Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen’s career stretches back almost 40 years, a period that spans the era of his countrymen’s Dogme 95 and its manifesto of unvarnished naturalism. Laustsen’s style, however, is quite the opposite—rich, layered, and ideal for the fancies of a retro fish-man romance, The Shape of Water, where the expressive photographic scheme extends from a Cold War laboratory’s unlikely chiaroscuro to the streams of light that pierce a water-filled apartment. That sensibility has suited two other titles directed by Guillermo Del Toro, Mimic (1997) and Crimson Peak (2015), and enlivened the splashy visions of films such as John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) and Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001). Laustsen’s leanings toward expressive photography were evident at least as early as the shadow-draped thriller Nightwatch (1994)—just a year before the Dogme95 craze took off, his recusal from which he describes below.

This interview took place at the 2017 Camerimage Film Festival in Bydgoszcz, Poland. Laustsen, a compact, modest man, began by talking about his unlikely path into cinema, launched by a newspaper ad and an insistent older sister.

nightwatch 1994

Nightwatch [1994]

Can you talk about why you became a cinematographer?

I was educated in fashion commercial photography when I was very young. I did that from when I was 18 to 21. I wanted to be a National Geographic photographer, but doing that in Denmark was pretty difficult. So I was in total crisis when I was 21. I didn’t know where I wanted to go, I was so fed up with this commercial thing. And my big sister was reading something in the Danish newspaper about how the Danish Film School was looking for student cinematographers. And she said, “Why not try that?” and I said, “You must be out of your mind.” Because I didn’t know anything about filmmaking, I didn’t know anything about cinematography. And you know, big sisters are demanding. And she said, “Don’t be like that, just give it a try!” So I applied to the school, and they said come out and interview. So I went out there, and everybody else that was trying to get into the school was 30, 31. And those guys have been dreaming about movies their whole lives, and I didn’t know anything. So, I was pretty sure I didn’t get in. I took some pretty cool pictures, but you know. A month later or something like that, I got a letter that said “Welcome to the Danish Film School.” That was a big shock. I had never dreamed about making movies for a second. And so I learned it, went out when I was 25, and shot my first feature film [Do We Start Off with a Dance?, 1979].

You began shooting film and now we’re in a digital world. In terms of solving the challenges of what a director wants, what the story needs—is film easier or is digital easier?

I think I’ve shot 40 features on film. I was very much against digital in the beginning, I didn’t like it. My first [digital] movie was really difficult because I didn’t know—what about exposure? All that stuff. But everybody is forgetting all the trouble we’d have [with film] in the labs in the old days. All these problems with scratches, underdeveloped and overdeveloped film. I think digital right now is amazing. When you’re shooting a movie like Shape of Water and you can achieve what we have done there, I am very, very happy and proud of that. You’re sleeping better in the nighttime because you don’t have to wait for the lab reports. If you’re doing it well, I think it’s a much better process. Of course, if you’re coming into a show where you have a million monitors and everyone has an opinion, that’s a little bit painful. That’s sometimes the bad side of that. On Shape of Water, we didn’t have any problems with that. For me, there’s no difference in the way I’m working.

Do you still shoot on film sometimes?

You know, I will shoot on film without any problems. It’s the same process, the lighting, you have the key light, you have more fill light or less fill light.

Would you say that Guillermo Del Toro is a director who knows what he wants in terms of the frame, how to arrange things in the frame and so on?

Yeah, Guillermo is a fantastic film director because he is so visual, the whole concept of the movie is coming from his brain and he is very much into details—set design, the wardrobe, the costumes, the makeup, the lighting, everything. That’s fantastic, to work together with a director that is so keen about everything because then everyone is working in the same direction. The first movie we did together was Mimic, and we shot that on film. And that was a pretty dark movie, but that’s what we like: dark shadows and single source lighting. And that was the same on Crimson Peak and on Shape of Water. He’s very, very precise of where he wants to go.

Crimson Peak Tom Hiddleston

Crimson Peak

Do you get together before the shoot and talk about visual references?

When we did Crimson Peak, he showed me a Dutch black and white movie. I thought that was super cool. But it was for the feeling of it, not the colors, because we shot in color. The color palette comes from him on everything. And then we fine-tune it, we cheat a little bit when we are shooting. But the design of the movie is totally him.

To pick an example of shooting with digital effects: at the beginning of Crimson Peak, the girl is in her bedroom and the ghost of the mother comes in. Is there a certain amount of computer-generated imagery involved with the ghost?

No, the ghost is real. There’s an actor. They fine-tune the ghost later, but when you’re shooting the movie with a ghost, there’s a person in the wardrobe.

When you know there is going to be subsequent special effects, how does it affect the way you’re lighting the set?

It’s so easy now. If you’re working together with a director like Guillermo, you know exactly where he wants to go and you have really good SFX guys, VFX guys. We’ve talked about the look, concept drawings, and I’m shooting it exactly as it should look. In the old days, you had to be overexposed a couple of stops to be sure you have a good negative. But now the lighting is going to be exactly as I want the lighting to be and then those guys match the VFX lighting to the real lights. And they are just matching it 100 percent.

The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water

After The Shape of Water and Crimson Peak, do you, would you ever like to shoot something very realistic and gritty?

I cannot shoot something that I don’t understand. I have to understand the story, where I’m going. The movies I like are the movies where the director, production designer, cinematographer, are working together to get a special feeling for the movie. I’m not so keen on, “Oh, by the way, we [did something by] accident and it looks fantastic.” I like to plan everything. You know, the key light is coming from the right because that’s the way we see it. I like lighting. It’s a very, very important part of the storytelling. When I was young, we shot everything without any lighting because we didn’t have any money. Shooting a movie without any artificial lighting [as a choice], I don’t get that.

But I’m not judging anything because the good part of movie-making right now is everybody can do whatever they want to do. When I was starting, there were so many stupid rules about “you cannot do this” and “you cannot do that” and “the camera has to be here”—all that kind of crap is gone and I think it’s fantastic! I just like to tell the story with light, and shadows, and camera movement and stuff like that because all of the movies I think are amazing, that’s the way they are done.

What did you feel about Dogme 95 when it was coming from your country?

I didn’t like it. I still don’t like it. Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, the Danish director, I’ve done a lot with him—The Boys from St. Petri [1991], Shadow of Emma [1988]Then Dogme came out and he asked me to do Mifune. And I said, “No, thank you very much, but I cannot do that.” Maybe that was a big mistake in my career, but I don’t think so. He is a fantastic director, but I said no because I don’t like it, it doesn’t say anything. I’d prefer to do a movie with Guillermo, for example, where there is a plan for everything you do—the shadows, the color has to be that color on here because that’s going to tell something later. But, as I said, people can do whatever they want to do and there’s no right and wrong anymore. And I think that’s great, as long as it tells a story.

I want to ask you about a couple of other films. One is The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003). Did you talk about having a comic book look?

Yeah, I think we did. We used [the comic-book idea] as a guideline in prep, but not when we started shooting. But for me it was a fantastic movie to do because it was a huge movie, my first really big American movie. [Director] Stephen Norrington is a very clever guy. It was a tough shoot because it was raining for like 9 months and we had a big flood and people were losing their houses while we were shooting. It was really bad. Stephen Norrington did a really great job on the whole concept.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

With Nightwatch—the Danish original and the American remake—you had the unusual experience of shooting the same story twice. Can you compare the two experiences and the approaches you took?

I got a lot of heat in Denmark because they thought I was shooting too nice. With The Boys from St. Petri, all of the reviews were like, “This is too beautiful . . . blah blah blah.” That would never happen in the U.S. So I stopped shooting features for one-and-a-half years. I shot commercials and I was fine. Then we shot Ole Bornedal’s first feature film, Nattevagten [Nightwatch], in Denmark. We could do whatever we wanted to do. And then he got an offer to do a remake. And for me it was fantastic because I was coming into a candy store, going from a small movie in Denmark to a fair-sized movie in the U.S. But story-wise, all the cool stuff in the Danish one, they took that away in the American one and it was pretty bad. But for me personally as a cinematographer, I loved it, and that was the reason I met Guillermo. The Weinstein brothers were producing Nightwatch, and then did Mimic with Guillermo.

Nightwatch gave you literally the opportunity to take the same scene and do it a different way if you wanted to. Did you take advantage of that at all?

Not really. I think the Danish one actually is better because we were not afraid of anything. I think the director was a little bit more afraid of the U.S. system, and in Denmark it was a much, much smaller movie and nobody was paying attention to that. You see that a lot of times: the first one is the best one. I think we tried to shoot very close [to the first one], all the locations and sets and stuff like that. But the first one is great. And the second one is bad. But the second one is the reason I met Guillermo so I am very happy about that.

Robert Horton is a writer based in Seattle.