This post is an expanded version of my interview with André Turpin about his striking cinematography for Mommy in the February issue of American Cinematographer. I met with André at Camerimage.
This text may make more sense if you have read my interview with the film's director, Xavier Dolan, in the previous post.
Cinematographer André Turpin interviewed at Camerimage (photo Benjamin B)
André Turpin is a French-Canadian cinematographer and director.
André has shot some thirty features including, Tom at the Farm and Mommy with Xavier Dolan, and Incendies with Denis Villeneuve. André has also directed several features, including the award-winning Soft Shell Man, and is currently directing Endorphine, with cinematography by Josée Deshayes.
André's work has earned him many nominations and wins at the Canadian Genie and Quebec Jutra awards. He earned the 2014 Bronze Frog for the cinematography of Mommy at Camerimage.
Mommy follows the attempts of, Die, a flamboyant French-Canadian single mother, to cope with her hyperactive adolescent son, Steve, who is expelled from school for violent behavior. Die reaches out to Kyla, an introverted school-teacher neighbor, to home school Steve. This unlikely trio bond and create a family of sorts, an environment that offers the promise of healing each person’s pain and isolation. However a lawsuit in the wake of Stevie’s violence threatens to undo this fragile harmony, and wreak havoc on Mommy, her son and her new friend.
The film’s simple story is presented in a series of emotional scenes, filmed with originality and brio in a unique 1:1 square aspect ratio.
watch on YouTube
Benjamin B: Can you talk about prep, and Xavier Dolan’s use of a look book?
André Turpin: Xavier builds a look book for every film. I think it’s good because it defines a vocabulary based on images not words. Because we can talk about a certain kind of contrast, saturation, color whatever, based on an image, instead of the words which mean nothing. Seeing films together is also good for that.
Xavier is also the costume designer for all his films. It’s very important for him. It’s not an aesthetic thing: his costumes and his sets are all about creating characters.
You guys did the decoupage (shot breakdown) together
Yes. It was mostly him. I told Xavier that I felt really lucky to see his thought process as he was doing this, because I really learned from him. It helps me for the film I'm going to start as a director [Endorphine].
What have you learned from Dolan?
All the directors I’ve worked with have influenced me, but Xavier has influenced me a lot. It’s not about coverage, it’s more about a certain kind of ambition, and learning to insist on what is important on an artistic emotional level, but also on a production level
Because you’re always asked to make compromises on a film, and it’s so easy to say: ‘Well I can forget this shot’ or ‘I can forget this idea’ or whatever… I may never be a great director, because I want to please everybody, and I compromise all the time. Xavier does not do that. He is able to put the film before anything else.
André Turpin sets up a shot with a 27mm on the set of Mommy (photo Shayne Laverdière)
shots and reverses
Composing for the 1:1 implied a lot of single-shot portraits. What focal lengths did you use on Mommy?
Xavier doesn’t like long lenses, he cuts off at 75 or 100. Our main lenses were 27, 32 and 40mm. I was pushing for a 65, but we had a 75. We shot with Zeiss Master Primes.
You don’t usually want to go to very wide lenses when shooting women, but I learned from Xavier not to be scared of doing close-ups with a 27 or a 32, which changes the relationship to the background.
In the final scene between the two women, for example, we used a 32mm to shoot each one.
When the two women are saying their goodbyes in the kitchen?
Yes. And what’s unusual there is that we placed the camera between them. This is something Xavier and I discovered when we shot this scene. Something felt wrong about the camera placement, so we tried the camera between them, and that ended up separating them.
If you put the camera between the two actors, say with a 27mm, you are putting the spectator closer to the subject, he can now hear the character breathe. But at the same time, you are isolating the two characters from each other.
And these days I’m thinking more and more about shot and reverse-angle. Are we going over the shoulder, (whether or not you see the shoulder)? Or are we spying on them from far away, say with a 65mm? Or are we placing the camera between the actors to separate them?
You also isolate the characters by having very little depth of field
Xavier kept asking me before shooting: ‘What’s the T stop?’, and I'd go ‘Uh... T4’. He'd say: ‘Come on guys, go down to 2’. Sometimes he would want to open more. And sometimes I would say: "It won’t work, not with a 65mm on a Steadicam." This is where I don’t agree with him aesthetically...
But the shallow depth does add to the isolation, and the intimacy with the character.
Yes, that's right, even if I don't like it aesthetically.
Xavier Dolan is unconditional about shooting with film negative. What are your feelings about film?
I’ve shot a lot of commercials with Alexas, and also Reds, but I’ve shot all my features in film. I think film is especially good when you’re going to extremes: when you’re shooting skies or window with bright exteriors, when it’s 7 stops over, film handles that more gracefully than digital.
The other thing about film is that you have much more latitude in color correction. That’s something I know about, and I’ve spoken to color timers a lot about this. They love film for that reason. If you’re trying to do a bleach bypass or ENR look, it looks artificial on digital.
But there are great movies shot on digital. The thing I find about the digital format, is that it looks great when you time it a certain way, meaning dark and desaturated. When you try different approaches, you will choose what looks best, and what looks best in digital is often very sober, dark, desaturated images. They look great. But try to do 3 Kings or The City of Lost Children, or Seven on digital! So I think that digital media is actually guiding aesthetics right now.
I’m sure that if we hadn’t shot Mommy on film, we couldn’t have made it as bright, or as saturated, or make it pop as much.
Xavier Dolan speaks to actor Antoine-Olivier Pilon in a straight jacket (photo Shayne Laverdière)
What film stock did you shoot with?
I used my all-time favorite, Kodak 5219. I discovered it on Incendies [by Denis Villeneuve]. I know this film stock by heart, I really know it intimately. Kodak has reached perfection.
What ISO rating do you use for exposure?
I rate it at 500. But I’m not afraid to under-expose with this film stock, it depends on the scene. If I want it to look bright I’ll overexpose.
The common wisdom is that you should overexpose film to get a thicker negative.
Yes, but 5219 changed the rule for me. I discovered a new way of lighting, and letting things go. I underexpose it systematically, but not on Mommy, because this movie was all about light.
For example, if you’re in a shadow situation with backlight, I don’t overexpose the face. Your eye sees it 1 ½ stop or 2 stops under, and that’s how I expose it. In other words I’m saying you should expose it the way you want it to look. When I underexpose film it’s because it’s going to look dark afterwards, even if I may end up with a thin negative.
Bar interior with Leko on left and doubly diffused top light (photo Shayne Laverdière)
What was your lighting approach for Mommy?
Mommy was shot almost entirely on location, except for one reshoot scene. I used one Arri M90 and three M40s to simulate sunlight — I like the 9K and 4K Pars because of their punch. Also, the reflector in the back of the lamp has little bubbles, which create little bubbly patterns in the shadows when you use them as a hard source; it’s very different from Fresnel or sun shadows.
I really like soft, directional light. When I do want direct sunlight, I diffuse the torso and face. I will never hit a face with hard light, and I hate to feel the source on a face, so my sources are highly diffused, with two or three layers of diffusion spaced out, the lighter one closer to the light and the heavier one closest to the actor. My colleague Yves Bélanger [CSC] calls me ‘the three-diffusion DP.’ For diffusion I’ll use Muslin mostly; I’ll always use the thickest I can, unless there’s not enough light. I use Kino Flos, which are always practical because they don’t take a lot of space. I will often use the Kinos for ¾ back, a very soft rim light, or back sidelight that I heavily diffuse.
I love Lekos, which I use with [K5600] Joker-Bugs all the time. If I need to light a face with punch, I will diffuse [a Leko] through muslin. But mostly I bounce the Joker Lekos on the ceiling and on the floor to create little splashes of light. I love them because you can cut them to control the size and shape of the bounce light. When you control the dimensions of the bounce, it changes everything in the shadows; you’re not only giving more or less light, but if you reduce the size of the bounce, the light gets harder, and if you enlarge it, the light gets softer. I really enjoy looking at a subject and playing with the bounce size from the Leko to control the softness of the light. When I get the right quality, then we just scrim the light to get the right intensity.
André Turpin sets up a shot while Xavier Dolan below gives the actor his eye line (photo Shayne Laverdière)
seeing the light
How did the shooting day go?
It was pretty standard. We came in the morning we did a private blocking with the actors, Xavier and the AD. Then the crew came in, we show them the scene, the actors play it out. Then we explain to them technically how we’re going to cover it: all the shots, and the order we will shoot them in.
And then we work on the shot, and I light and it takes forever, because I'm so slow.
Because you're so slow?
I tell that to every producer and director: "Hey I’m slow especially at the start of the day". Because I can't previsualize. It's a quality and a handicap. I do the lighting set-up and then usually I look at it, and it’s not working. And then I start sculpting the light.
It's frustrating because I’ve been doing this for 25 years and I still don’t have this talent of being able to previsualize. And that’s maybe why I won’t be able to do super big films: because they need to be prelit. Although I hear that what they do on big films is put light everywhere and you turn off what you don't want.
That’s my handicap, but my talent is that I can see what works, and then I react very fast. I’m very instinctive on the day, but I have to see the light.
André Turpin sets up a shot with Mommy (Anne Dorval) and camera operator Francois Archambault, as director Xavier Dolan looks on (photo Shayne Laverdière)
wikipedia: Xavier Dolan
wikipedia: André Turpin
wikipedia: Incendies by Denis Villeneuve with cinematography by André Turpin
konbini.com : Xavier Dolan's Look Book (in French)
Set photography by Shayne Laverdière - courtesy of Roadside Attractions
My thanks to Xavier Dolan and André Turpin
Thanks also to Scott Feinstein, Rebecca Cook and Kate Rosenbaum at 42 West.