80th Venice Film Festival

Yves Cape, AFC, discusses the cinematographic challenges on "Memory", by Michel Franco

"Brooklyn Love Story", by François Reumont for the AFC

Contre-Champ AFC n°346

[ English ] [ français ]

Always catching his viewers by surprise, Michel Franco’s latest film is an authentic love story. This improbable romance between two people who have been wounded by life gives Jessica Chastain (Sylvia) and Peter Sarsgaard (Saul) the opportunity to explore two beautiful characters who must face their flaws and their courage. Yves Cape, AFC, has once again (for the fifth time) teamed up with the Mexican director to shoot this independent film in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Memory is in Official Competition for the Golden Lion at the 80th Annual Mostra de Venise. (FR)

Sylvia, a former alcoholic in remission, works in a specialized retirement home for the mentally disabled and lives a simple life with her teenage daughter. One evening, Saul follows her home after having approached her at a party for former high school classmates. Their encounter will radically change their lives as doors to their past suddenly get flung open.

How would you define Memory ?

Yves Cape : It’s first and foremost the portrait of a woman with, as in all of Michel’s films, given situations that are revealed to be false. The unexpected gradually takes over what was given…
And yet, there is a difference on this film. Without revealing too much, the epilogue is more optimistic than usual ! One of the major challenges for us was of course the presence of Jessica Chastain on set, who had just been crowned with an Oscar for The Eyes of Tammy Faye. That can’t be set aside, as it is both very exciting and of course a bit intimidating. We wondered how shooting would go, and especially how she would adapt to Michel’s rather particular method, namely that he sometimes changes the characters during shooting, relying on the cooperation of his actors, as he brilliantly did with Tim Roth on Sundown and Chronic. And then, always in keeping with his desire for a very sparse use of cutting, very long takes imported immediately from the set to the timeline by the DIT and immediately made available to editor Oscar Figueroa, who is present on set, in a process where shooting and editing happen in real time. This method allows him to validate his editing choices and sometimes to decide on a different camera position for a particular scene, to add another shot, or even sometimes to shoot over again. This can sometimes be immediate but can also sometimes take place a few days later once continuity has been achieved and the right rhythm has been struck.

Peter Sarsgaard et Jessica Chastain dans "Memory", de Michel Franco
Peter Sarsgaard et Jessica Chastain dans "Memory", de Michel Franco

Can you give me an example of a scene where this type of decision was made ?

YC : The scene where the family has a serious talk is a good example. This is a key scene in the film in which revelations are made. In the shooting script for that scene, Michel had requested a day of rehearsals on location with the actors before shooting the following day. With so many actors in the frame, and so much going on in the scene, either you stick with a long take and everything stays simple, or you begin to cut and then trouble arrives ! The scene takes place in a large room surrounded by windows without any real control over the lighting. We had begun with a wide shot that we hoped would be enough, as we were used to doing, but after several takes we began to doubt and we decided to cut the scene. We left ourselves time to have a lunch break and then we decided to take other tight shots of some of the actors. It was a complicated task for the actors, too. During the wide shot, I had noticed Jessica Harper (Sylvia’s mother) playing with her back to the camera and I asked that we begin with that, secretly hoping it would be enough. By a miracle, with the single addition of this tight reverse shot to the very wide shot, suddenly everything came together… It was the only cut in the scene and Sylvia’s quick movement (Jessica Chastain) in standing up suddenly within the frame gave us the rhythm we were missing.

Did you always shoot in chronological order ?

YC : Yes. Since Michel is his own producer, he has the opportunity to make this type of decision. On Memory, given the three main locations of the film (Sylvia’s apartment, Saul’s brother’s apartment, and Olivia’s house), it was nonetheless very difficult to come up with a chronological shooting schedule. So, we began the film accepting that we would film all the scenes that took place in a single location on consecutive days, but then after the first week, Michel wasn’t at all comfortable with that situation and he asked Lisa Mann, the first assistant director, to go over everything again and go back to shooting in chronological order as much as possible ; That required a lot of effort from us to go back and forth from location to location, but that’s the way it is with Michel… I think he just doesn’t know how to work any other way.
Only a few scenes, such as those in the subway, were separated from the chronology for obvious reasons. Officially shooting in the subway in New York is reserved for superproductions, and so most of the shots in more modest films are simply taken illegally by very bare-bones crews with a sort of tacit permission from the authorities. That’s what we did on Memory, taking Jessica Chastain and the other actors on the subway with us on the last day of shooting for these scenes which were taken without permission.

Jessica Chastain dans "Memory"
Jessica Chastain dans "Memory"

This type of decision must mean you had very limited means at your disposal.

YC : I usually do realistic lighting, I would say it’s sophisticated realism in that it departs from naturalism or documentary-style lighting, but that’s what it tends towards. I try to transcend reality without transforming it. So, I have a very simple system of lighting that I have used for several years, mainly since the arrival of quality digital cameras and LED lighting.
On Michel’s films, I used very little lighting. It was out of the question for me to use 18 kW spots outside of the frame, for example. I only use very soft and gentle lights that don’t require a generator. I use Litemats, Astera tubes, Carpetlights, SkyPanels and Boas (bought from RubyLight and transformed for the USA). These are all very simple-to-install LED sources that allow me to adapt to any situation. I also often have two Arri M18s if stronger lighting is required. In fact, I am at the point where only this sort of improvisation on location is motivating to me. Creating a beautiful image with the prerequisites of a good cinematographer and trying to control everything on location perfectly is no longer any fun for me. I’ve learnt how to do it, I’ve done it enough since, but now I’m more drawn to the accidental and the unexpected. For me, when everything boils down to technique, there is no room for the accidental and therefore for art. On this film, but also on the other films I have made since I have been working this way, I have found myself on locations where I didn’t know what to do to resolve the purely technical issues, where there was either very bright exterior lighting or daytime scenes that were to be shot at night. This is the sort of moment that is exciting to me, and also the type of thing I used to be afraid of !

So what do you do ?

YC : There are so many possibilities, and that’s what’s exciting, but you have to find the right one for the scene and the director ! I can draw the curtains… no, not possible in this scene. I can tint ND gels… Not possible, the windows are too big. I can try to place nets outside… not possible, because we can’t access the windows from outside. I can try to use the HDR along with the RED. Or I can compensate, but that’s often noticeable.
In the end, the choice I make will play an important role in the creation of the scene. The moment where you transcribe the script onto the screen is never the same as when you read the script, or when you were preparing, as when you are actually shooting on location with actors, and that’s fantastic. That confrontation with reality is capital. It is, I believe, uniquely at that moment that I really understand the scene. That’s why my system has to be fast because I don’t want to prepare for it in advance. I want this surprise, and I want to create surprise… I even eagerly await it ! When I work with Michel, we often have long discussions before saying we understand each scene and each cinematographic challenge. We sometimes even prolong these discussions after the first set up, allowing the actors to finish their preparations before shooting.

When you are shooting in studio, you start at zero. So how do you improvise ?

YC : That is never the case with Michel, he hates that ! For me, I enjoy the exercise and I do take a slightly different approach. But I also like being in studio with constraints that aren’t too different from what you find on location. I work through everything with the same mindset, but I accept the defects. Because even if you control everything when you start with total darkness, I am still attracted to the imperfections that result from the artificiality of the setup.

This film is very naturalistic, like Michel Franco’s other films… How did that come through in the camera work ?

YC : Generally, I don’t use the esthetics of lenses. Well, I do, in that I work with Leitz Summilux because they have almost no defects ! They have definition, few aberrations, very little distortion. They open to 1.4, they don’t flare, and they allow me to adapt to any situation. But it’s true that they don’t have a particular look compared with the fashionable vintage lenses of the moment. I often use one focal length, around 40mm, in function of the sensor size. That’s really my favorite lens. Sometimes, I use the 25mm for a wide shot or a 65mm for a closeup on a face. I attach a great deal of importance to the distance from which I film the actors. I think it’s important for them and for me to feel each other’s presence, but not excessively. Like when you’re talking to someone, you don’t want to stand too near or too far away… At 40mm, you’re often at the right physical distance. The actors feel free, they can move, and I frame them as though it were through my own eyes.
I’ll add that the rules for filming with Michael are very strict. The actors are often at the center of the frame, there are never any high or low angle shots to avoid any deformation of the location. There are a lot of traveling shots, but never any dolly arms. Just a simple wheeled cart (a platform and a Bazooka KGS that Handheld Films purchased especially for us). I always take 10%-15% of reserve while shooting, which helps us to perfectly fine-tune things in the cutting room and during color grading. Especially to raise and lower the frame.

Let’s return to your starring actress… How did you bring Sylvia to life on the screen ?

YC : It’s not always easy to destroy the image of a star like Jessica Chastain but I think it was necessary for this film. The fact that she is playing an alcoholic in remission in this film, a single mother with a young daughter, who lives in a working-class neighborhood, works in social services and is struggling to survive, obviously guided our choices. In terms of lighting, I didn’t take too much care in lighting her face. Jessica perfectly understood these parameters, as did her makeup artist, Linda, who has been working with her on her latest films. Therefore, she was wearing very little makeup and she even chose her costumes herself from very popular discount stores such as Target. She is almost always wearing the same things, which is in keeping with her character. For her apartment, we built a set in an art gallery. The idea of the long hallway through her railroad apartment was something we came up with in cooperation with the set designer based on the frequent scenes around the entrance. The entrance with the alarm system she deactivates every time she comes home was very important and was totally deliberate. This setup brings a great deal of depth to the location, even though it ended up being so narrow that it didn’t leave us a lot of margin for the shots. And then we had a view on a roof terrace from one side, whereas the other side overlooked a heavily-trafficked road. There, again, it was the unexpected that enriched the place.

Another key scene in the film is the one that takes place in the street, in the daytime, where Sylvia and Saul kiss for the first time. It’s such a beautiful scene and seems very spontaneous…

YC : This scene is one of the few to have been shot in Manhattan, at the exit of the location chosen to represent Sylvia’s place of work (an actual retirement home for the mentally disabled). A Japanese cherry tree in full bloom was located in the street and Michel and I decided to take full advantage of it for this scene. The wind would even sometimes cause flowers to fall on our pair of actors !
In terms of lighting, the shot was planned to take place in the late afternoon, with the very probable presence of direct sunlight. Even though that situation wasn’t necessarily what was most comfortable for me with regard to the faces, we threw ourselves into it without much shilly-shallying. A simple diffusion frame helped me to soften the image. This is the type of thing where a lot of the parameters of the performance intermingle at once… the rhythm, the embarrassment, the energy… it all happened in a street where cars are going by behind you. It was a very important scene for Michel, who even came back to the same location several days later to shoot the scene over again. But in the cutting room, we kept the original take. It must have been the spontaneity…

(Interview by François Reumont for the AFC, translated from French by A. Baron-Raiffe)

Directed by : Michel Franco
Cinematography : Yves Cape, AFC
Set Design : Claudio Castelli
Costume Design : Gabriela Fernandez
Makeup : Linda Dowds & Adam Zoller
Editing : Oscar Figueroa & Michel Franco