Cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, PSC, discusses work on Natalie Portman’s film “A Tale of Love and Darkness”

Sand and stones

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While for many the name Slawomir Idziak, PSC remains associated with the visuals of his compatriot Kristof Kieslowski’s 1993 film Three Colours : Blue, the Polish cinematographer has since enjoyed a distinguished international career (alongside Andrew Niccol on Gattaca, Ridley Scott on Black Hawk Down, and David Yates on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). He now returns to the forefront of the Cannes scene with A Tale of Love and Darkness, Israeli actress Natalie Portman’s highly anticipated adaptation of the eponymous novel by Amos Oz. (FR)
Natalie Portman et Slawomir Idziak sur le tournage d’"Une histoire d’amour et de ténèbres"

What is the subject of the movie ?

Slawomir Idziak : The film is the adaptation of an Israeli novel that had a huge international success. It is a 600 page-long very dense work in which the author — who is now 70 years old — tells the story of his life. Via his story, the reader is given a portrait of Israeli society, history, and its development as a nation. The novel also talks a lot about the author’s relationship with his mother, who is, in a way, the main character of both the book and the movie, and who is played by Natalie Portman herself.

What was it like when you first met Natalie Portman ?

SI : I was delighted to have been chosen by Natalie to work on her film. It’s true that at first I was a bit afraid. During my career, I’ve had some experience on international films, and I know how actors can sometimes behave ! But Natalie is nothing like that. Although she is a superstar and an international icon of fashion and luxury, Natalie is really a hard worker who doesn’t rest on her laurels. 

And moreover, she is an absolutely delightful human being. She really carried this project through herself, she wrote the screenplay herself, adapting it from the novel ; she directed the shooting with very little means and a tight shooting schedule ; and all at the same time she dealt with the difficulties of being an actor and a director for the other actors at the same time – one of whome was a young boy who was not always easy to manage.

What were you trying to convey in terms of visuals ?

SI : The scenario was highly fragmented between different historical periods with many flashbacks and flash-forwards… It was not easy for me to juggle between all these temporalities whilst keeping the essence of the film intact : namely, a highly emotional story between a mother and her son. Often, when begin shooting a film, there is a kind of process by which you try and discover the soul or essence of the project from its script. And even if the script is very well-written, sometimes you pass it by and you miss it. On this film, I could easily find my way, and most of the decisions Natalie made between between shooting and editing always increased the emotional intensity of the project.

Were you inspired by archive footage ?

SI : I watched documentaries about that period… but I’m not really concerned about recreating the historical images. What I was especially struck by in Jerusalem was the city’s materiality and colour. It’s a place that shines and is very bright, and the architectural omnipresence of that yellowish sandstone gives it a very unique texture. My main concern during the preliminary tests was to maintain the texture and color of those stones in the film’s visuals. It was my way of conveying the eternal nature of the city, at the crossroads of religions and history.

During what period of the year did you shoot the film ?

SI : The film was shot in early spring 2014. I personally arrived in December, filming began in February and ended in late March 2014. The vast majority of shooting took place in Jerusalem but we also filmed a little bit in Tel Aviv and on the Golan Heights, near the border with Jordan.

I insisted that production allow us two cameras so that we could provide Natalie with a range of shots, especially during the first days of shooting, that would enable her to be completely comfortable during her first experience as a director. Personally, I also brought along my own Black Magic Pocket camera which we used as a third camera to take cutaway shots, just some little low-key extras…

Do you have a particular way of working ?

SI : My philosophy is to stick to the shooting schedule. For this, I try to work with cameramen who are themselves cinematographers. That way, even if a scene is not completely finished by mid-day, I can delegate responsibility to one of the cameramen to finish the remaining missing shots while I focus on setting up for the next scene. That method of bypassing the main crew to pick up the loose ends on the last scene enables the project to continuously move forward while giving the director the opportunity to check what has already been done.
From that point of view, I took great care on this film to equip myself with high-quality screens, and an on-set colour calibration system managed by my DIT, Lukasz Baka. That way, I was able to provide Natalie with a preview that was very close to what we had decided upon together during our preparations. Admittedly, I had to fight a bit to get production to accept the device, but I think it was important, especially as we had to navigate all of the temporal back-and-forth in the storyline, as well as the decline of one of the character’s (Fania Oz) health during the 2d part of the film.

What was the main camera you used ?

SI : So the two main cameras were Arri Alexas equipped with Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses. My Black Magic camera had a compact Angénieux Optimo zoom lens, which was much faster and more efficient for the type of shots we were using it for. The film was shot in ProRes, because Raw was out of our budget.

One of your trademarks is the use of filters to darken or highlight a part of the shot… Do still use filters when filming in digital ?

SI : Yes I still have my little collection of filters with me and I still use them… A scene like the one in which the mother tells her son fairy tales is an example. With digital, I am tempted to just do it in postproduction. Because it’s not always easy to explain to the cameraman exactly what you want to filter on a part of an image. But, when you really want to achieve this type of effect to its fullest, you’ve got to do it during shooting. That way, you’re sure that it is in the dailies, and that the choice will live on all the way through the final cut. How many times have we said to a director during shooting : “Yeah, that’s a great idea, but we’ll do it during colour timing !” And then six months later, the entire thing’s been forgotten about.

(Interview conducted by François Reumont for the AFC, translated from French by Alex Raiffe)