AFTRS alum Jules O’Loughlin is one of Australia’s most highly regarded cinematographers, whose extensive list of credits include The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Redfern Now, Come Away, Angel Has Fallen, The Whole Truth, Black Sails, See, and most recently, on highly anticipated upcoming series Joe Vs. Carole and Ms. Marvel. Speaking to AFTRS’ Alumni Program Manager Christine Kirkwood, Jules discusses his experiences breaking into the industry, the importance of compromise in filmmaking and the wildest lengths he’s gone to get the shot.
CHRISTINE KIRKWOOD: So what happened to your career in finance?!
JULES O’LOUGHLIN: My father was a lawyer who had a great interest in the arts, and loved to support the arts but discouraged it as a career option. I first started an accounting cadetship when I left school, as I was studying economics. I hated every second of it and was constantly looking for an out. After travelling through India and Nepal for four months I couldn’t face returning to it when I got back. But my next move was still finance related. I became a floor trader at the Futures Exchange for several years but that allowed me to then travel for another two years. I was always a keen photographer, since Dad gave me a camera on a holiday when I was seven. I told him originally I wanted to become a photo-journalist but he talked me out of it. I had no idea about movie making though until after school. I remember one day stumbling across a TVC set walking through Paddington in Sydney and being blown away by seeing how many people were involved and what it took to make a production. The penny dropped around that time, that so much was about light. I’d never really realised how much I loved in photography was about light. When my father passed away I looked at my life and decided to turn things around. I went to TAFE and found myself around young kids studying a Cert 4 in Film and TV, focused on learning as much as I could about cinematography and started volunteering on AFTRS productions. I got to know the lecturers and learned so much on sets. When it came time to apply they knew how serious I was as a late starter, and my photography portfolio really helped get me in.
CK: It sounds like your time in finance afforded you the opportunity to travel, and explore photography. I’m sure many of the skills you learned have come in handy as time has gone by?
JO: Yes, definitely. I’m a cinematographer who has a great understanding of money and budgets. I’m fiscally responsible because I understand the financial reasons for some decisions and the difficulties producers have procuring budgets. I’ve never been reckless in that sense because it is a business at the end of the day.
CK: What’s your favourite movie memory as a kid?
JO: I went to the Roxy and saw 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was 9 years old – by myself! As the youngest of ten kids it was easy to slip out the door and go on adventures. It was and still is one of my favourite films. It had a huge impact on me.
CK: Not long out of AFTRS you worked on a pretty epic feature with your cohort – Kokoda: 39th Batalion. How ready did you feel to make a feature at that point in time?
JO: Not at all! We had a Machiavellian plan to win Tropfest first to get noticed so we could get a feature up. We didn’t win but there were awards for the film and we learned a lot along the way. Our classmate Luke Eve won with his [AFTRS short] film Australian Summer that year! Kokoda was such an exciting project to work on. We were so green that driving to set on our first day we saw all these trucks on the road and didn’t realise they were for our film! The feeling of shitting my pants on set on day one has never left me since! It was a miracle we got it made the way we did. The concept was greenlit – without a script – and was on screens in less than 12 months. For me as a first time DOP on a feature, ignorance was bliss. It’s so hard to get a break. Leesa [Khan] and Alistair [Grierson] had to fight to have me on the project and it was amazing that I was hired without any prior significant credits. Times have changed now in terms of the power directors have to bring their DOP with them to a film. We shot in the Gold Coast hinterland and it was raining constantly, so the muddy conditions really lent themselves to the Kokoda track. Even though I see flaws in it when I look back, we are so proud of that film. It got noticed when it came out and made its money back which is incredible.
CK: You’re often drawn to edgy dramas, or action-filled thrillers, what are your favourite kinds of projects to work on?
JO: Straight up drama is my favourite. Whether it’s film or television I don’t mind. At the end of the day though, if the script is good, the script is good.
CK: What do you look for in a director – in terms of fostering a productive relationship with you as DOP?
JO: Good communication and respect for each other’s craft. I need to have confidence in their vision. Other elements can be overlooked if they have a clear vision and know where they want to take the story. If they have technical terminology in terms of cinematography, that’s a bonus.
CK: I read in your 2017 interview with Dan Freene for Australian Cinematographer that you’re a control freak, seeking perfection in every shot. What is the most important element to control on a shoot for you?
JO: I need to maintain my composure and seem calm even if I’m not. I need to know what’s going on in front of and behind the camera including set politics, so I can negotiate around it and get the best from everyone. Filmmakers should run countries, they are the best problem solvers! On the ship with James Cameron working on DEEPSEA CHALLENGE there were nine filmmakers and forty-eight scientists and boat crew. Jim talked to the boat crew and told them to be more like us filmmakers! Working on another film that was set in a US location – chosen for rebates (which is sometimes a bad way to choose a location) – there were a lot of issues. The money fell over, we lost crew, we had to bring in a crane from the next state and when it arrived the delivery driver messed up the offload and it fell off the truck. You can set out striving for perfection, but you need to let go as things don’t go to plan. If you get caught up and obsess over details you can take too long to make decisions and jeopardise your chances of getting hired again. Everything you do on a movie set is a compromise.
CK: You spoke about action-comedy The Hitman’s Bodyguard in that article, a high-budget feature film starring Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Salma Hayek and Gary Oldman. What was your preparation like for that project in comparison to other lower-budget features?
JO: The prep was wildly different from any film I had done up to that date or since. Due to a scheduling issue, we lost our first director and Patrick Hughes joined us with only three weeks of pre-production. He immediately set about rewriting the script with Ryan Reynolds and they delivered a page one rewrite on day three of principal photography! We’d be shooting in London during the week and on weekends we’d be flying to Sofia or Amsterdam to scout upcoming locations. There were a lot of action set pieces in the film as well which required a great deal of planning. I don’t remember having a weekend over the course of that shoot.
CK: What’s the craziest thing you’ve done to get the shot? Technical or otherwise?
JO: I was once shooting a 3D commercial for Northern Territory Tourism and we took a helicopter through a canyon. I was sitting inside, deeply focused on the shot, viewing through the monitor. I almost freaked out when I looked out the window and realised how close we were flying to the canyon walls. The blades were nearly touching them, so that was intense. On The Hitman’s Bodyguard I was working on a car chase sequence in Bulgaria. A heavy lift drone fell from the sky – luckily only on a car without injuring any people. Also, on that film, we had to use different lighting techniques for the three stars as they all had different ways of working – you can’t be rigid when you have a star who knows what they need to give their best performance.
CK: What can we expect in terms of your work on Joe Vs. Carole?
JO: I’m really excited about this show. The cast is fantastic. I’ve just seen the first six episodes in the colour grade. I think it will appeal to both lovers of the Tiger King doco series, and those who are new to the characters. There’s so much humanity in the scripts. It has darkness, light and humour in spades.
CK: What else is coming up for you?
JO: I shot two episodes of Ms Marvel in Thailand recently which will be coming out mid-year on Disney+. It’s great because it features the first Pakistani Muslim Marvel character. The character (Kamala Khan played by Iman Vellani) goes back to Karachi to visit family so we turned Bangkok and Pattaya into present-day Pakistan as well as India during Partition. These two episodes are a lot of fun and were directed by the amazing Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy who is an Oscar and Emmy winning documentary maker!