Anaesthetized by colour

Dharius Khondji, AFC, ASC discusses his work on Nicolas Winding Refn’s film "Too Old To Die Young"

par Darius Khondji

[English] [français]

Held up by the night shooting of Thom Yorke’s new music video, Darius Khondji, AFC, ASC, was only able to make a quick round-trip to Cannes this year. Too late, in any case, to be able to attend the screening at the Grand Théâtre Lumière of a part of the series "Too Old To Die Young", which he and Diego Garcia shot for Nicolas Winding Refn. He was, however, able to find some time to speak with us, by phone, about this shoot in Los Angeles… (FR)

How did you end up working on Nicolas Winding Refn’s new project ?

Darius Khondji : I met Nicolas Winding Refn at Cannes two years ago at a luncheon organized by Kodak. We immediately began talking about our iPhones, which means that we got along super well ! A few weeks later, he called me to offer me the project of a mini-series that he was creating with Amazon. He was clear, from the get-go, that this wouldn’t be a series of small films, but rather a single film lasting about a dozen hours, with an almost-experimental approach to framing, lighting, and colour. That’s why he wanted me to be present for the entire shoot. In the end, because of a few changes in schedule (another film that I had agreed to shoot earlier), I was able to perform the first half of the shot (five episodes) and entrusted the rest of the episodes and the conclusion to Diego Garcia.

Any references for this film ?

DK : I often say it, but my primary source of inspiration when I shoot is music. Nicolas Winding Refn is on the same wavelength. He had me listen to a couple of songs to prepare for Too Old To Die Young and it’s often on the basis of musical sensations that we began work on a particular scene. The other uncommon thing about Nicolas is that he is colour blind. The idea was to shoot this film for him—and for me—by basing it on his own vision. I showed him colour photos from the 1970s by Stephen Shore that I like a lot and that seemed to me to be a good starting point for some sequences… We had precise discussions about the colours… That’s when I realized that he couldn’t see blue-greys at all.
Little by little, a palette of primary colours emerged, with red at the centre as a leitmotiv. They were often counterbalanced by complementary colours in the same shot. That made me think of Godard’s films from the 1960s in their use of colour...

Los Angeles is also at the heart of this series…

DK : A place that I discovered to be incredibly rich in visual material. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, which was partially shot in the same neighbourhood, was also a reference for the way it used the locations. Nicolas Winding Refn also adores the city seen from the inside of cars and this screenplay wasn’t an exception to the rule… We perfected a strategy shared by image and director so that we could make shooting those scenes as light as possible and not have to rely on Hollywood’s heavy artillery. In order to do that, we decided to have the actors really drive the cars, and to shoot with a shoulder-carried Arri Alexa Mini that was specially mounted so it wouldn’t move around too much, and to light with a structure installed on the roof of the car composed of eight Astera tubes around the periphery of the roof, which could be remote controlled by console.

The main advantage of these lights is that they require hardly any cabling, and they are independently powered. Especially when you can control them by WiFi in both colour (RVB) and intensity. My camera operator was alone in the car with the actors, and we followed behind in a technical van and controlled the light and the colours on the monitor in real time. These shots have a very "New Wave" style because of how free the camerawork is and how natural the driving is, paired with a very stylized and finely-tuned image.

The orange lighting of the city at night is quite different from the sodium effect in Paris, for example…

DK : The tonality of the urban lighting is an orange that tends towards red. A deformed sodium effect to meet up with the blood colour that marks the series. To light those nights, I mainly used Astera tubes, like on the cars, or Digital Sputnik projectors to make industrial lights, remote controlled, lowered with a dimmer or very strong in function of the effects… I also used Arri SkyPanels closer to the actors and a few traditional HMIs for the day scenes, always copiously diffused through Magic Frost, which is my favourite diffuser.

There is a visually-striking, almost systematic use of mirrors or panes of glass in both episodes… sometimes at unexpected times.

DK : We really liked having characters that could be filmed through windows or in reflection, in such a way that the situation can’t be precisely identified. We often asked the set designers to place mirrors or windowpanes in the sets so that we could rely on them. Cutting the space up with walls, creating almost invisible compartments that are only revealed by their reflections…

What was your camera configuration ?

DK : We shot the entire thing with an Arri Alexa XT 3.4K in "open gate", along with two Arri Alexa Minis when needed. Because Nicolas hates the Steadicam, there are only shots with "traditional" grip equipment on a dolly, sometimes on tracks. Andy Shuttleworth (Boogie Nights, camera) who was the cameraman on this series and I really liked how he worked, since he came from a musical background, too (he’s also a drummer). We worked a lot in 35mm and 40mm, instead of the 21mm or 18mm that Nicolas used to prefer. Faced with this unleashing of colours, I wanted the camera to be more sober and more "Bressonian". In fact, on each film, I need to feel a bit haunted by someone. To feel with me one or more fathers of the cinema. On this series, it was Robert Bresson… With the rather frontal feel of long takes and long focals. I don’t know who’s going to pick up on it, but there is indeed some Bresson in there ! And then I must also cite Antonioni for the anti-dramatic nature of the shots… I thought of them a lot while shooting this series.

What about your lenses ?

DK : I wanted a certain antique patina in the image to counterbalance the very contemporary aspect of the sets and get closer to my "comfort zone" which is shooting on film. I wanted to bring back a bit of the "Polaroid" look to the Alexa’s digital image. The Panavision Vintage series was the answer, with two advantages that seemed unbeatable to me : their wide aperture and their capacity for close-up focusing. Two criteria that these lenses met, and I often used them at around T2 aperture, with the camera set at 1,200 or 1,600, and sometimes 2,500 ISO. These series of lenses must, in my opinion, be used within that range of aperture because otherwise, as soon as you begin to close them above 2.8, they lose all of their personality and look like any other modern series of lenses. Between 1.4 and 2.5, these lenses bring a certain amount of fragility to the image, a vibration in the air that I like a lot even for contemporary projects.

It’s funny, José Luis Alcane, Almodovar’s cinematographer, completely disagrees !

DK : In my opinion, there are only a few examples in cinema where the depth of field is extraordinary… In Welles, Ozu, and a few other filmmakers, too, but most of the time I think that films gain in ambience when they have backgrounds that aren’t completely in focus. That depends entirely on the filmmaker, and I could imagine myself making a film at 11 aperture tomorrow if I were asked to… Well, I’m not so sure about that ! Maybe I’d battle with him a bit before being totally sure of myself !
You see, I think that it’s great that there are so many different opinions within the world of cinema. Otherwise, we’d all be making the same image. It’s very exciting for met tos see things that I don’t know how to do myself…and to exchange points of view. That’s the proof that cinema is a complex and living art.

(Interview conducted by François REumont for the AFC, and translated from French by Alexander Baron-Raiffe)