Cinematographer John Davey speaks about "Un couple", a film by Frederick Wiseman

By Madelyn Most, for the AFC

[ English ] [ français ]

“Taking pictures was always a passion that I had. For me the best job on a film crew has always been operating a camera. I adore operating, I love the challenges. Capturing images that you hope and pray people will enjoy looking at gives me great satisfaction. It gives a feeling of joy looking through the viewfinder. I’ve been so lucky.”

Un couple is the first French narrative feature film from the award-winning American documentarian, and former law Professor Fred Wiseman, who co-wrote the screenplay with French actor Nathalie Boutefeu. It premiered in Competition at the 79th Venice International Film Festival in September and the New York Film Festival in October. Like most Wiseman’s films, it was photographed by his long-time cinematographer, the Englishman John Davey.

Frederick Wiseman, Nathalie Boutefeu et John Davey, première au Festival de Venise, en 2022
Frederick Wiseman, Nathalie Boutefeu et John Davey, première au Festival de Venise, en 2022

Fred Wiseman is considered to be one of America’s most important documentary filmmakers who, at almost 93 years of age, continues to make one film a year.
During his 55 year career, he has authored more than 45 films, 43 of which were documentaries of which 33 were photographed by John Davey. Wiseman famously directs, produces, records the sound, and edits his trademark lengthy films that can be anywhere from 3-6 hours from his Paris cutting room.

Frederick Wiseman, avec son Honorary Award de l'AMPAS, et John Davey, en 2016
Frederick Wiseman, avec son Honorary Award de l’AMPAS, et John Davey, en 2016

Receiving an Honorary Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) in 2016, Wiseman said : “The variety and complexity of the human behaviour observed in making one film is staggering, I think it is as important to show kindness, civility and generosity of spirit as it is to show cruelty, banality or indifference”. Wiseman’s documentaries observe and examine institutions, and the raw uncensored scenes in his earliest films like Titicut Follies, Law and Order, Juvenile Court, and Primate caused considerable scandal, shock, and discomfort to audiences. Wiseman films are famous for having “No Narration, No Interviews, No Commentary”. He dislikes the terms observational cinema, cinema verite’ or Direct cinema but he sometimes calls his films “Reality Fictions”.

Wiseman and Boutefeu are good friends who previously collaborated on the French theatre production of Emily Dickinson’s The Belle of Amherst, in 2012. Boutefeu showed Wiseman her adaption of The Diaries of Sophia Tolstoy that they gradually transformed into a screenplay whereby Boutefeu as Sophia, reveals episodes of her unhappy turbulent life with Count Leo Tolstoy, Russia’s greatest writer, whom she married in 1852 when she was 18 years old. This 63 minute film is extremely short by Wiseman standards, it is a monologue from a woman who is also an accomplished writer, intellectual, and pioneer photographer in Russia in the late 1800s, and who bore her husband 13 children. Boutefeu delivers an intense and impassioned performance as Sophia suffering under the shadow of the great man. Nathalie Boutefeu says… “L’idée est venue des milliers d’heures de conversations que Fred et moi avons eues sur l’art et la vie de couple, l’amour, le partage de la liberté, du territoire, de la création...”

Nathalie Boutefeu dans "Un couple"
Nathalie Boutefeu dans "Un couple"

John Davey started working with Wiseman in 1978 when Bill Brayne, Wiseman’s cinematographer of 10 years, went directing and recommended Davey. Their first film together was Manoeuvre, in 1978, following a tank platoon from Louisiana to West Germany for War Games with Russia, that was shot in B&W on a 16mm Éclair NPR camera. “Since that time, I’ve photographed about 33 films for Fred over a period of 44 years : 27 in the U.S., 9 in New York, 1 in London and 4 in France. In terms of footage on Fred’s films, I’ve shot about 6 million feet of 16mm B&W, and colour film, and about 1,500-2,000 hours of digital since La Danse, in 2008, the award-winning documentary inside l’Opera Garnier, the last film we made on celluloid”, he says.

John Davey’s career spans over 50 years and has brought him international recognition, Emmy Awards for News and Documentaries, and Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography. Born in England, raised in South Wales, Davey discovered stills photography as a young boy. He studied medicine but left to join the film industry and became a freelance cameraman on current affairs, documentaries, pop promos, TV dramas, commercials, music and anthropology films. Davey became a partner in Alan King Associates, London’s largest independent documentary, film, and TV company with fellow associates Bill Brayne, Christian Wangler, Peter Moseley, Mike Dodds, Ivan Sharrock, Iain Bruce, Mike Davis (father of Ben), Bruce White, John Davey, David John, Alan Jones, Richard Key, Clive Tickner and former associates Alan King, Richard Leiterman, Chris Menges, Roger Graef, Roland Joffe, and Nic Knowland, where they all collaborated on each other’s fiction and non-fiction film projects.

Un couple has been gestating for a while, I remember in 2020, when we were shooting City Hall, Fred asked me if it was possible to shoot a feature film with a documentary crew… and I think I laughed. When he asked me to shoot the film, I initially turned it down-It was the height of the Covid pandemic and there was no travel outside the U.K. Because of Brexit, I couldn’t work in France without a work permit/Visa, and it would be necessary to obtain Carnets for the camera equipment from England. Most importantly, I hadn’t fully recovered from Covid and I wasn’t very keen because my schoolboy French was only basic. Fred put together a fantastic French crew that spoke perfect English so finally, I agreed”, adds Davey.

“There was no time for a recce. Fred said we’d be shooting all exteriors in a ‘friend’s garden’ on Belle-île-en-Mer in May when the flowers are in full bloom and colourful, but this garden turned out to be a vast domain with many hectares of woodlands, fields, forests, hills, lakes, and ponds. The crew consisted of Fred, Nathalie the co-writer and actor, Jean-Paul Mugel, the sound recordist, Andra Tevy, the 1st camera assistant, Chantal Pernecker, script supervisor, Alice Henne, the DIT, who doubled as a second assistant, and Jane-Marie Franklyn, as an all-round production assistant. It was the breeding season for frogs and they made an almighty racket so when we shot by the lake, one of Jane’s jobs, besides helping me, Andra, Nathalie and Fred, was throwing stones to get them to shut up” Davey adds.

“We shot 35 sequences in 17 days ! That is working very fast, considering the weather and the lighting conditions were constantly changing. Most days might start off with sun and blue skies, then clouds would come over and it could start raining… so that’s challenging for maintaining lighting continuity. Fred had a little radio video link monitor around his neck, but it’s difficult to really see images clearly or pick up the details when the skies are so bright. There was no time beforehand to do tests for hair/makeup/costumes : we went straight into shooting. I usually shoot in 1.85, but my friend Dick Pope suggested the 2.39 widescreen format to use the negative space to emphasize the loneliness and isolation of the character. Fred liked the idea and said : ’That’s exactly what the film is about’.”

“I chose the Arri Amira for its incredible dynamic range of about 14 stops, and a few Optimo zooms, and a set of Cooke Prime lenses. The Arri Amira copes better than some other digital cameras and it is also quite rugged. My priority was to pay attention to the exposure and not let the sky burn out too much. If there were clouds in the sky, it’s possible to bracket and bring up details in the DI, and pull back details of clouds. I took all the usual things : ND grads, hard and soft edge filters, but it was an uneven, staggered horizon, so there was always the risk that the sky could burn out.”

”Fred prefers static shots, he doesn’t like to have pans, zooms, tilts. ’Nothing fancy’, he says. He wants minimal camera movement. I would have loved to do some subtle tracking shots but it would have been impossible because of the terrain and we would have needed more crew. For Un couple Fred preferred to shoot each scene in 3 sizes. First, in a wide master shot, then in a medium, and then a closeup. If Nathalie was walking through the woods, or standing at the edge of a cliff, or sitting in a field, we would shoot it 2 or 3 separate times, slightly changing frame size or camera position. Fred likes to have choices and to make the editorial decisions in the cutting room and not on set ; he wants to study the performance and how the lines were delivered. For me, this sometimes presented a challenge. I’d shoot the master in sunlight, and once we’d get that done, things might change depending on the weather with lots of strong winds with cloud formations accumulating. In harsh light with the sun directly overhead, you see all those horrible shadows under the nose or chin. On the wide shots, there wasn’t really much I could do, but on the medium, or close-ups, I used a small silk to diffuse and soften the strong sunlight. Sharp eyes will pick out the bright light in the wide shot, but notice a difference when we cut to a medium or close-up. When I explain my concerns to Fred, he replies, ’Well, Gilles can do his magic’.”

“Gilles Granier at Le Labo in Paris has been grading our films for the last 10 years. He uses Lightworks software and he is really good at fixing these situations in the final grade. Before we started shooting, Gilles put together a setting of LUTs that we literally programmed into the camera 3-4 hours before we started shooting, and I think it worked very well. Gilles asked me not to fiddle with the iris when the sun is going in and out during shots. He says it’s better to just leave it and he’ll sort it out afterward in post. When you think something is burning out, the Amira’s incredible dynamic range can cope with details tucked away. Gilles was also able to paint out a tiny figure in the far distance walking on the beach, and on the cliffs that I didn’t spot at the time. A DI cannot cure bad cinematography, but you can do an enormous amount to improve the image in post.”

“Gilles is very used to dealing with me and Fred as he has graded about 8 of my films for Fred before. He knows there will be a lot of back-and-forth banter between us about the image and ‘the look’ of the film. Fred likes images that are bright, colourful, detailed, sharp, with less contrast. He likes to see some details of faces in the shadows. I’m usually happy to let it go but I think this can be a problem with the technology that’s now available. He wants me to shoot it straight, it’s always 24 fps. and he doesn’t want ‘the distraction of ‘fiddling around’. He has rigidly stuck to that philosophy for 44 years. I usually prefer a darker, more contrasty, de-saturated image that is a bit moody and textured. Eventually, we work it out, but, Fred is the director - it’s his show, so I go along with it.”

“Towards the end of the schedule, Fred agreed to do some interiors and in fact, it’s the very last sequence of the film. It is a night interior in the attic of a barn where Sophia is writing letters in her diary that is lit by double-wick candles, and there is another sequence lit with my grandmother’s old oil lamp that I brought out from England. I used these along with a Panel light as a very soft fill, that was just out of frame with half straw and black wrap around the edges so that light didn’t spill on the background. Panel lights were also handy when the light dropped off in late afternoon/early evening and we had to complete the scene. These small lights run on batteries or on mains, tungsten or daylight, which allowed me to give the image, and specifically her face, a little lift.”

“We also did the DI in record time. The film is one hour and 3 minutes and we did the entire DI over a weekend which is pretty amazing. The results are okay, it’s not brilliant. There are a few nice shots in the film… but I don’t think I’ve ever been satisfied with anything I’ve shot.”

“With Fred, you’ve got to be ready to turn over at any time. He wanted me to pick up shots of Nathalie when she was just thinking about the next sequence, contemplating, walking around rehearsing her lines. There are never enough cutaways for Fred and in this film, he wanted to capture ‘the biological world’. Having photographed so many nature and wildlife films for the BBC, National Geographic, or Discovery, I grabbed lots of close-ups of birds, frogs, flowers, plants, ants and insects. Both Fred and I love abstract shots, so I shot things like silhouettes of trees swaying in the wind, shadows, reflections on the water, clouds passing over, waves crashing. The idea was to emphasize the contrast, the harshness, animals trying to survive, the rocks, the rough terrain. Nathalie was very brave, having to act and deliver her lines while walking along the cliff edge where a meter to her right or left might be a drop of several hundred feet.”

“Fred will decide on a particular sequence to shoot, but once we start filming, he is absorbed in recording sound. I know how he wants me to shoot it, so I’ll have complete freedom to shoot whatever I feel will give him the footage he wants to see once he’s in his cutting room. Fred encourages me to do my own thing. 99% of the time, I choose the lights and set them up myself as we rarely have a gaffer. When Fred is recording sound, he’s in his own world listening to conversations and always recording unusual wild tracks, but although we rarely talk whilst we’re shooting, sometimes we make the occasional eye contact. We’ve developed quite a large vocabulary of visual ‘looks’ and we always know what messages we are sending each other.”

Davey says Wiseman always wants to have plenty of choices in the edit and likes him to shoot a lot of footage, but he only uses about 3% of what they shoot. Over the course of 2 or 3 months, that can amount to 150 hours of material that is edited down to a 3 hour film. He says it can be a bit frustrating knowing that 97% of what you have shot ends up on the cutting room floor, when you have photographed so many beautiful images that never appear in the film, (which is a universal dilemma that resonates with many cinematographers).

“When we shoot on film, and the light drops off, I’ll show Fred the needle of my light meter that is barely moving and explain that the image will be dark, grainy, flat, barely visible… and he says : ’If it’s no good, I won’t use it, but why don’t you shoot it anyway ?’
Film is forgiving and there is usually some kind of an image, but in the end, those sequences often appear in the final cut. When I mention my concerns to Fred, that my friends and colleagues will think I am a lousy cinematographer, he says… ’Well, no one has ever complained to me’.”