Paul Guilhaume, back to the future

By Ariane Damain Vergallo, for Ernst Leitz Wetzlar

par Ernst Leitz Wetzlar La Lettre AFC n°303

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Although Paul Guilhaume has not been a film student for a while, he still dissects the storyboards of such masterpieces as Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, David Cronenberg’s History of Violence or the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men - films that triggered his desire to be a cinematographer. Again and again, he watches the splendid lighting mismatches concocted by cinematographer-cum-magician Vilmos Zsigmond for Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in the opening scene of which, on every single hot, everything and everyone is backlit against the sun !

As a teenager, Paul Guilhaume lives in Paris - the City of Lights - in the 18th arrondissement. Sometimes, coming out of his high school classes, he meanders up to the Rue Francœur and, with feigned nonchalance (but green with envy inside), watches students from the Fémis Film School shoot near the majestic portal of the building which, a hundred years prior, housed the Pathé studios.
His father, a music lover, has a fairly stable job and his mother is a visual arts teacher and photographer. They provide their two children with a lifestyle that is both comfortable and intellectually demanding.

Very early on, Paul Guilhaume aims to pass the competitive entrance exams for both the Fémis and Louis Lumière Institute, and forces himself to try and obtain a baccalaureate in science, surprising his teachers whom he must pursue all the way to the school’s Appeals Committee. (Explanation : the Louis Lumière Institute competitive entrance exam requires one to have at least a “bac” in science, and Paul Guilhaume’s grades in that discipline are, shall we say, below par ?)
Consequently, his mother advises him to take up a preparatory literary class that he will enrol in but without the cinema option as they are already overbooked. And he discovers philosophy through the teachings of Seloua Luste Boulbina, a brilliant intellectual - and one of the powerful women that will punctuate his career.

The Danish philosopher Sören Kierkegaard fascinates him because he raises the questions of choice and personal commitment, and Paul Guilhaume has nothing but gratitude for his father who, for his family’s sake, practices his “reasonable, stable” profession while encouraging his son to follow his own path, whichever it may be. Paul Guilhaume realizes that is a question that one, sooner or later, must ask oneself.

He then graduates from the Sorbonne with both a degree in philosophy and one in cinema. He therefore decides to enrol for the famous competitive exams. He is immediately accepted by the Fémis… and by Sciences-Po (Poli-Sci Institute) that a friend of his mother’s – production manager Edith Colnel - advised him also to enrol for, wisely assuming that having to choose between the two would help him determine his true vocation. Paul Guilhaume will ultimately opt for the Image section of the Fémis.

At the end of his third year there, Paul Guilhaume doggedly decides to do his internship in Los Angeles, at Panavision, the famous renter of cinema equipment. His candidacy is immediately accepted, all the more so - it must be said - as he is the only applicant. Anticipating the painful moment of leaving school, his fellow students have all opted for an internship in France, more useful.

His first day at Panavision consists of thoroughly cleaning camera stands. The solvent he must use is so potent that he literally faints... as if he has inadvertently entered a dream land : the enchanted world of cinema.
Hollywood, city of dreams…and nightmares ?
Indeed. One day, he picks up a young hitchhiker who claims to be armed and rob car drivers. She also tells him that since she finds him simpatico, she will spare him. After dropping her, Paul Guilhaume suddenly realizes he gave her his address and, in a fit of (belated) panic, decides to move that very evening.
He ends up on Mulholland Drive in a huge house run by a "guru" and inhabited by film fans who all dream of becoming actors.

That experience will be the seed for his graduation film One in a Million, a documentary that examines the strange determination that drives thousands of young actors in Hollywood to believe in their destiny, however futile it may logically be. "To believe in virtue of the absurd," as Kierkegaard so rightly put it.

At Panavision, he is fascinated by the crews’ professionalism and involvement. He attends the tests of the eighteen (!) cameras used for Captain America. Even the crew had never seen the like of that and they were taking pictures of themselves surrounded by the twenty-six pages of the equipment list spread out on the floor on an almost eight-meter radius !
As a consequence, perhaps, later in his professional life, Guilhaume will never hesitate to be demanding when it comes to equipment.
"Good tools help you save a hell of a lot of time".

Upon graduating from the Fémis, eager to make ends meet, therefore to earn a living, Paul Guilhaume becomes a welder at the Grand Palais for six months in order to prepare it for the exhibition of famous Japanese artist Hokusai’s works. He notes - and smarts at - the sort of contempt evinced by the curators who walk by without even saying “hello” or “thank you” to the workers who toil for them, and he pledges never to forget it when he runs his own film crews.
A moment that will come much faster than expected.
Attending a short film festival, director Sébastien Lifshitz, singling out Guilhaume’s graduation documentary, One in a million, takes him on for an ambitious – and long-term - project : filming two thirteen-year-old teenagers for five years

Paul Guilhaume - Photo Ariane Damain Vergallo - Leica M, Leitz Summilux-C 65 mm
Paul Guilhaume
Photo Ariane Damain Vergallo - Leica M, Leitz Summilux-C 65 mm

Paul Guilhaume’s career of is launched. Barely twenty-five, he gives up welding and becomes a full-fledged cinematographer without EVER having been assistant camera.
Sébastien Lifshitz keeps him on a short leash. During the filming, he places himself behind the camera and carefully watches the light set and the composition of the image. Call it the "Lifshitz Training". A master and his apprentice, both talented - a dream combination to learn one’s job.

Meanwhile, Guilhaume’s personal life is getting sweeter and sweeter, mainly thanks to a young screenwriter-director, Lea Mysius, whom he met while they were both students at the Fémis. They have the hunch they must immediately create a production company, the Three Bandits Production, to serve their joint projects.
Paul Guilhaume takes her to his childhood’s vacation spots, mainly the island of Planas on the Étang de Bages near Narbonne in France’s deep South, an isolated, wind-swept paradise where, every year, thousands of seagulls come to breed – or to die."Those are landscapes that have shaped me." And they will be part of a short film the couple will write and shoot together, L’Île jaune (The Yellow Island).

The rest of the story will give one goose bumps, as success hits at the speed of lightning. Famous producer Jean-Louis Livi who, although nearly fifty years older than the pair, was enthralled by Léa Mysius’ graduation short, decides to co-produce her next film which will be lit (and co-written) by Paul Guilhaume. A few months later, Ava is shown at the Cannes Film Festival - and wins the Critics’ Week award.

It doesn’t stop there. So far, ALL the films - five to date – lit by Paul Guilhaume have been shown at the Cannes Film Festival - except the last one, Sébastien Lifshitz’s Adolescents (to be released in 2020) which went to the 2019 Locarno Festival… and won an award there.

Shot in eight weeks, in 35mm and with only 40 hours of dailies, Léa Mysius’ Ava turns out to be the blue print of Guilhaume’s work as a cinematographer.
It all starts with a total immersion in the script and long search for the right locations. Each scene is minutely detailed, each shot story-boarded and colorized directly on a digital tablet. "On Ava, we compensated our inexperience with work, it is a film that we prepared quite slowly, then shot quite quickly.”

Based on that precise and inspired work, director Jacques Audiard recently chose Paul Guilhaume to shoot two episodes of "Le Bureau des Légendes" - Éric Rochant’s hit series – which will air in 2020. The two men immediately agreed on the idea that "preparing like mad" would give the shoot a little more freedom. The combination of the unusually young cinematographer and the veteran director whose virtuosity is legendary gave the shoot that extra-kick that most crews crave for.

For the first time, Paul Guilhaume was able to use Leitz Summicron-C lenses. "Their simplicity makes it possible to focus on the essential : tell the story, film the actors". The 65mm Leitz Summilux-C has since become his favourite lenses.
"It was our secret weapon to make beautiful shots in any setting."

Fascinated by impossible dreams, does Paul Guilhaume think of returning to Hollywood ? His early career as a cinematographer, as fast and light as a comet in the sky, at least allows one to wonder.
Back to the future ?

(Translated from French by Henri Behar)