Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, AFC, discusses his work on Jon Hillcoat’s "Lawless"

par Benoît Delhomme

[ English ] [ français ]

After working on Wilde Salome directed by Al Pacino, which was screened at the last Venice Film Festival, Benoît Delhomme, AFC, continues his career in the USA by filming Lawless. Following The Proposition in 2005, this is his second collaboration with Australian director John Hillcoat and his fellow countryman Nick Cave, singer and screenwriter.
This film has one of the most prestigious casts of any presented at the 65th Cannes Film Festival (Guy Pearce, Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska et Gary Oldman). (F. R.)

The story of Lawless has a lot in common with the story of The Proposition. Are there similarities in the image of both films, too ?

Benoit Delhomme : Both films were written by Nick Cave, and just like in The Proposition, the story revolves around a family of three outlaws. But, this time, the environment is very different : the story takes place in Virginia (even though for financial reasons filming took place in Georgia). This is a “rural” film about a gang of bootleggers during the Great Depression. We’re not in Chicago…we’re in the sticks ! The violence of the country is less primitive than in Australia, and there wasn’t the violent light that was so useful in filming The Proposition…here, we had to come up with something else.
From the very beginning of preparation, John Hillcoat arrived with magnificent files of photo references, especially by Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, showing farmers looking out from their porches with a lost look in their eyes, countryside gas stations with only one pump, flat tint church facades, etc. The whole artistic team went straight in that direction ! Also, John wanted to find a way to work the colour…There were lots of William Eggleston’s photos in his files and a few paintings by Edward Hopper. He wanted the colours to be “extinguished” but some colours to “jump out” and to be saturated.

This is the first film you ever filmed digitally. Tell me about your decision.

BD : A few months before shooting began, I had hardly ever shot anything digitally. I even refused television advertisements if they made me shoot digitally, because I was afraid of the unknown ! Then I did my first big American commercial in San Diego for Calvin Klein, and I shot it with an Alexa…I filmed two shots using “magic hour” and I was blown away by the camera’s capabilities. I was so surprised by the way it captured skin tone, even with very little lighting. But above all, I discovered a freedom in my technique, and things that I didn’t know how to “do” in film before.
Well, now I think it was a bit mad of me to have convinced John to shoot digitally after only that one experience. The sophisticated fashion universe of that advert was so diametrically opposed to this story of bootleggers in the American hinterland ! But John was already very interested in the Alexa. He had spoken with Roger Deakins and Harris Savides who were very enthusiastic about it. Roger even said himself that he would never go back to analogue film stock ! We had a long discussion on the subject in Los Angeles ! I felt instantly that John was very interested in the possibilities provided by the Alexa of filming in low light. The violent light of The Proposition – which we filmed using a Super 35 – was no longer what he was looking for this time around : he wanted less effects, a bit of monotony, a muffled and almost stifled feeling…He also wanted to go far in exploring shadow. I felt that I would feel safer using the Alexa for this type of work…I think that really we both wanted to try something new and go on an adventure…

Did you still do tests ?

BD : Oh yes, we did tests ! John warned me that if he saw the least bit of “digital” on the images filmed with the Alexa, he would insist on film stock ! We were pretty much the first people to film using “real” ArriRaw by saving with the Codex. The first day of tests was a catastrophe, we only realized at the end of the day that we hadn’t saved anything ! At E-Film in Los Angeles, we compared the exact same shots filmed using 35 Kodak and ArriRaw digital. In sunlight, I was very surprised not to find any fundamental differences…except for the total absence of graininess with the Alexa, which immediately seemed to me to be a real advantage for wide-angle shots and panoramas. However, in night-time or low-light conditions, the Alexa really showed an advantage…I realized that I could expose at an aperture of 2.5 or even 2.8 what I would have had to expose at 1.4 using analogue film stock !
This instantly paved the way for us to shoot mostly at sunset and John was really excited about the possibilities this afforded us. But the difficulty of casting and the ramifications in terms of organization and work schedules really limited our ability to film at sundown. This was really a shame because the tests we did were really incredible. The absence of graininess gave a result that was completely new in film. On set, we no longer looked at the actors using our eyes, we looked at the HD screen to see their faces ! The sensitivity was such that the least bit of light in the cabin of a truck far behind us projected the shadow of the camera onto the actors ! Still, after the tests, John was more and more convinced that we had chosen the right camera and that we had to use it with very little light…

Did you still use projectors ?

BD : For outside daylight shots, almost not at all... John had almost totally forbidden us the use of them, because he is very influenced by Terrence Malick... For night-time shots, I quickly realized that the projectors we usually use were really too strong. This is why we began to use a strange technique nicknamed “black bounce” by my key grip, and the “black bounce” became a rule on all of our shoots in low lighting !

What is the “black bounce” ?

BD : It means using black reflectors. Since I really like using reflected light, I quickly discovered that white reflectors threw off too much light for the Alexa and the sources came across too strongly. I replaced the white fabric with the black textile usually used as “negative fill”. The result is very different when you direct powerful sources of light to reflect against this black material than when you use a small source of light to reflect against a white material, even when the quantity of light that results is the same. You no longer feel that the light sources are projectors. It’s something that is made possible only by the sensitivity of the digital sensor, and I would never have dared try that with regular film stock. And I am mad at myself for never having thought of it before !
There is that outdoors scene at night where the bootleggers secretly get together around braziers. I put 10 kW tungsten bulbs reflecting off of a piece of 4 x 4 meter black fabric in a ten-meter diameter arc around the actors. The lighting on set was really something special ! At the beginning, the team made more or less humoristic comments. The actors seemed surprised that it was possible to shoot in such low light ! And then, little by little, they got used to the technique so that by the end we couldn’t get enough of it.

What about inside ?

BD : Besides the sources visible on screen (naked bulbs with old fashioned filaments, gas lamps, lit fireplaces...), I often used red heads reflecting off of black sheets on the ground. For the faces, I used a few umbrellas like those used by photographers for their flashes, but my gaffer had painted the interior reflectors in matte black, with little quartz lamps inside reflecting off of them.
Like during that night-time shoot in a hallway where Jessica Chastain goes to meet Tom Hardy in his bedroom. There, there were a few shots where I really scared myself because there was almost no light at all. John insisted I take the darkness really far to get what you would see with the naked eye. At the end, after going through post-production, the result is really special. It wasn’t always easy to handle but it was exactly what John had asked for and it was part of the photographic direction he wanted the film to take.

Did you feel freer ?

BD : It was the first time that I worked without a lightmeter. I did everything instinctually and tried out new things on set. I have since turned on my HD monitor ! It was very new for me to be able to judge the “definitive” image on set alongside the director. On one hand, I could make sure that he shared the risk-taking with me, but on the other hand, you are constantly being judged by everyone in real time ! I radically changed my methods : I used to prefer long preparations, precise lists, lighting plans, but with Lawless, I truly chose a new approach, surprises, exploration, and turned off the lights rather than added new ones !

What lenses did you use ?

BD : I had Zeiss Master Primes...But since during night time shooting we were at a very reasonable 2.5 or 2.8 aperture, I mostly used little Angénieux zooms and, from time to time, the bigger Optimo. We always filmed using two cameras, even inside. It was much easier and rapid for me to manage the two simultaneous values by working with zoom lenses. But now I sort of regret the rigidity required when working with fixed lenses. But, it was a compromise that allowed me to give John more shots.
I also regret that the software that allows for the use of anamorphic lenses wasn’t available at the time. Since then, I’ve been constantly using Scope lenses with the Alexa. The 1,3x Squeeze Hawks are great, and I use them a lot for filming adverts. I find the very “clean” image you get with the Alexa gives better with old-fashioned lenses, in order to give the electronic sensor a bit of “soul”. For example, I love using it with Russian anamorphic LOMO lenses…

What about the laboratory ?

BD : For budgetary reasons, the production director pushed me not to use a laboratory during filming and allowed the editing team to develop the ArriRaw and make the dailies ! In hindsight, I wonder how I could have accepted this situation : it was a huge risk ! It was the beginning of recording ArriRaw on Codex and we were really debugging this new technology. The editing team used Arri’s first debayering software, and the DIT gave the LUTs for each shoot. But often the LUTs were merely an approximation of what the “developed” image would look like.

Since John Hillcoat loves to screen the dailies every weekend for the actors, I quickly found myself in a situation that I would wish on no operator : the entire cast discovered the images during three-to-four hour sessions in very unorthodox conditions ! The images were always too light or too dense ! Bizarrely, the cast was always delighted by these sessions, and nobody ever said anything negative to me about them. But, for me, it was hell ! After a few weeks, the same production director offered to bring his Chinese girlfriend, who happened to be a colourist, to go over the dailies…and suddenly everything miraculously became right.
For the DI, I was lucky enough to be able to do the colour grading at Technicolor in Los Angeles with Michael Hatzer, who formerly worked alongside Roger Deakins. We used ColorFront software to debayerize the images, which turned out to be a lot better than the software supplied by Arri. We really worked as though we had shot using analogue film stock. John Hillcoat was perpetually on the lookout in order to destroy anything that might give away that we had filmed digitally. When I left the DI thinking I had finished my work, editing and cutting started up again for a number of months, as is often the case in the United States. At the end of the process, John wanted to add graininess and a “flicker” effect on what I believe was David Fincher’s advice. Personally, I still haven’t had the opportunity of seeing the definitive digital copy with these additions, and I’ll be seeing it screened for the first time here in Cannes. Even though I became attached to the “clean” image you get with the Alexa, I must admit that a bit more texture in the image will probably suit the film.

(Interview conducted by François Reumont on behalf of the AFC and translated from French by Alex Raiffe)