Sex, Lies, and Cinema : behind the scenes of "Nymphomaniac"

Conversation with cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro, DFF

La Lettre AFC n°239

[English] [français]

After the release of his film Melancholia in 2011, Lars Von Trier was banned from the Cannes Film Festival for controversial statements on Adolf Hitler and Albert Speer. This year, he has returned with Nymphomaniac, an ambitious exploration of female psychology from a sulphurous, sexual perspective. Manual Alberto Claro, DFF, replaced Anthony Dodd Mantle, BSC, in order to film the last two projects by the Danish maestro of atypical cinema.
Shia LaBeouf, Lars von Trier, Manuel Alberto Claro et Stacy Martin
Photo Christian Geisnaes

Charlotte Gainsbourg says that Lars Von Trier told her that he wanted to film a porn movie with her as an actress over dinner at Cannes in 2011… but that she wasn’t sure if he was being serious or not.

Manuel Alberto Claro : That’s funny because it is also because of something I said in jest (while filming Melancholia) that Lars Von Trier decided to embark on this project. He even mentioned his conversation with Charlotte Gainsbourg during the infamous press conference he gave at Cannes in May 2011.

What was it that you said ?

MAC : I jokingly told him that I hoped that he wouldn’t fall prey to the “great director” syndrome : the older they get, the younger and more scantily-clad their actresses get… Take Bertolucci, for example, who in his later films began to explore a vision of adolescent love that is much too tacky for my taste.
Of course, he was riled up, and a few days later he said to me, “How dare you say such a thing to me, you’re so stuck up and full of prejudices. I warn you, not only will I not follow your advice, but, in fact, I’m going to do the exact opposite !” Happily, Lars isn’t one to hold a grudge, and instead of being angry, he asked me to continue working with him on the new film.

What were the guidelines in terms of scenography ?

MAC : His idea was that the film should be rough. “A punk marathon,” in his own words. The film was not to be smoothed over, elegant, or polished in any way. He wanted us to make Nymphomaniac look like a student film, with all the imperfections, liberties, and imperfections that that implies. The film was to exude an adolescent energy, with its black-and-white image, shoulder camera, the camera fixed in “lockout”, the split screen, etc.
Nonetheless, we did a lot of preparation for this film : it took us three months to find the sets and perfect the logistics of the special effects in order to film the pornographic scenes with actors who were faking it…

Tell us a bit about those famous scenes…

MAC : From that point of view, Nymphomaniac is first and foremost an incredible masterpiece of realistic special effects. Of course, nobody noticed, and the most incredible thing is that three-fourths of those scenes were expunged from the short version (two two-hour long ‘volumes’) that is currently being shown in theatres. When the 5-hour-long version is released, you’ll see the amount of work required by, and the astonishing quality of, the assemblage between scenes filmed with the actors and those filmed with X-rated “body doubles”.

How did you prepare these scenes ?

MAC : For these scenes, everything was storyboarded and we had to spend a lot of time explaining to the technical team how we wanted to proceed in order to avoid any unwanted surprises. Production even described to each actor and technician the worst-case scenario of what could happen on set…in any case, their descriptions were much trashier than what actually happened on set. Finally, there was a mix of different techniques. There were a lot of composite shots, but a whole host of various prosthetic organs (fake sex organs, both male and female…), which were extremely realistic and which allowed us to film a lot more things directly. For example, the fellatio scene between Jean-Marc Barr and Charlotte Gainsbourg was filmed with a prosthesis.
For the scene where the viewer sees him progressively become erect as she tells him the paedophiliac story, we had to film this in reverse shot, because even for the professional porn star who doubled Jean-Marc, it was impossible to become progressively erect in front of the camera with thirty people around him watching ! Another filming technique was to use a 50 im/s frame rate on all the sex scenes, which allowed Lars to have more freedom whilst editing, and enabled him to obtain the perfect rhythm and continuity between shots using actors and doubles.

Since Antichrist and Melancholia, Lars Von Trier’s cinema has become visually associated with a few dream-like slow-motion shots… Why does Nymphomaniac stray from this rule ?

MAC : Personally, I loved those shots in Melancholia. For me, it was truly one of the visual signatures of Lars’ current films. When I asked him when we would use the high speed camera on Nymphomaniac, he said, “forget about that, I don’t feel like using it right now.” Nonetheless, some of the scenes, like the mirror scene, are very graphic, very visually staged with the fixed shots where the camera looks like it’s been frozen in space, which makes one think of those slow-motion shots. In the short release, that chapter lasts only a few minutes. But in the long version, you’ll see that it takes on a whole other dimension !

The film is full of different ambiences and sceneries. But there is a decorative style that unites the film, and, as has been the case since Dogville, along with the on-screen chapter titles, gives the work a very theatrical quality.

MAC : The apartment and especially the alley were the only parts that were filmed in studio. That was Lars’ choice from the start of production. He really wanted a theatrical effect for those scenes, so much so that we really forced the image to bring out the patina of the walls, something we would never have dared do with a realistic set. Lars hasn’t filmed in studio for a long time. Even though it’s not obvious, we used the moving walls on the set in order to better frame the close-up shots, which sort of stand out in comparison with the style of the rest of the film.
In terms of lighting, I mostly used Space Lights to light the alley. For Seligman’s bedroom, which took us five days to film, we mostly used prop lighting, sometimes within the frame, which allowed us to light these scenes. Lars never wants to have cinema projectors near the actors. There are a variety of ambiences on this set (snowfall, evening, night) whose nuances were each defined during colour grading. For the final scene with the long monologue between the two characters, we decided to gradually increase the lighting. In order to do that, HMIs were placed outside in order to simulate the break of day.

The first part literally culminates with the apparition of Uma Thurman as a betrayed wife. Please tell us about this ’tour de force’.

MAC : The scene with Mrs. H. was already separate from the rest of the story when we read the screenplay. It is so well written, and just sort of springs up, like that, in the middle of the film with no warning. We decided to film it in a Bergman or Woody Allen style, with everything centred on the actors, on their dialogue. This is also the reason we decided to progressively narrow the image ratio, from 2.35, which is the format of the rest of the film, to 1.77. I even wanted to go down to 4/3, but the effect would have been seen, rather than felt.
The scene with Uma took just a day to film. With shots that lasted sometimes 45 minutes. Because of the Alexa’s short battery life, my assistants were forced to recharge the camera during shooting as unobtrusively as possible, using virgin memory sticks ! It was crazy.

Another unique, very baroque, shot is the flashback with the ascension and spontaneous orgasm…

MAC : For that scene, the young female actress was lying on her back on the platform of a crane, with the camera filming a high angle shot just above her. While the crane rose, the plant backdrop distanced itself and became gradually blurry (it was clear at the beginning of the shot). This was filmed with the Arri Lightweight 14-55mm zoom lenses, at maximum aperture (2.6). The shots of the two saints that appear were shot against a green backdrop with the image manipulated to be very brilliant. This specific visual effect led us to wonder, “is this reality, or is this a figment of Seligman’s imagination based on what Joe told him ?”

What was your setup for filming ?

MAC : The film was shot using an Alexa Pro Res. I almost always used the 28-76 Angénieux in tandem with the Arri Lightweight Zoom 15-45. This configuration allowed me to proceed quickly and adapt to almost any situation that might arise during the different scenes. Only the train scene was filmed with a Zeiss GO 1.3 series, essentially for space reasons in that specific location.
The entirety of the film was filtered with an eighth of Promist, which allowed me to reduce a bit of the definition, which I noticed was too high on Melancholia. Furthermore, there was an enormous amount of work put into the texture and graininess of every scene when we colour graded using Scratch. This is really one of digital cinematography’s best features, because you can dose the exact amount of each feature, without having to worry about changing film stock or camera with each shot.

The scene where Joe parks the car instead of Jérôme was marked by visible flares. But the sun doesn’t seem to be out !

MAC : I tried to do something during that scene and the one where the interpreter goes and talks to the two men in the street. The flares were created by a torch placed outside of the frame. I thought this would make these scenes a little more dynamic ; I thought they seemed visually a bit flat.
In the end, I’m not too pleased with the result, but as we all know, when you try things during shooting, you’d better be sure of yourself !
Otherwise, you’d better wait until colour grading or special effects if you’ve got the budget !

Besides the technical issues, how did you go about filming the X-rated scenes ?

MAC : Most of the time, we filmed these scenes with the actors in their underwear or with prostheses, while the body doubles watched on. Sometimes, the doubles gave us useful advice from their experience on how the bodies should move in order to facilitate their interaction with the camera. Their presence made the entire process rather relaxed and helped put everyone almost at ease despite the many X-rated scenes we had to film. Strangely, it wasn’t the sex scenes themselves that were hard to manage. The scenes where the characters were talking to one another naked made them a lot more uncomfortable…

Were there any unexpected surprises ? Any crises ?

MAC : Strangely, one of the difficulties we experienced was the fact that porn stars are almost completely waxed. I can tell you that the makeup artist suffered quite a bit from being asked to reconstitute male and female pubic hair on a daily basis ! Jokes aside, shooting went really smoothly, in a respectful atmosphere where no one felt pushed past his or her limits.
To tell the truth, I think that it was especially off set, especially with the actors’ families, that there may have been some problems or tensions. Nobody knew what Lars was capable of, and Shia Laboeuf fanned the flames by declaring to the press that he wasn’t going to be doubled … despite the fact that the female actors hadn’t been informed.
Naturally, this was nothing more than a bit of well-planned provocation !

(Interview conducted by François Reumont for the AFC)