The Bartender is at the End of the Tunnel

Cinematographer Kit Fraser discusses his work on Babak Anvari’s film "Wounds"

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As part of the eclectic selection in the Directors’ Fortnight this year, festivalgoers were able to discover a strange American film by Babak Anvari (Américano-iranien director) in which the fantastic cyclically appears in a rather classic plot centred on a love triangle. In the end, the mix isn’t always well-proportioned between the jumpy moments and the relationship falling apart in an apartment – New Orleans style – full of alcohol and giant cockroaches. British cinematographer Kit Frasier signed off on the visuals of this film, which follows the main character’s inexorable downward spiral. This is a Netflix film, and will soon be released on their platform. (FR)

A student forgets his mobile phone in a bar in New Orleans. Will, the bartender, pockets it. Once night falls, SMS begin to appear, mentioning a tunnel and a cursed book. At dawn, photos of bloodied teeth appear…

What is this film about, deep down ?

Kit Fraser : Babak described the film to me as being above all a drama carried by the male lead, who is torn between two women, and who begins to spiral into madness and the unknown. The downward spiral of a man who takes a dive into the darkest parts of his soul. In any case, it’s not a pure horror film about a cursed book or a Satanist cult, as some of the scenes seem to suggest… In any case, I never took it purely at face value and I thought of it as a type of experiment with various styles of film. That’s what I like about the director. He likes to add layer upon layer in his films, allowing the viewer to discover them - or not - at the first viewing. Or, if you want to, by watching the film over and over again.

Tell us about the bar, which is the recurring location in the film

KF : The bar location is New Orleans to me. There are so many in the city ! The story takes place there and Louisiana, with its indoor and outdoor locations, greatly inspired us (even though most of the sets were shot in studio). It’s a typical bar of the American South, both warm in its tones and completely closed off to the outside. For inspiration, I remember that I re-watched Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, which took place in the 1950s. The bar was entirely recreated in studio, with a feeling of a closed-off world that sort of traps characters like Will, the bartender.

There are few close-up shots and a lot of master shots that the final cut was based on…

KF : The film was mainly shot in 16mm, 18mm, 21mm and 25mm. Babak doesn’t like long focal lengths, and by working at f.4, the depth of field is pretty big with those lenses. Personally, I’m not really a fan of shots without depth. I often wonder why wouldn’t someone want to show the set and take advantage of everything that there is on screen… Working at full aperture all the time means you’re rather hiding things from the viewer.

The other set is the bartender’s apartment. Was that also in studio ?

KF : Indeed. Will’s apartment was a really splendid set. When we entered it in studio, we all said “Darn ! I’d like to live in that apartment !”

The start of the film shows it to be the epitome of hominess, with very American golden sunlight, but it’s also the place where the film switches over into the fantastic, in such a way that no one knows where the border between reality and nightmarish vision is. To perfect all of these scenes and to build the set as precisely as possible to meet our needs, Babak used previsualization tools before shooting the film. Cinema 4D, in particular, which is an extremely powerful tool that allowed us to model the set, place our virtual camera wherever we wanted, and generate a sort of 3D story-board. Very useful !

For example, it’s perfect for knowing whether the construction team needs to build the ceilings or not. When you shoot with a director like him, who loves wide angles, it avoids any disappointments on set. The frequent presence of ceilings is also the reason why I chose to light that set without trying to achieve “studio lighting” by using lateral light entries, such as using SkyPanels, which are very polyvalent tools. The actors were often very classically lit from the front by tungsten sources that I prefer to use indirectly or diffused…

The scene where Will discovers his girlfriend Carrie being snapped up by the computer screen marks a turning point in this location…

KF : For that scene, and for other scenes where telephone or other screens play an important role in the plot, I tried to take maximum advantage of the Arri Alexa’s highly-sensitive sensor by setting it to 1,600 ISO and shooting at full aperture at 1.3. That way, it’s really the phone screen that becomes the principal source of lighting in the shot. Later, in compositing, you have to reinsert the image of the tunnel at the right place on the very bright screen.

We also did a lot of lens tests before shooting. Choosing the lenses was naturally of utmost importance, and we compared vintage series like the Cooke Panchro S2 or more recent lenses such as the Leitz Summilux. The tests we did in studio and on location led us to choose the Leitz, essentially because of the director’s like for short focal lengths. And my desire to supply post-production with the most neutral image possible, without optical distortion or vignetting. Also the desire to use the image from edge to edge, without having to adjust the shot in editing. The cleanest possible image that I can later dirty or distort with lighting rather than with the lenses.

According to you, what does the last shot of the film mean ?

KF : According to me, it’s the blackest depths of the human soul that wins. Not a very optimistic ending ! But I’m sure that Babak wouldn’t want to affirm or deny any interpretation in particular. He’s someone who lets the viewer decide what he wants to read into his film. This very dark trajectory is the only thing that is clear for me and that we tried to bring out throughout the film.

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