"Chocolate grad filters and chain saw", by François Reumont on behalf of the AFC

Cinematographer Benjamin Loeb discusses his work on "Mandy", by Panos Cosmatos

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Although he is originally from Norway, Benjamin Loeb has been based in Vancouver for a number of years, and he works in North America and Europe. He has filmed a number of feature-length films sinceı2007 (Hello Destroyer, Wintermarchen), as well as several music videos, short films, and advertising videos. His work was selected in the Directors’ Fortnight with Mandy, a strange revenge film directed by Panos Cosmatos. (FR)

Although Panos Cosmatos and Benjamin Loeb have a number of friends in common in Vancouver, it was by sheer chance that the latter came to work on Mandy during summerı2017: “Nicolas Cage had just hurt his ankle a few weeks before and that forced Panos to delay shooting his film. As a result, he offered me the opportunity to work on this film, replacing a colleague who was no longer available. I hardly had three weeks between his phone call and the start of shooting in Belgium. I had to jump right in!”
The son of director Georges Pan Cosmatos (Rambo II, Cobra, Tombstone), Panos Cosmatos wanted to leave his mark on a family tradition of vintage action films.

“When we began to discuss the film, I realized that Panos already had a very well-defined image of what his film would look like, with many references drawn from 1980s action films,” according to Benjamin Loeb. “Hitcher, Black Rain, Cobra, and Days of Thunder were some of the films that I never imagined I’d imitate or make adaptations of. Especially in a style and employing themes that are themselves distant from my earlier work!”

Intrigued by the situation, the cinematographer decided to go along on this adventure and began to do a series of tests during the few days he had left before shooting began. “When I first read the script, something funny was that on the first page, it said ‘This film is presented in 16mm anamorphic format!’. It was a joke that immediately set the tone for this ‘B Series’ film and Panos’ special relationship to analogue film. Unfortunately, the budget and the amount of preparation meant that it had already been decided to film digitally. We couldn’t alter that decision and we filmed in a very standard configuration with an Alexa despite the initial love letter to film. We were able to obtain something like 1980s look by using Panavision Primo anamorphic lenses, which provided texture, and in colour grading at the end of the posproduction chain with Peter Bernaers, the colour grader.”

A Belgian co-production, Mandy, was shot over twenty-nine days in the summer of 2017 in the forests of Wallonia. “Most of the film takes place at night, which gave us a shooting schedule stretched over nineteen consecutive nights. Night fell at 10:30 p.m., which meant that we began work at 9 p.m. and cut at 5 a.m. every day. That wasn’t an easy rhythm to follow, and we had a lot of rain and stunt scenes, like the chainsaw fight, which we had to complete in only two days.”

The lighting set-up was often minimalistic and travelled with the cinematographer himself: “Because we had a budget of 5.5 million Euros and a small crew, Panos and I had decided to forget about the moonlight nights and immense Soft Boxes far overhead... Most of the lighting ambiences were built from prop lights, like car headlamps outdoors. That’s one of the reasons the film is so dark!”

Benjamin Loeb usually prefers to film from just one point of view, but for the middle of the film, he had to use a second Alexa: “The second camera body was originally outfitted for the car scenes and we ended up using it for the action sequences, as well. To tell the truth, things were already so complicated in terms of choreography, weather conditions, and stunt scenes, that I was constantly trying to simplify things as much as possible.”

In terms of lenses, although most of the film was shot using 75mm and 50mm Primos, as well as the short anamorphic Primo zoom lens, Benjamin Loeb admits to not-infrequently using telephoto lenses, such as an Angénieux 25-250mm zoom lens converted to a 50-5mm zoom lens. Because the film gradually becomes more claustrophobic, focusing in on the main character, the long zooms allowed us to reinforce that effect.”

Nicolas Cage played the role of Red. And it is not a coincidence that the colour red traverses the film like a leitmotiv. “We really considered developing that nightmarish world around the colour red. That’s why it appears so frequently in the film, both in the set design and in the lighting, by playing with the effects using interspersed LEDs or SkyPanels for larger areas.

Another constant was the use of filters. As early as the couple of screen tests of lenses and cameras we were able to do during our short prep time, Panos insisted we take chocolate, tobacco, red, orange, and all sorts of grad lenses with us... Exactly like the ones that cinematographers liked to use in the 1980s. On set, it wasn’t rare that I used an ND9, a coral, and a neutral density 1.2 Hard grad on the same take, which sometimes created traffic jams in the windshield!”

Although reticent at first, the cinematographer was encouraged by the director to progressively lower the grad’s horizon line almost to the level of the actors’ eyes!

“I think that I would never have dared to go in that photographic direction left to my own devices,” admits Benjamin Loeb. “But, alongside Panos, I felt safe and capable of doing pretty much anything!”

A pretty crazy screenplay, a completely unconventional director, and a pretty weird end result for this revenge story animated by Nicolas Cage (whose total devotion led him to spend two nights in his underwear tied up to a fence in the middle of the Belgian forest).

In 1983, Red Miller is living with his artist girlfriend Mandy, in the woods of a wild American mountain, cut off from the rest of the world. One day, she is attracted by Jeremiah Sand, a folk singer who has become the guru of a cult. With the help of a bike gang, the Black Skulls, Sand kidnaps her but Mandy, after making fun of him, gets burnt alive under the eyes of Red, powerless to save her. Drunk on his thirst for revenge, Red gathers an arsenal of unlikely weapons to get revenge on Sand and his followers. But, gradually, the world changes and begins to look like a painting of his late fiancée... At the borders of reality, nothing will stop him from accomplishing his vendetta.