I wrote an article about Lucy that appears in the September issue of American Cinematographer, highlighting the beautiful lighting of cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, AFC. This post presents the second part of an expanded version of my interview with director/operator Luc Besson, going into more detail than we could in print.
If you haven't read part 1 of my interview, I recommend going there first.
Luc Besson framing a shot on Lucy with Scarlett Johansson
Benjamin B: How do approach framing a single shot on an actor?
Luc Besson: When I’m operating, I always treat every actor the same way. For me the person in the shot is the star. He may have only one line of dialogue in the film, but I’m going take care of him in the same way I’m going to take care of Scarlett. It’s that actor’s moment.
BB: In the Paris car chase sequence, one your rules was to have no stationary cameras. Why?
LB: That was a choice of mise en scène. I didn’t want external POVs in that scene. What interested me was Lucy’s POV, and the people around her, the human relationships. So it was her, the cop next to her, and the people who see her drive by. You do need shots outside, looking at the chase as a spectator. But I didn’t want a locked camera position with the pan that follows the action down the street, the kind of thing you see so often in movies.
In fact there are three car chases, or rather it’s a car chase in three acts. And in the last act there is a fixed shot on an old man reading his newspaper, who watches the cars coming, and who has to think and react. I like that this spectator is sitting. And there, all of a sudden, the camera doesn’t move. So the moving cameras before also reinforce that moment of stillness.
I always want the camera to be someone. That’s the principle of the film: we are always with the characters, seeing their confrontations, and so on… It's mostly Lucy, we follow her for 24 hours, almost like a documentary crew that is with her all the time. But there's depth of field so we see everything around her. When she moves, the camera is following her or in front, it's that tension of being there with her all the time that I was looking for.
the hospital gown
BB: Can you talk about the corridor shot, when Lucy comes back from the hospital to confront the bad guy?
LB: That's a shot I’ve wanted since the beginning. This image is from a Western, of Lucy walking from behind, holding two guns, wearing boots and with this green hospital gown flowing. I knew I would get that shot. But strangely, that’s the one thing Scarlett questioned me about, when we were shooting the hospital scene before it : ‘Why does she put the hospital gown on ? It doesn’t make sense’.
I told her : ‘It’s a hospital reflex, when you’re going to get operated on, you wear a hospital gown'. And I added : ‘In any case, I need the hospital gown later’. And she didn’t really understand that. I insisted on it, but she was not convinced, because she really wants there to be a motivation for each thing. At the same time, when they see the film, the audience doesn’t wonder about the gown.
In the end, when she saw the shots in the hallway, she did tell me : ‘You’re right, it does look really good with the hospital gown’.
BB: You are known for working fast. How many set-ups do you do per day?
LB: I work fast because I know what I want to do ahead of time. I’ve already made my decisions before I get to the set in the morning, I’ve already made my decisions. I tell the grip, ‘The first shot is here, the second shot is a dolly. After that we’ll go into angle-reverse angle.’ Then I go take care of the actors, who have already rehearsed the day before. We get into place, we warm up, we shoot eight to ten takes, and then we move on to the next shot.
It goes fast. On average we shoot 25 shots per day — and we never go into overtime!
It’s all about how to win points during the making of a film. How do you make the film better? You never win 10 points at once. You win 1/10th of a point here and there.
BB: You shot Lucy with the Sony F65, how did you select the camera?
LB: It’s very simple, I asked for a blind test, and they shot several cameras, including 35mm. And when we screened the tests, the shots were labeled by numbers; I didn’t want to be influenced by anything other than the image. There were interiors and exteriors, I chose ‘number 4’ because it had the most beautiful image. And Thierry and every one else agreed.
BB:What did you like about the F65?
LB: First of all, the difference wasn’t blatant, and might be invisible to a neophyte. But the F65 was a little sharper than the others, and it had nice rendering of contrast, and I like the way it handled the blacks in the image. You get an image that is gentle but contrasty, it’s pretty well balanced.
BB: You’ve been working with cinematographer Thierry Arbogast for a long time.
Thierry Arbogast, AFC
LB: Yes. I shot my first three films with Carlo Varini, who passed away recently. And I’ve made all my other films with Thierry, starting with Nikita.
But our collaboration is not a given. I meet with other cinematographers before every film. I ask myself the question each time. I have lunch with Thierry and he tells the films he’s worked on, and the new equipment he’s seen. I’m always re-examining everything.
BB: What’s your relationship with Thierry like?
Thierry is great because he anticipates a lot. He knows how I work, and that I like to work fast. With Lucy, he was a little more relaxed, because all the sets were pre-lit, and the lighting had already been validated. Thierry did the bulk of the work calmly on the stage, without any pressure from me, Afterwards, it was more about adding details.
Thierry proposed lighting to me, I looked at them and would say ‘That’s good. That’s not good, let’s change it.’
BB: You and Thierry both like to keep the light sources outside the set.
LB: It’s truer that way. I find that when you start putting lighting near the camera it quickly becomes unnatural.
What’s more, cameras are so sensitive now, that you have to be more refined. You can open up the blacks with a little poly, a fluorescent, or other small unit
Also, I want to be able to move quickly. Once you start putting in lighting near the camera, you need 10 minutes if you want to move a little bit. And I don’t like that.
BB: Shooting quickly is very important to your filmmaking
LB: It goes back to the 80% rule. The most important thing in the film is the energy that Scarlett gives to her character. First we take care of that, and do everything we can to help that. So that, after watching the film, the first thing people will say is that Scarlett was incredible, and then afterwards maybe they’ll say that the lighting was beautiful, the framing was good, and so on… But there is that first necessity, and I won’t relent on that. I want everything to service her performance.
general, editor, whirlpool
BB: You are among other things, a writer, producer, director, camera operator and distributor. How do you feel about being a total filmmaker?
LB: I think that cinema is the youngest art form, and that it is an artistic decathlon. That is, you have to be good in all the disciplines. So by definition, I am a decathlon athlete. I’m not the world champion in any one discipline, but I get by in all of them, including operating, directing actors and managing crews. What’s funny is that you are a little general for twelve weeks, and immediately afterwards you’re in a small room with one other person for 4 months of editing.
Few people realize the thermal shock you go through, after being a general with an army of 150 people going all out all day long, and then sitting in a chair all day with someone in 8 square meters (80 square feet). I’ve gotten used to these transitions, but it can be pretty painful! There’s a good week of depression, it’s like post-partum baby blues: you’ve given birth. There is an adaptation period to get into the rhythm of editing.
And then there’s the third stage. You’re with one other person during the editing, and it’s also pretty confined during the mix, very much in the dark. And then you get into this third way, where there’s a kind of media onslaught when the film comes out. ‘It’s a masterpiece. It’s a piece of shit. It’s a hit! It’s a flop!’
It’s a kind of media whirlpool that lasts for about a couple of weeks, and afterwards another film moves in, and everyone goes to cover it. But you really feel like you’re in a boat and the weather report says: ‘A major hurricane is coming, you better batten down the hatches.’ And you go ‘Roger that’, and you put on the raincoat, and lock everything down. You know it’s going to be rough for a little while.
And what’s funny is that it’s rough going, no matter what the critical outcome. I’ve had films that were big hits, and others that didn’t do as well, but it’s always the same experience, because they put you in the same washing machine.
Director/operator Luc Besson on the set of Lucy
Wikipedia: Luc Besson
Thierry Arbogast's web site
imdb: Carlo Varini, AFC
YouTube: Lucy trailer
metronews: Lucy 1st Making-of with stunts in Paris
Unit photography by Jessica Forde, courtesy of Universal Pictures
Additional images courtesy of Thierry Arbogast, AFC, and EuropaCorp
Our thanks to Thierry Arbogast, Luc Besson, Kelly Brinker, Jennifer Chamberlain and Bruno Peres.