Photographed by Furaha Bayibsa
I am in Rome, Italy, sitting on the metro heading to Cinecittà metro station. Italian Gaffer Daniele Verdenelli is set to meet with me at Cinecittà Studios for an interview. There are approximately between six to ten gaffers in Italy who are allowed to work on international film productions. The reason for the restriction has its roots in language proficiency; you must know how to speak English in order to be referred to work on an international film production. While I leave the train station and head up the stairs to the street I get a reality check and realize for the first time since I landed in Rome that I am about to meet one of the chosen ones.
Daniele greets me with what I believe is a grand smile; he is wearing a mask so I can only guess. The entire film studio is completely empty when we enter except for one lot which is filled with construction workers. Verdenelli tells me times are a-changing due to the current pandemic.
"Do you know who Fellini is?" he suddenly ask me while we are walking past studio 5. "I want to show you something."
He points at Teatro No.5 and explains to me that this was Italian film director Federico Fellini's favorite film studio. "Do you see the apartment over there?" he points at a tall apartment building outside Cinecittà Studios; the only building tall enough for you to see from that location.
"I grew up in one of the apartments over there. It's my parents' home. This was my view every morning. It's funny; my grandfather was a gaffer, my father was a gaffer, and now I am a gaffer."
He laughs when he says this while standing in front of Teatro No. 5. I get a sudden urge to capture this moment so I pick up my camera, but I am instantly stopped by Verdenelli.
"Wait," he says, "the lighting here isn't good. You see the sun? The shadow will-"
When he sees me break out in a big smile he stops and apologizes to me. "I am usually the one behind the camera, I am never in front so this is new for me. I am sorry."
Photographed by Furaha Bayibsa
We laugh it off and dive right back into talking cinema. He tells me that even though his own father and grandfather were both gaffers, his own father did not want him to follow in their footsteps.
Growing up in the apartment with the great view of Cinecittà Studios - with a grandfather who from an early age regularly took him inside the studios - made him want to become a gaffer. His father did not want this, he wanted Verdenelli to have a formal education.
He shares with me an anecdote from his childhood involving his father and their disagreements.
Verdenelli wanted to attend the cinematography school Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome and so his father therefore lied to him and claimed that the school had burned down and been destroyed. Verdenelli then lied in return to his father and instead of attending a regular high school and getting a formal education, he studied telecommunication. Finishing school he worked as an electrician and gradually moved toward the world of cinema. He tells me he really tried to work with something outside of cinema, but sometimes you just have to listen to the voice within you. His voice told him he should be a gaffer, and that is what he therefore became.
"If you have the right attitude you can do this job. I know it's hard, it's not easy, you have to fight. Every day you have to try to find your own way. You have to understand that you cannot do this kind of job if you don't love this kind of job, for it's not any kind of job; it's a lifestyle. When you start to shoot a movie you have to forget a little bit about your family because most of your attention is on the movie. Try to imagine having a family, like me, and you receive a call to shoot a movie in another country for three to four months. It's a very hard decision to make, so you have to choose well. You have to know that if you choose this kind of job you have to travel; you will be away from someone important in your life. You also have to fight because there are a lot of electricians who want the same job as you, so you have to be the best if you want to be chosen. It's always a bet."
Photographed by Furaha Bayibsa
We continue our walk-and-talk through Cinecittà Studios. We walk through the film set of the television series Rome (2005-2007) and finally settle down on the stairs to a beautiful film lot.
He is very calm and humble in his movements, his dialogue as well as his whole being. He radiates calmness which heightens this very moment we are currently in. It also helps that we are sitting in the bright sun at a beautiful location speaking freely about our joint admiration for cinema. This right here is a moment to remember, and so I snap a picture of Verdenelli while he is explaining to me his thinking process whenever he is offered to work on a film. He tells me he never accepts to work on a film blindly; there are elements important to him which determine whether he will accept a job or not.
Photographed by Furaha Bayibsa
When he receives an offer the first and main factor he looks at is the production's choice of cinematographer; if Verdenelli has previously worked with the cinematographer he gives them a priority. Secondly he tries to figure out the scale of the film; a link between the budget of the film and how much he himself could earn if accepting the role. Lastly he makes sure he is available during the suggested timeframe. He goes on to tell me that he never puts any weight on the story, it's always the cinematographer, budget, and availability.
"The personal connection [with the cinematographer] is an important point. The other one is how famous they are," he breaks out in a humble laugh. "I mean, if I received a call to go and work for Roger Deakins right now I would probably go and work for free because it would be an experience and I am a very curious person; I try to learn as much as possible."
Verdenelli believes it is important to have an open approach and willingness to learn in order to succeed in this particular field. He tells me he has been one of the lucky ones who has received the opportunity to work with so many experienced cinematographers in his life, particularly a lot of talented Italian cinematographers such as Michele Paradisi, Federico Masiero, Filippo Corticelli, Guido Michelotti, and Fraser Taggart.
"There is always something to learn, and I think it's very important to learn from others; specially DoPs. If you learn something from one DoP, then you can transport that information to another DoP, and the road; it's me; I am the vehicle, the link, between these two different people. I connect the two different ways to light; the two different ways to shoot. This is very important to me which is why I try to work with several different DoPs. I never focus on just one."
At the moment he is working with someone he considers to be the best living cinematographer in Italy; Michele D'Attanasio. When I ask him what he has done to deserve the grand title, Verdenelli tells me it is due to many reasons. D'Attanasio began his career very young, he shot many documentaries and later moved on to shoot short films. He continued to shoot low budget Italian films, television-series, then Italian cinema with named Italian directors. He might be young, but his career is striving which is the result of his hard work ethic and experience in cinematography according to Verdenelli. He suddenly interrupts himself mid-sentence.
"One thing I really like with a DoP is when they use me as a gaffer. Unfortunately, in Italy, the gaffer is used as a capo, head electrician. A gaffer is supposed to be the person who collaborates with the DoP, you know what I mean? It's supposed to be the person who makes the DoP's dreams come true."
He tells me that most Italian cinematographers treat their gaffers as if they were head of electricians. When I ask Verdenelli how an ideal relationship between a cinematographer and a gaffer should be in his world he has an answer immediately.
"The DoP tells the gaffer they have a dream of lighting a certain scene with a certain atmosphere, then it's the job of the gaffer to decide how to best execute it in a technical way. They decide which lights to use and where to place them. That's the job of a gaffer. The head of electrician is just a person who does what the DoP tells them to do without explaining why, or what he wants. Unfortunately in Italy that's not how it always is. The DoP usually treat us gaffers as electricians and tell us what to do and where to put what, but never why or what look they are after. Instead they decide everything themselves and use us as extensions rather than collaborators. But for me, the DoP should strictly collaborate with the gaffer. They should tell you what kind of movie, atmosphere, and dream they have in mind; then we together decide which the best solution is for us to light the scene. This is the way I would like to work as a gaffer. This is the way it's supposed to be. Some DoP's are old school and act on set like they have this big secret they don't want to share with anyone. But it's fortunately changing day by day in Italy. I can feel it, especially when I am working with young DoPs with little experience. I notice them sometimes asking me for a helping hand because they know I am experienced and perhaps might have lit a similar scene in the past, and so they talk to me and we find a solution together."
D'Attanasio comes up again in the conversation. Verdenellli tells me again how fantastic he is; how smart, funny, lovable, and great he is. The main reason for his admiration for D'Attanasio is due to the fact that when they work together they are actually working together. D'Attanasio shares his thoughts and ideas with Verdenelli and together they decide what to do and how to execute what. Verdenelli says he would want to work more with Italian film productions if there were more collaborations as such. "It makes it more exciting for me," Verdenelli adds.
He gets up and asks me if we can walk-and-talk for he has something exciting to show me. We walk up to an unfinished film set where there are several construction workers present, currently eating their lunch. Daniele Verdenelli tells me we are standing on the set of the feature film he is currently in production of. It is an Italian film entitled Caravaggio's Shadow (2021) and he tells me he is the film's main gaffer.
"You know, Caravaggio was crazy. He was crazy, he was a maniac, and so in this movie we try to raccontare; we try to talk about his life from a different point of view. We have shot in Nepals, we have shot in Rome, and in a few days we will move on to this set where we are now."
We walk around the set and he briefly goes through the planned light set up for me; how they will light it during the day, and how they will shoot it at night. He tells me how they for example will, with the help of big cranes and squares with lights, be able to light the set from above during night.
"I left the latest Mission Impossible film for this movie. You know the one they are shooting now? I said no to Mission Impossible so I could shoot this film. I felt that it was going to be a very good movie and I also really wanted to work with this DoP. We had before only shot a commercial together in the beginning of this year, and after that we decided to try to shoot a film together. It wasn't until after we had begun filming Caravaggio that I realized how fantastic his photography really is."
Photographed by Furaha Bayibsa
We go back and sit down on the stairs of the set of Rome (2005-2007) where Daniele Verdenelli tells me how important it is to be dedicated to your job when you work in cinema. According to him it is easy to recognize someone on a film set who might have chosen the wrong career path. The regular traits of such a person is someone who complaints about not wanting to travel so much for work; someone who cannot stand the thought of exceeding 12 hours on a film set.
"To be a part of a film production crew is fantastic and exciting, but this type of job asks you to also be a part of the system. You cannot have one foot inside and one outside. You must have both feet on the inside otherwise you will be recognized, you know what I mean? It will be like; okay you do this because it's a job, you do this because you love it, and you do this because you were born to do it."
To every film Verdenelli works on he always has the same approach. He is specific to his planning and very organized, and so he tries to organize as much as possible during preparation. For the current film he is working on, Caravaggio's Shadow (2021), the producer of the film had told him it was unusual for them to receive a schedule from the gaffer with all of his day-by-day necessities for the upcoming four weeks. However it wasn't so unusual for Verdenelli since it is an approach he has had for as long as he can remember. He tries to organize as much as possible before a shoot. He always shares the information he has and the necessities he needs with all departments that will be involved in his job.
"This is the only thing I always do every time I start working on a movie. The way to light is always different depending on the movie, the story, and for sure the DoP. Every DoP has a different way to light."
Before he steps on a film set to shoot he tells me he ideally would want to start planning the shoot three weeks in advance, and always have a technical scout. However he understands that there might not always be that much time to prep and so he works with whatever he gets; but always with the same approach of being organized.
He interrupts himself mid-sentence and laughs out loud. He shows me his phone and it is a text message from cinematographer Michele D'Attanasio with several laughing emojis.
"That's the cinematographer, Michele! He's very funny."
He goes on to show me a picture he took of D'Attanasio when they were on the set of Caravaggio's Shadow (2021) not so long ago. It is a picture of D'Attanasio wearing one of the extra's ancient Italian robe while holding out a light meter. We suddenly dive into a conversation about light meters and the debate about whether or not one should invest in purchasing one if you are a cinematographer or a gaffer.
Verdenelli instantly sides with the light meters and suggests that every cinematographer and gaffer should own one. "It's a romantic way to light a scene," he tells me, "it's also very appreciated by the actors, especially by the actresses, because in a way it means that you care about the light but also about them."
He tells me he does not understand why some cinematographers refuse to use light meters when they are shooting a film.
"When you shoot with dark contrasts and you don't measure the light you won't know what you're doing because you cannot use the eye. If you use your eye you might think it's too much light, but then when you measure the same light with the light meter it will tell you it's correct, and you will look at the monitor and it will be correct. You should always do this, otherwise you can miss information. I know it's a very expensive way to shoot because you have to use the lights, you have to measure, you have to track; but the final result... It's fantastic."
We dive into Tenet (2020) and Verdenelli's involvement in the major motion picture.
Tenet (2020) Warner Bros
When he received the official phone call to join the production crew of Tenet (2020), the phone call where he accepted the gig, he was in Riga, Latvia working on another film. He received a phone call from Italian film producer Fabiomassimo Dell'Orco who was the Italian Unit Production Manager for Tenet (2020). The production was at the time in Tallinn, Estonia, shooting Tenet (2020) and needed an Italian gaffer on board for their next scenes in Italy.
Verdenelli had earlier that year been contacted by a colleague of his who asked if he was available to be a gaffer for a film, but Verdenelli was already booked for another feature film which was set to be shot in Latvia during the same time frame so he had to decline the offer.
When he later was in Latvia shooting the film, he was contacted by Dell'Orco and was asked to be a part of Tenet (2020) within the Italian unit only. At that point Verdenelli was wrapping up the shoot in Latvia, and so he could accept the offer and soon joined the production crew of Tenet (2020).
They had already begun filming sequences of the film in other countries by the time Verdenelli joined the crew of Tenet (2020). After confirming with Dell'Orco, he was day-by-day receiving all the information he needed about the film in order to execute the job. He tells me he found it interesting that it wasn't until he had accepted the film gig and the information had begun to roll in that he realized that it was the same film his colleague had reached out about in past. However at that point he still did not know the scale of the film; he was not aware about the title of the film nor that the director was Christopher Nolan. His go-to person in the production was Ville Penttilä, the European gaffer for the film.
He had never in the past worked with either Nolan nor the film's cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema before, and so it was a surprise for him to find out what film he had signed up for. When I ask him if he remembers the moment he found out he was working on a Nolan production, he responds "of course I remember. It was one week before the shoot. When I received the call sheet."
Penttilä had already prepared the shoot by the time Verdenelli got on board. As a result of this, Verdenelli did not need too many days to prepare, and so he began his preparation four days before the shoot at the Almalfi Coast.
"I remember the first day when we began shooting Tenet; I was excited because it was shot in old school, very old style. You know when you shoot in film, everything is different. I had forgotten how difficult it was to shoot in film and how strict the rules are. When the AD says 'rolling', it is rolling. There is no bullshit; after 'rolling' we have to roll; we have to shoot. It's also funny because Christopher doesn't have a monitor. He uses a small monitor like this."
He gestures something of a size of a mini tablet.
"There is no video village; there are no other people standing behind the monitor; it's just him and a little monitor. He had a very limited crew, only the necessary, and very big rehearsals. Before we began to shoot we had big rehearsals, and when Christopher was ready to shoot we had to shoot."
Photographed by Furaha Bayibsa
"If you shoot in film you cannot waste it, and so you rehearse for the time that's necessary in order to be able to shoot it. You never try to do something, you simply have to do it because you're shooting in IMAX 65mm. Try to imagine the operator shooting on the steadicam or handheld camera; it's heavy. You cannot shoot one scene twenty times."
I ask him how it was to light actor John David Washington in the film since he was always surrounded by people with lighter skin tone than himself. Verdenelli tells me he is not going to lie, and that it was something that was hard, but he did the best he could and enjoyed the whole process. He asks me if I remember the walk-and-talk scene between Washington and actress Elizabeth Debicki. According to him he found that scene to be the most difficult one for he had to make sure Washington was perfectly lit for every step he took in whatever direction his body leaned toward in the scene while walking. He tells me about the scene which he remembers the most and gives away a shy smile thinking about it.
"The first scene we shot was in the hills of Costiera Amalfitana, at the fantastic hotel with the fantastic view of the gulf. I remember there was the camera, Hoyte was by the camera, then we had Christopher close to me, and then there was a little wall and a cliff, and Hoyte asked me to try to reach Washington with the silver from here [...] I was on the right side of the camera with the silver in front of the actor."
He continues to tell me that the exterior night dinner scene at the same hotel was easier to shoot than the walk-and-talk scene because the actors were individually lit. Since they were all sitting down, and Washington the only one on the move, it was easy to execute perfect lighting.
"The walk-and-talk was difficult because I had to focus the silver on him the whole time from a long distance, with a lot of wind; but it was a necessity for me to do so because her [Debicki] skin tone was very bright. But it was fantastic, especially doing it on film."
Tenet (2020) was the first film Verdenelli ever shot on IMAX 65mm, and he tells me loved every minute of it regardless of the effort one had to put in. He tells me it was an exciting experience and he wishes more productions would go back to the basics and shoot on film again. "The run to digital was too fast for me," he adds.
When I ask him what's next for him he tells me he will be shooting Caravaggio's Shadow (2021) and immediately jump into the film production of the thriller/comedy film Red Notice (2021) which has already begun filming in Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, Georgia earlier this year. He will be working as a gaffer in the Italian film unit when the production comes to Italy.
"I'm very excited about this film because I met the DoP at a hotel in Rome one and a half year ago. We chatted a lot, because you know that happens when you're in the same line of business as someone. We then decided to work together on something in the future, and now one and a half year later we are shooting this movie. I'm excited to shoot with him because he is young and he likes new technology, so I think it's going to be interesting to see what kind of lights we will use."
Red Notice (2021) is directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, with cinematographer Markus Förderer and main gaffer Stephen Crowley. Amongst the cast of the film is actor Dwayne Johnson, actress Gale Dot, and actor Ryan Reynolds.
I finally ask Verdenelli if he was one of the lucky ones who got to read the script for Tenet (2020) before he went to set and as anticipated he tells me he wasn't, "it was a super secret script."