Cinematographer Pierre Maïllis-Laval interviewed by Panavision France for the shooting of "Anti-Squat", by Nicolas Silhol

par Panavision Alga Contre-Champ AFC n°348

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Pierre Maïllis-Laval and Nicolas Silhol met at La Fémis Paris cinema school and worked together since on different projects. After the shooting of the feature length Anti-Squat, the cinematographer speaks with Panavision France about his work on the film.

How did you get involved in the project ?
Pierre Maïllis-Laval : I have known the director Nicolas Silhol for more than 20 years, we studied at La Fémis together, he in the Screenplay section and me in Image, from there was born our professional relationship and even our friendship. I was his camera operator on his short and medium films after we left school.

How would you describe the look of the project ? Were there any particular visual references that you looked to for inspiration ?
PML : Anti-Squat is a film that is both social and political, with a touch of thriller, which speaks to us about the present and which also aims to alert us to the future. Nicolas Silhol’s wish was to have a treatment that was not strictly naturalistic, to have image choices that gave a somewhat dystopian dimension to the story, with something dehumanized and futuristic. To give it the dimensions of a dark and anxiety-provoking fable, I would say poisonous. When we worked upstream on the look of the project and considered the treatment of light and the staging issues for the design of the cutting, Nicolas particularly insisted on three cinematographic references that obsessed him : Neighboring Sounds, by Kleber Mendonça Filho, Graduation, by Chrsitian Mungiu, and Loveless, by Andrey Svyagintsev.

On a more personal level, I found that the aesthetics of a film like Dan Gilroy’s Nightcall could be interesting and coherent for Nicolas’ project. The aesthetic characteristics of Anti-Squat are therefore a cold but colorful image, with a desire to play with chromatic contrasts, to keep marked dominants - and even a little aberrant - and deep, almost brilliant blacks. The sets being essentially an office building made of white and glass, with omnipresent horizontals and verticals, the challenge was to infuse touches of strangeness and unreality into a very prosaic universe.

Tell us about lighting
PML : For the exteriors, the winter lights helped us : with a low sun, locations, and a precise work plan, we managed to keep color even on the exterior days, with for example bluish dawns, twilights in fuchsia hues, the golden end of the afternoon, while keeping something dark, sad, a little gloomy. For the interiors, whether in day or night (the latter constituting a good part of the film) we worked to set up unrealistic lighting effects like marked counters, to lose the funds, to not always justify the sources, not to be afraid of a certain density. On this subject Louise Bourgoin teased me because I often refused to unblock her face and her eyes, to make her eyes shine. In fact, I wanted to mark her physically (which is not easy because she is so luminous - even solar - and her skin is so perfect !) and give her a wolf’s look, deep and elusive, with something of the order ancient statuary. The film takes place a lot at night and the story itself is full of lighting effects (switching on, off, flashlights, etc.) as if light itself were a dramaturgical issue from the script.

And the framing
PML : For the cutting, Nicolas wanted a rather broad framed film, so that the characters were always inscribed in the space, as if embedded in the places and even enslaved to them, as prisoners of an environment. He wanted to avoid tight shots as much as possible and avoided close-ups as much as possible. The setting was itself a reflection on dehumanization. There was also a stage dimension in his search for staging : bringing the group to life in a fixed and wide shot, like a theater stage - of which Nicolas is a great fan and a great connoisseur -, limiting the fields to the strict minimum /reverse shots in the axis and use the scope as a space for confrontation and conflict, with for example a leitmotif of face-to-face profiles.

Finally, another aspect of his directing approach was to shoot numerous sequences with elaborate sequence shots (even if in the end many cuts were ultimately made during editing). For example, we did several takes of a long hand-held sequence shot (the only one in the film, all the others being operated with a stabilization system) running, going down four floors, with fights in the corridors, which in the end was edited very cut, each shot retaining a part of this chaos and the truth of a scene not cut during filming.

And the tools ?
PML : As of the camera, we shot with the Alexa Mini because having to shoot a lot of shots with the StabOne, we needed a light and compact camera body, plus the transparent building put us at the mercy of discoveries difficult to manage, the response of the camera in the highlights was an asset, and in addition I also find it very good in its reproduction of details in the foot of the curve. As for the optics, with a film designed mainly in rather wide shots, with rather short focal lengths (but the 40mm remained largely in the majority), shot in this setting all in verticals and horizontals, with receding and frames in the frame, I absolutely wanted to shoot with Zeiss Master Prime anamorphic lenses. These optics offered me the greatest precision in respecting straight lines, I absolutely wanted to avoid any distortion, any optical aberration, however minimal it may be. Always in this logic of dehumanization, to have an optical rendering that has nothing organic. And their slightly sharp side didn’t bother me because this sharpness went in the direction of a somewhat clinical image. Well, I still filtered them with a Black Satin series.

I had done some tests beforehand, and I loved the black satin, giving a slightly shiny look, with a nice effect on blacks and obviously on the sources in the field. I asked Louise if there were any filters that she particularly liked, and it turns out that she answered me by telling me about this series. I saw a sign in the concordance of his desires and my preliminary tests : these were really the filters we needed. Finally, as for the sequence shots, I wanted to do them with StabOne. The film’s budget did not allow us to secure the services of a Stedicam operator even though there were many sequences shot in sequence shots, so I operated them myself with a tool that I knew well. In fact, I had shot with the StabOne for the film White Paradise, by Guillaume Renusson. After operating in 40cm of powder and -10 °C I was able to realise the reliability of this machine, of which I appreciate certain functionalities and the compactness (which allowed us, for example, to shoot shots in a car by fixing it on a tracking shot and controlling it with a remote).

What brought you to Panavision for this project ?
PML : What led us to work with Panavision on this project were the unanimous desires of different people. On the one hand I have known Alexis Petkovsek for a long time (the time of short films) and I really like him, I had shot the feature film White Paradise, the year before, and the collaboration with Alexis and Pana had been great, for a very demanding film shot in the difficult conditions of the mountains and snow. I knew that I would have his sympathetic ear in the context of a project with a very tight budget for which I nevertheless wanted to maintain strong aesthetic ambitions. The production director Louise Krieger (I would like to take this opportunity to salute her remarkable work because it was not easy to satisfy everyone, which in the end was the case) maintains a strong and trusting professional relationship. with Nicolas Bouchard.

Finally, the production company Kazak and its producer Jean-Christophe Reymond have worked with Panavision for a long time. It is all these loyalties that have allowed the film to retain all its ambition despite strong budgetary constraints, with all parties truly committed to ensuring that the project is done as well as possible. Efforts to understand and be flexible were made by each person to understand the reasons and limits of the other. In the end I was a happy director of photography thanks to all these people and the film retains its initial cinematographic ambitions.

Tell us about your background and what inspired you to become a cinematographer...
PML : I knew quite early on that I wanted to work in cinema (my parents were teachers), so I followed a school path such as the CAV section and baccalaureate at high school, then DEUG (in Paris III) and finally the Image section at La Fémis from which I graduated in 2005. Throughout this journey which runs from adolescence to the beginnings of adulthood I believe that the constant has been an ever more in-depth reflection on division. The desire to understand what made (or not) the coherence, the accuracy, and the strength of a production, whatever it was, whether it was Nanni Moretti or John MacTiernan. It was at La Fémis that I did my first purely technical, theoretical, and practical learning. I have strong memories of certain head-ops who left an impression on me through their way of working or envisioning the image : I am thinking of people like Bruno Nuytten, Yorgos Arvanitis, AFC, GSC, Ricardo Aronovich, AFC, ADF, and his zone-system, or even Pierre Lhomme, AFC.

But I was still young, and I had difficulty defining myself, which means that Femis also had an ambivalent role in my career : it put me off a little from cinema and therefore distanced me from fiction. A certain cinema with annoying postures, often abstruse and a little "bourgeois", films without dramaturgy and above ground gave me a somewhat restricted, narrow, and undoubtedly false vision of what our professions could be. I told myself at that time that it would not be on fiction sets that I would experience strong emotions, that I would experience experiences that would make me grow as a man, that I would find a certain adrenaline, in short that I would my learning about the world. And as I have always liked the purely physical dimension of the frame, as I am an active person and as I am also passionate about documentaries, I resolutely oriented myself towards this practice when leaving the school. It was as much an adhesion and a need for reality as a reaction to a certain fiction, a certain French cinema with intellectual postures but ultimately not that intelligent. There began the part of my career almost exclusively devoted to documentaries. I saw things there and experienced very strong emotions ; in fact, I filmed life. I have made numerous trips to the four corners of the world, observing and filming landscapes, people, their faces, and their gestures. I scanned the world to draw frameworks. I filmed death, power, violence, or grief, but also attended births, had access to the interiors and intimacy of so many people, by whom I had to be accepted, me and my camera. All this nourished me and made me grow. But I always kept within me this taste for fiction and an appetite for technique, I wanted to return to the thought of cutting, reflection on staging, the tools, and processes specific to the image in fiction.

My friend and now illustrious cinematographer Julien Poupard, AFC (we met at La Fémis) always encouraged me to return to fiction and to do what he believed I should do : put my skills - my look, my brain, and my body - at the service of directors and their film projects. I have the impression that it’s a bit thanks to him that I returned to fiction. Despite my move into documentaries, he has always shown great confidence in me by calling on me as a camera operator from his first feature films until today. We worked together (me as camera operator or second unit ops director) with various directors like Ladj Ly (Les Misérables or Les Indésirables, which comes out next December), Roschdy Zem, Claire Burger and Houda Benyamina. I would like to take advantage of this interview to pay him a vibrant tribute and thank him for his lifelong trust in me. So it’s been a few years since I returned to fiction, working as a cinematographer (Trop d’amour, by Frankie Wallach produced by Agat films, White Paradise, by Guillaume Renusson and Anti-Squat, the last one that I signed for cinematography), but also as a camera operator or second team ops director (among others Les Misérables, Les Indésirables, by Ladj Ly therefore, Mektoub, my love, by Abdellatif Kechiche, Quand tu seras grand, by Andréa Bescond and Eric Métayer, Stay with Us, by Gad Elmaleh, Our Ties, by Roschdy Zem).

What inspires you today ?
PML : Now I aspire to continue this path by serving directors as a director of photography. Meet new people, dive into their world, help them as an artistic and technical collaborator in their unique adventures, consider different aesthetic approaches, embrace different staging systems. In short, participating in a cinema that speaks about the world and to the world, committed and engaging. But I would also like to continue to play on my background and my somewhat plural and protean profile by putting myself as a camera operator at the service and under the direction of other cinematographers, I really like this position. Or even by putting myself at the service of directors on documentary projects, I would like to be able to continue to shoot both fiction and documentaries (in fact I have just returned from several weeks spent in the DRC for a film which will be released in theaters on next year).

Any last words to add ?
PML : To conclude this interview about the release of Antisquat I would like to emphasize and reiterate my thanks to a few people for what they gave me on this project, through their (great) skill and their (good) energy. First, I want to thank Nicolas Silhol for his desire and his trust, for this idyllic collaboration that was ours. And then have a word for my team : to my assistant camera Raphaël Palin Saint-Agathe (who is really the assistant that every DoP dreams of I think), to Baptiste Brousse, the gaffer, who did a great job on this project and who gave his all, to Elie Akoka, the colorist whose precision of eye and speed in the work were more than valuable assets, we had already worked on two films together before and each time it has been a brilliant collaboration (on the sidelines I am on his back nitpicking over details but his demands are such that he pushes the sliders even further). To Thibault Carterot and his M141 lab who, as usual, provided a very high-quality service in a great state of mind. And finally, I would like to thank Panavision, for its support of the film.