Interview with Denis Lenoir, AFC, ASC, ASK, about "Bergman Island", by Mia Hansen-Løve

The Solstices of Farö, by François Reumont, for the AFC

par Denis Lenoir

[ English ] [ français ]

Bergman Island is the seventh film by director Mia Hansen-Løve. This trip for cinephiles’ only location is the Island of Farö, where the Swedish master lived, filmed and has rested since his death in 2007. A pilgrimage portrayed on screen by the couple Tim Roth and Vicky Krieps ; playing a couple of filmmakers that can only echo the one the director once formed with Olivier Assayas. Denis Lenoir, AFC, ASC, ASK, the faithful companion of both, discusses the particularities of this Scandinavian summer film with us. (FR)

The film’s production was complicated. Please tell me about it.

Denis Lenoir As the start of shooting was approaching and we were in the middle of location scouting in May 2018, Mia lost her two main actors. The film could have stopped before it had even begun… But Mia, who is extremely resourceful, bounced back and offered a role to Vicky Krieps. The Luxemburgish actress accepted the role, but the character of Tony remained without an actor… Nonetheless, Mia successfully convinced the producers to begin a first session of shooting, beginning with the "film within a film" part, played by Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen. But, because she knows that it is important to lock in one’s cast, she insisted on filming as many scenes as possible with Vicky Krieps. Shooting began in early August and ended in mid-September. We parted ways with the film unfinished, hoping that the missing actor would be found so that we could return to work the following summer. Finally, Tim Roth joined the film during the winter, and we returned to Bergman’s island for a month in early June 2019.

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This is one of the few films shot on film in the Official Selection…

DL : This isn’t the first film we’ve made together, and I’m familiar with Mia’s passion for celluloid. She only accepted to shoot in digital on her film Eden, because of a lack of budget. But on this film, she was fully decided to return to film, the way we’d shot L’Avenir, in 2-perf to save on negative and on laboratory fees. I wasn’t at all excited about this decision !

Have you become allergic to celluloid ?

DL : Of course not. I like 35mm but I’m not nostalgic for it. I think that the increased sensitivity on digital cameras allows DPs to no longer have to light for exposure. This is not at all the case in film, unless you unreservedly rely on underexposure, which I never used to do, since I always wanted to deliver a dense negative. But, on this film, I gradually set aside the wise precepts I learned in the Vaugirard cinema school, and I ventured further and further into the curve’s toe, knowing that contemporary image noise reduction solutions would be able to correct some shots if needed.

Do you feel that shooting in celluloid no longer has any advantages ?

DL : No, I think that I’d admit there is one advantage : motion blur. It really doesn’t look as nice in digital. Each image in a panoramic shot is sharper in digital ; really, too sharp. But even faced with this objective difference, digital solutions are still being developed. Experimental techniques in post-production in the USA have already shown that it is possible to recreate or reduce the motion blur at the level of each digital image. So, it’s easy to imagine that post-production techniques will soon be able to be applied to every scene of a film that would require it.

You claim that you have no style as a camera operator… is it serious, doctor ?

DL : I’m probably going to attract criticism from some of my colleagues, but without pretense or false modesty, I do think that the sets, the costumes, and the actors do make up most of the image in a film. On Carlos, for example, the 3-episode miniseries by Olivier Assayas on which I shared the camera with Yorick Le Saux, it’s absolutely impossible to tell who filmed what. Yet, no instruction guiding us towards a particular choice of image had been given by Olivier Assayas. As for our technical discussions between one another as DPs, they consisted in agreeing on using the same filmstock and the same method of filtering the lenses… I came to the same conclusion on Cuban Network, the film produced by Netflix that Yorick and I once again shared. From one film to the next, I think that I do offer a different image, but that it is the result of different actors, different costumes, and different sets. Aren’t the lobby cards that used to be shown in cinema lobbies, and which are now available to be viewed online, really the image of a film ? They are what the viewer identifies in the film : an era, a face, a set… The raw cinematographic material is there before the DP gets ahold of it.

So the role played by lighting is negligeable ?

DL : No, the DP’s responsibility isn’t negligeable, but he must be there to draw as much as possible from what he is asked to film. This responsibility is definitely much less grave in the digital era, because now you can watch the image exactly as it is recorded on excellent digital monitors.

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Let’s take, for example, the nighttime marriage scene in Bergman Island : I thought it was very beautiful in the camera’s viewfinder, and it could easily be part of the demo trailer of any normal cinematographer. But, in reality, few elements of this scene are my doing : the set is just magnificent ; the sunset, splendid ; the set designer had placed lanterns and torches at just the right places… Any one of my colleagues would doubtlessly have done just about the same thing as I did in terms of set lighting on the image wouldn’t have suffered any great disparity.

Capture d’écran d’après bande annonce | Les Films du Losange

Capture d’écran d’après bande annonce | Les Films du Losange

Bergman Island is a very sunny film… you’d almost think it was shot on a Greek island !

DL : Mia wanted to create a summery, light image, as we’d already done on L’Avenir (2016), to provide a counterpoint to the dramatic side of the plot. Of course, Bergman Island is less dark than her prior film, but she’d deliberately set this film in the middle of the summer ; Around the 21st of June, which Scandinavians call "midsommar".
In France, the solstice only marks the official start of summer, but at their latitude, it doesn’t exactly mean the same thing. The film therefore became an authentically solar film. Since 2018 was very dry there, there is less green in the image than we’d have liked, and the browns and yellows of the grass invited themselves into our outdoor palette. At one point, I considered touching a few shots up to bring green back into them, but we didn’t have the budget for it.

This is also a film that uses a lot of tracking shots…

DL : Our Belgian key grip, Témoudhine Janssens, was really one of the pillars of this film. Because Mia wanted to use a great deal of camera movements, he was daily summoned to install meters upon meters of tracks with his two grips. But the camera never went on extravagant moves. The director’s rhythm and the choreography with the actors made these movements rather discreet and natural. The frequent use of narrow tracks was also appropriate. The reduced floorspace it took up made it easier to do backwards movements facing the actors, who were standing on either side of the track.

A word on the 2.4 aspect ratio in TechniScope ?

DL : Mia originally wanted to shoot the film in 1.85:1 aspect ratio. But, as early as scouting, I began to suggest to her that we work in 2.4:1. Nonetheless, she wasn’t persuaded, thinking that her first English-language film didn’t need what she felt was an overly "American touch". We were working with a film lab in Stockholm at the time that really neglected our screen tests, and we found ourselves with wide format dailies (35mm 2P is in 2.4:1 by default). If you add the scratches and the mishandled dust specks everywhere, these first unconvincing results immediately pushed me to delocalize our process and scans to Belgium. The other, more unexpected consequence was that Mia watched the tests in wide format and finally agreed that 2.4:1 was definitely made for the Island of Farö… to my great satisfaction !

Capture d’écran d’après bande annonce | Les Films du Losange

Capture d’écran d’après bande annonce | Les Films du Losange

What are you proudest of on this film ?

DL : Actually, I’m coming to realize that many directors ask me for an "invisible" photography. I think this is a very French concept and that perhaps I left for the USA at a time in my career when I wanted to make films that were more "visually marked". But, with time, I must admit that invisible photography is really what I do best ! On Bergman Island, I hope that I’ve succeeded in obtaining discreet, yet extremely pleasant, lighting. I wanted to succeed at the unreconcilable : photography I’m proud of but that no one notices !

A couple of filmmakers settles for the summer on the Swedish Island of Faro, where Bergman lived. As their respective screenplays take shape, and as they have contact with the island’s wild landscapes, the border between fiction and reality begins to blur…

(Interview conducted by François Reumont, and translated from French by A. Baron-Raiffe, for the AFC.)