“I am not sure that I have a particular style”

Interview with cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, AFC, ASC

par Philippe Rousselot

[English] [français]

In it’s edition dated 23 March 2012, weekly magazine Le film français published an interview with director of photography Philippe Rousselot, AFC, ASC, on the occasion of the retrospective of his films that was organized by the Cinemathèque Française and the AFC from 28 March to 3 May 2012.

After having received so many awards, are you moved by the event that AFC and the Cinemathèque have organized in your honor ?
Philippe Rousselot : Awards and honors are things that you should take with a grain of salt, but you shouldn’t turn your nose up at either ! However, this event in my honor is especially meaningful to me because I have seen so many films at the Cinemathèque. It was a bit like my foster mother during my school years and afterwards, too. It is like a homecoming, and I am very enthusiastic about it.

The event’s program points out relationships between your feature-length films. Does this make sense to you ? Did you make each of these films in relationship to others you had already filmed ?
P.R. : No, not really, even though sometimes one tries to carry over to the next film what one has learned from the previous one, which isn’t always a very good idea. Continuity can be found in the working methods and preferences that are present in all the films. What is nice about changing directors is that you also change perception, and you have to have totally different approaches. For example, Hope and Glory was filmed in very small sets, which complicated the placement of the lighting.

At the time, I was already using these kind of bags that I would hang and in which I had put 2 kW omnidirectional lamps, but they were too big for the space in which I was filming. The gaffer suggested that I use a Chinese lantern, which looked like I had but smaller, and so that’s what I did. 
And then, in the next films, I used them more and more. You learn new things with each new film. This gives way to working methods that you develop and improve. For example, I started using theater lighting boards even when they were still primitive, and then little by little, I made it the basis for a working method.

You have worked a number of times with Neil Jordan, John Boorman, Stephen Frears, and Tim Burton. Do these directors all have something in common ?
P.R. : Each director is unlike any other. Maybe bad directors are all the same, but I haven’t ever worked with bad directors.

How was it working with them ? Why did you sometimes stop working with them ?
P.R.. : Don’t forget that the director chooses you. He holds the keys to the project. As for continuing to work with some directors, sometimes I had to say no because I was already engaged on another project. That means the rhythm is interrupted, and sometimes they choose other directors of photography because of availability or because they prefer them. Although this can sometimes be hurtful or upsetting, it is something I can understand. You always wonder if you did good work, etc. The only thing you can do in cases like these is to take your ego, put it in your pocket, and cover it with a handkerchief.

How do you adapt to the visions of such different directors and still keep your own style ?
P.R. : Adapting to a director means that you have to transform yourself into a sponge, and this is true of any collaborative work. You have to listen, watch, and absorb everything you can. As far as I am concerned, I am not sure that I have a particular style ! In any case, not one that I can identify. If I have one, it certainly comes from the things that I reject.

For example, my whole life, I have fought against the trend of filming against the light which I don’t like when it’s not justified, and so I don’t do it. Similarly, there are colours that I don’t like together. When I arrive on a set, I am the cleaning lady for light, meaning that I try and get rid of everything that bothers me. Everything that I don’t like, I leave in the dark.

From the first films you made when you started out and the lighting you designed for Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, you’ve worked on projects with very different budgets…
P.R. : One might say that doing the lighting for a high budget production with large sets simply means multiplying the lighting for a little set by a certain number of square meters, but it’s more than just that. A large budget film means planning far ahead of time. For Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the large set with the chocolate fountain needed three weeks of setup for the light. 
On these huge sets, shots are planned with a whole team — I had 1,100 projectors linked to a lighting board, kilometres of cable, etc. And then, once everything has been set up, you have to light it up to see what it looks like, and make sure you aren’t completely off track, and sometimes it puts you into cold sweats ! For The Chocolate Factory, all the sets worked on the same system, everything was computer programmed ; the main paths were prelighted ; everything was numbered ; each shot had its own little photograph…
Thanks to this work, set changes only took five minutes : everything had been planned and you only had to press a button. It was a bit like theatre lighting. Since everything had been stored in the computer’s memory, you could find the lighting of any shot at any time, which really helped the assistants and the people who worked on the special effects. This makes these productions a bit like a manufacturing company. The demands are commensurate with the size of the budget.

You publicly expressed regrets about your work on La Lune dans le caniveau. Do you regret your work on other films ?
P.R. : I don’t have any regrets. La Lune… is a film that is all about emphasis and this carried through in the sets, the screenplay, the lights, and the décor. It was Diva times ten. The result was not at all appreciated, but I don’t think that it was an error.
The film was a product of a particular moment. I don’t think that I am one to judge. When you are a director of photography what is important is your work, and I am not interested in judging films, whatever they may be. Critiquing films is not something that is relevant to me.

You have only directed one film, Le Baiser du serpent, in 1996. Haven’t you wanted to direct others ?
P.R. : Yes, of course, you always want to direct, to be the boss ! I’ve tried to direct other films but it’s hard to find funding for projects that interest you. It disappoints me a little, but I am happy in my profession. For three years, I wrote, tried to find subjects to film, tried to find producers, etc. It was extremely tiring and terribly depressing because you go from failure to refusal and it all takes such a long time. It’s not a lot of fun. It’s only fun being a director when you’ve had a couple of hits, otherwise it’s really hard.

Did the experience of directing a film impact your work as a director of photography ?
P.R. : To a certain extent, it confirmed my idea that a director of photography must understand the director and anticipate his wishes. Especially, I learned not to be taken in by the producers.
As far as I am concerned, I try to hard to make everybody happy. Sometimes, in order to fulfil the promises you’ve made to yourself, you have to be able not to make others happy. Sometimes, you can’t finish your day on time and you have to be able to be firm.

Cameras are constantly evolving and directors of photography sometimes have a tendency to want to film with the latest model. How do you choose your camera ?
P.R. : I almost always work with Panavision, it’s equipment that’s pleasant to use and has good lenses. It might be bad to have habits like that, but when you always work with the same tools, you get to know them well. At the same time, when new gadgets come out, I’m always ready to try them and to use them.
In today’s economy, manufacturers have to constantly develop their products and make them more and more complicated and expensive in order to stay alive.
These last few years have seen the appearance of nearly perfect regular film cameras that could only be improved in little ways. They have simple mechanisms to which you can add a never-ending series of electronic gadgets, but this doesn’t make a market. They had to invent something else... Today, the market for digital cameras is booming thanks to material that becomes obsolete in six months’ time. The day when film disappears, the price of digital is going to explode catastrophically !

You don’t like filming digitally ?
P.R. : I haven’t yet been blown away by digital images that have made me think that they were better than film. A lot of people say they filmed with such-and-such camera but added graininess to make it look like film. They work in digital but fight like mad and take great pains to make it look like film ! Sometimes, you feel like saying to them, “why don’t you just film with real film ?!”
I’ve filmed in digital for a few advertisements.
First of all, I don’t find it pleasant. Furthermore, I think the result is not very interesting because it’s really hard to get across the image you had in your mind, you have to go through incredibly complex manipulations in post-production. You never really get fully satisfying colours, especially for skin tone. For the time being, I don’t like digital.

But for Sherlock Holmes 2 you used the Phantom…
P.R. : Only a few little shots were filmed in digital using the Phantom Flex camera, because we had to shoot really quickly. That said, each time we used the Phantom I needed to degrade the colour on the shots filmed just before and after the digital shot so that the colorimetry would match. Because these were action shots and sometimes they were monochromatic, you don’t notice too much.

What about digital post-production ?
P.R. : Today, it’s absolutely fabulous. With Tim Burton, at the beginning of the process, we did digital calibration tests on The Planet of the Apes, which gave horrid results and we gave up. Two years later, with Big Fish, I absolutely wanted to film a scene using day for night (“nuit américaine”) technique, and so I did some trials again. Because of these trials, we decided to digitally calibrate the entire film. This was the first time I had calibrated a whole film digitally, and afterwards I fought to be able to continue to calibrate all of my films digitally, even though today that has become the norm.

Most French directors of photography like to operate the camera themselves, which is nearly impossible to do in the United States because of the labour unions. Is this something that bothers you ?
P.R. : Sometimes, you can get special permission to operate the camera yourself. On Michael Lander’s Peacock, a film that hasn’t been released in Europe, I really wanted to be behind the camera because there were issues that I thought I wouldn’t be able to work out if I couldn’t do it myself. So, I was able to get permission. 
On most films I do, I think that being behind the camera yourself isn’t very productive because it requires a lot of work.
I have been lucky enough to work with camera operators for whom I have great respect, both in the United Kingdom and in the United States. They are excellent cameramen and women and I don’t see why I shouldn’t avail myself of the opportunity of using their services.

What makes a good camera operator ?
P.R. : Besides technique, a good camera operator needs to have a feeling for composition and for the cinema. When I am in the United States, I like to work with Neal Norton. He’s absolutely extraordinary : whenever he suggests something, it’s always a good idea. It’s wonderful to work with people who bring something new to the table, I love that.

Is it important to work with the same people ?
P.R. : Yes, which doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to work with new people. It’s nice to work with people with whom you know you won’t have misunderstandings, and it makes your work easier. On the first Sherlock Holmes, we filmed in London but had a huge set in New York that had to be built beforehand and I didn’t have the time to go to New York with the gaffer to discuss it together. Fortunately, my American gaffer was available. So I told him, “Listen, you know what I would want.” We did a shoot over the telephone and when I got there, everything had been done perfectly and he had even added things that were all good ideas…

You are currently scouting in New Orleans, a region in which you’ve already filmed…
P.R. : Yes, we are preparing Beautiful Creatures by Richard LaGravenese, the screenwriter from The Bridges of Madison County and Erin Brockovitch. The first time I filmed here it was Interview with the Vampire. We filmed everything by night and so I have very dark memories of this place, especially since it had been a terribly exhausting project to film.

After having done the lighting on so many films, are you still nervous when shooting begins ?
P.R. : Yup ! I think that you have to be nervous. The only thing that changes in your career is the way you deal with your nerves.

With the kind permission of Le film français and Anne-Laure Bell who conducted the interview with Philippe Rousselot