Festival de Cannes 2024

Josée Deshaies talks about the challenges of shooting Thierry de Peretti’s "In His Own Image"

By Lucie Baudinaud, AFC

[ English ] [ français ]

Josée and I have a "little history", as she likes to remind me, since she was on the jury that validated my diploma at "La Fémis" [French Film School, NDLR]. She followed my early work as a cinematographer in the years that followed, and here we are, eleven years later, on the phone, her shooting in London, me in Paris, talking about her collaboration with Thierry de Peretti. (LB)

Fragments of the life of Antonia, a young photographer from Corse-Matin in Ajaccio. Her commitment, her friends and her loves are interwoven with the major events in the island’s political history, from the 1980s to the dawn of the 21st century. These are the fragments of a generation.

Perhaps we should start at the beginning with Thierry... ?

Josée Deshaies : I met Thierry about fifteen years ago, when he made his first short film, Le jour de ma mort, which we shot in his village in Corsica. He went on to work with Hélène Louvart, then Claire Mathon. There’s a beautiful sisterhood in his films.
For A son Image, he reminds me of a kind of loop that comes full circle... especially as on this film, we’re shooting in the same village as fifteen years ago. Some of the shots are the same, as are the settings, like the village square, for example. There was a lot of emotion in meeting again on this occasion.

What are the weeks leading up to the shoot like ?

JD : Thierry is in Corsica during the gestation period of the film, and well in advance of shooting, we meet there to do some tests.
It’s at this point that I base this very accurate idea that I remember from Claire Denis and Agnès Godard : rather than doing the tests in the studio, we go out on location with our actors and film. It’s research that we do together with the film’s lead actress. This makes more sense to Thierry than the ultimately theoretical tinkering in the studio. Sometimes, without the right costumes, make-up, hair or lighting, some of these tests end up in the final film....
At this stage, we don’t know much other than that she’s the right actress.
I’m starting out with an Alexa and "neutral" spherical lenses : as far as the camera is concerned, I’m working with Arri, so there’s no question in my mind. Arri works in the same mood as we do. They’re not engineers, in the sense that they understand first and foremost the very concrete needs we have on set.

So we’re in Corsica looking for something. We shoot at different times of the day in the sets we’re looking for. We close shutters, we open them. This provokes a dialogue, an exchange around these images. When I got back to Paris, I continued my research : I set up in a room at TSF rental where I could bring together around fifteen lenses.
It’s like a little laboratory : I test, I record, I watch in projection, sometimes I show Thierry, sometimes not. It’s all very empirical.
Thierry wanted to use zoom lenses very often. This was an important point, as it meant mixing zoom and fixed lenses.
I decided on Summilux. I like them a lot, maybe because they’re straight and a little less sharp than the Master Prime. A little less warm and round than the Cooke. So I chose my spherical base in Summilux and then completed my choice with zooms.

Josée Deshaies à la caméra - Photo Elise Pinelli
Josée Deshaies à la caméra
Photo Elise Pinelli

If we look at this question for a moment, we could say that this long search for an image through the choice of the fixed series essentially allows us to set the direction of the image. In the end, we often find ourselves crafting the artistic continuity of this image through lenses that complement each other. Sometimes the presence of the main series can even become minor, but that’s okay, we’ve found the right direction through this research... haven’t we ?

JD : That’s exactly it.

Do you work with LUTs from your tests ? How do you balance this with the calibration phase ?

JD : Once we’ve made our choices, we run a few more tests, this time very basic ones, to make the LUTs for the shoot. There are 4 different ones, INT, EXT, DAY/NIGHT each time. I worked with Yov Moor for this phase, who then handed over to Christophe Bousquet for the film’s final color grading.
On set, I use False Color made by Ed Lachman : he made a kind of False Color on 25 densities, extremely precise. You know exactly where each zone of your image is located, 1/2 stop above and below your exposure. This allows me to expose RAW with the same precision as 35mm.
Finally, color timing.
This is a big question, because I come from a long experience in film where color grading was reduced to relatively simple adjustments.
Today, it’s more complicated. It’s becoming more and more important : perhaps 30% of the finished image comes from work done during color grading.
And so the person in charge takes on a very important role : on the texture of the skins... on the blacks... how do you work the blacks yourself ?

I’m still looking ! So far, I get the most satisfactory results when I set my lowlights as close as possible to the final render : I don’t take any safety precautions. If I want a very strong penumbra, I set it in the LUT of the shoot. The LUT is made with a view to the blacks I want to achieve : softness or "charcoal" density. 
This sometimes leads me to underexpose a lot. Charles Freville, the colorist I work with, has little room for maneuver. Despite this, it seems to me that it’s the only way to achieve the desired foot of the curve without losing coherence with the rest of the image.
Let’s come back to your work : did you try to make it evolve over the years that the characters go through, from 1980 to 2003 ?

JD : Regardless of the era in which it’s set, for me, a film is contemporary : it tells the story of our times. We always speak in the present tense, and the film is in the present. Thierry doesn’t mimic an era. In a way, we "file down" the elements needed to tell the story of the years in which the characters are set. Besides, I think it was less about light than politics : the film is political.
It’s a question of finding the right overall feel to translate this context into the film. Thierry, who has always anchored his films in Corsica, is often criticized for not making "beautiful images", that perhaps expected "postcard" side of the island.
This time, the film begins with a wedding, which we shot with an assertive backlight on the beach. A sublime image of the island that lasts maybe two minutes, and then it gets political... To come back to the years, perhaps I could say that we worked with the colors of the seasons. We shot over 3 seasons : in March (the tests), in August and right through to November. We pushed the character of each one, perhaps a little too much at times ?

How does the shot list work ?

JD : Ideally, for Thierry, there’s no shot list. Which is very complex when it comes to working with images. The actor comes first. We do sequence shots, so we’re constantly improvising on the cut : zooming in, Dolly-style. You have to be cunning and cover yourself whenever possible. There’s no magic formula... we’re a bit freewheeling.
In the film, for example, there’s a scene of a concert by a major nationalist group from the ’80s, in the village square. Thierry decides to organize a real concert, free to the public, with this same group... 40 years later. The only stipulation was that anyone wishing to attend had to dress in "80s" style.
We had no idea how many people would turn up, and it was a bit stressful : too many ? too few ?
We had agreed with the band’s manager to redo "the stage" with period lighting, based on the reference photos we had. So they supplied the classics (PARS 64 etc...) of the time, very simple stuff, and we set it all up the day before.

At the same time, I also had to imagine how the audience would be lit (especially our protagonists, sometimes obstructed by the crowd). It was a large village square with virtually no street lighting (in fact, that summer almost the entire village was without street lighting). As I didn’t have the means, I decided to use the top of the school wall as a large reflective surface.
In the end, I think there were about 600 people in total.
And then we shot non-stop for two hours, with a long rail hidden behind the refreshment counter and a stand we had hidden near the stage. At one point we took the camera behind the bar (it was still running to keep the sound in sync) and put it on the tripod head to ensure a different shooting axis. The actors played their roles throughout the concert, without ever stopping either. Thierry sent me his requests via headset.
In the end, there are only a few minutes left of this 2-hour plan, so it’s pretty chaotic at times ! But I still found it quite exhilarating to put it all together, somewhere between a play and a performance. It was a great way for Thierry to breathe vitality into his actors. It was a bit like... whatever happens, the show must go on !

Thierry has a role in the film, and I read that he had to be in front of the camera several times a week. Did that change your relationship on the set ?

JD : Not so much, he discussed it with the script supervisor, but I think that would have been too much. It’s not my place on the set.

How would you describe your place on the set ?

JD : During the production, its preparation and shooting, you have a close relationship with the director : you’re part of a bubble in which you have to be able to speak the same language. Mutual trust and common direction are essential, because the meaning of the story determines the artistic choices...
To answer the question of place, I’d say I’m a translator. There’s the language of the script, and I’m there to translate it into images : 24 images every second for 4 years of "black and white" writing.