Kasper Tuxen, DFF, discusses the shooting of "The Worst Person in the World", by Joachim Trier

The 12 Labors of Kasper, by François Reumont for the AFC

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At the Grand Théâtre Lumière, Joachim Trier delivered the portrait of a woman over the course of seven years, from her graduation from university to her thirtieth birthday. This is The Worst Person in the World, played by the wonderful Renate Reinsve, surrounded by Herbert Nordrum and Anders Danielsen Lie, in fourteen tableaux (including prologue and epilogue) of a modern and touching romance. Danish cinematographer Kasper Tuxen, DFF, has teamed up on this project with his Norwegian neighbors to film this bittersweet love story. (FR)

Did you shoot fourteen little films that resemble one another ?

Kasper Tuxen : No. To tell the truth, we didn’t plan each segment so that it would have its own visual identity when we prepared the film. There were also a few sequences that we shot but that didn’t make in into the final cut… From the get-go, the film’s color palette was pretty vast, especially with the fifth chapter and the frozen city, or the eighth, with the magic mushroom experience. The original screenplay was also a bit less linear than the end result, and, being familiar with Joachim and his editor’s work, I expected them to build the film through a manipulation of the sequences.

When one watches the film, the passage of the seasons is very salient.

KT : We agreed on a temporality that would match the storyline. The twelfth chapter was set in the present time and the epilogue was about two years later ; the start of the film was five years earlier. It’s true that, when you see the film, the feeling of the passage of the seasons is very noticeable. At the start, it is summertime, then autumn and winter, and springtime at the end. Actually, I realize that I spent nearly an entire year on this film, partially because of the delay caused by the pandemic, since its start in November 2019 and my first trips to Oslo for preproduction, up to the last day of shooting in November2020.

Did you decide to shoot in chronological order ?

KT : No, we couldn’t shoot the film in order of the screenplay. The first sequence we shot was the one where Julie is in the gym, watching Aksel’s interview on TV. It was in the middle of winter, and it was snowy, so we logically continued with all of the other sequences in that segment. Living in Copenhagen, I didn’t know Oslo very well and I took advantage of that long period to take in the city, and I went on a lot of bicycle trips to different neighborhoods, observing the light and gathering ideas.
Joachim organized several rehearsals with the actors, and I was invited to them. I’d film them with my phone when I could. Then there were camera tests and technical tests in each chosen location. Most of the time, he already knew how the scene would be shot, he’d give me his instructions for the shots, and we’d try them out with my phone. Then, all those little films were sent to the assistant directors who put together the shoot using that raw material. I realize that I pretty much shot this film three times : first, following the actors around during rehearsals ; second, on location ; and a third time in 35mm.

Why did you choose celluloid ?

KT : Film is still patently superior to digital in terms of rendering of skin tones and the beauty of faces, in my opinion. This naturalism was at the center of Joachim’s and my preoccupations : the incredible complexity that the colors of a face can have is visible in this film. Especially when a director is uncompromising on the purity of white, which he feels is synonymous with a certain type of truth on the screen. So, when Renate’s (Julie) face pales, or when it subtly goes purple, you can see it, as when tears begin to well up and the corners of her eyes go red.
It was also a real challenge during color timing to work with Julien, our colorist, to find a neutral white. Especially when you’re shooting in indoor locations with very complex mixes of direct and reflected light. The light looks white with the naked eye, but it is the result of a multitude of little dominant colors…

Denis Lenoir, AFC, ASC, ACK, says he prefers digital because he’s no longer obliged to "light for exposure…

KT : The comfort of the sensitivity is certain. Not just at nighttime, but also in daytime, when you suddenly find yourself three f-stops under because of the weather. In celluloid, when you’ve begun a scene, you’ve got to go with it, and you’ve got to be comfortable throwing yourself into it without thinking too much about the film itself. Any potential errors can’t be checked on in real time, and that’s part of the game. But, to me, what’s most important is remaining concentrated on set. When the camera begins rolling, everyone knows that that’s the moment where you’ve got to give your all. You’re never in constant improvisation, just like when you’re playing jazz. You’ve got to know exactly what you’re doing and the traditional "Are you ready ?" for the shot regains its fullest meaning. Lights, camera, sound… everyone’s got to be ready for the performance. A bit like a premiere at the theatre for each slate.

What kind of director is Joachim Trier ? This is the first time you shot with him…

KT : I was very impressed by his mastery of the camera ; for example, by his way of limiting himself to medium focal length lenses and never going below the 40mm – with a few rare exceptions, such as the hallucination scene with the mushrooms. In fact, Joachim prefers to move backwards rather than taking out a wide lens to film a master shot of the scene, and that largely forges the film’s style. Sometimes, on set, I even wondered whether the film might not lack breadth on the screen and end up looking too intimate… When I first saw the film at the Grand Théâtre Lumière the other night, I must say that Joachim made the right choices. You know, you spend so much time looking at your work on tablets, on monitors during editing, or at best, in color timing rooms where the screen isn’t much bigger than in a home cinema… When suddenly the images explode on such a large surface, the film, and each of its shots, take on a completely different force. I must also recognize the work of Jakob Ihre, the DP who worked on all of Joachim’s other projects before me. Julien was taken on another project and couldn’t work on this one, and so I replaced him. It was a true pleasure to step into the furrow he had dug with Joachim, and I think Julie’s image owes a lot to him, too.

And the lighting ?

KT : Joachim is very naturalistic in his approach to lighting, which isn’t always very easy for me. For example, when we shoot indoors on location, on the third floor of a building, and we don’t have the budget for cherry-pickers to ensure continuity… But challenges are what motivate me, and I think that if I don’t have any challenges to overcome, I soon get bored by a scene. A bit how back in the days, film manufacturers would show you their demo : a close-up with no particular demands, with the right backlighting, the right angle… completely without interest. On the contrary, finding yourself in a space with the actors who suddenly take their places according to the scenography, interacting with the lighting you’ve set up… The way that that affects their faces in each value and how you’re going to take best advantage of the situation ; that’s what’s motivating.

How did you film the camera movements ?

KT : Joachim likes to conceptualize his film on a Dolly. It was impressive to see him work and compose a scene for a cumbersome camera on the Chapman.
A little digression to explain : my first experience on a set dates back to my youth, because I worked as a child actor. I perfectly remember how impressed I was by the DP’s mastery of his work and by the fact that the director – obviously less experienced than him – would ask him for his opinion. To my eyes, he was like a Caesar facing the gladiators : his thumb pointing upwards or downwards at the end of each take !
That’s when I said to myself : "That’s what I want to do !" It’s also because of my early beginnings in front of the camera that I kept my desire to act and to physically participate in the take, whence my passion for carrying the camera on my shoulder. I’ve done it so much that now I feel slightly uncomfortable when the camera is on a stand… not to mention the Dolly !

What was your choice of equipment ?

KT : Since there were a good deal of nighttime shots in the script, I thought it would be better not to hesitate and to look for very bright lenses so that I could shoot outdoors without having to relight too much. We went looking for modern, wide aperture lenses, because filming in 35mm with old lenses can quickly create an overly-referential image. We chose the Cooke S5/i series, because even though they have all the advantages of a modern lens, they still have a little retro charm, which the sharpest lenses on the market lack. The camera was, of course, an Arricam LT. I’ll say in passing that I’m not a guy who likes cars… but if I’m ever so rich that I don’t know what to do with my money, I think I’ll buy a garage and put that Arricam in the middle of it on its tripod. I love its curves, the sound that the door makes when you close it after loading it… That sound is much more exciting to me than any sound the door of a sports car could make !

In the fifth chapter, Julie crosses the city of Oslo alone, where every passerby looks frozen… how did you achieve that ?

KT : I remember that when I read the script, I was a bit worried about this scene. Maybe I’m too pessimistic, but in this type of scenario, I always imagine the worst. I was afraid the result would be horrendous, probably because of the overuse of this type of effect in music videos or advertisements. Of course, Joachim wasn’t going to have the camera travel in reverse through a cloud of popcorn suspended in mid-air, but I still wasn’t sure. Our approach, in order to avoid a catastrophe, was to keep things as analog as possible and by working in an old-fashioned way on set. So, the scene was shot with extras who remained as still as possible, naturally, and we only used very simple on-set effects, like boxes or tripods with arms to hold the positions that were the hardest to stay in naturally, and we then digitally erased them later on. Only one of the widest shots required digital touchups to the background in order to hide the city traffic that we weren’t permitted to control. The simplicity of the on-set special effects is what, I think, made the scene a success. The wind in the trees, for example, is 100% natural, and many details around Renate are kept intact. I must also admit that this is one of the rare scenes that I chose to shoot between T8 and T16. It seemed essential to me to have enough depth of field to ensure the "frozen" effect would work on screen. That’s the strength of celluloid, which, even at such apertures and with such a depth of field, continues to produce a super beautiful image. Obviously doing that with digital is nothing other than mission impossible.

Did you rely on a special development process ?

KT : For that scene, since I needed the broadest possible margin of maneuver in terms of exposure, I decided to apply a 2-stop pull process on the Kodak 250D. Meaning that I’d overexposed it by 64ISO. I’m very proud of the result.

In the twelfth chapter, there is a beautiful scene in the hospital garden, where Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) takes a look at his life…

KT : This scene is a cinematographic gift. It was a summer day, but the sun was setting, and the wind picked up. The light variations on Anders’ face weren’t a trick, but just created by the leaves in the trees that were blocking out the sunlight with every gust of wind. As the sun was setting, I added a little spot on his eyes. But it was mainly using the natural light, as I prefer to do outdoors. And I really like the monologue the character Aksel has in that scene. He’s talking about things that disappear with digital film… it obviously resonates with the way we made this film.

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