out of the images, giving a symbolic but subtle ghostly quality to a family on the verge of disintegration. “We discussed the contrast level, colors for sure,” noted Garcia. “The light level, how dark, how lit should be each scene, but Paul really trusted me. He knew I would find the right way.”

Garcia said it’s that collaborative relationship he finds rewarding in working with a director like Dano. “He was a good guide but always giving me the freedom,” Garcia said, “telling me, ‘You know what you need to do.’ He just gave me the elements to play with. It was a very evenly balanced way to work. Sometimes he had an idea, and I’d give him another thing, and it grew, and then he wrote something else, always adding.”

As a DP, Garcia thinks of himself as an extension of the director’s creativity. It can be a very intimate place creatively. “We are the eyes, how you are going to see the whole thing. We’re like psychological therapists, sometimes. We become like very close not only creatively but as persons and collaborators, and as a cinematographer, yes, usually I get involved very deep into a director’s mind, creativity, and even their soul to try to understand what they’re trying to do and how they want to project it, and that’s my work.”

Wildlife opens exclusively in Miami at the Coral Gables Art Cinema on Friday, November 9.
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Hans Morgenstern has contributed to Miami New Times for too many decades, but he's grown to love Miami's arts and culture scene because of it. He is the chair of the Florida Film Critics Circle, and most of his film criticism can be found on Independent Ethos ( if not in New Times.