Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, AFC, ASC, discusses his work on Robert Redford’s "A River Runs Through It"

by Philippe Rousselot

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Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It is the film that earned Philippe Rousselot, AFC, ASC, the Oscar for Best Cinematography in 1993. A restored version of the film is being screened this year at Cannes. This chronic of rural life in 1920s America depicts the lives of two brothers, played by Brad Pitt and Craig Scheffer. The cinematographer, who is currently preparing for the second instalment of David YatesFantastic Beasts franchise, discussed this noteworthy film from his prestigious career with us. (FR)

What do you remember most about shooting this film?

Philippe Rousselot: It was my first experience shooting a movie in the United States. In reality, besides the language, I don’t really remember being thrown off by the way things worked. I have wonderful memories from the weeks I spent in Montana. They were like summer holidays, of course very physically intense and involving a lot of work, but spent in marvellous places. Moreover, I realize that I love rivers, and although I’m not a fisherman myself, being close to water and nature has always delighted me when I work on films.

Had you anticipated the film’s success?

P.R: Not in the slightest. I didn’t imagine for a second that it would be so well received and that an Oscar would change my career. We had set out to make an intimate movie about a friendship between two brothers... Little things between them, that bring them closer together and that pull them apart. I even remember that when we finished the film, I wondered whether we’d completely missed the mark photographically speaking with regard to the nature! It’s something I’ve often felt during my career... We’ve got so many everyday problems on our minds that sometimes we can’t see things with the necessary distance. Sometimes, we even forget what we’ve filmed and it’s only once the film has been completed that we rediscover some scenes or some shots! In the end, A River Runs Through It was an excellent surprise for everyone, and I’m so glad it’s even become a sort of cult classic as I think it’s a particularly well-done film.

There was a scene that was technically involved for you in the middle of the film that involved going down a waterfall at night and that almost ended badly...

P.R: In the screenplay, the whole scene took place at night. That was nonsense, really, when you think of the risks involved for the characters! Let’s be honest, in real life, no one tries to go down a waterfall in a rowboat or a canoe, even during the full moon! It was impossible to light 3 kilometres of river at night in terms of budget for this small film, and so we decided on day-for-night, and decided to end the scene with a dawn ambience, with a sort of intentional mismatch. In 1992, there was no such thing as digital colour grading and so I did the best I could with what I had. There was no way to change the contrasts, no colour grading by zone, no special effects to insert a night sky.

When I found myself inside the digital colour grading studio for the restoration of the film, the question of whether we ought to use modern means to achieve a more credible day-for-night effect came up. It’s so easy now to darken the skies, lose some contrast, and bring out a shine... I admit I wanted to for a moment, but then honesty restrained me. Whether or not to change afterwards is an eternal question. Personally, I think we ought to keep the image as it is, to be as faithful as possible to the original. Conserve the original work with today’s means. I merely densified a few shots, removed a bit of red from others... And that’s about it!

Some restorers even refuse to erase a hair in the gate...what about you? 

P.R: No, I’m not that much of a fundamentalist! I think it’s a good thing to be able to clean up the technical defect, of course the traces of time, and why not also a mike in the frame or a team-member in the reflection of a mirror... But we didn’t have any cases like that in this restoration. Whatever the case may be, I realize I don’t really like going over the past. It’s almost embarrassing to feel one’s career behind one, it makes one feel old. I’m always excited about the next film I’ll shoot, and I always think the next one will be the best yet!

What was hardest about this film? 

P.R: Making the crew understand that everything had to be shot within very specific times of day. For example, in order to film the fishing line and have it appear within the picture, the sun had to hit at exactly the right place. There was no way of getting around it. We had to be very specific during scouting, and we needed to be very persuasive in order to maintain the shooting schedule. Especially since the valleys were often very narrow and the sun would pass by very quickly.

Did you notice any commonalities with the shooting of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Bear, another great nature film you’d filmed four years prior? 

P.R: No, the shootings were completely different from one another. Jean-Jacques Annaud is a great technician and a great editor. The Bear was entirely storyboarded and our work consisted in bringing each shot to life, no matter what the natural lighting conditions were. In any case, given the animal parameter, I think we would still be shooting that film if we’d had to wait for the light to be at the right place for each shot! Robert Redford was very different in his directorial approach and always worked with me so that we could capture the tricky natural light ambiences.

Do you like to rediscover films in digital screenings?

P.R: I think there’s a huge difference between black-and-white films and colour films. The former look good in digital, but the latter require more care, even with today’s digital arsenal. Without even mentioning films that were actually shot in digital, which I believe we won’t even be able to read in a hundred years. In any case, let’s be serious: only literature lasts!

You film a lot of big-budget studio movies. Are you consulted about conservation? 

P.R: Studios really do what they please, and no one ever asks my opinion. I know that Vittorio Storaro was able to have a number of his films saved on black-and-white film with trichromatic synthesis, but besides those few exceptions, studios like Warner just keep hard-drives underground in bunkers that are supposed to be protected against data loss. At the rate things are going, I wonder whether the question of saving our cinematographic patrimony is really pertinent. I think we should primarily be concerned with saving our planet!

This year at Cannes, for the first time films in the selection will never be released in theatres... What do you think about this situation? 

P.R: Once in my career, a film was never released in theatres. The film is called Peacock, it’s a 2010 film (starring Ellen Page and Cillian Murphy) and it was only distributed on home video. I’ll admit I was pretty disappointed because I thought it was a rather good film. But in the end these are just money questions that I am not at all competent on. Personally, I work with movie theatres in mind, and the idea of changing the distribution channel of a film is disturbing to me. If I’m hired to work on a movie for mobile phones, why not, but I’ve got to know that from the get-go.

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