"An Officer and a Spy", a (true) film about a false verdict

Interview with cinematographer Paweł Edelman, PSC, about his work on Roman Polanski’s film "An Officer and A Spy"

[English] [français]

For his latest film, director Roman Polanski decided to create an extremely historically accurate adaptation of a major event of the late 19th century : the Dreyfus Affair. Despite the very large number of characters and the frequent shifts between different time periods, the Franco-Polish filmmaker shows his excellence as a director and editor with this simple and captivating story. At the camera, once again, his Polish countryman Paweł Edelman officiates (his sixth film with Polanski, starting with The Pianist in 2002). A film in glacial tones, shot in large part in the authentic locations of the story. This film will open the new EnergaCamerimage 2019 Festival in Toruń. (FR)

How did you prepare for this dense film, in which the desire to remain faithful to history is a major issue ?

Paweł Edelman : We prepared for this film the way that most camera departments prepare for most films. Usually, we begin with a general discussion about the script. In the case of An Officer and a Spy, we had had that conversation some years before because Roman has long intended to make a film adaptation of Thomas Harris’s book. Back then, we’d in fact thought we would shoot the film in English and entirely in studio. We’d even documented all the film studios available in Poland because one of the options on the table was to shoot the movie there. Unfortunately, because of budgetary reasons, the project had to be abandoned. About a year ago the idea came back when Alan Goldman, a French producer, suggested Roman make a film based on the same script, but with French actors and not in studio but in the authentic locations. So, we started preparing again from scratch.
The script narrates historical events that took place in real places, so the first thing our set designer Jean Rabasse did was to document all of them. Some have disappeared, making it impossible to film them, while others, such as the Ecole Militaire or the Palais de Justice, have remained intact.

So, our preparations involved creating a detailed shooting script for each location, determining each camera angle, each lighting method, and the potential modifications to the location that they might require… At the same time, Roman Polanski and I were discussing the general atmosphere and visual identity of the scenes in the film. It all started with the opening scene of the degradation ceremony of Sergeant Dreyfus in the courtyard of the Ecole Militaire. Historically, this event took place on a grey, cloudy day and we immediately decided that the rest of the film should follow that path. That is why we decided to stick with the cold and gloomy tone that is present in the indoor scenes throughout the film.

Tell us a bit about the rather strange location chosen to house the counter-espionage department in the film…

PE : The location that houses the counter-espionage department (the statistical department) was not documented. No drawing or photograph of the place has come down to us from that time. Because the location was described in detail in Robert Harris’ book, the descriptions became the basis for Jean Rabasse’s set design work. With one main direction : small and dim rooms, long and narrow hallways, and windows always covered. I’ve always believed that a good script – such as the one written by Roman Polański and Robert Harris – conveys its own sense of the film’s visuals. I believe that the role of the DOP is to carefully take in this vision and then to translate it into a series of artistic, organizational, and technical decisions.

The film is rather conservative in terms of its camera and shot choices… How did you and Roman Polanski choose your focal lengths, for example ?

PE : Roman is a total fan of wide-angle lenses. I think during the twenty years we have worked together, the most frequently used lens has been the 21mm. During rehearsals, Roman always stands very close to the actors, observing all of the participants in a given scene one by one. It seems to me that that very close vantage point is simply reproduced at the time of shooting, with the camera placed at the very centre of the scene. This would obviously be impossible without wide-angle lenses. The scene where Picquart is looking at the framed document on his office wall was shot with the same type of lens, for example. Perhaps the wide-angle lens is more noticeable there because he gets up and stands very close to the lens. And that’s where the close-up (which Roman uses very infrequently) highlights a key moment in the film. When so seldom used, close-ups become much more powerful on screen.

What was your approach to lighting ?

PE : As I mentioned earlier, we shot this film on location. Naturally, each scene in the film requires a particular approach adapted to its meaning, and therefore a unique approach to lighting. I think that because An Officer and a Spy was a historical reconstruction which incorporated real parts of the story, the image had to to be realistic. That is why the illusion of reality was my major concern in lighting all of the film’s sets. When you’ve set a goal like that, after you’re treading a narrow path. On one hand, you’re always tempted to create a distinct mood, but on the other hand, you don’t want it to look artificial, as that would look historically inaccurate and therefore not credible. After the film had its first screening at the Venice Film Festival, I received an email from a young filmmaker asking whether it was true that we’d shot the entire movie using natural light. If that is the impression created by our film, then we did a great job ! Quite on the contrary, however, behind each shot is concealed the hard work of our lighting crew.

Do you use LEDs ?

PE : Yes, of course, LED lights have become a basic tool on every shoot. Each new generation of these devices is better and more efficient, and their colour is increasingly becoming perfected. They’re also getting smaller and lighter. On An Officer and a Spy, we used Arri Skypanels, Carpetlight, and LiteGear LEDs daily. In the cramped rooms of the Statistical Department, the Carpetlight panels saved us a lot of time thanks to their lightness, softness, and thinness. When your shooting on location in very old buildings, where you can’t hang any heavy equipment, lightness is of capital importance. We used China balls hung from the large crystal chandeliers already present on location for the concert scene or the scene of the secret meeting between Zola and Clémenceau.
For the night scenes in the courtyard of the Palais de Justice, we used helium balloons. They were the only equipment that could be installed quickly and easily on such spacious locations.

What was the most difficult scene for you on this film ?

PE : Undoubtedly, the most difficult scene was the opening scene, which portrays Dreyfus’s degradation ceremony. We wanted to film it outdoors, with green screens in the background. The location was the runway of a decommissioned airport outside of Paris. Unfortunately, on that first day, we only managed to do two shots ; we were forced to retreat by the rain and a very strong wind. Knowing that the the weather would get even worse over the following days, we decided to move shooting to a nearby hangar that housed a canteen. This space was very small and completely unsuited for filming a scene of such large scope. So, we did our best to cover the scene by alternating between full shots and close-ups using what we had on hand. Finally, the weather improved, and we were able to go outside again. The final cut alternates between shots taken outdoors and others taken inside of the canteen… I hope that viewers won’t notice the difference, but I can assure you that recreating the same lighting conditions in that location was no easy task !

A word on the way your twenty-years-strong cinematographer-director duo relationship has weathered the transition to digital ?

PE : My impression is that our transition to digital has been smooth and happened almost without our noticing. Before we began shooting Venus in Fur, we’d done a whole series of comparative tests between analogue and digital cameras. When we saw the results, the answer was clear : digital cameras were technologically advanced enough for us to use them.
On An Officer and a Spy, we again used a Sony Venice, a camera that we chose because of its high sensitivity, the option to use built-in grey filters, and its small size and lightness. I’d always wanted to try a camera with a full-frame sensor, and that’s just what the Venice was. Looking back, I’d say it was a good choice.

What about live control ?

PE : Obviously, one of the major advantages of digital cameras is to be able to fully control the image using excellent monitors. Both Roman and I take advantage of this in a natural way. That is why I always ask someone from the crew to take care of colour grading on set and to manage the dailies, since these are things that accompany the director throughout the editing process. My son, Maciej, was in charge of doing this on this film, and communicated with the laboratory team and ensuring the quality of the dailies.
Our dailies came so close to what Roman wanted that he late insisted they not be edited too heavily in the final grading. My colourist, Gilles Granier, with whom I was working for the first time, proved to be a skilled professional and, in my opinion, we’ve managed to create interesting and intriguing images without ever losing touch with the main character who we follow at every step of the story.

(Interview conducted by François Reumont on behalf of the AFC, and translated from French by A. Baron-Raiffe)

An Officer and a Spy
Produced by Alain Goldman
Directed by Roman Polansky
Cinematography by Paweł Edelman, PSC

In the portfolio below, see a few scenes from An Officer and a Spy.