Interview with cinematographer Laurent Brunet, AFC

Director of photography, doing long feature film since twelve years, Laurent Brunet has been rewarded in 2009 by a Cesar award. United States, Africa or middle-east, this cinema traveller reveals here his passion for image and his vision of cinema. Confidences of a professionnal attached to his freedom and opened to new adventures.

Laurent Brunet, you’re the winner of the 2009 best picture Cesar Award, for Seraphine. Congratulations. This movie is also among the ten most awarded ones in the Cesar’s history. Did you expect such a success?

Laurent Brunet: Not that much. Seven Cesar’s award. No, I didn’t expect it. The success is a moment, a time. There’s an idea of competition in the Cesars that I don’t like at all. If there would have been stronger movies on the line, Seraphine would have received nothing. Concerning my work on this film, I didn’t expect an award. This movie is kind of special to me. I come from documentary school. I work on instinct, I go working on shooting abroad. Seraphine is a story from the past, something more quiet. I could experiment myself on it, go beyond my knowledge to do something else.

What was your reaction when you got that award?

LB: I was in Finland, on a shooting, with a minus 27 degrees temperature, among snow and ice. I was running, camera on shoulder. This day, I fell and twisted my thumb. Exhausted, I finally got to bed this evening and was awake by a phone call at midnight. And a lot more phone calls then (laughing).
I received it from very far. It was great. Unexpected. An acknowledgement. The Cesar award is an acknowledgement on one movie but the hard part is to last.

Does this award bring you opportunities?

LB: Maybe some more proposal. Maybe a little more freedom in my work. It makes things different for the others, not for me. I’ll still go and choose the project I like the most. It won’t prevent me from doing experiences. If I have to choose between a big production and a little budget movie in which I believe, this award won’t take my freedom away.

What is your professionnal history?

LB: I had a professionnal training for two years. I was an assistant for some time. I shot documentary, magazines, still thinking of doing movies. I did my first feature when I was 30, twelve years ago. They called me to shoot in New-York and I went just like this. And I’m still working that way. The point is to have fun and to create.

Looking at your career, it seems that you like to be in danger, to choose project where you don’t master all the parameters.

LB: It’s true. When I read a script, I don’t know what the movie’s going to be. It needs a direction. And my work is part of it. I take chances concerning the images and the working conditions.
Also by chosing original projects. Where you have to shoot a whole movie in 20 or 25 days. I rarely work in comfort. I’m a bit suicidal sometime. I want to reach life. This is where the risk is.

How did it go, about working and technical choices with Martin Provost, “Seraphine”’s director?

LB: Martin came with quite a precise idea of the style, a rather simple writing of it. No tricky camera moves, no hysteria, taking its time… We agreed on this.
Working with a director, I need someone to give me energy. The director is the engine. Even if he’s sometimes wrong, the movie needs power, creative energy. Where I didn’t go along with him, and some others… Was because of some kind of latency on the set.
What was important, preparing the movie with Martin, was to agree on a quiet movie. We knew when we had to cut, to change frame… Very few close-up in Seraphine. It’s a very pure, very simple feature langage. Some critics find it slow. I disagree.

What are the main differences between the collaborations you had and in which way does it affect your work?

LB: I started with Raphaël Nadjari in United States. Next, I discovered Israël where I shot four movies. Being abroad, with people for which cinema doesn’t have the same meaning as in France, can be shoking. When you have 400.000 euros to do a feature, you put your life, your anger, your vision in it; mistake is forbiden.
So yes, I prefer to go around the world rather than to look at myself. Staying free after an award, it means collaborating with different directors. I just made four french films in a row, and I just accepted a movie in Tchad. On a project where nothing is set. I go there with only an assistant. I don’t know anybody there. The equipment will come from Burkina Faso. I don’t know what I will be working with. I’ll have to sort it out.
But I’m not here to replace a director. My job is to serve his vision.

How does a collaboration with a director start? Do they necessarly have a perspective to offer you?

LB: It depends on which director. Each one has a way to express himself. I like to have a lot of documents, pictures, movies… It is a time I love on a beginning of a feature: to lean on the director’s ideas, to understand his universe. Then, it is about emulation. Each one of us bring things to the other.
This creative process gives me a kick. This is where you go from an idea to a feature. At this point, some directors prefer to be guided; some others comes with documents and a precise vision of their movie. This is also where I happen to know the director.

At this point, can you to talk to us about the choices of lights and frames?

LB: Artistically, we based our choices on documents. More generally, I don’t speak about frame. What matters to me is to get unity and a movie langage.

Isn’t the frame a part of this langage?

LB: The frame is nothing. What counts is the shape the movie will have. They ask if it will be shot on shoulder or on tripod. Will there be a lot of editing? This is what I call the movie grammar, and we can spend time on it. It’s fundamental. The hard part is to stay simple and sound. It means sometimes to cut off some dialogue and to built a frame that says more.
In France, cinema can often become too literary or elitist; meaning that we are not creative enough with the image. The image and the dialogue can be redundant in french cinema.
Something else that bothers me: productions compagnies ask for the editing as we start a movie. Before editing anything, it would be nice to know what we’re talking about. Editing depends on what you want to say. If you don’t have a main plan, anything is possible.

In the discussion between digital and traditionnel, what’s your opinion?

LB: It seems to be a matter of budget. Today, I consider it as an artistic choice. We can create different things depending on the media. What kind of emotion do you want to get in your movie? It’s a matter of language. The media must fit the project.
A full digital production line can be as expensive as a traditionnal one. I’m about to leave for the Tchad. Digital has been proposed on this production and I feel like shooting in traditionnal. The problem is not about technical possibilities. It’s about how I feel this image.

What do you prefer in the Fuji line of stock films?

LB: There’s some films I use in priority. I love Eterna 500; I use it day and night. And the Eterna 400. Those are high sensibility stock films.
Today, in 35mm, stock films are so low in granularity that I don’t know why I should use 200, with a lot of lights.

Between the expectations of the production and the director’s ones, what is the place for creativity?

It depends on the kind of movie. Things are made before, during the dialogue with the director. First, you go for the director’s vision. But sometimes I have to compromise.
It’s a very tricky point. When you see a director shouting at the production, you’re in between and you have to be strong, take a step back. It’s quite frequent and difficult to handle.

(Interview by David Maule for Fujifilm)