Visual Culture

6 Films Inspired By Famous Photographs, from “Moonlight” to “Her”

Amanda Scherker
Jul 15, 2019 4:58PM
Viviane Sassen
Dolphin, 2018

Photography and film have always had a sibling-like relationship. No one understood that better than 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who invented the zoopraxiscope, an early movie projector, while creating his famous photographic series, “The Horse in Motion” (1878). To discern whether horses always keeps one hoof on the ground when galloping, Muybridge fired the shutter in quick succession, attempting to capture every muscle movement the horse made. He used the zoopraxiscope to project the images in rapid succession, effectively creating a very short film.

Since then, the influence of photography on film has been undeniable, with directors frequently looking to still images as they conceive the look and feel of their work. Director Stanley Kubrick actually got his start as a teenage press photographer, taking photographs that owed an aesthetic debt to the famous crime photographer Weegee. Kubrick was so captivated by Weegee’s gritty, lurid style that he even hired him to take still photographs on the set of of Dr. Strangelove (1964) years later, and also sought his advice when filming the movie’s crime scenes.

Similarly, the look of the titular hotel in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) was partially inspired by photographs, specifically a series of hand-tinted travel postcards that Anderson stumbled upon in the Library of Congress. Other directors have taken visual cues from a single image—or have drawn inspiration from the person behind the lens. Below, we round up six films inspired by famous photographs.

Her (2013), directed by Spike Jonze

Her was a paradox of a film—a futuristic cautionary tale doused generously with nostalgia, a love story with only one truly sentient lover. It’s perhaps no wonder, then, that director Spike Jonze drew from photographer Todd Hido’s intriguing, enigmatic image Untitled #2653 (2000) when conceiving of his 2014 Academy Award–winning masterpiece. In the film, Joaquin Phoenix plays a disillusioned writer, Theodore Twombly, who spends his days composing intimate letters for other people and becomes infatuated with his scary-smart virtual assistant, Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. In an interview with New York Magazine, Jonze described the photo that inspired him: “It feels like a memory. The mood of a day without the specifics. A memory of this girl, in this beautiful, funny forest.” Indeed, the image’s muted palette is reflected in Jonze’s similarly subdued color scheme.

Todd Hido
Untitled #2653, 2000
Wirtz Art

On a deeper level, Hido’s photograph captures the contradictions implicit in Theodore’s love for Samantha. The image depicts a literal blank slate of a woman, her face explicitly unavailable to us. Because of that, the viewer can project whatever they want onto her, just as Theodore romanticized Samantha into his lover.

The Virgin Suicides (1999), directed by Sofia Coppola

An intoxicating, dreamy gloom fills every frame in screenwriter and director Sofia Coppola’s beloved film, The Virgin Suicides, which chronicles the tragic lives and deaths of the five adolescent Lisbon daughters through the eyes of their young, adoring neighbors. The film has a distinctly feminine melancholia, aided by the ethereal look of cinematographer Ed Lachman’s work. Coppola drew inspiration from photographer Bill Owens, and she has pointed to one photograph in particular, Our eighth-grade graduation dance was really far out (1973), saying it was “definitely in my mind when I worked on the film.”

The photograph shares literal similarities to The Virgin Suicides, particularly the film’s homecoming dance scene, right down to the twinkling cut-out stars dangling from the ceiling. The girl in the center of the frame, with her conservative white prairie dress and blonde curls, could easily be a Lisbon daughter. What’s more, there’s an awkward tenderness to the image that similarly permeates the film. As Lachman has said: “We want[ed] to really create the world of adolescence.” Indeed, the film evokes a feeling of wistful teenage longing—both the narrators’ youthful desire to know and save the sisters, and the girls’ equally fervent desire to escape their claustrophobic family life and experience something more.

Moonlight (2016), directed by Barry Jenkins

Moonlight, which won the Academy Award for the Best Picture of 2016, captures the life of Chiron, a black queer person coming of age in Miami. Through three extended vignettes, in which three different actors portray Chiron, the intoxicating film immerses us in a lush, dreamlike world. In order to achieve this effect, the film’s director Barry Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton relied heavily on photographs for inspiration.

Earlie Hudnall, Jr.
Flipping Boy, 1983
Elizabeth Houston Gallery

The pair looked specifically to the work of American photographer Earlie Hudnall Jr. and Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen. They were captivated by Hudnall’s loving, realistic depictions of African-American communities in the south from the 1970s and on, with images showing close moments among families, friends and neighbors. Similarly, Moonlight tells Chiron’s story with a remarkable sense of intimacy and empathy. From Sassen, Jenkins and Laxton drew a decadent, deeply saturated color palette and an abstract appreciation for the human form.

In 2016, Laxton explained his fascination with photography, saying, “When I look at still images, my brain becomes actively engaged and I am able to picture a whole experience, a different world…photography enhances my sense of what happened just before or after the frame was captured.” Laxton’s photographic approach is evident in moments like the iconic beach kissing scene, in which the camera cuts suddenly to a close-up of Chiron’s hand digging into the sand. It’s a subjective, honest moment in a film brimming with them.

Carol (2015), directed by Todd Haynes

Photographer Saul Leiter is beloved in his own right for the way he simultaneously captured the grit and beauty of 1950s New York City. It’s no wonder, then, that director Todd Haynes looked to Leiter’s workwhen conceiving of his 2015 film Carol, which took place in Manhattan during that decade. In the film, a young female shop-clerk and a jaded housewife start a romance in a society hardset against their love. In order to evoke the look of 1950s street photography, cinematographer Ed Lachman chose to shoot the film on 16mm film, giving it the grainy, electric feel of an old-school photograph.

Saul Leiter
Don't Walk, 1952
Howard Greenberg Gallery

Haynes praised Leiter’s ability to merge street photography and abstract art, all while accurately portraying the chaotic forces of city life. “While at times you think you're looking at an abstract painting,” he said, “it actually gives such a specific sense of time and place because of the kind of light and how it plays on glass and how it interferes with dust and dirt and grime.” Haynes’s directorial choices were also informed by the way Leiter often framed his images through plexiglass or windows, obscuring the object of his gaze, and distancing the viewer from the scene.

Nightcrawler (2014), directed by Dan Gilroy

The photographer known as Weegee (a pseudonym for artist Arthur Fellig), became known in the 1930s as the master photographer of brutal crime scenes on the dirty, dark streets of New York. His life sounds pretty cinematic to begin with—he reportedly slept clothed next to a police radar waiting to wake up and bolt to the latest crime scene—but it was reimagined in Dan Gilroy’s debut film, Nightcrawler, about a similarly determined cameraman, Lou Boom. Played by Jake Gyllenhaal, Lou prowled the streets of Los Angeles, on the hunt for photogenic bloodshed.

Gilroy was first inspired by Weegee when he stumbled upon his book Naked City in 1988. The director said he “wanted to tell that story but make it contemporary.” While he found the opportunity with Nightcrawler to update Weegee’s life and his film equipment, giving Lou a digital camcorder rather than a 4 x 5 camera,he maintained the gritty desperation that made Weegee so captivating. Indeed, much of the film is conveyed through Lou’s viewfinder, capturing the immediacy and luridness of his and Weegee’s work.

Saving Private Ryan (1998), directed by Steven Spielberg

For his wartime epic, Saving Private Ryan, director Steven Spielberg sought to realistically capture the events of World War II’s D-Day through the eyes of a soldier. In building fidelity to this moment in history, Spielberg consulted the photographs captured by the famous Life magazine photojournalist Robert Capa during the D-Day attacks in 1944. Capa was a master war journalist, capturing images up-close, with unflinching realism while embedded with Allied soldiers during the landing in Normandy. While discussing Capa as a reference for the film, cinematographer Janusz Kamiński said: “In Private Ryan, I wanted to take a major Hollywood production and make it look like it was shot on 16mm by a bunch of combat cameramen.”

Robert Capa
US troops assault Omaha Beach during the D-Day landings. Normandy, France. , 1944
Magnum Photos

Importantly, Capa followed the maxim that, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Similarly, Spielberg did everything he could to bring the violence and paralyzing fear of war straight to the viewer, even insisting that the camera shake as a bomb went off, as if the camera itself is also experiencing the impact of the explosions.

Amanda Scherker