Cinematographer Claire Mathon, AFC, discusses her work on Alain Guiraudie’s film “Staying Vertical”

[English] [français]

Filming nature and man’s relationship to it is one of the bases of Alain Guiraudie’s filmography. After Stranger by the Lake, which won the prize for Best Director at Un certain regard at Cannes in 2013, the director shot his fifth feature-length film in the Lozère, the Marais Poitevin, and Brest. Staying Vertical, a movie about wolves, paternity, and loss of status is in competition for the Golden Palm at the 69th annual Cannes Film Festival this year.

Claire Mathon, AFC, was responsible for the visuals of Stranger by the Lake, and is working with Alain Guiraudie a second time on this film. She discusses the adventure of making this new movie, which is a new accomplishment in her exciting career making movies with the likes of Maïwenn, Alix Delaporte, Louis Garrel, and Bruno Podalydès. (BB)

Leo is looking for a wolf on a limestone plateau in the Lozère when he meets a shepherdess, Marie. Very soon, they have a child together, but their idyll is short-lived because a few months later, Leo finds himself alone with their child on his arms. It’s complicated, but deep down, he’s happy. He doesn’t work much during that time, and slowly sinks into poverty. His loss of social status brings him back to the limestone plateaus of the Lozère and the wolf.
Starring Damien Bonnard, India Hair, Raphaël Thierry, Laure Calamy.

Claire Mathon sur le tournage de"Rester vertical", d’Alain Guiraudie
Photo Emmanuelle Jacobson-Roques

The night scenes seem real, it’s very beautiful and surprising.

Claire Mathon : After Stranger by the Lake, which was filmed using only natural lighting, Alain imagined night scenes shot outdoors in the nature, only lit using moonlight. In order to make that happen, we needed a very sensitive camera. Panasonic had just released its 5000 ISO Varicam 35. We did screen tests a month before shooting began, and the results were surprising.
Most of the time, the night is cold and monochromatic. The images that we filmed when the moon was full were warm and the colours were present. It was surprising, the stars and the blue tones in the sky made us want to film the scenes in the film with this lighting.
Of course, we didn’t know whether we’d be able to take advantage of the full moon during shooting, but that became our reference. We’d planned to shoot in day-for-night if the weather was bad. We were lucky and most of the nights in the film were lit using moonlight.
In the end, they weren’t so warm, but I tried to keep the skin-tones on screen, and also the yellow-green of the grass. I was obliged to keep cold tones especially in order to maintain coherency with the indoors night scenes filmed during the full moon because they lose their nocturnal appearance once they’ve been neutralized. It’s harder to make the night look natural indoors.

But choosing to film using the real full moon must have enormously reduced the time you had available to film !

CM : Yes ! The full moon only happens one day per month ! And even so, there have to be no clouds ! We’d decided to also film the day before and the day after the date of the full moon. We were very aware that it was very limiting to film using the “real” full moon. So there were shots that were only filmed using moonlight, and others with a bit of additional lighting, others at dusk and also some in day-for-night. Our screen-tests allowed me to define the colours, the density, and the material of the night shots and prepared me for juxtaposing them. My work with Christophe Bosquet, the colour timer (with whom I had already worked on Stranger by the Lake), was very important for these scenes.
It was a strange experience to work on so many different levels ! The gaffer, Ernesto Giolitti, and I, had imagined a very weak light source but big enough to imitate the quality of moonlight : strips of LEDS reflecting off of black. I wondered for a long time, “if you can see the entire image, and I keep a warmer tone than what one is used to seeing, won’t people think the scenes were filmed at dawn or in daylight ? Will people believe it is nighttime ? ”
Sometimes, when things are natural, they seem curiously artificial.

Fortunately, there are the real stars – and you really see that they’re real ! – that show us that it’s really night time ! Did you also use the Varicam for other scenes ?

CM : No, I only used that camera for the night shots in the full moon. The film was shot using a RED Dragon. I added a bit of texture, a bit of the noise of the Varicam, for the night shots that we faked and filmed with the Dragon, and dosed it according to the shot.
Furthermore, the day-for-night scenes had to be edited together with the real night scenes. Alain and I often discussed the different ways we could deal with the day-for-night shots and we decided we had to do it without any sunlight.

You really feel how important the places and the spaces are in this film.
CM : Sometimes, I feel like Alain is a geographer-filmmaker ! The three regions in the film really have a specific feeling. We wanted to make the image look yellowed and worn by the sunlight of the Causse, the grey of the city of Brest, and the vibrant green of the Marais Poitevin. I had a feeling the image shouldn’t be too colourful, too saturated, in order to give the film a timeless feel.

The relationship to space and time is rather vague. Was that done on purpose ?

CM : Indeed, we didn’t geographically tie the spaces together and the passage of time is rather vague. Only the child marks the passage of time. We had to make the seasons and the passage of time felt without forcing it, without underlining it.
On the other hand, the times of day are clearly shown. We didn’t hesitate to accentuate dawn, dusk, and the early evening in colour timing.

How did you light the indoors shots, which look really natural ?

CM : The experience of Stranger by the Lake made me want to recreate the same simplicity on the indoors shots, to leave the light outside of the space so that I could work as I do in natural lighting. Outdoors, we accepted that the light might be variable and that every moment would be unique. I tried to replicate that indoors, and allow the lighting to live in its own way even when spotlights replaced the sun. Oftentimes, we tend to set a directionality to the lighting, find the right set-up, and lock the lighting in place indoors.

Can you explain how you shot the scene with the wolves ?

CM : Alain is used to cutting the scenes up beforehand. We filmed using only one camera. There were a lot of constraints, physical barriers around the wolves and wires to separate the wolves from the actors and the wolves from the cameras. The wires were edited out in postproduction. The scene was filmed over the course of one day, from sunrise to sunset. It was a true feat to imagine how we would edit together the shots filmed at noon with those filmed at dusk, since the entire scene is supposed to take place at dawn. Set-up, movements, everything took a lot of time.
During shooting, I tried to maximise the number of situations filmed in backlighting or in side-lighting when the light was low, and to play with flashes. I took advantage of the heavy work we did in postproduction to add shadows and give the feeling that everything was happening at sunrise.

In conclusion ?

CM : I was lucky that the dailies were colour-timed by the film’s colour timer. It was a way to develop a dialogue and get close to the final result during shooting. I sent daily notes, we’d discuss the images. Reading over our communication during colour timing, I noted this saying by Soulages – whose museum isn’t far from the Causses – “It is what I do that teaches me what it is that I seek.”

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