Interview with cinematographer Irina Lubtchansky regarding her work on Arnaud Desplechin’s film “Ismaël’s Ghosts”

[English] [français]

Some directors are regulars on the Croisette and Arnaud Desplechin is one of them, as this is his 7th time at Cannes, this year with Ismaël’s Ghosts, the film chosen to open the 70th annual Cannes Film Festival, and whose director of photography was Irina Lubtchansky.

After many years spent working as an assistant camera, Irina Lubtchansky became a director of photography on a Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche film, and has filmed his last three feature-length films. She has also worked with Romain Goupil and recently with Frédéric Mermoud on Moka.
The first time she worked with Arnaud Desplechin was on a television movie for Arte, "La Forêt", and then she did My Golden Days. For Ismaël’s Ghosts, she was very glad to work with the director once again, who likes strong images. (BB)

The day before shooting begins on a new film, the life of a filmmaker is disrupted when an old flame reappears out of the blue… Starring Mathieu Amalric, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Marion Cotillard, and Louis Garrel.

Arnaud Desplechin et Marion Cotillard sur le tournage des "Fantômes d’Ismaël"

When you leave the theatre, you immediately feel that all possible styles of lighting are present in this film and that they perfectly participate in the narration.

Irina Lubtchansky : It is true, there aren’t many scenes with neutral lighting. We always had a very strong idea of what we wanted in terms of set, lighting of a set, or time of day for outdoor scenes.
The shooting schedule wasn’t easy, we might have four scenes to shoot at dawn, at dusk, and during the night. So we had a full day with effects that weren’t daytime effects. In any case, the scenes were very long and we couldn’t have shot them with natural light.
So I lit with powerful light sources for the dawn, the dusk, and the day-for-night scenes… We chose the sets fastidiously so that it would work.

The scene in Mathieu and Alba’s bedroom is entirely orange-yellow, did you create that colour during colour timing ?

I.L : Not at all ! All of the windows were gelled, so it was monochromatic. I only used the light that came from my spot outside the window and I caught it with reflectors placed indoors. It was a gel from Stoaro’s range.
In preparation, Arnaud had asked me to rewatch Bergman’s The Passion of Anna. In that film, there are very red and very green dominant tones, and I understood he wanted us to be radical. So I decided to gel the windows, the spots, and the camera.

Furthermore, the monochrome scene you’re referring to won’t be in the short version that will be screened during the Cannes opening, but you’ll have to wait for the longer version that will be released on the same day at the Panthéon Cinema and perhaps in others, too.
In the short version, there aren’t the scenes shot in Tel Aviv, the scene in the airplane… But also the character played by Mathieu Amalric “loses it” a bit less and the parts that were the most astonishing in terms of lighting were cut.

Your choice of lenses was vitally important for the texture of the image ?

I.L : I knew that we were going to shoot in real Scope and I wanted a Panavision C-Series. I ordered the series six months in advance. I knew they were very soft, and that the blurs were really lovely, but I wasn’t that familiar with them. When we did the tests, I realized they were extremely sensitive to bright lights. I like when it bleeds a little, but here, the entire image was desaturated ! So I had to control the flare all of the time. And when the flare was too intense, I would relight so that I could close the aperture. It made things a little complicated… And then during scouting I saw that Arnaud would choose camera angles with the sea in the background, and indoors he’d choose angles with the windows in the background… We were constantly filming with backlighting, which we both like. In the end, the flares were very acceptable.

Tournage d’une scène des "Fantômes d’Ismaël"
Photo Jean-Claude Lother

There are a lot of camera movements, travelling shots, and zooms…
I.L : Yes, and sometimes two at once ! I often combined a travelling shot with a zoom. I had an Angénieux 25-250 HR zoom lens equipped with the anamorphic block. I knew it would be soft enough to match with the C Series.
We worked with the camera on the shoulder, but also very often on a plate with a dolly. I liked filming like that a lot, it brought a certain amount of life and fluidity to the image.

How did you light the love scene between Mathieu Amalric and Marion Cotillard ?

I.L : We had to make a circular travelling shot around the lovers and I was afraid that the changes in angle wouldn’t look very nice because of the light that became backlighting after having been frontal lighting… So I “choreographed” the lighting with Laurent Bourgeat (our gaffer) so that it would follow the travelling shot. When Arnaud saw our set-up, he was a bit taken aback and asked us whether we were in a nightclub ! [Laughs…].
I had set up 4 Fresnel Arri LEDs above the set. They are dimmable without changing the colorimetry and without making noise.

There are quite a few close-ups in this film… real close-ups on faces with lovely skin texture. Did you filter the camera ?

I.L : On My Golden Days, I realized that I was cutting it a little close with the long focal length. Because we were shooting in Scope, I corrected the Angénieux zoom lens to be a 500mm. I filtered the camera but I didn’t want filters that made the bright lights bleed, because I already had that effect with the lenses themselves. So I filtered with Mitchells but also with Glimmers that flare the bright lights a bit but not too much.
The camera also counts towards the way the skin is rendered. I can’t bring myself to use another camera than the Red. I think it’s just right in terms of softness, it creates a very rounded effect with a bit of depth… That way, I don’t have to add anything in postproduction.
Gills Granier, at Labo, was highly attentive to what I wanted because before colour timing, we’d discussed exactly what suited me best in terms of rendering.

Is Mathieu Amalric’s character in Ismaël’s Ghosts inspired by Arnaud Desplechin himself ?

I.L : The character reflects Arnaud’s personality, with his demons and his desires. He has a sort of feverish enthusiasm when he’s on set, just like Mathieu’s character’s own approach to life. He never leaves the set, he listens to music or lies down while preparation is going on, even if they last for two hours. He’s always there before anyone else…like the guardian of a temple…

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

Watch the trailer :