Cinematographer Kasper Tuxen, speaks about his work on Gus Van Sant’s “The Sea of Trees”

Lost in a Forest

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If Danish cinematographer Kasper Tuxen’s resume is above all filled with prestigious advertising credits (Louis Vuitton featuring David Bowie, Hennessy, BMW…), he has also already lit two feature films (Beginners by Mike Mills and M. Blash’s The Wait). After first working with director Gus Van Sant on a television series (Boss), he is currently responsible for the images of The Sea of Trees, a mysterious forest tale of survival in which Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey rubs shoulders with the most American of Japanese actors, Ken Watanabe.
Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe in "The Sea of Trees" directed by Gus Van Sant
Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe in "The Sea of Trees" directed by Gus Van Sant

How did you end up working with Gus Van Sant?

Kasper Tuxen: My meeting Gus was a bit of luck… I was shooting one of my first commercials in the United States in 2009, near Portland, and, one night, we were shooting a bonfire scene. It turns out that the location production had found was the property next to Gus’ place. As luck would have it, he came over to see what we were up to, just as a curious neighbor! The next day, he turned up at the wrap party, and that was when we met. A few months later, he got in touch with me to pitch me his television series Boss.

What are his thoughts on set lighting?

KT: Gus is a bit of a “no spotlights” junkie. He loves to shoot in natural lighting, and that’s one of the points we see eye to eye on. One of the other reasons for his choice was a Lolita Lempicka ad that we spoke about at the beginning of production. An ad that I shot in a forest in France for Yoann Lemoine, with actress Elle Fanning, a pretty dreamlike ambiance…

Where was the forest you shot ?

KT: Although the story takes place in Japan, we ended up having to make the film in a forest in Massachusetts. In fact, the real location the story takes place, this “Suicide Forest,” isn’t a place the Japanese authorities are too keen to talk about! Which is why, in order to avoid a whole mess of complicated permits—faced with a tight schedule as far as the availability of the actors goes—production logically decided on a subsitute location.
What was key for me, beyond the total purity of the nature, the different varieties of trees, was the fact that we had to shoot between the end of July and mid-September 2014, while the story originally takes place during the winter… Once you rule out the presence of the leaves, because in any case we had no choice in the matter, we sometimes tried to add in a little heavy smoke which is suggestive of the winter fog that you sometimes get in the undergrowth. And then of course, the actors took care of the rest.

What about digital mist and fog? 

KT: The question came up pretty briefly, but we dropped it because of how difficult that sort of thing is to pull off without it being too noticeable. Apparently even David Fincher got into trouble with that during The Social Network… But who knows if he’s an expert with special effects! All the same, The Sea of Trees still involved over 80 scenes with special effects…

What were the principal challenges for you?

KT: It’s complicated, filming in a forest in the middle of the summer. The diurnal light can be very high contrast in there, and the presence of foliage makes it difficult to get a proper depth to the image. And for night sequences, you can’t even imagine… Especially when the director explains to you that he would like to shoot with as little light as possible, and of course without there being any evidence of the source… other than a bit from the Moon! Gus not being a big fan of storyboarding, so as to leave as much freedom to the actors as possible, well, that gives you an idea of the technical constraints I had to deal with during five-page-long dialog scenes between two actors as they were walking through the forest.

What lighting equipment did you decide on?

KT: Depending on the sequences, I mixed and matched the gear. For example, there are sequences under a full moon that needed very pronounced shadows for which I resorted to a Shadow Box. It’s a stark lamp system that Harris Savides introduced to Gus on Harvey Milk. We were all very proud to be able to honor his memory by reusing his lighting apparatus, but its low power (7kW) wasn’t quite enough for our needs. To pack as much of a punch as we could, and to be able to place the source as far away as possible, I used three 18kW HMIs, without a Fresnel or a parabolic, hung from a crane above the canopy.
For other sequences, when the Moon was gone (the sky was covered), I mostly used sidelights through screens or from balloons… but the latter were very difficult to deal with because of the branches and the risk of puncturing them. Also, some sequences were shot with thirty-odd Kino Flo 4’ 120s suspended from the trees and arranged in a series so as to separate the background. The hardest part was that we were changing locations pretty much every evening. Which meant different pre-lighting every afternoon, and then bang, we were shooting at night again… The first nights were pretty tough, but gradually, we jelled with the crew and we got our routine down.

What about cameras?

KT: I’m a big fan of the hand-held. With Gus, we thought we would shoot the film that way. But the overly uneven terrain of the forest prevented us from doing so. The output would have been too violent compared with what he was going for. As a result, the film is mostly made up of still shots. The more epic traveling shots were made with a gyro-stabilized handheld system, the Movi. Even if he doesn’t come across that way, Gus is a real tech junkie… For example, he recently purchased his own Black Magic camera.
Accordingly, he really took a liking to the Movi and we developed a way of adapting it for use in the forest. More specifically, by having the grips hang cables from tree to tree, and then by moving the Movi along with a pulley. In one hour, we could be totally ready to film a track shot that would have taken us more than half a day to set up on rails, which allowed for much more flexibility on the part of the actors.

What lenses did you go with?

KT: The film was shot in anamorphic, with Hawk Vintage 74 lenses. The camera was an Arri Alexa XT that recorded to RAW. However, for certain sequences, that configuration was still too heavy, and I had to replace it with a Red Dragon with Kowa lenses. When we were done, Stephen Nakamura at E Film Los Angeles took on the matches… And I must say that it went off pretty much without a hitch…

Of what are you the most proud?

KT: Perhaps the feeling of having preserved as much reality as possible for the screen while telling a strong story. Which is one thing Gus is pretty uncompromising about. Even if he remains open to suggestions right up until the last minute, what is there must still be what is there on the screen, and there’s nothing much in the way of messing with reality in his films.
Another interesting approach Gus has is his relation to chance. When he gets the feeling of being a captive within a certain style or of going around in circles when it comes to a decision, he has this collection of notes, of slips of paper that he’ll draw from at random. It’s a trick he stole from Brian Eno.Then you end up with the card that says, “Do it in blue” or “What about the other way around?”… Anyway, a whole stack of directions and ideas that invite chance and unseen possibilities into the creative process. It forces you to follow your intuition in your work, because you don’t always have the time to develop a strictly reasoned methodology.

(Interview by François Reumont for the AFC, translated from French by Chris Clarke)