Nicola Marsh has been working prolifically in the area of documentary cinematography for nearly 20 years now. She received an Emmy nomination for an episode of American Masters, and was the director of photography for the Oscar winning documentary, 20 Feet From Stardom, directed by Morgan Neville. For Disney’s Bono & The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming with David Letterman, Marsh re-teamed with Neville to produce one of the finest televised music documentaries in recent years.
During our conversation, Nicola talks about working with Neville again, shooting the rugged beauty of Ireland, and how Bono, the Edge, and Letterman created on-set alchemy throughout the production.
Awards Daily: I know that you’ve worked with (director) Morgan Neville before – particularly on 20 Feet From Stardom. How did you reconnect for this project?
Nicola Marsh: Morgan and I have been working on and off for almost two decades, maybe 15 years. It’s really nice working with him because for both of us I feel like we’re each other’s comfortable pair of slippers. I can see from the look on his face that he’s not into something and he doesn’t have to unpack why he’s not into it. Because I’ve worked as his cinematographer for so long, and just marinated in his world, a lot of what were his ideas have now become wholesale my ideas. I’ve sort of osmotically absorbed them all and that’s the way I like to shoot things, the way he likes to shoot things.
What I’ve also absorbed, which is really important, is how to keep the authenticity of a scene intact. The architecture of filmmaking can really get in the way of that often. You need to have trust with your talent. Especially when they are trying to talk about something intimate, and if the camera person’s moving around a lot, it can be really distracting for people who are trying to not act. They’re just trying to be in a moment. My style has become to put as much money as possible into cameras and lenses so that I can put not so much money into lighting and gizmos. If you use a nice lens, a good colorist, and a really good camera, you can often just point it anywhere and it will feel like a movie, and that’s the goal.
Awards Daily: I love Bono and I love David Letterman—not necessarily small egos. And Bono will tell you that, right?
Nicola Marsh: Surprisingly small ego for somebody who talks about how big his ego is though.
Awards Daily: Is that right? Was it at all challenging navigating with those personalities at all?
Nicola Marsh: No. I was bracing myself, like this could be a nightmare. And for my part, it was a cake walk. They were so nice, Bono and the Edge, and Letterman, but particularly Bono. He is just so curious about the other humans around him. There’s this nice vibe of getting to know each other. I’m filming him, but he also knows who I am. I mean, I don’t know if he still knows who I am, (laughs) but still they just felt like really nice people. Bono’s got all the cogs turning all the time. He, and Letterman, and the Edge have this amazing vibe together. Plus, Bono really seemed to trust Morgan. That made it very easy to just be a fly on the wall and watch that chemistry happen in front of you, because something is actually synthesizing there.
Awards Daily: It must be great to have someone who’s such a good storyteller. Bono can tell stories and stories for days. It probably makes your life easier in trying to find the useful footage.
Nicola Marsh: All of it was useful footage. And also just the storytelling and the art of it. My experience as a cinematographer is that you film people and you spend all your time trying to get them to sit there and do something, and then the minute you put your camera down, all the interesting stuff happens. (Laughs). That didn’t happen so much here. Particularly With that scene in the pub. It was such a pleasure to be the least interesting thing in the room. You can tell from the way I’m filming Bono, I’m right in his face, and nobody barely notices that I’m there because they’re all having this amazing moment that is completely eclipsing any interest in there being a camera there.
Awards Daily: The bar sequences are just terrific.
Nicola Marsh: We go in and out the pub a few times through the doc–the space with the yellow walls, which the first time I looked at it and saw those walls, I thought, “really?” I wanted a wood paneled Irish pub with pool lighting, and instead I got a yellow box. (Laughs). But in the end, it didn’t matter because the scene was so good.
Awards Daily: You also shared cinematography duties with Graham Willoughby who is listed as shooting performance footage, which I assume meant auditorium footage. Do I have that right?
Nicola Marsh: I shot some of the rehearsals. Anything that feels kind of handheld and a bit rough basically is me. Anything that looks completely beautiful and amazing is Graham.
Awards Daily: How did you manage that partnership cohesively?
Nicola Marsh: Luckily, Graham and I have worked together loads. We know each other quite well. Aside from my sort of envy, I’d be huffing a camera all day chasing around these guys and then I’d walk in and he’d have three days and twelve cameras and all the lights, I think mostly we keep the same lenses and the same cameras and there’s cohesion there. The goal was never for them to look identical anyway. And they feel quite different when you watch them. When you’re in the show, it feels produced and glossy and beautiful. And when Dave is walking around buying cheese, it feels off the cuff because it is. (Laughs).
Awards Daily: While there’s a glossier look to the auditorium footage, you have the advantage of the rugged beauty of Ireland surrounding you. How did you make sure you captured those visuals?
Nicola Marsh: It’s all in what’s called a L.U.T. (Look Up Table), which is a color palette that some people like to design before shooting. The particular L.U.T. that we built pulls out reds and blues. You can really see that at the ocean. For example, there’s a woman who talks to Dave and she’s got kind of red hair and the ocean is behind her and it just looks beautiful. Then you’ve got this really soft non-lighting, so daylight but soft, and it helped elevate what was already quite wonderful. Ireland is just so beautiful. L.U.T.s are kind of what a layperson would think of as like an Instagram filter.
They’re very low key. For me, if you apply a L.U.T. equally and evenly over the whole film, and you never come out of it, then you never really notice it’s there. Instagram filters you notice because you go between before and after all the time when you’re looking at them, and so you really notice what they’re doing. If you just lay the groundwork like any movie and you say this is our color palette, this is our movie, and we were going for something that felt a little bit more vintage and a little bit more old-fashioned and classic, the L.U.T. makes that easier. And then we shot on anamorphic lenses, which have their own classic vintage vibe. The lenses were vintage, while the cameras are brand new and we used digital formats obviously, but the goal is to make it feel classic.
Awards Daily: You were speaking about Letterman on the coast. How much fun was it shooting Letterman at the Forty Foot, particularly the first time.
Nicola Marsh: He was so cold, it was unseasonably cold in Ireland. I was freezing. That wave that he gets tagged in, I almost got tagged in it. You can see I’m sort of backing away from it. But I thought if I have wet feet for the whole day, I don’t know if I can survive. He’s this wiry guy who lives in California, so you know he was really, really cold. Then all these people were jumping in the ocean and all of us were wearing hats and gloves.
Awards Daily: The whole polar bear thing, I’ve never quite been able to make sense of it myself. And what you do there is, you’re seeding the second Forty Foot imagery that comes at the end of the film, which I think is really stunning. Did you know that that was the intent to circle back to that at that time?
Nicola Marsh: Not at all. When you make documentaries, you just put ingredients on the table and see what people make. You can’t contrive it that much, because if you try to, then it starts to feel like reality TV where you are giving people talking points or activities. You have to trust in your on camera talent and their sixth sense about how to bring themselves into it, that they will do what they do. If you have the right cast, if you will, it will be amazing. Just don’t try and insert yourself too much in the process.
Awards Daily: You’re discovering the movie as you go along, right?
Nicola Marsh: Yeah. You have to have your A-storyline like what is happening? Why are we here? Why are we filming it? And then you try and set up a bunch of activities that can cluster around that A-storyline that illuminate it in some way. Then the rest of it is sort of alchemy. You know that whole thing with Bono and the Edge writing a song for Dave? Nobody knew that was coming, and it’s really lovely, and it’s a testament to their relationship because what you’ve done is you’ve created the ingredient of putting these people that know each other and like each other together in an environment, and then the alchemy happens.
Awards Daily: We’re coming out of the pandemic and U2 as a band is reentering or reintroducing themselves to the public. There’s the album, there’s Bono doing the book tour, and then there’s this documentary. The thing that I love about it is it never feels like a commercial. A lot of that has to do with all the historical information about Ireland itself that is interspersed. Also, David Letterman is often like a fly on the wall. He’s like us.
Nicola Marsh: He’s a foil. I felt like I learned so much just watching. I grew up in England, so I have a really different perspective on some things. It was so refreshing to hear Bono say “In my lifetime, hopefully Ireland will be one country.” In England you don’t hear a lot of that for obvious reasons. It’s something that you just assume Irish people feel, but to have him articulate it in that way, I was really moved by it.
Awards Daily: Letterman does have this sort of stranger in a strange land kind of thing going on. I have friends who were reluctant to watch because they find Letterman’s persona to be prickly. Ireland and the company he kept seemed to soften him.
Nicola Marsh: I didn’t feel much of his prickles. But I think it was the band softening him. He’s with his longtime collaborator friends, and it felt that he got to explore topics with them that were quite sweet and lots of stuff that didn’t make it into the cut that felt very tender and real. It’s very different from this sort of fast firing talk show persona that he has to have in his day jobs.
Awards Daily: The scene where Glen Hansard spouts a long Irish poem off the cuff, that’s probably the magic and alchemy thing that you’re talking about.
Nicola Marsh: He also played on the piano and sang this amazing song, which isn’t in the cut. There was just a piano in the subway station. He played on it. And everybody in the subway station just stops and there is a pin drop silence. Then he says this poem. I forget what the line is, but something like “the victor’s write history and the losers make the music.” Not that this interview is about me, but as somebody who’s grown up in England, being in Ireland and hearing that and knowing the history that I grew up in and what I was taught, it really hit me.
Awards Daily: So the final sequence at the Forty Foot, when the film comes back around to that, did you know that it was going to land the way that it did?
Nicola Marsh: No way. Morgan maybe knew. I didn’t, Morgan is a genius. He’s got such a sixth sense for these things. I’m the horse that’s pulling the cart. I don’t know where it’s going.
Awards Daily: I know you’ve worked on other music projects that were very music based. What are the challenges in trying to do a documentary where music is the focus?
Nicola Marsh: The upside is that whenever you do a music doc and somebody sings, it’s like the documentary equivalent of Superman learning how to fly. It’s just they open their mouth, they do this thing and you are like oh, it’s incredible. And it’s always incredible, especially when you are dealing with people who are really talented, because it is a superpower that normal people don’t have. The downside is that if they’re not singing, what they’re talking about is not visual. So you have to think about footage, B-roll recreations that can speak to what they’re talking about, that feel. You’ve got to access your lateral thinking in terms of what’s a good visual metaphor for that in an oblique way, but it can’t be too on the nose, otherwise it’s cheesy.
Morgan’s really good about the liminal of the in-between space, and what visual metaphor can we use for this? What recreation can we do that doesn’t feel like I’m recreating Bono as a young child? Like with the clocks. That’s what the movie opens on. In Dublin, it’s not totally out of left field that you’re suddenly in lots of clocks, and the movie is about time. Then the sand running backwards when we are trying to get back into the past, it was such a great space to collect visual metaphors for what was going to crop up in the documentary.
Awards Daily: I think it would be difficult for me to stay on task when the performances are being shot. Do you ever worry about getting caught up in the moment?
Nicola Marsh: No. Because I think when you operate, the camera becomes an extension of you. So you are just seeing it through the camera anyway. You never are like oh, I just want to look at this with my eyes. You think I want to preserve this. You’re like a butterfly collector, putting it in the frame. And the pleasure of, can I get that light to flare just as that person hits the high note? And the flare is right by their mouth. I have to be right down here. I can feel the chorus is building. I know it’s going to happen. I’ve got this shot of Bono and I’m down low and he’s opening his mouth and there’s a light behind him and you can see the vein. To be able to visually express how it’s hitting you emotionally comes very organically to people and to operators because it’s like riding a bike. You can’t not do it.
Awards Daily: In the pub when they were doing “Invisible” and we go from the auditorium to the bar, the shot that just crushed me was the barkeep. What a wonderful choice to show the bartender singing along, opening his voice too. It was magical.
Nicola Marsh: The whole room was the most magical experience I’ve ever had. Every single person in that room was one of the most amazing singers I’ve ever heard. Obviously when Bono, and Letterman, and the Edge walked in, the room pivots towards them, but not so much. Not as much as you would think. There was a sense of just a group of people going about their lives, and then the whole evening turned into a bawdy night of drinking. (Laughs). I think I left at midnight and people were standing on tables and serenading each other and doing poetry. It was our last minutes of shooting and so we all wrapped, we finished, and then everybody had a drink and there was more music coming. It was that feeling that we documented something that really exists. It was for cameras slightly, but really it was something that would happen anyway.
Awards Daily: Music, like anything, and particularly the way artists are received, can go in and out of fashion. For some people, and I will also say for writers about music, whether it’s Rolling Stone or whoever, U2 was really super fashionable in the eighties, kind of lost some fashion and then came back into fashion with “Achtung Baby” and held onto that for a while. I think there’s so little space for this big, openhearted, not terribly ironic sort of music. Did you get the sense when you were doing this that you were making something that was on some level reestablishing the significance of their music?
Nicola Marsh: I think whenever Morgan does anything, I’m really aware of the fact that he’s often sort of canonizing an artist. Right now we’re a bit in idol wrecking mode as a culture. If you’re up there, we want to pull you down because people in positions of power are corrupt, because we maybe fairly believe that there’s some corruption within that power. But that bleeds into tastemakers, and music makers, and filmmakers. Why are they all white men? Who are these people? Let’s pull ’em down. I think there’s a little bit in the documentary of the just jaw-dropping respect you have to have for a band that’s been as prolific and, as you say, open-hearted for as many decades as they have and continue to try and make music, be makers.
When you watch the doc, I really feel that, regardless of what your feelings are about U2, you are like oh yeah, I remember that song. I remember that song. I remember where I was when that song happened. And then when you start to unpack what the songs mean, like “Where the Streets Have No Name” or something like that and the idea of transcendence and togetherness and all that stuff, it really gets you. It’s like we are all struggling for truth and authenticity in today’s world, and here’s a band that is not going to sit there and be ironic and have a silly mustache and really high pants and be too cool for school.
Awards Daily: When I wrote the review for this, the line that Bono said that really hit me was when he was talking about “Streets” and he was saying the lyrics sort of aren’t finished, but what it’s saying is there’s a place that we can go to together that is transcendent. Do you want to come?
Nicola Marsh: I think it’s really sweet that they’re even making the invitation. There’s so much cynicism in today’s world and to hang out with them and not have entitlement, not have ego, and not have cynicism was such a treat. I cannot express enough to you. For it to be centered around this medicine of music and all these young people playing music. And the Ye Vagabonds, one of the bands that are the two brothers in the film, right? It was like trying to give the mic a bit to another generation within the context of their doc was a real generosity that I’m sure was quite consciously done.