Interview with Cinematographer Michel Amathieu, AFC, on his work on Volker Schlöndorff’s “Diplomacy”

Paris by Nacht

par Michel Amathieu La Lettre AFC n°248

[English] [français]

Because Volker Schlöndorff’s Diplomacy, cinematography by Michel Amathieu, was recently selected to compete in the “European Panorama” section of the 22nd Camerimage Festival, we are publishing below an interview in which the director of photography discusses his work on the film, which was released in cinemas on 5 March 2014.

In a sumptuous closed environment, adapted from a successful theatrical production, Volker Schlöndorff paints the picture of General Von Choltitz, the man who saved Paris from total destruction during the historic night of 24-25 August 1944. Michel Amathieu, AFC, in control of the image on this film, discusses filming in studio beside the director of Tambour and actor Niels Arestrup, who is in competition for a César award this year… (FR)

How did you come to work on Diplomacy ?

Michel Amathieu : I had met Volker Schlöndorff a few years ago to discuss working together on his prior film, The Sea at Dawn, but in the end Lubomir Bakchev, AFC, was selected to work on the project. For Diplomacy, we were put into contact with one another by Marc de Bayser and Franck Le Wita, the producers of Film Oblige, who are good friends with my agent, Salite Cymbler.
Despite the film’s budget and its short shooting schedule (24 days), we had excellent working relations with the producers, who were truly our partners in making sure that Volker’s requests were fulfilled to the best of their abilities. From all points of view, the absolute respect shown to all of the staff, to the working conditions, I have rarely ever seen such elegance on a production. I would also like to name Jean-Christophe Cardineau, the production manager, with whom the entire team had excellent relations.

Where was the film shot ?

MA : In the Stains studios, a place where I enjoy working. Jacques Rouxel, the set designer, recreated the suite in the Hôtel Meurice, where most of the story is set, as well as a few hallways and a few other rooms. For the main set, we had a lot of conversations over the wall colour, and we settled on that dense blue-green, which gives a nice contrast to the gilded furniture… It also goes with the Nazi uniform worn by Niels Arestrup. I really liked that colour, because during night shots, with the prop lighting, it looks like a warm green on screen.
On the other hand, as the day breaks and sunlight begins to invade the room, the colour begins to turn blue. That allowed us to bring the set alive as time passed in that closed room, from night to day. We were able to link the change in lighting to the change in the tone of the set.

Tell us a bit about the long passage from night to day, which is at the heart of your cinematography on this film…

MA : This passage is in the screenplay. The character Nordling, played by André Dussolier, mentions the night, and then the first light of dawn and the sunrise on the capital and its monuments… Volker made it a part of his film. At night, the light sources in the suite, which provide a golden feel to the room, flicker on and off because of the fighting. They alternate with “emergency” light sources hooked up to a generator within the hotel. When day breaks, Volker wanted those “extras” to remain lit, and the sun begins to light up the room… It gives the feel you’re witnessing the end of a sleepless night.
But the work on the change in lighting present throughout the film also takes place inside specific scenes. There is, for example, the moment the consul appears just as the electricity is completely cut off, or on more subtle things, later on, when Nordling seems to dominate Choltitz, but then immediately begins negotiating again…
What is wonderful is to be able to work with a director like Volker who literally loves working on lighting. On some scenes, he didn’t hesitate to ask me, for example, to create even darker ambiences than I had done…and which were already very dark !

As for the window-dressing, Volker, with his great experience, at first wanted more abstract painted backdrops, that he wanted to change as the sun rose. But, I insisted on having the windows outfitted with blue backdrops, and then later on superimpose digital photographs that I find much easier to work with than the large-format photographs or painted backdrops. At first, Volker wasn’t quite at ease with the idea, but bit by bit, I convinced him of my choice ; like in the scene at sunrise with the characters right in front of the balcony during which André Dussollier opens the shutters.
Those digital backdrops also give you more freedom to control the sunrise over Paris, which allowed us to feel the presence of the buildings discussed in the dialogues and which were supposed to be destroyed. I really enjoyed working with the digital special effects team at Pixmondo, in Germany.

The film was shot with a Red Epic. Please explain this choice to us.

MA : I feel more at ease with the RED Epic than with other digital cameras. It is sort of like how we used to prefer a specific type of film stock over another… Now, I use the RED Dragon more often, which is even better for what I am looking for. On this film, we used Cooke S4 series lenses.
The film was shot in 24 days, which is short. Especially since we filmed a contemporary opening shot outdoors for three days, but it wasn’t chosen for the final cut.
Volker and I decided to film a lot of master shots in order not to disturb the actors and allow them more freedom in their acting.
I often used the Aerocrane jib and we used a second camera as often as we could. I really appreciated Laurent Duquesnoy, the key grip’s, precision and concentration on all of those camera movements.

What spots did you use most ?

MA : I only used tungsten bulbs, Fresnel, Lucioles, and Chimeras (and fluorescent tubes for the blue backdrops). For the daytime scenes, I didn’t use any HMI, on the advice of Christophe Dural, my gaffer. It is true that managing a double setup of tungsten spots and HMI would have given us a lot of extra work and because we only had a very small team, it would have been too expensive. The change in tints were, as usual, done during shooting using coloured gelatines for the spots.

A word on colour timing ?

MA : The film was colour timed by Digimage. I now insist that the same person handle the dailies and the finalization. This was the case for Diplomacy, with the work of Emmanuel Fortin (and also Madonie Heudron). I find it very important to have dailies that closely resemble the final image, and as similar to the video feedbacks on set. This makes it easier to work with the director and for the final colour timing.

Any memories in particular that you’d like to share ?

MA : This shooting was of course very interesting because of the work of the actors… I was literally blown away by Niels Arestrup on set. It was simply amazing to do all of those close ups on a legendary character who vacillates in his convictions. Something really very strong came out of the relationship between the two characters, where André and Niels were playing cat and mouse in that closed room.
Volker had rehearsed with the two actors so that they could take possession of the new space and take their distances from the theatrical stage. They had to make the dialogue theirs and put it into the space while playing with the camera.
Moreover, the lead actors were seconded by wonderful French and German actors playing the minor roles. It was such a pleasure to have worked with this director and these actors.

(Interview conducted by François Reumont for the AFC)

Synopsis
The night of 24-25 August 1944. The fate of Paris is between the hands of General Von Choltitz, Miliitary Governor of Greater Paris, who is preparing, on Hitler’s orders, to blow up the capital city of France. The scion of a long line of Prussian officers, the General has never before hesitated when it came to obeying orders. That is precisely what is bothering Swedish consul Nordling when he climbs the secret staircase to the General’s suite in the Hôtel Meurice. The bridges of the Seine and the major monuments of Paris – the Louvre, Notre-Dame, the Eiffel Tower, etc. – have all been planted with dynamite and are ready to be blown up. Using all of the tools of diplomacy, the consul will try to convince the general not to carry out the order to destroy the city.

The image above is a still shot from shooting on this film by Jérôme Prébois.

(Translated from French by Alex Raiffe)