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Family of Fighters

Mátyás Erdély, HCA tags in for writer-director Sean Durkin’s feature The Iron Claw.

Written and directed by Sean Durkin, the feature film The Iron Claw shines a light on the tragedies and triumphs of the Von Erichs, a real-life family of professional wrestlers who brought signature style to the sport in the early 1980s. For cinematographer Mátyás Erdély, HCA, the project offered his first opportunity to shoot an American feature, and he chose to shoot the story on 35mm film with Primo optics, working with a package sourced through Panavision New Orleans. Panavision recently caught up with Erdély for the cinematographer’s reflections on the production.

Panavision: How would you describe the look of The Iron Claw?

Mátyás Erdély, HCA: Sean and I believe that it is unnecessary to create a ‘look’ by forcing certain ingredients. We believe that the production design, locations, wardrobe, props, etc., will create a world that is true to the film. This — combined with shooting on film and lighting mainly with tungsten units — was our approach. These elements serve the story in an organic way, and the combination of these elements became the look. So my description of the film would be that it is very raw and organic, definitely not too stylized, and very simple in its approach.

Were there any particular visual references you looked at for inspiration? 

Erdély: There were many references for minor details, but we usually don't use overall references for a film. Sean and production designer James Price compiled an extensive library of references for the real locations like the Sportatorium and for wardrobe. We tried to stay close to the reality of the Von Erichs’ world but also felt free to elevate or deviate from reality when it felt necessary.

What drew you to use Primo optics and the Panflex Millennium XL2 camera?

Erdély: I’ve always had a very romantic relationship with everything Panavision. Growing up in Hungary, and reading American Cinematographer and looking at my heroes, using Panavision was constantly on my mind. When Sean and I first started to talk about The Iron Claw, I immediately suggested that this film needs to feel ‘American,’ and Panavision glass — especially a classic like the Primos — represents something very American for me in a romantic way. We tested the Primos, and we both felt they were the right choice for this film.

The camera body obviously is not affecting the image [when shooting film], but we needed something that is flexible and quiet enough to shoot sync sound. We also carried an Arri 235, which we used as an 'action cam' and was extremely useful for the fight scenes. 

How does this project differ from others in your career?

Erdély: This was my first real American film. We were so lucky to have an amazing cast and crew and producers who gave us full creative freedom, which I believe is the most important thing to be able to make something that is truly personal and because of that can turn into something universally engaging.

The Iron Claw is a film that immerses the audience in a world that was very alien for me before we started our discussions in preproduction. I was given the opportunity to immerse myself in it and allowed to shoot this world with an outsider's approach. I was constantly shocked and surprised — in a great way — and I feel it kept the photography fresh at all times. 

What inspired you to become a cinematographer, and what keeps you inspired today?

Erdély: I had this realization when I was about 16 years old that cinematography is something that combines everything I was interested in. Photography, literature, technology, theater, painting, architecture and even dance. It is such a complex experience to make a movie, and the fact that we are surrounded by our crew who have way more experience than us allows us to always learn. It is the best job there is!

Stories inspire me. Important stories that allow us to learn about human behavior and, in an ideal world, to become better or at least more empathetic human beings. 

Behind-the-scenes photos by Devin Oktar Yalkin. All images courtesy of A24.

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