Interview with cinematographer Denis Lenoir, AFC, ASC, regarding his work on Mia Hansen-Løve’s film “Eden”

Denis Lenoir films the 90s

by Denis Lenoir AFC newsletter n°248

[English] [français]

Eden, screened out of competition at Camerimage 2014, is one of the first cinematographic attempts at capturing the “rave party” scene and the birth of the French Touch musical movement in the 1990s and its ensuing international success. This conversation with Denis Lenoir, AFC, ASC, focuses on this sociologically very “French” biopic whose main character was mostly inspired by director Mia Hansen-Løve’s own brother. (FR)

Could you say something about Camerimage?

Denis Lenoir: I really like this festival. The discussions are always really interesting, and you get to see a lot of films. The first time I attended was in 2002, when I presented Olivier AssayasDemonlover, and I had the honour of being awarded a prize, the Bronze Frog. I returned last year as a member of the jury for the international competition, and I must say that each time I attend, it is truly a special moment where you get to discuss not only with fellow cinematographers from all over the globe, but also directors, equipment manufacturers, journalists, and students who come to meet people who make the movies of today and of yesterday… Generations mingle by chance over lunch, or even in a taxi on the way to the airport. The ambience is relaxed and always extremely respectful of the work that others are doing.

In the centre, behind the camera, Mia Hansen-Løve and Denis Lenoir, in front of the MoMA PS1 in New York in September 2013

DL: I have known Mia since she first started acting over fifteen years ago with Late August, Early September. Since then, besides the fact that I have followed her career as a director, I have also, of course, been in regular contact with her through my long collaboration with her husband, Olivier Assayas.
It is she who offered me the chance to work with her on Eden at the very beginning of the project. It must be said that it was very hard to raise funds for the film, and we changed producers a number of times until Charles Gillibert decided to take the project on, without, however, providing all of the money necessary for the budget.
Therefore, shooting took place over two different periods, the first of which was in Summer 2013 in New York and in Hossegor, on France’s Atlantic coastline, for the beach scene. Work on the film then began again in early December, once fundraising was complete, essentially in Paris and its suburbs. Pascal Auffray took over cinematography from me for a few days because of the complicated shooting schedule…

The film is presented in two parts (1990s and 2000s) with a clearly signposted separation between the two using an intertitle. Did you choose to treat the image differently for both parts of the film?

DL: No, not at all. I just followed the storyline and the changes in setting and in the story. Actually, the original project was a sort of diptych, each of the two films was supposed to be two-hours-long, a fresco that would tell the tale of twenty years in the life of a DJ that would be based more on the characters and ambience of the 1990s than on action and suspense… You can easily imagine that without “bankable” main actors, it was really hard to raise funds!
At the end of the day, Mia had to reduce her ambitions somewhat and make only one film, but she fought with great determination and pugnacity to ensure that the original project would be seen through in spirit and that she would have the money she needed in order to realistically portray that period. I really admire her for that (and for many other things), because few directors would have had the strength and the will to see this project through to its end.

What did she ask for in terms of camera work?

DL: Mia had until now used few camera movements in her prior films, but this time, she used a lot of traveling shots and shots filmed from the shoulder. I think that the fact that she knew I like to move the camera a lot was one of the reasons she came to me. And yet, the film was mostly filmed with a small crew with just two grips and two gaffers. Only a few sets needed a full crew for the prelight (the first rave, the opening of the film in the countryside at night) or the presence of a generator. Mia doesn’t like to rehearse too much. We’d build the shots take by take, sometimes correcting the actors’ performance, but also sometimes correcting the lighting or the framing… putting down a few extra meters of rail to lengthen a travelling shot, even moving it completely if the choreography we’d built with the actors “in the heat of the action” required it.
It wasn’t at all like filming with directors who, once rehearsal is over, don’t want to change anything. We managed our time differently, trying to be ready as quickly as possible, even if that meant we had to correct the lighting as we perfected the scene.
This meant that there was a constant ballet involving the gaffer, who had to prepare the equipment “backstage” during a take so that it would be able to be set up in between takes, while we would take advantage of the break to move the travelling.

The first rave scene radically plunges the viewer into the ambience of the 1990s… Were you inspired by images from that time?

DL: The “Rave Champigny!” Filmed in the Fort of Champigny, which is the exact place that party happened at the time. For that scene, I played around with very white Strobes which allowed me to obtain high contrast on the dance floor and alternate very dark ambiences with very bright flashes. Other parts of the set, like the tunnel, were treated with blue in order to create balance. And the outside was very warm, with flames and torches.
The film was co-written with Sven Hansen-Løve, Mia’s brother, whose life experience was the inspiration for the film. Sven was sometimes present on location, working with his sister as a sort of “historical advisor”. His constant concern, shared by Mia, and which probably came from other films they’d seen, was not to make the club scenes too bright. I was therefore often faced with the problem that many cinematographers have, which is the return on set, which depends on the amount of light chosen, and the final result after exposure and colour timing, which isn’t always easy to explain nowadays with instant video feedback.

I think that from that point of view, the digital revolution has led us to forget our training on how to construct the image of a film, which 35mm film stock required you to take into account. Now, the result is that you simply close the aperture a bit, or even lower the general amount of light so that the actors feel at ease in indoor night-time scenes. The tendency to no longer distinguish between the feeling of darkness on set and the final result on screen – due to the 800 or 1000 native ISO of a digital sensor – also has repercussions on close-ups.
Now, the pupils of actors with light-coloured eyes are much more dilated than they used to be in a “classic” lighting setup. This significantly changes the way the actors’ eyes appear on screen, because it proportionally darkens their eyes. That is the reason why I sometimes try – whenever I have the time! – to increase the level of lighting on the close-up shots, while simultaneously adding a neutral grey in order to ensure the pupil remains closed.

Was the desire to respect reality in the choice of setting followed in other scenes?

DL: Some historical places, like the Queen, were recreated elsewhere (at the Rex, for instance). But most of the locations, like Paul’s apartment, are taken from Sven Hansen Løve’s life. And this was done despite the technical constraints that those choices could engender. The apartment set was on the 6th floor of a walk-up building, and it wasn’t very big with a lot of windows…
I remember that the producer had tried to convince Mia not to choose that set, but in vain, because as I was saying earlier, she is a very stubborn director! At the end, we ended up filming with a lot of natural lighting, taking advantage of the angle and direction of the sunlight in the apartment… And then we always had to manage a lot of improvisation, which was offset by Mia’s great precision and preparedness.

The opening scene of the film is extremely dark, which is rather surprising. Can you tell me more about that choice?

DL: Mia wanted something very dark. I wasn’t expecting that at all! When it came time to do the colour painting with Peter Bernaerds, I began to think of what the musical equivalent might be of that opening scene, and came up with The Rheingold. A sort of great orchestral mass at the end of which begins to emerge the work’s first leitmotiv. I think that Mia wanted to begin her film like that, without placing it in a precise point of view, and allowing the viewer to slowly come to his own conclusions about the different characters as the story falls into place.

Another scene in a club, in the latter part of the film, uses a very bright red light. At that point, we’re at the most tragic part of Paul’s life…

DL: That scene was filmed at Le Baron. Indeed, at that point in the story, the character is at the bottom of his game. The red colour already existed in that set, I just relit it but kept the same tone. But a story about that is that my assistant, Sarah Dubien, couldn’t focus the camera on set, she would program the precise distance into the lens but the image was still blurry. The light was so monochromatic that the focal length was no longer at the same place as it would have been under normal conditions. We had to stop using the measuring device and the lens settings and focus using our naked eye and the monitors for that scene.

But, on the other hand, the end of the film in the underground nightclub where he meets Daft Punk seems to have a calmer, more relaxed image on screen…

DL: The last place is Silenzio. I like that scene a lot, with the long, blurry panoramic shot in the middle. The ambience makes you feel that time has gone by. No one is dancing anymore, there’s a barman making sophisticated cocktails, and you can see a girl mixing on a computer. On that set, I let the colours go, I simplified the range to go towards a warm and elegant unity. Just a few out-of-frame light sources were used to correct the faces or give sometimes a bit of depth.

What equipment did you choose?

DL: The film was shot with an Arri Alexa ProRes. On most of the films I shoot, I like to filter a little bit, in order to counterbalance the sharpness of the digital image, but here, with all of the contingencies of the contrast, light sources within the frame in the nightclubs, or the many windows letting in natural light in the apartments, I abandoned that idea as I would have made too many problems for myself. Instead, I chose to work with old-fashioned, but nonetheless comfortable, lenses: old Zeiss wide apertures, in 2.35 format.

Why not in anamorphic?

DL: There’s a huge lie-by-omission regarding digital cinematography and anamorphic lenses. What they won’t tell you – “they” being the lens manufacturers, the equipment renters, and the labs – is that since digital projection has become the norm in cinemas, we’ve lost what, to my mind, was the main advantage of Scope: an unparalleled image surface. 35mm Scope copies have disappeared with film projectors, when you shoot in anamorphic, the DCP projection is, of course, spherical, and you only use a shortened part of the matrix that generates the image. Paradoxically, the 2.35 format is no longer the highest-definition one; 1.85 is, because it is the closest to DCP’s native format. Of course, you are still left with the shallow depth-of-field and the optical particularities of anamorphic lenses, but, for me, it’s no longer worth it when you compare with what real 35mm Scope used to be in cinemas.

(Interview conducted by François Reumont for the AFC, and translated from French by Alex Raiffe)