Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, AFC, ASC, discusses his work on "Inside Llewyn Davies", directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

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The three-time Oscar nominee (Amélie Poulain,A Very Long Engagement and the sixth Harry Potter movie), Bruno Delbonnel, AFC, ASC, recently filmed Dark Shadows, by Tim Burton and Faust by Alexander Skouras. Joel et Ethan Coen called on him to visually recreate 1960’s New York for the set of Inside Llewyn Davis

How did you manage to become a part of the Coen Brothers’ team?

Bruno Delbonnel: The first time I met the Coen Brothers was also the first time I shot with them. It was in 2006 on the anthology film Paris je t’aime. In 2008, when their usual cameraman Roger Deakins, decided to take a break, they were looking for someone to replace him on Burn After Reading. I was contacted, but in the end, Emmanuel Lubezki took on the project. And then the same situation happened again last year for Inside Llewyn Davis because Roger Deakins was busy filming Skyfall. This time, I was the one they chose.

Can you describe the Coen Brothers’ approach to making movies?

BD: The Coen Brothers have been trying to make low budget films (by American standards) for a few years, meaning budgets less than 20 million dollars. The sole exception to that rule was the Western True Grit. This decision has allowed them to have more control over everything and not to be bound hand and foot to a studio. Inside Llewyn Davis is no exception and actually has a ridiculously low budget (11 million dollars) for such prestigious cinematographers. Under this configuration, the Brothers are the producers of their own film along with Studio Canal and are just being helped out by Scott Rudin for production logistics.

This means that they make all the decisions themselves. Their approach is simple: they analyse the budget and draw up the work schedule (42 days for this film). After having perfected the shooting script, they submit it to me, and once I have signed off, a “storyboarder” takes it from there and makes simple sketches of the entire film. From that point on, nothing can be changed and we pretty much film the storyboard. Of course, there are always a couple of surprises. On this film, for example, the weather almost entirely deprived us of snow in February in New York. But besides that, the schedule is tightly adhered to. I must say that they are very experienced on set and know exactly how fast they are able to work.

How many shots do you film a day?

BD: Twelve shots a day, rarely more. But at the same time, when you film outdoors in the winter in New York, you hardly have six hours of daylight, which means a shot every thirty minutes...Even though everything has been “storyboarded” in advanced, Joel and Ethan are very flexible with the shooting script and are capable of making changes in function of production constraints. Only the theatre scene at the end of the film, with F. Murray Abraham, required us to film over twenty scenes in a single day, because it was really expensive to rent that place out by the day. One important thing to note: the technical teams are really well suited to the film’s budget and working rhythm. The producers saved money by hiring people who would work faster rather than slower. This is something that made me think when I see the discussions over the quantity and the salary of cinema technicians in France.

Was it a large team?

BD: There were always five best boys on set, the same number of stagehands, and the pre-light teams who would prepare each set in advance so that we could film on two different sets a day on average. When we filmed outside at night, we would discuss what was possible to do in advance with the team. Even if we had to reduce our lighting ambitions and sometimes find a shorter piece of street that they would film with a wide angle to make it seem visually larger. Or whether it was really necessary to occasionally overstep the budget in order to hire temporary staff.

Do the Cohen Brothers do a lot of takes?

BD: Maximum two or three takes... The actors have rehearsed in advance with them and usually get it right on the first take. This also means that I have to film using apertures that are acceptable for my assistants, meaning 4 on average, in order not to take risks with the focus if the first take is the good one.

You mentioned the ability they have to work around production constraints... Do you have any examples? 

BD: About twenty minutes ago in the edited version of the film, there’s a scene that takes place in a car. Everything was filmed in studio against a green backdrop. But in the early 1960’s, American cars were all sold with tinted windows. And of course, the car that was chosen for that scene was no exception to the rule. As for the car that we had in the studio (you could only see the passenger interior), it was very difficult for me to film with cyan-tinted windows! When someone gave us a $10,000 estimate to change the original windows, the Brothers were furious! So they made do by limiting the angles and only had half of the windows changed. That is typically the type of decision they constantly make in order not to go over budget. Sometimes it’s just their intuition and experience: when they choose one spot for filming, they always manage to find another 200 meters away to finish off the day. That way, the entire team moves the equipment on wheels and saves loads of time. In the end, everything is interrelated and we decide whether or not to emphasise the number of shots that need to be done over the set. This attitude implies not being emotional, excising such-and-such element from the shooting script, and was a true lesson in production for me. It was an artistic pragmatism that I respect.

How did you light the apartment that we see at the beginning of the trailer? 

BD: The apartment that Llewyn moves into at the beginning of the film faces east. I had to add a lot of light from the outside, not only to make sure that we had a steady amount of light as the day went on, but also in order to be able to have enough light indoors. To achieve that, I hung large panels of LEDs, sort of like little Dinolights, that were very powerful for LEDs and had adjustable intensity and colour temperature. Their light weight allowed us to hang them on either side of the windows from the floor above, something that would have been impossible with tungsten lights because of the weight of those traditional light sources.

Were you satisfied by the colour temperature of those panels?

BD: In general, I add a quarter CTS to Daylight light sources in order to correct the colour temperature. I will always prefer to mimic sunlight with Dinolights corrected with a quarter blue rather than a 6kW HMI or LEDs corrected with orange. But in the end, being pragmatic means that you also have to adapt yourself to the set and technical constraints. Also, digital colour grading gives us an enormous margin to play with in terms of colour later on down the road. Similarly, I no longer filter during shooting, unlike what I did on Amélie or A Very Long Engagement. I try to capture as much as possible and play around with the unadjusted negative during colour grading, but only using the colour and contrast settings, never using “windows” or localised effects.

You are one of the rare cinematographers who has not yet made the shift to digital... 

BD: I know that this may be my last film made using actual film...We know that Kodak’s death sentence has been suspended because of a sales agreement with the American studios that will be in force until 2015. But after that date, I don’t know what is going to happen. When we see that all the development chains are closing—that of Technicolor London was a symbol to me—I think that it will gradually become financially impossible to film using physical film without spending a fortune in transportation and logistics. Incidentally, I am preparing to film Tim Burton’s new film in Vancouver in July. Even though he loves physical film, nothing has yet been decided from a production standpoint. The closing of the laboratory in Vancouver means that we would have to send the dailies to Los Angeles and we will probably end up choosing digital, just because we don’t have the choice anymore.

So the studios have the power?

BD: They have the economic keys of survival... But since they are all becoming more an more focused on special effects films where regular film no longer has a role, I think that it’s game over...This is at the heart of the debate opened by Chris Doyle, HKSC, at the Oscars. Like Robert Richardson ASC, and other great American cinematographers, I think that the Academy should really divide the award for best cinematography into two categories: one for special effects films, and another for other films. That would be exactly like the period when there was a shift from black and white towards colour. I recently was able to discuss this with Guillermo Navarro, ASC, who is making the case for film to become designated as part of the World Heritage. This is a wonderful idea that would allow artists to have the choice between film and digital in the future, but also would force producers to save a copy of every digital film on actual film negative so that it could be preserved for future generations. This would mean that there would be hope for the survival of a couple photochemical laboratories on each continent and that way we could be able to continue developing film...

 (Interview conducted by François Reumont)

 Also read an interview with Bruno Delbonnel published in the supplement to Digital Film in issue 584 by Sonovision (May 2013).