Director of photography Dominique Bouilleret, AFC, talks about his work on "The Life of Riley (Aimer, Boire et Chanter)", directed by Alain Resnais

Life’s vicissitudes led Dominique Bouilleret, AFC, to cross paths with Alain Resnais on his last film. Discussing Life of Riley, he reveals the gaiety and creativity of a very pleasant shooting. He is so glad to have been able to share this creativity with the great director and is only sorry that he won’t be able to repeat the experience. Following Alain Resnais’ demise, unfortunately their collaboration has ended just as it was beginning.

Meeting Alain Resnais, the economic situation of the film
It is thanks to Laurent Herbiert with whom I filmed three television movies – Adieu de Gaulle adieu, Le Chant des sirènes, Manipulation – that I met Alain Resnais. Laurent was his co-writer and former assistant. When I met Alain, he told me that we’d have to create this movie with a limited budget, and that I might be one of the few people who would be able to work around that constraint. It wasn’t feasible to film in a studio with realistic sets, and so Alain had decided to stylize or even mask the sets.

The sets
In the Yorkshire countryside, four different gardens and homes, with a few indoors shots. Jacques Saulnier, the production designer, really knows how to do that type of set (of course !). But because traditional sets weren’t available with our budget, and Alain Resnais really wanted to make the movie anyway, he found work around solutions.
The set was made of hanging painted screens – backgrounds painted on hanging strips of tissues from 6 to 10 meters high and one meter wide. Outside shots in the garden, with a house, a park, and horizons with no fake perspectives. The interiors were also painted on fabric with different sized staircases. A very theatrical, stylized, flat, cartoon approach.
The wide shots were drawn by Blutch. We filmed real streets and countryside from a car in Yorkshire because Alain was afraid that the viewer might imagine that the gardens were neighbouring one another. These roads symbolized the trip from one garden to the other. Blutch’s drawings were like helicopter views that announced the destination.

The approach to filming
There were few shots planned out in the screenplay and Alain had produced a storyboard with shots that were often rather long. He quickly changed his mind or opted to proceed otherwise, and decided not to do as he had planned ; instead, he linked all the shots into a single shot insofar as possible.
If that weren’t possible, he would say : “We’ll splice them”. He knew exactly at what point in the scene he wanted to be close up or far away. Most of the time, we would take a wide-angle shot of the place where we would then zoom in, and then the shot would melt into the décor of the set. Then we would change shots on the actors in order to modify perspective, from a very wide shot to a medium shot or a close up, and vice versa.

The shot would last as long as possible within a single movement. Let me tell you a story : during colour timing, I checked the screenplay because I had a question—I can’t remember what it was. I saw that Alain had noted that exact shot, in that exact field size, at that exact moment.
But while filming, I was just inventing as I went along ! Even though the storyboarding on the screenplay didn’t take into account the camera movements, it ended up finding its way into the film !

The close-ups
Resnais wanted close-ups out of context and out of the set. He wanted a close-up on the character that would stand out. He imagined that Blutch would paint a frame and that inside it, he would insert the close-up.
The close-up became a separate object within a continuous narrative… Since the frame needed a background, he took inspiration from cartoons. He loved cartoons. He was always at the border between theatre and drawing.

What about lighting ? Realistic ? Stylized ?
Alain had mentioned Harcourt as a reference while we were preparing, but the way the shots were set up didn’t allow for that type of lighting, otherwise it would have looked very theatrical. I created a very “soft” lighting because I knew we would be doing wide shots and close ups in the same movement.
He didn’t like it very much. He mentioned a few films where the light changed during the shot. Both in terms of the set and lighting, we had a hard time separating ourselves from basic realism. But Resnais isn’t interested in realism for realism’s sake.

Another story : a lamp had to be lit in a garden to create an evening effect. I turned on a projector that caused the lamp to cast a shadow on the background. Considered from a point of view of realism, that wasn’t appropriate, so I turned off the projector. The assistant, Christophe Jeauffroy, came to see me and said that Alain really liked the shadow of the lamp on the wall.
From then on, I understood that we needed shadows and effects. I created windows, moons, and shadows of trees using cucoloris and gobos. I kept the realistic effects on the characters and, thanks to the gobos, the set was more contrasted.

We put charms into the set, we played around with imagining windows on the backdrops showing homes, shadows on the calls, and Alain like that. It was like playing Playmobil. He had Playmobil dolls in his office and imagined his sets by moving the Playmobils around to represent the characters.
The moving camera shot system made up 80% of the editing. I would create lighting for a wide shot against the light and very “soft” faces on the characters, with distant light sources and 4x4s. The photo became less ordinary as the film progressed. The daylight effects are soft, but the evening and night ambiences are more heavily stylized. Because we had a very calm rhythm, we had time to really work the shots.

Playmobil dolls for Alain Resnais… What were your toys ?
We had opted for a studio without a catwalk for budgetary reasons, so I chose enormous oblong-shaped balloons from Airstar, Daylight tude 12 kW HMI, which allowed us to recreate a daylight effect for the garden scenes. The backlights, often 12 kW HMIs, were set up on cranes or towers. We only used HMI, which was a decision with major consequences for our sound engineer friend.
This was Alain Resnais’ first film in digital. With the Alexa, I kept the sensor at its default option of 800 ISO in daylight conditions and didn’t modify any of the settings. I filtered from the lens. This is why we used HMI, which isn’t very logical in a studio setting, but made me happier. I used a bit of tungsten for the night scenes

Let me tell you a story, which might be entitled “how to have fun like in the olden days” : we had photographs of flowerbeds stuck on painted plywood for the backgrounds, and often we also used them to hide the rails and would remove them to let the Dolly through. We were on a little set where everyone participated in the setup. It was like an old-time cinema studio.

A big toy : the Alexa
I am used to working in Log C. This time, I filmed in Scope and wanted to film in real Scope. I didn’t want Super 35, because I would have ended up with short focal lengths and would have immediately gotten outside of the set.
I chose classic Panavision lenses, which weigh a ton but it didn’t matter because I was entirely inside the studio. I chose the Studio in order to have an optical viewfinder, which was a great comfort for me

I was happy to rediscover the optical viewfinder, with the heat of the eyepiece, where you can really see the contrasts. Jean-Pierre Duret, the sound engineer, was worried about the noise of the shutter. Before, it was the film that would make noise, not the shutter ! But I could cut the optical viewfinder when necessary.

The anecdote : Alain Resnais told me one day that there were no more black images between each image with digital cinematography. I thought that he was talking about the interframe. But no, he meant the shutter and the moment where you wouldn’t get an image for 1/50th of a second, but where something was going on all the same ! I told him that that was better because on this camera, there was still that 50th of a second that we couldn’t control.

Editing and Cutting…and let the colour pop !

We worked on a Lustre with Digimage with Guillaume Lips. I like to work layer by layer, going over the entire film a few times. I first colour timed quite “normally”, Alain Resnais found it to be too common. So we went back and added some warmth here, some cool there. Alain loved colours, he was much less hesitant than we were
The anecdote : in a scene where Dussolier and Kiberlin were fighting one another, Resnais wanted red for anger. So we used red gelatine on the cut out for the window. For another argument scene, there is a sort of red halo around the actors.

Because we have to mention the end…

In the life of a cinematographer, working with Alain Resnais is a wonderful experience. It was my first time working together with him, and we will never have the opportunity to work together again. It’s just terrible. It’s not the same as if I hadn’t been chosen to work on his next films. With his death, nothing more is possible. Our collaboration remains suspended, unfinished…

(Interview conducted by Brigitte Barbier for the AFC, translated from French by Alex Raiffe)