‘Last Night in Soho’ Proves Why Chung-hoon Chung Is One the Best Cinematographers Working Today

·7 min read
 IndieWire The Craft Top of the Line
IndieWire The Craft Top of the Line

Director Edgar Wright has always enjoyed merging disparate genres and styles in his films, from the combination of mid-life crisis dramedy and sci-fi fantasy of “The World’s End” to the action-musical mashup that is “Baby Driver.” His latest, “Last Night in Soho,” is so audacious and unusual that even the film’s cinematographer struggled for a moment to classify it. “It’s a color noir,” Chung-hoon Chung told IndieWire in a recent interview. “It’s kind of a horror movie, but not really… really, it’s a coming of age story.”

Chung’s attempts to define the film and find a style for it began when he was shooting “Zombieland: Double Tap” in Atlanta and heard from Wright, who sent Chung the script and a mood reel. “Once I saw the mood reel I understood exactly what he had in mind,” Chung recalled. “It played like a movie. There were shots from other movies, documentary footage of London in the 1960s, and music from the period, and it was all edited together so that there was real drama. I’d never seen anything like it.”

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The hallucinatory urban fairy tale that Wright and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns scripted follows aspiring fashion designer Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) as she moves to the big city and is overwhelmed by its sights and sounds — as well as an inexplicable ability to travel back in time to the Soho of the 1960s, where she meets Sandie, a glamorous singer (Anya Taylor-Joy) on a dark path. Eloise’s journey was, in some sense, mirrored by Chung’s own as an outsider shooting in London. “I was a stranger,” he explained. “Edgar and most of his crew were based in London, but I was new. I didn’t know anything about London!”

When he went on location scouts, Chung began to understand why Wright wanted the colors he had selected for the movie’s palette. “Red, for example, plays a very important part in the movie, and that largely comes from London itself. At night there’s red light everywhere, both now and in the period in which the past of the movie takes place. I’m not really the creator of the color, it’s just there. When people tell me the movie is beautiful, I feel a little guilty, like I shouldn’t really take credit for it,” he laughed. According to Chung, around 90 percent of “Last Night in Soho” was shot on film, with some of the more challenging night exteriors and a library scene shot digitally. “Whenever I have a choice, I shoot on film,” Chung asserted. “Film is easier for me, because I don’t have to worry about how to make it look like film. Most movies now shoot digitally, and people say, ‘How can we make it look like film?’ There’s a very simple answer: shoot film.”

“Last Night in Soho” - Credit: FOCUS FEATURES
“Last Night in Soho” - Credit: FOCUS FEATURES

FOCUS FEATURES

Chung wanted the colors to be strong but simple, and he motivated a great deal of the night exterior lighting via neon signs and practical lights emanating from the buildings of the Soho streets; he felt it was both the best way to tell the story and the easiest way to manage the logistical challenges of location shooting in a heavily populated area. “When I first heard we would actually be shooting in Soho, I thought it would be very difficult,” Chung remembered, “but the location crew did a great job and the people in the streets — not professional extras, just the real people — seemed to understand and tried to help. We didn’t bring in a lot of outside light, which made it easier.”

“The crew was so good that I was able to just look through the camera and focus on the shot and not worry about anything else,” Chung added, noting that the give and take between various members of Wright’s team facilitated some of the film’s most striking moments, such as a scene in which Eloise and Sandie repeatedly take each other’s place during a dance that occupies two different time periods. Chung explained that by working closely with production designer Marcus Rowland and the visual effects team during preproduction, he was able to capture most of this extraordinary sequence in camera. “It’s kind of an old-school style. Most of the time these days, the production designer and the director of photography say to the visual effects supervisor, ‘We can’t do this, can you?’ and they say ‘Yes, no problem.’ But on ‘Last Night in Soho,’ we were always trying to figure out how to make the visual effects supervisor do less.”

Sometimes that meant building dual sets, in which the same room was built in reverse on the opposite side of a fake mirror; at other times, as in the dance number, it meant a precise marriage of camerawork and choreography. “We were very lucky to have Steadicam operator Chris Bain, who understands not only camera movement, but how to dance with the actor,” Chung said. “For that dance sequence, every weekend in preproduction he joined the actors and the choreographer to rehearse. By the time we shot the scene, his movements were so precise and on the beat that it looks like a motion control shot, but it’s not — it’s just Steadicam.”

“Last Night in Soho” - Credit: Focus Features
“Last Night in Soho” - Credit: Focus Features

Focus Features

The interaction between the camera and actors in this scene speaks to one of Chung’s overall strengths, which is his gift for expressing character through his frames; it’s a skill he attributed to his early days as a child actor. “I’m not a good DP, meaning I don’t know how to make something beautiful,” he explained. “I don’t care about the camera when I read a script — I think about character and story. The camera movements and lighting follow naturally from that understanding of what the script is really about. If I don’t understand the characters, the lighting’s not going to be right.”

On set, Chung stated that he always tried to prioritize the actor in order to create the greatest number of possibilities for them and the director. “My collaboration with the actors is very simple, because when I was an actor I hated when the DP would say, ‘You have to stand here, and don’t move!’ I almost never say that to an actor, unless it’s a tight lens, and even then I’ll ask them, not tell them. Usually I say they can go wherever they want, and if they try something different every take, the camera’s going to be different every take. I choose the position that serves the acting, not the other way around. My approach is simple: I shut my mouth, watch what the actors do, and follow them.”

Chung took a similar approach to his other collaborations on “Last Night in Soho,” allowing for what he saw as an extraordinarily fertile series of creative discussions. “Someone comes up with an idea, and they pass it along, and you add to that idea, and then pass it to someone else and build it together,” he stated. “Edgar’s job as a director is to choose the good ideas; the crew’s job is to contribute ideas, and if doesn’t like them it’s okay, because maybe it will lead to an idea that he does like. Everyone on this movie, from the production assistants to the actors, had great ideas, and it becomes like a chessboard where you figure out which good ideas work together.”

Chung concluded, “It was an amazing experience,” and added with a laugh, “The movie was made up of crazy people. Edgar’s crazy, Marcus is crazy. But good crazy! They were already a family, and I just joined up with them. I was very lucky.”

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