Tokyo ! (Merde)

Tokyo ! (Merde)

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Tokyo ! is a film trilogy set in the city of Tokyo. Three directors evoke the Japanese capital with very personal films : Michel Gondry with Interior Design, Leos Carax with Shit and the Korean Joon-ho Bong with Shaking Tokyo.
Caroline Champetier – who has collaborated with Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Doillon, Benoît Jacquot, Xavier Beauvois, Nobuhiro Suwa and, recently, Amos Gitai and Naomi Kawase – did the cinematography for Shit and speaks to us about her first collaboration with Leos Carax.

I was approached to work with Leos by one of the Japanese producer who initiated Tokyo !, Michiko Yochitake, with whom I had worked on two films (H Story and A Perfect Couple). Collaboration with Carax was a revitalizing experience. It was actually the first time I worked with a "big dreamer". Most directors with whom I have shot are realistic, they believe in reality.
Leos wants nothing to do with that, he creates a world to which I was, literally, transported. Shit – that is his name ! – is a movie monster, a cross between Artaud and Godzilla, Godzilla being an important figure in Carax’ cinema references, like the monsters of Mabuse and Murnau... When I say monster, in fact it’s a creature that is a myth completely fabricated by the director. This imaginary creature is entirely created by the director. This imaginary creature is magnificently interpreted by Denis Lavant, and their collaboration, which runs from Carax’ first film, has a lot to do with the emotion that one feels at seeing Shit.

Denis’ work is of astonishing precision and generosity, it is very physical work because he embodies the creature with his whole body : the walk, the expressions, a completely invented language, which he only speaks with his lawyer, who is the second main character played by Jean-Francois Balmer. Denis had three hours of makeup every day : wig, very long fingernails on the hands and feet, a glass eye like Lon Chaney... Shit lives in the sewers of Tokyo and comes out from time to time to terrorize the citizens of Tokyo.
Either in a playful manner as in the first shot of the film – by plucking flower petals and eating them (because flowers are all he eats), particularly the chrysanthemums which are reserved for the emperor – by plucking cigarettes from the banned smokers outside, by licking the armpits of girls or, more dangerously, by throwing grenades which he has found in the sewers, old stock dating from the Tonkin war. The tone of the film is there in the first shot, very provocative, insolent, violent.

It is also an indictment of racism, since it is the story of an absolute otherness. The link with Leos seems clear, the identification with the character translates into this almost Christ-like figure during his arrest in the sewers, where he is taken away naked by a black squad of men with helmets, armed with laser and torches.

How did you build up this character from an aesthetic viewpoint, and what were the technical choices that resulted ?
Even if this movie is entirely seen through the myths of cinema, it remains a medium-budget film. Leos Carax wanted a camera close to the creature. Another thing that counted in the technical and aesthetic choice, was that this film was a return to cinema for Carax, he undoubtedly needed another approach than the classical production with all its paraphernalia ! I therefore proposed to try my little Panasonic DVX 100. It is a camera that I love, I used it for Right Now by Benoît Jacquot and Promised Land by Amos Gitai.
It has become a personal tool ; people speak of hand camera, but for me it’s a heart camera. (Caroline acts her words out by bringing her hands up to her heart ... BB). With my assistant of the time, Emile Dubuisson, we slimmed it down, it no longer has a viewfinder, just an LCD screen and, in particular, we made a focusing system that didn’t exist previously, which allows me to focus and change the stop at the same time.
Yves Angelo made me discover the DVX 100 on the film he shot for François Dupeyron, Inguélézy. I found the image incredible given the size of this camera. Nevertheless I had still had a slight doubt about Shit, I didn’t want issues of texture to come up, and Mathieu Leclercq (the technical director at Mikros Image) was the one who really pushed me. Mikros did a great job joining together with great finesse the two formats I chose.
During the first tests with Denis Lavant, Carax really flashed on this camera which allows a lightness and fluidity with respect to the actors movement, it really is, in fact, another viewpoint ...

For some sequences on the sound stage, you mixed two cameras. Wasn’t that a little risky ?
No, thanks again to the work of Mikros. We used the Varicam because there was image compositing to do, as well as special effects for explosions and smoke. They searched for the best suited LUT. At the beginning, I wasn’t very satisfied : too much contrast, too much grain and then Mathieu managed a really amazing 2K film recording, with an incredible transparency and we went from one format to another with no problems.

The first shot in the film is quite complicated. Were you able to shoot it in entirely in camera, without effects ?
Yes, it is a panorama of the city, then we go down along an avenue, we cross trains, then up another avenue to reach a sewer manhole where the monster emerges. This shot was done with a Panasonic Varicam and a monstrous zoom. Leos had a very precise idea for this shot. He is someone who has absolute precision. He also worked a lot on the design of the set where we shot the trial, the prison, the hanging. The interior of the sewers on the other hand was a location. The Japanese production designer Isom San is a great artist, he did a very subtle work on the colors and materials... But what was formidable was Leos’ eye ; he has an incredible “scopic drive” [a Freudian term for the compulsion to see], he sees every frame, every point of color. During the editing, they added some white frames for the explosions, and he saw where there were two frames instead of one !

You were with Leos Carax and the actors, the only French people on the set ?
Yes, my team was Japanese, I had an extraordinary gaffer. They are extremely precise, I wanted to be sure to have exactly the same color temperature on each source... On the other hand the camera assistants are not really practiced in digital, contrary to what one might think. It is a culture in paradox, full of modernity and tradition at the same time. They have no familiarity with going back to film after a shooting digital. I felt quite alone with the cameras.

This film, even if it lasts only 40 minutes, is a real film and allowed you to discover an uncommon director...
He knew very well how to use me. He is, admittedly, melancholic but also with an incredible humor and intelligence. His "vision" obliges a director of photography to be always on the alert. He so demanding that he forces you to create a structure between his view and yours. I learned a lot with him, and also with respect to editing ; his editor, Nelly Quettier, did a magnificent job, especially for the trial scenes.
There was a lot of material and they created "split screens" with sometimes three images in the same frame ; I was like a frightened virgin in front of these split screens. For me, cinema is a single image, but they managed a rather astonishing circularity between shots, which impresses me upon each new viewing of the film. However, I know we would not have obtained this result without the tenacity of the technicians at Mikros and at Arane laboratory, with them I have the feeling that each film is a testing ground, the impossible becomes possible, everything is resolved, I know that I have a good eye, but they have incredible ears, an ability to listen, without which the eye doesn’t amount too much.

(Interviewed for the AFC by Brigitte Barbier, translated from French by Benjamin B)


1st assistant camera : Emile Dubuisson
Gaffer : San Toru


Post-production supervisor : Christina Crassaris
Film Laboratory : Arane Gulliver
Digital timer : Alexandra Pocquet
Film timer : Sophie Lustrière
Post-production, scan and film recording : Mikros Image
Special Effects : Cedric Fayolle
Cameras : Panasonic DVX 100 and Varicam
Format : 1,85:1
Print Film : Kodak 5283