"Not-too-torrid Sierra", by François Reumont for the AFC

Cinematographer José Luis Alcaine discusses his work on Asghar Farhadi’s "Everybody Knows"

[ English ] [ français ]

After having shot his last film in France, Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi decided on Spain for his latest film, a family thriller that is reminiscent both of classical tragedy and westerns. A family behind closed doors in a village of the sierra outside of Madrid, set amongst grape harvests, passions, and jealousies. The great Spanish (and French-speaking) cinematographer José Luis Alcaine is opening this year’s Competition at Cannes with this authentic firework display of actors and cinematography. (FR)
Ashgar Farhadi, Pénélope Cruz et José Luis Alcaine sur le tournage de "Todos lo sabem" - Photo Teresa Isasi
Ashgar Farhadi, Pénélope Cruz et José Luis Alcaine sur le tournage de "Todos lo sabem"
Photo Teresa Isasi

How do you prepare your films ?

First of all, I’m against overpreparation. I think that it gives so much structure to the movie that it becomes stiff… On Everybody Knows, for example, I admit that I didn’t spend more than four days preparing. To be fair, I’d just finished shooting another project and I was rushing to catch up ! In the famous book Hitchcock Truffaut, which a lot of filmmakers and film-lovers know by heart, the master of suspense said that he set his films up in his mind before he’d begun shooting, and so everything was already planned out. I think that that method, with the aid of tools like storyboards, works well for thrillers or action movies, but not for films that are all about human contact, as are Ashgar’s. Following the movie, accompanying his story at the level of the sequence, the scene, the shot… not hesitating to change the image whenever necessary as the story moves forward, that’s my credo as far as cinematography is concerned.

Any recent influences ?

I see a lot of films that are certainly good films from a technical standpoint… but I don’t see a lot of images that take me by surprise. I’ve got the feeling that the great majority of filmmakers is complacently satisfied with a uniform style that consists of putting green in the shadows, and which, in my opinion, restricts one to the technical side of things. Not even to mention the fashion of constantly shooting at maximum aperture, with the depth of field of a pinhead, which creates a sort of pre-digested image for the viewer. With that aesthetic, the viewer is being led down a predetermined path, a bit as though he were being spoon-fed from little jars of baby food. What I like is leaving the initiative to the viewers.
Shooting at 8 or 11 aperture and providing material to the eye in depth and to the brain so that it can wander about inside of the image. I believe the craze for a shallow depth of field is a product of advertising and the invasion of little screens on which people are becoming accustomed to seeing images. In such cases, the consumer’s eye has to be directed to a specific place, and nowhere else. It’s totally hogwash if you want to make real cinema on the big screen. I think you’ve got to let viewers choose what they want to see. Allow them to have a point of view different from the one the image obliges them to have. You’ve got to have them participate in the very heart of the story and let them become part of it as though they were another character. So to speak, we’ve got to give them back the freedom they used to have years ago.

So how do you go about doing that whilst shooting ?

Of course, primarily in function of what I read in the screenplay ! My first step, no matter the film, is to carefully read the script and for each scene, to make a note of the time of day at which I imagine that scene takes place. Stage directions to that effect in the screenplay are nonsensical to me. Why limit ourselves to those four variants : int day int night / ext day ext night ? If you’re going to give indications, shouldn’t you more precisely indicate the time of day ? So, once I’ve done that job of picking apart the time, I move forward by discovering the sets and I gradually build the lighting of the film by adapting it to each scene, each set, and each hour of the day during which the story takes place.

Is it the set that determines the lighting ?

To a certain extent, yes. My position on windows in a set is quite clear. I don’t like dazzling windows overflowing with white light because I think what’s behind them also helps define a set and a part of the story taking place on the screen. So, I try to create a window through which you can see what’s outside. It’s very easy, and very quick, to transform them into dazzling sources of light, without detail. But it’s so enriching for the film to play with the view on the outdoors in your image. You give viewers more information that way and you bore them less. The scene where Carolina (Penélope Cruz) finally decides to call her husband on the phone to inform him of the tragedy : we’re in her bedroom, and I’d noted in the screenplay that it was around noon. The camera saw the window, and a part of the village beyond… 
Since I’d seen, during the tests, that she would have her head slightly pointing towards the ground (because she was on the phone), the most elegant way of lighting the scene was to have a low source of light. So, I decided to put a spot outside up high directed towards the ground to recreate the noon sun hitting the floor and the white bedsheets. The sheets served as soft natural reflector that lit the actress’ face from below. You see, that’s how you can simultaneously the story of temporality at the level of the film, the requirements imposed by staging at the level of the scene, and the challenge of correctly lighting the star actress !

This seems to be the first time Penélope Cruz accepted to play a woman older than 40 on screen. Was it easy to film her in that role ?

The way directors go about staging has an enormous impact on the lighting work and on the actresses. If you watch films shot fifty years ago, during the great era of Hollywood stars, there were no close-ups that weren’t stills… the lighting – always backlit – was so sophisticated with all the flags, Charlie bars, and blankets, that you couldn’t imagine moving the camera at the same time. The optimal aperture was even determined in function of those close-ups, and it couldn’t be changed.
Now, we cinematographers are in a very different position because the camera is often being held from the shoulder and literally follows the action and the performance. We can’t always create the lighting that would ideally magnify the actresses. Outdoors, unless you’ve got the rare chance of working with Terrence Malick or Alejandro Iñárritu, we almost never wait for the ideal time to film a shot anymore… Oh yes, but come to think of it… Pedro Almodovar has his own method of filming women. He never begins shooting before 1 p.m. Of course, that presents other logistical challenges, but at least you’ve got the time you need to do the stars’ makeup and you don’t begin filming them straight out of bed !

During the first third of the film, the light is suddenly cut off. You no longer directly intervene in the story !

That’s a very important sequence in the film and it was also a technical challenge. Indeed, how can you produce light in a little village lost in the countryside when there’s a general power outage ? Happily, the situation of the wedding party provided the solution of candlelight traditionally found in that type of situation. But it’s not enough for all of the scenes, especially the ones that take place outside of the house. So, I chose the option of moonlight. Perhaps it was a bit artificial, but it worked well as a counterpoint to the inside of the house. It also signalled the potential danger with the arrival of the rain. Then, Ashgar had the directorial idea of having an electrical generator show up, which changes the lighting in the scene again and signals the passage of time. I had to fight a bit to maintain a minimum amount of realism in the situation. Everyone knows that when you’ve got a general power outage, you don’t just plug a portable generator into a house’s electric meter to make all of the lights magically turn on again…

The sequence in the car that follows is very graphic and also very dramatic.

For that night-time car chase, I really wanted it to look like John Ford’s Stagecoach. A sort of Western without horses, where everyone’s looking for the lost woman. Everything is filmed inside of the cars in very low light, with a combination of Smartlight LEDs that I really like for the adjustments they allow at the lower end of the curve. There was also another night-time sequence in the house’s attic, again with Penélope and her mobile phone, which was entirely lit with SL1s, which we’d set to 1% brightness… Then, for the first time ever, I also used one of the battery-powered LED Smartlights on a stationary flying drone. It was for the outdoor night-time shot at the end of the film, when you see the character of the young mother fording the river. Practically speaking, the foliage was so dense on the other side of the river that it was impossible for us to set up even a single spot in the woods. That novel, albeit rather noisy, solution really did come in handy there.

What about your work with colour ?

Just as I like to adjust the lighting inside the story, I like to constantly adjust the camera’s colour temperature. I think that there isn’t a single scene shot at 5500 or 3200. The settings were constantly moving between the two, and beyond, as I adjusted them based on the monitor. Moreover, ever since I’ve been filming in digital, I don’t use a lightmeter anymore. I know some cinematographers still keep an eye on the oscilloscope or the vectorscope, but I decided to abandon all technical apparatuses besides the monitor. I literally create the lighting in function of what I am seeing, and I play with the aperture using a Preston or Arri optical transfer. This requires a good, well-calibrated monitor, but I’ve yet to experience any problems with this method. It’s my way of giving the art of lighting the importance it ought to have, no matter what new technologies may impact our work.

How do you correctly view your image ?

I have an assistant who plays the role of DIT and who aligns the image, especially the blacks. He quickly generates dailies that are identical to what we saw on set, and provides an almost-fully-colour-timed image when it comes time to make the director’s cut. In post-production, I rarely spend more than five days colour-grading thanks to this method.

Tell us a bit about the scene around the fireplace…

That scene is another turning point in the story. The family is beginning to settle its scores and it’s the first time everyone is together in the same room. I believe the idea of having a fire burning in the fireplace was Asghar Farhadi’s. Then we quickly agreed on the bluish morning ambience that provides a counterpoint to the fire. Once again, shot between 5.6 and 8, the flames have more body and don’t veer into whiteness. The blue coming inside from outdoors allows the eye to latch on to a reference point and makes the fire effect even warmer. The main constraint for me was how to create the right lighting for everyone at the same time, in order to allow me to go from one actor to another and to adapt myself to the meaning of the scene. It was also a sequence that evoked the cold that was arriving with the coming of autumn in that high-altitude village.

Your nights are very soft and yet they have contrast…

In fact, I’ve observed that at night, even though moonlight can intermittently resemble sunlight, with strong shadows, the low level of light causes the eye to fail to really discern colours (passing from the cones to the rods), the pupil broadens and contrast is lost. It was in that spirit that I tried to recreate the nights at the end of the film, with a soft but intermittent lighting, that changes gradually until dawn for the scene on the bridge. A little story about that scene : it had to be filmed twice, about ten days apart… not easy when you’re working on a dawn scene with so many shots and intense things that have to be acted. An incredible stroke of good luck – which sometimes happens on films – is that we were blessed with two days of grey weather, while all the rest of the film was shot under a cloudless sky !

Laura returns to her native village in Spain’s wine country with her children to attend her sister’s wedding. But unexpected events occur during her stay that cause a long-buried past to surface once again.

(Interview conducted by François Reumont, in the behalf of the AFC, and translated from French by Alexander Baron-Raiffe)

Everybody Knows
Producers : Alavaro Longoria and Alexandre Mallet-Guy
Director : Ashgar Farhadi
Cinematographer : Jose Luis Alcaine
Set Designer : Maria Clara Notari
Sound Engineer : Daniel Fontrodona
Editing : Hayeded Safiyar