Interview with cinematographer Laurent Brunet, AFC, about his work on Annarita Zambrano’s film “After the War”

par Laurent Brunet

[English] [français]

For her first feature-length film, Italian director Annarita Zambrano decided to make a film about the exile of a father and his daughter against the backdrop of the post-Red Brigade Italian political context of the 1980s. This story takes place between Italy and Southwest France, and was photographed by Laurent Brunet, AFC. It is in official selection at Cannes this year in the “Un certain regard” section (FR)

Bologna, 2002. The universities are in revolt over proposed labour market reforms. The murder of a judge opens old political wounds between Italy and France. Marco, a former leftist activist, who has been condemned for murder and who has been in exile in France for 20 years thanks to the Mitterrand Doctrine, is suspected of having masterminded the attack. The Italian government demands his extradition. Forced to flee with Viola, his 15-year-old daughter, his life changes forever, as does that of his family in Italy, which is made to pay for his past errors. 

How would you define this film ?

Laurent Brunet : I believe this is a political and intimate movie. When I became a part of the project, about a month before shooting began, I witnessed a major campaign of rewriting undertaken by Annarita, the director, who had to significantly cut down the original screenplay, which was definitely slightly over-ambitious given the film’s final budget. Instead of denaturing the film, I believe that this forced decision actually made the film get even more intimate with the characters and brought it to a narrative and visual purification.
The film was made very simply, shot between France and Italy over 28 days. We had a very small but energetic team (an assistant camera operator, a grip, a gaffer) and I tried to give the director as much freedom as possible.

Did you approach each of the film’s two parts differently ?

L.B : The Italian part is more based on indoors’ sets, filmed near Bologna. Of course, we had a lot of work to do on the set design and on choosing the house. It was a special set with an immense front door and entry hallway that opened onto a window. It wasn’t easy to light, but it was the set that best suited the screenplay. As a cinematographer, when you first step foot on a set, sometimes you’d like to change everything entirely ! But you have to be able to calm down and adapt.
On the French part, we took advantage of the nature surrounding Contis in the Landes, and the set was a cabin in the woods the characters used as a hideout. While shooting, it was hard to strike the right balance between the jumps in narration between both parts of the film. It was one of the issues that was encountered during rewriting and, in the end, a lot was put together during editing.

As for the image, I don’t like to overly-intellectualize my work. I try to remain pragmatic and adapt myself to the conditions on set and to the constraints while attempting to achieve a guideline and a style. On this film, the sun was very important (shooting took place during summer 2016), and I didn’t hesitate to let some of the backlighting explode, I didn’t try to contain the image too much. It is a film of contrasts, and I didn’t hesitate to push the camera to its limits.

How did you go about shooting ?

LB : In my opinion, this was really a film that had to be shot from the shoulder. Using a gyrostabilization device would have produced more or less the same results as a Steadicam. As for the camera, I hadn’t shot with an Arri Alexa for a while. Ever since the Mini, I’d wanted to try again. And I must say that it was the right camera for this film, sort of in the same way that in the past we used to choose a particular film stock !
Besides its compactness, which was useful for all of the scenes shot inside a car, it has a true ability to record contrasts. Exposed between 3,200 and 6,400 ISO, I think that the Mini is more sensitive than any other Alexa. It let me go down to extremely low levels of light at night -I hardly had to light at all- and to pull off some scenes, like the one shot to the sound of the hunting horn, right between dusk and night.

Furthermore, placing yourself at the limit of the sensor’s structure generates material in the image that breaks with the overly-clean side of digital imagery that is oftentimes too tame. I chose to film with Cooke S3 lenses. These lenses give a sublime result, they’re round and flare like mad ! I knew I’d often be filming in backlighting on this film, and I didn’t want to go against its faults. Instead, I wanted to rely on them, find the right angle, and feel a sort of vibration in the image. But, it must be said that these lenses are very difficult to focus and that the assistant camera operator must be very talented.

What mode did you use the Alexa Mini in ?

LB : We chose Prores by default, because of the budget. I would have rather filmed in RAW for postproduction. Testing during demosaicking before colour grading seems important to me because it gives you more latitude afterwards. As for the dailies, we made them on set using ProRes filmed in Log mode using a basic Lut that I’d correct in function of the scene. In digital, it’s important for me to be able to deliver something close to what I had in mind so that we don’t get into the bad habit of working with images that are too far removed from our intention. Colour grading took only eight days in Geneva, at Free Studio, alongside Alexandra Poquet.

Was there one particularly difficult scene ?

LB : The scene with the car accident at night in the middle of the forest caused me some anxiety. At the outset, we absolutely wanted to light everything only using the car’s headlamps, a bit like in some scenes from Nury Bilge Ceylan’s films.
But the shooting script and the action made the situation almost impossible. So I had to fall back on “artificial” lighting by installing two 2 kW tungsten Chinese lamps on the trees above in order to create a night-time ambience. A little generator was enough to let us film the scene.

No LEDs ?

LB : I’ve been using LEDs more often, but on this forest scene with the headlamps, I didn’t have enough light to forgo the use of tungsten lighting. On the rest of the film I used a lot of battery-powered lights, especially Smartlight SL1s, or Aladdins, which allows me to dispense with cables and to set up very quickly.
But given the extraordinary sensitivity of digital cinema cameras, you often end up with too much light. An example is the night scene on the beach when Viola’s character is looking for her bag, where we lit everything with my assistant’s LED torch. An improbable thing shaped like tennis balls that was just hung to the front of the camera. It was enough to be able to make out the actress in the dark.
Even a simple Aladdin light was too strong and looked like a spotlight in this scene. I’m happy with the results, the way we shot from the shoulder against a black background and the way the actress’ movements coincide with those of the camera to create an unreal effect...

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

You can see stills from the film by clicking through the album below.