I reached Ellen Kuras, ASC after she had spent a long day in the grading suite in London, where she is color correcting a Lions Gate film she shot last spring for director Alan Rickman titled A Little Chaos.
A Little Chaos is a 17th Century period film that revolves around André Le Nôtre, the landscape architect who designed the gardens at Versailles, and his relationship with a woman he hires to design an outdoor ballroom and fountain. The woman, played by Kate Winslet, embodies a more natural, wild spirit, as opposed to the orderly, geometric mindset behind most of French gardens of that era, including those at the palace.
Inspiration for the look came in for the most part from paintings, but Rickman wanted a more contemporary presence, so Ellen has been balancing those ideas in the images. She shot with an Arri lightweight camera, and although she usually uses Fuji negative, she used Kodak negative stock, and a combination of Cooke S4 primes and Angenieux zoom lenses.
“The script was very cleverly written and well conceived,” says Ellen, “and it was a script that I felt akin to. I really enjoyed working with Alan, who also starred in the film as King Louis IX. As I’ve been very busy working as a director/cinematographer on commercials during the past few years, I haven’t done a movie for a while, and he was one person I really wanted to work with. I do love his oblique and very dry sense of humor as well as his astute sense of poetry.”
I asked Ellen about shifting gears between director/cinematographer and DP for someone else in the director’s chair.
“I have to put a leash on myself, not act immediately or do things on set that I would do if I was the director,” she says. “Sometimes I see certain things happening that I might want to change. And the best I can do in my job is to speak to the director about it and have a conversation, strongly advising in a certain direction. At times, it’s frustrating, because I want the best for the project. I have to readjust my perspective. It’s not so much an ego trip — it’s just that I see what’s best and I want to encourage that. But changing gears is definitely required. I have to be very respectful of that boundary, and ultimately, I am, though sometimes this is hard to swallow! That’s part of why I’m able to continue working with directors I’ve worked with in the past. They know me, and they know that I’m not going to step in front of them and say, ‘No, you should do it this way.’ Ultimately, the decision lies with the director. Film is such a collaborative process.”
I asked Ellen if she ever thought about making the jump to feature film directing, given her success in commercial directing, as well as in documentary. The Betrayal — Nerakhoon was nominated for an Academy Award in the feature documentary category in 2009. Ellen originally began the film as a Masters thesis project in the mid-1980s, and went back to finish this deeply personal and poetic project after 23 years. The film chronicles the journey of a Laotian family forced to emigrate after the Viet Nam War.
“I do,” she says. “I would like to direct a dramatic feature. I really like working in the world of fiction and crafted story. After I finished my film and went straight into directing and shooting commercials, I realized recently that I really missed telling longer-form stories. I miss the world of storytelling and the longevity of meaning, so to speak.”
During our conversation, Ellen mentioned that she is engaged to be married. No date has been set. “Until now, I’ve been so deeply involved in my work and my career that I didn’t take the time,” she says. “You have to make real quality time to spend with someone, especially when you’re in demand. I’ve had the good fortune to be able to work most of the year if I want. But it’s a real pleasure to make that quality time with someone, and absolutely worth every moment.
“Many of the DPs that I know, we are on the road a lot,” she says. “It’s really difficult territory to walk for any relationship – both for the person who’s staying home and for the person who’s out on the road. It goes both ways. In good and bad ways, that’s the nature of the business.”
A couple of days after we spoke, I received an email from Ellen in which she told me of an impromptu dinner hosted by Panavision and Hugh Whitaker. The other guests included John Mathieson, BSC; Dion Beebe, ASC; Anthony Dod Mantle, ASC, BSC, DFF; Sal Totino, ASC; Dan Mindel, BSC and Chuck Finch.
As Ellen noted, “What a night!”