Made In Estonia: An Interview with Cinematographer Alari Kivilo

Recipient of 1st Lifetime Achievement Award at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.

Canadian-Estonian cinematographer Alari Kivilo was born in the land of the maple leaf, and lives and works in Los Angeles, but he’s an Estonian at heart. Kivilo is as cosmopolitan as one can get. The DOP who shot the box office hit The Blind Side that brought Sandra Bullock the Academy Award talks about his drifting identity, how he once fooled Bruce Willis on the set Hart’s War, what Estonia has to offer for filmmakers and how Estonians earned a reputation of being hard workers during production of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet.


Kivilo is the winner of the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. This year’s festival runs Nov. 13-29.


Even if people don’t know you, they have most definitely seen any of the films you’ve worked on. You’ve done big studio films and small indie dramas. How do you choose your projects?


That’s always a struggle. You have to balance so many things. The one thing you have to make a living, but also you have to be kind to your creative soul and not do things solely for money. It’s always been a balancing act for me. But it always starts with the script, and if it really appeals to me or I find elements in it that appeal to me. Sometimes that can lead you astray too—you find something that really appeals to you, but for different circumstances, or the vision of the director they can go a different route and ignore what initially appealed to you. I know that’s happened to me once.

But because of that the second most important thing is to meet with the director and see if there’s chemistry, cause it’s really like a marriage. It’s a chemistry and to spend so much of your life on doing something, you don’t have to see everything exactly the same, but there’s got to be this dance between the two of you, a sort of creative dance. And the increased energy that comes from two people rather than doing it yourself. And because of that, I get sent scripts and sometimes it’s an indie, sometimes it’s a bigger film, but it’s always, the end decision has always been because of my meeting with the director. Both on my side and their side.

Alari Kivilo
Alari Kivilo | Photo by Rick Thomas

Very often big films come with big names. The list of huge stars you’ve worked with is very long. Sandra Bullock, Cameron Diaz, Kevin Bacon, Diane Lane, Keanu Reeves, Bruce Willis. You have even been on set with Frank Sinatra. I am curious, is there such a thing as lighting a star?


Yeah, definitely there is. I did an HBO movie called Normal with Tom Wilkinson and Jessica Lange. Basically, we wanted her to look the best as possible and Tom we just wanted to look natural. So very often they’d be in the same shot together, so I would have light coming from the window that would be lighting Tom Wilkinson naturally, but then on Jessica’s side of the frame, still one frame, it would sort of be a sea of flags and scrims just to direct the light in the most favorable way cosmetically for her. It does happen.

But eventually the actors see themselves on the screen and they care about the looks. Actually, on Hart’s War, Bruce Willis, who’d had so much experience as an actor, had a notion which particular lens would be the best for him. And I tried that, but he was playing this tough camp commandant in a prison of war camp and I just felt he needed to have this presence and the lens that he was suggesting would have softened him. So what I ended up doing [was that] I put on a lens that I thought was right, but I told the camera assistants to mark—’cause you always mark what lens is on the camera—I told them to put his numbers on to that lens. So he was, “Oh, you’re using the 65, great.” But it was actually a 50.


And he wouldn’t know the difference when he saw it?


No, I don’t think he… No.


So you have to cater to egos sometimes?


Yeah… I have been very lucky and you’re right, the list of big names is long. And yet, I have been lucky that I never really had a bad experience with any of them. Except maybe one. But we won’t talk about that.


You also work on your own projects and I know you are writing scripts and you’ve made one short that you shot in in Canada. Kind of a meditation on time and memories called “Through Ice and Time.” It’s completely wordless and shot outside in a national park, so as you said before you see life as a frame quite often, are there places here in Estonia as you go around and think god I wish I could shoot a movie here?


Absolutely. That’s the beauty of filmmaking, or one of the joys of filmmaking is coming to a place that you don’t really live in, for me I have a strong connection here and spend most of my summers here, but I don’t really live here. But the benefit of that is that I see things local people never see. So yes, I see so many opportunities filmicly in Estonia. And it’s such a variety of things.


You can still discover the sort of fallen apart Tarkovsky Stalker type of Soviet structures. Beautiful, beautiful nature can be found. Medieval towns. Cobblestone streets. Those are more of the post guard aspects of it, but there’s a lot to be seen here. I always get stimulated when I’m here. And there’s something in nature too, something very specific to Estonia it seems to me are the bogs and the marshes and that’s really something you don’t see everywhere else.


I spent a lot of time on the Canadian East Coast directing and shooting commercials for Newfoundland and there I found a lot connections to Estonia. The rugged seacoast and the rocks. I like rocks, maybe because of my name [the name Kivilo includes the word kivi,meaning rock in Estonian]. There is that connection. But yeah, there is a lot that inspires here. Despite the fact there’s a lot that’s familiar to me, too.

John David Washington Christopher Nolan Tenet

Now one big Hollywood film has come to Estonia and it’s opening worldwide. I, of course, mean Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. Have you had a chance to it?


I haven’t seen Tenet yet, but I did get the opportunity to get feedback about what the experience was like. I think it was this year when I did some additional photography on the movie Fast and Furious in Los Angeles and there was one second assistant director that I’ve worked with before on another film and a couple of other crew members and they all worked on Tenet. They were just gushing about Tallinn. Tallinn as a city, Tallinn as a place, the restaurants. But they were also gushing about the crew, they thought crews were top notch, the organization was top notch. They loved it. It was really good. I felt really proud.


In fact there’s one production assistant, I think when Tenet finished shooting in Tallinn they went on to Italy and somewhere else, it was a long shoot, and she so enjoyed Tallinn that once the shoot wrapped she flew back to Tallinn just to be here. Just to continue experience it.


You mention the nature and these different Soviet era buildings, do you think there’s a certain type of project that would benefit from filming here in the Baltic region or in Finland?


It’s hard to tell [because] it’s so script specific. I think, just to put on a producer’s hat for a second, and especially a producer coming from America or English-speaking countries, first of all, the big benefit here is that everybody speaks English and speaks good English. So that’s not a problem. And there might even be, because of its post-Soviet baggage, there might be tendencies to lump Estonia into other places that [are] perhaps a bit more haywire and not as buttoned down as Estonia is. Estonia is really like going to Scandinavia or to Sweden or Finland. There’s a very strong work ethic. And generally, [there are] very cultured people who have a very wide world view, which is beneficial.

In filmmaking, you need to be flexible and you need to understand and intuit that people might be after something else. You have to able to translate that. In terms of a very specific project, the big thing nowadays is you very often shoot in places that aren’t those places, so part of that joy of coming here could be lost. You wanna come to Tallinn and want to find a place that looks like Santa Monica or something like that, but I think that’s possible here, too. There seems to be such a breadth of possibilities location-wise.

Alari Kivilo | Photo by Suzanne Hanover

What about your identity? You’re born in Canada, your parents are Estonian, you are living in the States, and you come back to Estonia quite often. We are actually meeting in Estonia right now, so how would you describe your identity and is there something here in the Baltic region that still kind of tethers you here?


I think the whole question of identity is something I… maybe “struggle” is the wrong word to use, but something that has been front of mind my whole life. As you said I was born in Montreal, which further adds a little dimension to it because Montreal is a bilingual city—there is the French and the English-speaking side, where I grew up. But I didn’t speak English until I was six because the language we spoke at home was Estonian. So I had a strong beginning in terms of my Estonian roots and feeling connected to Estonia. The other thing that happened, my father happened to be a sort of strong active community leader in the Estonian expat society, who had a dream that one day maybe Estonia will be free again so he worked really hard with other people to kind of keep that dream alive. So I kind of grew up indoctrinated in that milieu so language obviously was a big part of it and I never lost the language.

I remember I came to Estonia for the first time in 1972, which to me was an amazing experience cause up until that point it had been this sort of mythical magical place that my parents talked about. And my parents left you know when they were maybe 14 or 15 so their impression of the country was also mythical, I would say. It was such a revelation to come to a country that was an actual country. There’s all sorts of people here with all sorts of professions—it’s an actual country and everybody spoke the language. It was quite amazing.


I remember too that when I left the relatives gave me a big bouquet of flowers. I remember arriving in Estonia and I thought it would be very emotional after a lifetime of hearing about it, but arriving wasn’t that emotional. Only the leaving was. And on the ship I threw my bouquet of flowers into the water and I remember, everything to me is a shot you know, so I saw the bouquet of flowers floating in the sea and I slowly tilted up to see the silhouette of Tallinn. Then I almost broke down.
So yes identity, it’s an interesting question. When I finally moved to Los Angeles 23 years ago for some reason, there I felt the most comfortable of all the places I have ever lived in and I attribute it to the fact that so few people are from California. It seems to be the place where people come to, gravitate to, like a melting pot. And I was just another one of those people, I felt really comfortable there.


But that said, I came to Estonia in ’88 as well, to do a documentary about the first ever rock concert in the Soviet Union called Rock Summer. I was working as the camera operator, also as a translator for the people doing interviews. I was there with all the Singing Revolution politicians and the musicians. I guess my biggest highlight from that time was translating for Johnny Rotten. I loved what he said in a press conference. The foreign press was asking him, how does it feel to be in Russia? This was back in ’88, before Estonia had gained independence and he said, “I am not in Russia, I am in Estonia.” Which was very astute of him – he understood! – which was really cool! So obviously something like that had an effect on me. I guess it’s always been a big part of my identity. In 1988, I also met my present wife here, so we speak Estonian at home. We have two children, they speak Estonian. They also speak French. So, it’s sort of a United Nations of a family.


Once a film you’ve shot is out, how much do you follow the box office, how much do you care about it? I mean, this goes to reviews as well. Obviously, you filmed The Blind Side, which was a huge box office success and Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for her role. How much of that matters to you? Even talking about reviews, you don’t really find much in them about cinematography.


Yeah, that depends… It’s usually one sentence. One sentence can either destroy you or make you jump for joy. But you’re right, it’s rarely mentioned. I think cinematography in general is a mysterious craft that a lot of people don’t quite understand. Part of that proof is you see so many movies win Oscars [for] cinematography that were exterior costume dramas, period costume dramas, shot outside. They don’t realize how tricky it is to actually shoot inside under different changing conditions trying to make one minute feel consistent even though you’re filming it for two weeks.

But, yes, reviews…obviously, I read them, but to me it’s all about the work. And the process. One of my most enjoyable parts of the work is actually before the film, when we haven’t done anything yet. When we are just discussing things and looking at images and listening to music, and having long chats and talks and sort of improvising. That creative spirit is so much fun. And then the actual shooting of it is a lot of fun, too. And for me the final process is coloring the film which is I get one more chance to subtly inform the story to reinforce the aspects of the story. So all that, that’s exciting to me. Obviously, it’s really nice when it does well and it’s through the roof and it wins Oscars, but to me the making of the film was much more fun.

My relationship with Sandy was much more fun. Actually, speaking of reviews, I did get a vocal review from Sandra Bullock during the SAG Awards when she won and she pointed me out by name and talked about how she looked in the morning and how she ended up on film. She attributed that to me. I can’t deny, that was a very special moment.



Is there something you would like to add before we wrap?

Just to reiterate a previous point, there are world-class filmmakers here in Estonia. And a lot of them are young filmmakers which is exciting, usually with youth comes passion. And there’s also in Estonia, this sort of can-do spirit. There’s simple logic. People use simple logic for things, it’s not a place that’s overwrought with out of control emotions which is great for filmmaking.


Interview by Liisi Rohumäe.