Interview with cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman, AFC, about his work on Michel Hazanvicius’ film "Redoubtable"

"Shooting Godard", by François Reumont

par Guillaume Schiffman

[ English ] [ français ]

This unexpected biopic on Jean-Luc Godard’s life was a brave project by Michel Hazanavicius. The movie lover and director of hit comedies OSS 117 and The Artist decided to pay a trenchant tribute to the internationally-renowned symbol of the Nouvelle Vague.
Shooting this out-of-the-ordinary film suddenly took on a personal and emotional dimension for Guillaume Schiffman, AFC, because of the family relationship between him and the emblematic director of the Nouvelle Vague.

Paris, 1967. Jean-Luc Godard, the most fêted director of his generation, is shooting La Chinoise with the woman he loves, Anne Wiazemaky, 20 years his junior. They are happy, in love, and they get married. But the critical response to the film at its release causes Jean-Luc to engage in a period of intense soul-searching.
May 1968 amplified the process, and Jean-Luc’s crisis thoroughly transforms him, making him go from the star-filmmaker to a marginal Maoist artist who is as misunderstood as incomprehensible.

Based on an adaptation of Anne Wiazemsky’s first biography (Une année studieuse), which recounted her romantic relationship with Jean-Luc Godard, Redoubtable is set during 1967-1968, which is a key period for the director of Breathless. Guillaume Schiffman explains : “Michel loved the book. The context must have spoken to him. Behind the love story is the key moment where a director gives up everything just as he is at the top of his career. He was 37 years old and while participating in the student uprising (he was one of the artists they respected), he realized that he had already grown old and that he could never again be that young activist that he dreamed of being.” His relationship with the revolutionary youth is fraught with attraction and repulsion, like many scenes in this movie. “The more he worked on the screenplay, the more Michel felt sympathy for Godard, and that helped him put more of what he loves most into the film : comedy. In any case, the film is never supposed to be a sad or tragic tale of their relationship. Now that it’s finished, I’d say that it could be defined as a sort of ironic and tender tribute to a character who, as we know, was often the king of self-parody. It’s also a pretty intense look at this love story that was condemned to failure.”

Although the film is a bitter-sweet comedy following in the footsteps of Michel Hazanavicius’ prior films (the narration is reminiscent of the pure homage to cinema of The Artist, while Godard’s character is an anti-hero in the style of OSS 117), the image and sound regularly reference the Franco-Swiss master’s films.

Louis Garrel est Jean-Luc Godard
Louis Garrel est Jean-Luc Godard

“Of course, there are a lot of photographic tributes in Redoubtable, such as the highly-staged black-and-white scene that is reminiscient of A Married Woman, the sunny outdoor daytime shots from Contempt, the very simple and artificial car scene inspired by Week End or Pierrot le Fou,” explains the cinematographer. The side-to-side tracking shot was also chosen as a leitmotiv out of the vast cinematographic grammar invented by or made popular by Godard. “To me, it encapsulates Godard’s cinema,” explains Guillaume Schiffman, “they’re in almost all of his films, with great profile shots on the actors that made a mark in the history of the cinema. This is a recurring technique in Redoubtable, from the opening shot to the long 250m travelling shot on Avenue Trudaine. At the beginning, the shot wasn’t supposed to be filmed at sunset, and I was counting on colour timing to darken it and get the effect we were looking for. Of course, nothing happened as planned, it rained during the afternoon, and we ended up filming at dusk, just at the limits of what can be done without lighting. We corrected just by lighting the faces from the treetops but besides that, the entire shot was filmed with ambient lighting. Moreover, you can really see the light diminishing as the sun sets while filming. It was a 100% natural effect that I didn’t even bother correcting or making stronger during colour timing.”

Before starting filming this tribute to cinema, Michel Hazanavicius and Guillaume Schiffman immediately agreed they’d make the movie in film, and not in digital. “We absolutely couldn’t imagine filming in digital. The quality of skin on screen, the texture of the film, and the use of vintage lenses (Schneider series) were what compose Redoubtable’s image. I chose Kodak Vision 500T film (set at 400) for most of the scenes, and I sometimes corrected with an 85 filter according to my feeling. A few scenes were shot using Vision 200T, but I felt it was too fine and too precise to look like what I had in mind. For example, only the beach scenes that are reminiscent of those in Contempt were filmed using the 200T. Actually, I realized that the quality of the emulsions and the extraordinary progress that’s been made in terms of scanning are so great that you have to really push the settings to the maximum while filming to get texture on screen.”

The main achievement of the film was the reconstitution of the Parisian demonstrations that take up a large portion of the film : “Michel is someone who is very meticulous as to the image, and even more as to recreating the period. For the May 1968 demonstration scenes that serve as a backdrop to lots of the passages in the book, he really insisted that the viewer must feel as though he were there. So we filmed on location : Place Denfert-Rochereau, Boulevard Saint-Michel, and Boulevard Henri IV. It was hard in terms of extras and for those shots we used multiple cameras outfitted with Optimo Angénieux zoom lenses. We had to do work during colour timing as well in order to splice these scenes together with the rest of the movie that was filmed with the Schneider lenses.”

Michel Hazanavicius et Guillaume Schiffman, AFC
Michel Hazanavicius et Guillaume Schiffman, AFC

Another story is that the DoP asked his grip team to improvise a light dolly with rubber wheels (in between a Western dolly and a rolling cart), his favourite tool for the street shots. The accessory was baptized “Godardine” on set, which was inspired from the simple camera movements typical of the time and its ultra-basic resources. “What’s pretty crazy, when you think about it, is how quickly Godard would shoot his films and the extreme complexity of the movements that he would devise with Raoul Coutard. I’ll admit that even now, with digital filming, we wouldn’t be able to work that fast and with such great results !”

Because he’d decided to achieve the same style of lighting used at the time, the director of photography ran an extensive battery of tests. “When you pick apart Godard’s cinema, you realize that until 1968, they filmed very few night-time scenes out-of-doors without lit shop windows, which provide depth or even the keylight on the characters from certain angles. In Redoubtable, there is a scene where Louis Garrel and Stacy Martin are leaving a party and find themselves in a street during curfew. It was impossible to rely on streetlamps or shop lights. I had to reinvent a “Godard-esque” urban night-time image using a pretty standard combination of Maxibrutes and Dinolights, just as they might have been used back then.”

Indoors, the famous battery of blue flood lamps directed by Raoul Coutard from the ceiling was replaced by a series of SL1 Smartlights with curved diffusors set at a temperature close to that of daylight. In that configuration, the light was naturally very soft and caressing, and we barely added light to the faces. It was also with a combination of SL1 (and a helium balloon) that the scenes of the student assemblies (shot in the actual halls of the Sorbonne where they took place) were staged. We just had to use a lot more lighting than we’re used to nowadays with digital cameras.

While watching the film, you can notice a slow progression towards a more modern style of photography, that breaks with the direct tributes. For example, the end of the movie, which is set in Italy. “At the end of the movie, we’re using atmospheres borrowed from Wind from the East. This is a lesser-known period of Godard’s career where he was working within the Dziga Vertov collective. The analogy is less obvious, but that’s mostly because it was after the Coutard period. There are some scenes in the hotel against a white wall, which he did very well. I agree that the image tends towards a more contemporary style. It was a period during shooting where we let the rules slide a bit, and where the film is more about the story that Michel is telling than about paying tribute to Godard.”

The cinematographer, son of Suzanne Schiffman, who was Jean-Luc Godard’s script supervisor (inter alia) on Contempt, A Married Woman, and Week End, and who then went on to become Truffaut’s assistant and script writer (e.g. on The Last Metro), shares some childhood memories : “Even though I probably only met Godard once in my life by chance at LTC, I was literally nursed watching his movies and listening to the stories from shooting my mother would tell me. I clearly remember the score from A Woman is a Woman from when I was 6 or 7. Of course, I couldn’t understand the lyrics, but I loved it ! Today, I realize how lucky I am to have been able to contribute to this movie. I think I couldn’t have imagined one day I would shoot a biopic on Godard !

Although this direct link had an impact on Guillaume Schiffman, of course, Raoul Coutard’s shadow loomed over the entire movie. “Just before beginning shooting during summer 2016, I called Raoul in the south-west of France to ask him for some advice. With his legendary verve that he’d never lost, he answered “figure it out yourself, I’ll give you a grade once I’ve seen the film !” Unfortunately, he passed away in November, and I’ll never know what his grade would have been. I’ll definitely be very moved when I think of him during the premiere at Cannes.”

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

- Production Company : Les Compagnons du cinéma
- Sets : Christian Marti
- Costumes : Sabrina Riccardi
- Make-up : Mathilde Josset
- Sound : Jean Minondo
- Editing : Anne Sophie Bion