Cinematographer David Chizallet, AFC, discusses his work on Bi Gan’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”

par David Chizallet

[English] [français]

About ten years after his graduation from the Image Department of La Fémis, cinematographer David Chizallet, AFC, was recognized for his work on his classmate Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s film Mustang. A loyal collaborator of Elie Wajeman (Alyah, The Anarchists), he has recently been trying his hand at comedy with Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache’s film C’est la vie !. He had the opportunity to participate in a new adventure thanks to the Chinese film Long Day’s Journey Into Night, directed by Bi Gan, in Competition at the 71th Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section. (BB)

Luo Hongwu returns to the city of his childhood twelve years after having committed a murder in impunity. Memories of the beautiful and enigmatic woman he killed begin to surface once again. Past and present, dream and reality, collide in a sombre ballet.
Starring Tang Wei, Sylvia Chang, Huang Jue

Is it a Lynch ? Is it a Hou Hsiao-hsien ? Perhaps a bit of both, but it’s first and foremost a Bi Gan, a Chinese director who garnered attention with the poetic universe of his first film, Kaili Blues, which included a 45-minute sequence shot. Charles Gilibert, the French co-producer of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, invited the Chinese director to see Mustang, a film he produced in 2015. He thought Bi Gan might like the movie’s cinematography.

As a result, David was expected to be chosen to film the young Chinese director’s next movie in November 2017. But the Communist Party’s congress was taking place at that time and the Chinese authorities were refusing to grant any visas to foreigners having anything to do with audio-visual professions. So, the film ended up being shot with a Chinese cinematographer. After Christmas, Bi Gan decided to shoot the long sequence shot again, and a few sequences from the first part of the film, with David, who discusses the experience below.

Preparation, set-up, rehearsals… and writing the screenplay
“Preparation for the sequence shot lasted three weeks. Rehearsals took place during the day, without the actors, and then later with them for the lighting setup.
Three days before shooting began, Bi Gan showed up with a new screenplay.
So, we had to re-do a part of our set-up !
In fact, the screenplay was written as we worked. The beginning of the film, shot a number of months beforehand, was only edited once we’d shot that sequence shot, which is the second part (and ending) of the film.”

Is it possible to summarize a take that lasts an hour and twelve seconds ?
“Luo Hongwu, played by Huang Jue, enters a cinema and when the screening begins, the film being show on the screen causes us to slip into a dream… in 3D. The dream begins with her wandering in a tunnel, and then Luo Hongwu, a bit stunned, walks through the night from one mountain to the next, then through a village festival, into an open-air billiard room, and into a child’s bedroom. Then, the child brings her outside of the city and they take a four-kilometre-long ride on a motorcycle…
During these peregrinations, Luo Hongwu meets a series of characters related to her childhood, and the woman he loved during his youth. The beginning was filmed by another operator, and I shot the main part of the take. I picked up the camera in the middle of the zipline and then…”

The zipline explained
“The character goes from one mountain to the next using the zipline, attached to a safety tether. The camera follows him above the valley, held up by electromagnets. Then a grip hits a switch to release the electromagnet and I catch the camera. I shot the entire walk through the valley up to their arrival at the open-air billiard room. There, the character joins a round of billiards and begins to move around the table. Then, I connected the camera to a drone to film from below in the village.

“The drone pilot handled the axes of the gyrostabilized system. That meant framing was done either by the drone pilots or the cameramen. The focus command was handled by a succession of camera operators, and the signal was cut and reconnected on each side of the mountain. When the drone left a pilot’s line of sight, he passed along the commands to another pilot located below.

“Then he flew away over a wall and arrived at the village festival on the other side and made a rather labyrinthine peregrination above the village square. The point of view changes a couple of times, follows another character, comes back to him, and then ends up in the bedroom with the woman he fell in love with. That’s the climax, where you realize that the entire film is a long story about falling in love.”

An embodied scene that creates a surprising relationship to time
“I pick up a camera containing the dailies shot by another operator, the actor passes above my head on the zipline, then the camera arrives, and I’ve got to rush to catch up with him and continue the take, and then I drop the camera and the take goes on…
By the end of preparation, we knew what would happen at every second of the take. This involved over a hundred extras, animals, a four-kilometre motorcycle ride, and an area covering over ten hectares. We weren’t going for technical prowess, but instead a take that was as immersive as possible with a fascinating experimentation with the point-of-view and the construction of the story through the time of the take.”

Lighting and contrast management
“I’d thought of shooting in day-for-night, but we wanted to be able to manage the contrasts. That would have been impossible during the day because of the ten-hectare area we had to cover and the length of the take… It was easier for me to control things by relighting. The lighting system was pretty sophisticated. We lit each side of the mountain from the opposite side, and we had a very raw lighting for the village festival and the giant karaoke with a lot of prop lighting… The installations changed during the take, as though it were a live theatre performance…”

Crucial choices of camera and lenses
“I like shooting with the Alexa because of how good it is in lowlight conditions, and because we were going to be shooting during the night, I would have preferred to use it. But for the take lasting over an hour, we couldn’t, because the most recent version of the memory card only holds 512 GB, which is only enough for fifty-six minutes. I didn’t want to overly-compress the image because of the 2D/3D conversion. So, I used the RED Weapon in IPP2 in order to be able to better manage the details in lowlight.
As for the lenses, a zoom would have been too heavy for the drone, and I was adamant about making a precise choice, so we opted for a 25mm Zeiss lens, which, in 5K, became a 30mm lens.”

A ballet without special effects but that was highly technical
“Everything was based around a fantastic bit of engineering. It was at once very DIY – the button that operated the electromagnet was a bathroom switch – very clever, and incredibly technically-advanced. The Chinese engineers on our crew created the special drone capable of carrying the camera, the gyrostabilized head, and the electromagnet. The set designers created the zipline, which was so advanced it was practically a feat of civil engineering… The special effects only came in during postproduction to bring the 2D to 3D.”

A unique and moving experience
“I really appreciated that we didn’t mention the placement of the camera when we discussed the take. We discussed only what the take was supposed to tell in terms of the story, and what the character’s voyage was.
Bi Gan works on a symbolic register, he works on the repetition of a gesture, a character that looks like another character, objects that are passed from one hand to another, and that are disseminated throughout the film. It’s a highly-visual form of writing.
In his cinema, there is magic and there are dreams. He is staging his visual poetry.”

(Collected by Brigitte Barbier on behalf of the AFC, and translated from French by Alexander Baron-Raiffe)