Paolo Carnera is one of the most important cinematographers in Italy. He has worked, among all, on motion pictures of Francesca Archibugi, Paolo Virzì and Sergio Rubini. During the years, he has established a strong collaboration with the director Stefano Sollima, who has realised successful movies and TV series, such as Gomorrah, ACAB and Suburra. Recently, Carnera has received Nastro d’Argento for best cinematography in Favolacce, the latest movie directed by Fabio and Damiano D’innocenzo.
The first question is about your personal history. How have you developed the passion for this job? Have you got a mentor that has trained you to become a cinematographer?
I’ve followed an irregular path. I’m from Mestre, I’ve first started studying medicine, then I’ve interrupted my studies and studied literatures. I already had a fascination for cinema and history of art; in particular, I liked photography. In the Seventies I bought my first camera, it was a Nikon FM. During those years, the City of Venice had organised in collaboration with UNESCO a huge photography exhibition. There I had the possibility to participate at a workshop with Ernst Haas, a photographer form Magnum Photos: this was a fundamental encounter for my training. Later on I had the opportunity to show some of my photographs in a few exhibitions and I’ve applied for the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia di Roma. There I met Carlo Di Palma. He has been a tutor to me and has taught me a lot, in spite of the fact that we spent just a year together. He asked me to be his assistant in a movie that he should have been realised with Michelangelo Antonioni, but ultimately it wasn’t shoot. Subsequently he departed for the United States, we kept in touch but I never had another opportunities to work with him and then I started by personal career.
Your career has developed during a great piece of cinema history and evolution of cinematography. Is there a particular time where you think you belong to?
During my life path, the most important moments were represented by the encounters and the experiences with the filmmakers. Secondly, it comes my growing up process: perhaps I’ve took more advantage of certain acquaintances because they stimulated me more. Edoardo Winspeare was the first. With him, I’ve realised four movies and I’m happy about all of them, because I was in tune with his narratives and I think I was able to gave them a visual form that was coherent with the story. Sergio Rubini’s movies pushed me to get rid of some of my fears. Soul Mate in particular, in which colour and light “blew up” and I had a lot of fun to juggle with the challenges, and to set free the motion of the camera. Then, of course, Stefano Sollima. With Stefano, we have started shooting the tv-series Romanzo Criminale and ACAB, but our collaboration has exploded with Gomorrah, the first main digital project I’ve worked on. Sollima has restored in Italy a genre that gives to us cinematographers the possibility to built images with strong ambiences. Our cinema, that has a strong visual tradition, has suffered, since the Nineties, a depletion in this sense. With Stefano Sollima, instead, I regained the joy to risk with the light and the shots in order to built images that were able to move the viewer.
Technology offers new solutions and possibilities to experiment with new languages. However, this freedom can become a risk. In which way are you able to manage the relation between artistic creativity and technology?
I use all technological tools at my disposal, but I’m not fond of technology. In the sense that it doesn’t communicate me any excitement. Having said that, I don’t like to pass judgement about it. Who likes to follow the evolution of technology can still create wonderful images. I have a different approach. Carlo Di Palma said – and I do agree with his words – that «we have to learn everything about technique, but we are not techniques» I must have knowledge about the instruments that I use in order to reach my goal, which is expressive and is the visual narration of a story. The connection with the narration, along with a deep dialogue with the filmmaker, enables me to built new and powerful images. First, I need to envision them in my mind: I have to search for colours, contrasts, motions… Is just after this process that I can search for instruments that enable me to realise my visual project.
The tv-series Gomorrah has represented a turning point in the tv-series’s world produced in Italy. A great credit, from my point of view, must also be recognised to the power of images. How was this visual project born?
Gomorrah is a mature visual project, perhaps the most mature I’ve ever realised. Is a project that is still based on realism, that’s because the story was born form the novel-reportage written by Roberto Saviano and therefore it could not miss having realistic roots, even in the images. We used this realism to build a visual path, which is required for the narrative mechanisms of the series. We must ensure that the viewer follows twelve episodes – that will become four seasons – without giving up on the narration. It was needed a different path compared to the one used by Matteo Garrone in his Gomorrah, which was produced for movie theatres: we have found this path with American cinema. The visual cues in the series come form the cinema made by Michael Mann, Brain De Palma and Martin Scorsese. From situations where criminal’s events are mixed with the big narrative of History. In order to realize a novel of reality as Gomorrah, the viewer must be able to recognise that reality and to be moved by it. And here the visual choices come. The colours used in Gomorrah’s scenes are the colours that I’ve seen in Naples’s suburbs, but they were distant from each other. In putting them together, in creating a romantic contrast, I taught about giving back to reality a visual development, that would make a convincing and at the same time astonishing image. Realism and thrill, precisely. The greens in Gomorrah are the fluorescent and mercury vapour lamps of that world; the yellows and the reds are the sodium of industrial illumination. I’ve worked on mixing this colours in order to create contrasts that will not make the image monochromatic and boring.
The movies you have realised with D’innocenzo brothers, Boys Cry and Bad Tales, describe strong and high-impact stories. In these two movies, which kind of emotions did you want to transmit with your cinematography?
Boys Cry shares some references with Gomorrah. However, I didn’t want in any way to recall the same imaginary, I wanted to realise something different, instead. The input to find another path came form the analysis of the narration together with Fabio and Damiano. In Gomorrah the characters are the carriers of history, in Boys Cry, instead, the two main characters are crushed by the world around them, they are victims. We must love them and all the other characters as well. I’ve tried to stimulate this feeling, which in my opinion is even stronger in Bad Tales. There the narrative is so strong and violent that is impossible to judge the character’s actions. We can just love them. Cinematography needs to describe this feeling: in both two D’innocenzo brothers movies I’ve tried to built romantic and also sweet images, that could make a contrast with the cruelty of the world.
And you were able to do it, in my opinion. In Bad Tales, particularly, I found effective the contrast between the colours in the scenes, warm and embracing, and the narrative, cold and edgy.
Bad Tales was a movie that I wanted to shoot during the springtime, although, for production requirements it was shoot in the summer. During summer, around Rome, the light is very strong. I’ve tried in every way to overcome this hardness, to take back the image to a sweetness that could recount our love towards the characters. I have started to work on Bad Tales thinking «I don’t have to make this movie as a cinematographer, but as a photographer instead». The result is a homogeneous movie as regards the images, but the technical instruments that I’ve used were very different from one scene to another.
The choice of using vintage lenses was an effective solution, in this sense.
There is a little bit of fear in taking these decisions, because when you look at an image with so many flaws you never know if the viewer will like it or if it will annoy him… I wasn’t concerned with the producers’ reaction, that were on set and were seeing what we were doing, I feared that this choice could be misinterpreted, as it was an artistic habit instead of an honest expression of our emotion. Coming back to Carlo Di Palma’s quote, we have to make use of all technical instruments, but they shouldn’t be seen. That’s because when you sit in a movie theatre you should be carried by the narrative, without seeking for how it was realised. The answers that I received form people that have seen the movie were positive, and they relived me about the choices that I have made, that were firstly instinctual rather than rational. But Fabio and Damiano are professional and they love the risk.
That means that you like to risk in your job?
There is no other way. The only alternative for not to risk is to repeat ourselves, but if someone wants to renovate himself he must risk. In this respect, the transition from filmstrip to digital film has marked a change. I’ve begun to risk more with digital. I know that I will be doing new projects with film soon: if I think about it, the first thing that I tell myself is to keep risking.
And from the light point of view what are the clearest differences between the two medias?
There is just one main difference: sensibility. A digital camera has a speed of at least 800 ASA, but it can rise up to 2000 and more. This leads to a lot of changes, because we can work with less light and pay more attention to details. Film, instead, has remained the same: with a maximum of 500 ASA. After that, there is technology that helps us thanks to more light projectors. I make great use of Led because they are RGB, they function with batteries and generally are less bulky. But, for instance, in Bad Tales I’ve used a lot of incandescent light. The sun of interior spaces is created with the Jumbos used by Storaro in Apocalypse Now. High-powered lamps that heat up a lot, of old technology. But they are the only ones that are successful in reproducing the sunlight.
Do you have a favourite camera to work with?
In the digital world, I’ve worked a lot with Alexa, produced by ARRI. Is the camera that I know the better, the one I feel more close with for the kind of colorimetry and also because the sensor is able to reproduce well an image similar to filmstrip. However, I believe that RED is a great camera, as well as the Sony Venice, that just came out and that will be soon a camera to be used, even if it has an high sensibility which is a thing that scares me a bit. Lately we spend more time to explain the lights, instead of switching them on….
Yeah, I’ve noticed that tendency. In Gomorrah, in particular, there is more dark than light in many scenes. How do behave in these situations?
I’ve always been fascinated by this aspect. That’s the reason why the ending scene of Apocalypse Now stuck in my mind: to make Marlon Brando appear in the last fifteen minutes of the movie and to describe him mostly in a silhouette or in complete darkness, in which often the face is not seen, creates an extremely powerful image, that will always remain in my heart. I’ve written a short decalogue of advices for Michele D’Attanasio, who supported me during the first season of Gomorrah. One of the points was this: «We are recounting a criminal world that lives in the shadow, which is the dark side of ourselves. The camera needs to remain on the shadow’s side. The light never comes form our back to illuminate form the front the scene or the actors. The darkness, the twilight: that’s what the camera frames». The greatest reward that I received after Gomorrah aired were two emails. The first from Roberto Saviano, that thanked me for the work I have done. It meant a lot, said by him, that has a deep understanding of the events and the places. The second one from Vittorio Storaro, who I did not know personally. He wrote me to congratulate, and for me it was an award no better than a David Di Donatello.