Take a step back for a moment to consider the bizarre irony of “The Artist” being on the verge of winning the Best Picture Oscar. What an underdog story: a black-and-white silent ode to Hollywood made by a French director with two French stars up against the best that our current film industry has to offer. Somewhere the ghosts of the silent era must be smiling as well.
When I asked the Oscar-nominated cinematographer, Guillaume Schiffman, what he thought about this, he chuckled. “We couldn’t think about this, we were making a movie — our own silent movie,” he said. “But we were in Hollywood — the back lot at Paramount and Mary Pickford’s old house.”
In retrospect, Schiffman had to admit that it was ironic, given that “The Artist” is about the dawn of sound and here we are at the dawn of digital supremacy. But after making the two “OSS-117” kitschy spy movies back to back, director Michel Hazanavicius had an urge to tackle a silent melodrama, and Schiffman was game to do a mash-up of Fairbanks and Chaplin.
They began by studying a slew of silent movies at the French Cinematheque from Murnau, Vidor, von Sternberg, and Chaplin, as well as Busby Berkeley and Astair and Rogers’ musicals. The director enthusiastically explained how he was going to “play with the blacks and whites, shadow and light, and lots of grays.”
But then Hazanavicius instructed his cinematographer to forget everything they had just seen, because their movie was going to be distinct. “But we were still filled with all those references,” Schiffman explained.
Schiffman began by doing a series of tests in LA with production designer Laurence Bennett and costume designer Mark Bridges, shooting first in black and white but then deciding against it because the stock was too precise and too sharp. So instead, the cinematographer shot with 500 ASA Kodak color stock, which not only made it grainier, but with the help of special optical lenses stripped of their anti-reflective coating and filters, they could achieve the right kind of diffuse whites and underplayed blacks. He later played with the shadows and faces with the lights.
All the while, Hazanavicius set the visual tone for every scene, which was built around the art direction, costumes, and lighting. And Schiffman turned it into a code predicated on the rise and fall of silent star George Valentin (Oscar-contending Jean Dujardin). It was a back to basics approach in which Valentin was depicted at the outset in crisp black and white and got grayer and muddier as the film progressed. The more dramatic, the greater the presence of shadows; the more comic, the lighter in tone it got. There was also greater depth of field for comedy; and a very shallow perspective for tragedy. In contrast to Valentin’s descent was the ascension of the “Star Is Born”-inspired ingénue, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo).
“The staircase sequence when he goes down and she goes up is important in selling the theme of the story,” Schiffman noted. “Every morning Michel would remind me of the importance of lighting in telling the story. Jean is more of a comedy actor, and this was the first time I saw him in my camera in a melodrama, so it was very emotional for both of us as we looked at each other.”
That is why the vast majority of Schiffman’s favorite moments are more serious, including the scene in which Valentin discovers his possessions stashed away in Miller’s house for safe keeping while convalescing after his suicide attempt. “I said to Michel, ‘Let’s put in a lot of shadows and only the sheets will be white.’ And when the door opens, that’s not a movie of that era to put people in silhouette. We jumped ahead.” The fact that it was shot in Mary Pickford’s old house made it all the more surreal. Chaplin originally lived on the other side of the street, and legend has it that there was a secret tunnel between the two homes, but they were unable to verify it because most of the house was off limits.
By contrast, the screening room scene, in which sound is introduced as the future of Hollywood, is naturally an ode to “Citizen Kane”s “News on the March.” However, the strong use of chiaroscuro lighting had to be toned down to stay in keeping with the look of the earlier era.
As for the elaborate tap dance finale, Schiffman was wary. After all, he’s such a fan of the Astaire/Rogers musicals (he’s half-French and half-American) that he didn’t want to blow it. “I was afraid to have such a big set, but to have a black mirror without seeing the light, I was lucky to have veteran gaffer, Jim Plannette [“Young Frankenstein”], helping me.”
Now that Schiffman has returned to Hollywood for the Oscars and is meeting with producers to discuss making Hollywood movies, all he wants to do is something modern. Still, there’s something timelessly modern about “The Artist.” What’s old is new again.