Taking Woodstock

Paru le La Lettre AFC n°190 Autres formats

[English] [français]

French release September 23, 2009
An alumnus of the Ecole Nationale Louis Lumiere, Eric Gautier, develops his métier as a cinematographer and puts his passion for the image into practice by shooting over fifty short films.
His feature career starts with Arnaud Despleschin (La Vie des morts in 1991). While he has remained faithful to this director (Esther Kahn, Kings and Queens, A Christmas Story..), other recurring collaborations followed with Olivier Assayas, Patrice Chereau, Claude Berri and Alain Resnais.
Since Motorcycle Diaries by Walter Salles, Eric Gautier divides his time between French and foreign projects, such as Into The Wild by Sean Penn in 2007 and now Taking Woodstock by Ang Lee.

How did you immerse yourself in this period film ?
Ang Lee is a director who prepares his films a lot, especially when he shoots in the US. Even if he knows American culture (having lived there now for nearly three decades), he lived in Taiwan in the late Sixties. And regarding Woodstock, I think he missed out on it over there. The film therefore required an enormous amount of research, documentation, and interviews with people who really lived that adventure.

Among our respondents, there was David Silver, a documentary filmmaker who made many films about rock bands of the era, and who provided much of the raw material that we used to design the image and the Woodstock world of the film.

For me, they prepared a huge file about twenty centimeters thick, which contained a comprehensive group of pictures, biographies, and important documents about the event.

After reading this, I realized that I didn’t know that period very well ! Not to mention of course the book on which the film is based, whose author Elliot Tiber (played on screen by Demetri Martin) came in person to advise us.

Were you inspired by the famous documentary film Woodstock  ?
I met two cameramen who had participated in the filming of this movie. What is surprising is that they were absolutely not cinematographers, but instead, just students without much experience shooting. And yet the images are really beautiful, with brilliant framing... an outstanding documentary.

In fact, initially we were going to use archival images from the documentary... We were even going to get footage from their dailies. You should know that this movie only used a tiny part of the hours shot by various crews on the site. We were all very excited to discover this, and to have access to this kind of cinematic historical treasure !

But the high prices of the American rights holders derailed the process... Not to mention the enormous costs it would have incurred in telecine... Finally, we decided to redo everything ourselves. And I decided to retry the "unprofessional" side by entrusting the work to a small group of fifteen young cinematographers, including students, casting assistants and ADs...

They were given small 16 mm cameras and a copy of the Woodstock film for inspiration... And they had carte blanche to bring us material from what they could get on the set, mainly in the crowd sequences.

By playing with different emulsions, and their development, we could then get a real variety of texture in these shots. As I gave them the greatest freedom in shooting, all their small errors and various accidents perfectly evoked what is found in the Woodstock documentary. And in the end we didn’t use any archival footage.

To achieve such authenticity, you had to give the art direction everything they needed...
The work of the costume department was truly unbelievable. It was the largest item of the film’s budget, with an incredible result on the screen. When you look carefully at all the backgrounds and the extras, you become aware of the richness and diversity of everything that’s going on.

Moreover, Ang Lee had written many "micro scenes" for certain groups of extras, with dialogue and situations that can only be seen in the background, and without even recording the sound...

The sequence of the impromptu party where Elliot goes public with his homosexuality is also quite important in the story...
For me this scene is really filmed in the style of Cassavetes. I worked a fair amount with the makeup people to get shines on the skin, to feel the heat and sweat. Like the rest of the film, it’s a sequence shot with two cameras ; we played on the extraordinary flexibility of modern film stocks in the shadows. I am not sure that Ang Lee ’s original idea was something so dark... But in the end, I think he enjoyed this rather sensual look.

Did you do any testing of the precise rendering of certain colors, such as the meadow green, which is present in the landscape ?
This is where the DI is very helpful. Indeed, green accompanies the film, and for Ang Lee, it was really the color of youth and innocence. Thanks to the digital post, we were able to increase the green and find exactly the tone he wanted, especially for the beginning of film, where you should feel the sensuality and heat of summer. Moreover we shot not far from the historic sites of the festival, three hours north of New York, in a place where nature is surprisingly lush.

What cameras and lenses did you choose ?
I shot primarily in 35mm, with a combination of three cameras : an Arricam Lite, a Studio and an Aaton 35 III. Optically, I shot everything with Cooke S4s, in conjunction with an Angénieux zoom.

To film in Super 16 we had two Arri 416s, and for the "fake archival sequences" we gave the cinematographers Bolex, Eclair 16 and Auricon cameras.

What about the Penelope, the new Aaton that shoots in 2P ?
The Penelope was not yet out for this film, and I was only able to use it on the film I just finished this summer in Israel with Julian Schnabel (director of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly).

What did you use for postproduction ?
Originally we had planned a post in 4K. But after a few tests, we went to 2K to avoid an image that was too sharp and clinical. There too, this is a way to keep a certain softness to the image, without it seeming too modern in the final projection. This was done with great ease in Deluxe’s new facility in New York

Interview by François Reumont

Translated by Benjamin B