Darius Khondji, AFC, ASC : “James Gray brought me to the museum”

Interview conducted by Elisabeth Franck-Dumas

La Lettre AFC n°238

[ English ] [ français ]

Libération, 26 November 2013
Meeting with James Gray and his cinematographer Darius Khondji, two complicit aesthetes. Although The Immigrant, fifth feature-length film by American director James Gray, received a lukewarm reception at the Cannes Festival, at least everyone agrees on its magnificent cinematography.

Powdery shots, saturated colours, and polished visuals that give the project a grandiose scope, all bearing the signature of Franco-Iranian cinematographer Darius Khondji (Amour, Midnight in Paris), whose first time it was working with James Gray on a film. Months later, in the lobby of a Parisian hotel, they display an obvious complicity through shared references to the Opera and art history. We brought them together to ask them to answer the following question : how, despite drastic budgetary constraints, were they able to maintain an over-the-top ambition in terms of image ?

Why did you ask Darius Khondji to work with you on this film ?

James Gray : I can say it in two words : Darius Khondji. (Laughter) I’d admired his work for a long time, since Delicatessen and Seven. I thought that we would work well together artistically. What I look for when I make a movie isn’t someone who will do exactly what I ask, because that’s not interesting, but rather someone with taste that will be able to bring something extra to the table. What I didn’t know, and what intimidated me, is how nice he is.

Because you felt bad tyrannizing him ?

J.G. : Me ? I don’t tyrannize anyone ! (Laughter)

Darius Khondji : I don’t remember being tyrannized. But I do remember a director who knew exactly what he wanted, and happily so.

J.G. : There was that one time when you wanted to add an extra bulb to the lighting in the scene where Jeremy Renner comes in through the window, and I didn’t agree with you at all…

D.K. : That’s not much over eight weeks of shooting.

J.G. : Eight weeks ? More like thirty-three days !

How did filming go under such conditions ?

J.G. : It was difficult, going so fast was hard. And we had enormous constraints, like having to film on Ellis Island at night, since we didn’t have a permit to film during the daytime. We had to light the giant hall with eighteen enormous windows that you see in the beginning of the movie from outside. But only half of it, because we didn’t have enough money to do it entirely. So we had to mirror the image, which worked because the hall is completely symmetrical. But that means that there’s a digital shot in the middle of the scene.

But you filmed using silver-process film ?

D.K. : Yes, as much as possible. With old anamorphic lenses on very soft film that I flashed in colour, which gives a special, old-fashioned result. I don’t like using special effects, even though sometimes you have to.

How did you agree on the effect you were going for ?

D.K. : We did a lot of prep work because we had no time for experimentation during shooting. At the very beginning, James started sending me a lot of photos. Polaroids of nearly naked women taken by Italian architect Carlo Mollino. They’re almost fashion shoots, but they’re innerved with such pathos, such thickness in the lighting, that they prevented me from concentrating on the project I was working on at the time. He annotated them with words such as “religion” or “fervour” and they began to haunt me. I need emotions like these in order to design lighting.

J.G. : We also went to the museum.

D.K. : James brought me to the Metropolitan Museum, to the Frick Collection. He showed me paintings by Everett Schinn, George Bellows, painters of the American Ashcan School of realism. Photos by Lewis Hine taken at Ellis Island, too. And then we discussed other directors’ work, such as Dryer and especially Bresson.

J.G. : The scene where Marion Cotillard confesses, her face lit by a halo of light, is a homage to Diary of a Country Priest.

D.K. : For me, La Strada was the most important film. I hadn’t seen it for a long time and when you put it on for me, everything fell into place. We also did something that I’d never done before, and that I’d love to do again : a storyboard that was a mood board.

J.G. : Yes, a list of scenes that I had annotated with various images I’d taken from different sources. That way, when I needed to detail a concept for Darius, I could reference this list of scenes borrowed from elsewhere. Even if I tried to borrow as little as possible. But in any case, I don’t see it as theft, but rather as inspiration.

D.K. : You also talked about that when I visited New York : inspiration, borrowing.

J.G. : I told you about an email I’d sent to Coppola, a fan letter, where I told him how many elements I’d “stolen” from The Godfather II for Yards, I believe. He answered, “Very good, that’s what it’s for.” Coppola himself borrowed a lot from Visconti. Directors mutually inspire one another, and so do actors. Giulietta Masina borrowed greatly from Chaplin for Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria.

What do you think your film says about the American Dream ?

J.G. : I wanted to share the experience of my Jewish grandparents who had fled a place [Poland, ed.] where the parents of my grandmother had been beheaded. My grandfather would always tell stories where he idealized his home country, which I never understood because of the persecutions his family had suffered there. But human migrations, which are part of the story of humanity, are never entirely rosy. Our lives are filled with joy and death, and you have to be able to tell the story of both. This is something I think I have failed at : my films are much more sombre than joyful. I would like them to be more balanced. But I have no comedic talent : I’m the only person who thinks that some of the scenes in this movie are hilarious.

The final shot has been greatly discussed. Was it in the screenplay from the start ?

J.G. : Yes. Even though, in fact, it’s not a shot, it’s a composite that was created with special effects. Otherwise it would have been impossible to create.

D.K. : It is a director’s shot, you’ve got to be a director to come up with that. For me, I didn’t understand it until it was finished, I must have blindly trusted James. When I read the screenplay, I immediately saw so many technical hurdles to overcome, so many complicated angles, that I said to my self “how are we going to pull that off ?” (Laughter)

What were some of the other major challenges on this film ?

D.K. : I tried not to think of the budget because otherwise it would have made me dizzy. I try never to think about it, because I believe there’s always a solution. But imparting New York with the poetic essence of a lost era with all of the very Proustian poetics that James wanted was a real challenge for me. For the rest, we had an incredible producer, who even hired a retired gaffer, John De Blaw, because James and I adored him. There was a very tightly-knit team, which is crucial for this type of project.

J.G. : The team was so motivated that I felt depressed for a few months once shooting was over ! It is hard to separate from people that pay such attention to what you’re trying to accomplish and help you create it. People think that when you’re a director, you have a “vision”. But for this film, except the last shot, I wanted the team to go beyond what I had in my head and to surpass me.

(Interview conduced by Elisabeth Franck-Dumas, Libération, Tuesday, 26 November 2013)