Gregory Crewdson, the photographer whose photos look like movie stills, is now the subject of a movie.

Photographer Gregory Crewdson, described as ‘one of America’s greatest living photographers’ is known as much for the epic, Hollywood-size scale of his photoshoots as he is for the disturbing, surreal, mesmerising drama of his imagery. Emmy award-winning cinematographer Ben Shapiro has spent over ten years following Crewdson, the culmination of which has resulted in Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, a documentary exploring both the life-story behind his work, as well as the huge logistical and creative challenges involved in its creation.

In this article, we get the low-down from Shapiro about his impetus for creating the film, what it is like working with Crewdson and how making the film changed his perceptions of his imagery.

"Untitled (Ophelia)" by Gregory Crewdson
“Untitled (Ophelia)” from the Twilight Series by Gregory Crewdson

1. When did you first become aware of Gregory Crewdson’s work?

I was hired to shoot a short documentary about Crewdson in 2000, though I had seen some of his photographs before then, a series published in the New York Times magazine.

2. As a cinematographer, Crewdson’s work must exert a real fascination?

Its true, I’m interested in lighting in general, though what was most unusual was the combination of daylight and artificial lights and watching the balance of the two fall into place (and then pass away) as the magic hour darkened.

3. How did you keep a narrative, and even your own commitment, together over 10 years? Was it always a long-term project or did it just turn out that way?

It just turned out to be a long term project. I filmed Brief Encounters in bits and pieces in between many other projects (working as documentary cinematographer and producer/director) that form the basis of my working life. I wasn’t sure exactly how the project would end, but then Crewdson decided he was finished with his Beneath the Roses series that is the center of the film–and I knew the story in the film would have a conclusion.

I find on long-term projects, as I keep working I get more and more involved in it – you develop a history and a deeper interest in the subject, so sticking with the story wasn’t a problem. Then at a certain point I had to edit and deal with post-production, and the business of distribution and festivals etc…it can seem kind of endless, but that’s the process of documentary filmmaking really.

Setting up the shot for Gregory Crewdson's "Untitled (Birth)"
Setting up the shot for Gregory Crewdson’s “Untitled (Birth)”

4. Would his images make a great movie? (If not why not?)

They might be stills of some great imaginary movie, but they themselves probably wouldn’t work as movies simply because they are conceived of as single moments, not as part of a specific larger story, so there’s no dialogue, action, story arc, etc. Its pretty hard to make a great movie without those things!

Gregory Crewdson at work
Gregory Crewdson at work

5. Was there any ‘magic’ that Crewdson didn’t want revealing in his production process?

Not really. He was very open with me and with everyone who works on the photographs. Its all a process of deliberate, careful work by Crewdson and many others on his team and his crews. Having said that, the source of his ideas for the images is something of a mystery, even to himself, I think – insofar as products of the imagination are always obscure in their origins.

"Untitled (Birth)" from the Beneath the Roses series by Gregory Crewdson
“Untitled (Birth)” from the Beneath the Roses series by Gregory Crewdson

6. Beforehand what did you think you might discover about Crewdson, and his work, and what did you discover?

I wasn’t sure what, beforehand, I thought I would discover – mostly I was curious and impressed by the amazingly elaborate process by which his images are created. What I discovered was a process that he and his team had developed over many years, that articulates his vision on a unique scale and style. Crewdson himself, I found, is friendly, funny, thoughtful, and deeply committed to this process and his vision.

7. Did making the film change how you see the images?

Absolutely, and I think seeing Brief Encounters changes how people see the images, too. I gained a much deeper appreciation for their visual qualities by seeing up-close the process behind them.

8. Which is your favourite Crewdson image and why?

Its really hard to pick a single “favorite” image. I am very struck by the Brief Encounter image the shooting of which is the climax of Brief Encounters the film. The scale is so vast but all the many aspects of the image are so fully considered, I’m always impressed by it.

"Untitled (Brief Encounter)" from the Beneath the Roses Series / Gregory Crewdson
“Untitled (Brief Encounter)” from the Beneath the Roses Series / Gregory Crewdson

Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters was released to US audiences in October 2012. It is due to hit cinemas in the UK in spring 2013.

More information can be found at the documentary’s website.

For enquiries, email

Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters - a film by Ben Shapiro
Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters – a film by Ben Shapiro

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