Given the evocative look and setting of the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” it’s not surprising that Bruno Delbonnel snagged the cinematography award yesterday from the New York Film Critics Circle. He exquisitely captures the coldness, sadness, unhappiness, and loneliness of Oscar Isaac’s struggling folk singer in Greenwich Village of ’61.
The French cinematographer (“Big Eyes,” “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” “Amelie”) doesn’t like to reference other movies, but the archival research from the period was predominately desaturated. So he decided to make it more personal and lit it like a folk song, using the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” as a starting off point.
“I wanted to find another palette that was uncomfortable, and that was magenta,” Delbonnel explains. “I wanted it to be disturbing. And I bloomed the white in the grading so the skin tones are softer. It’s a very grounded color palette.”
In “Llewyn Davis,” Delbonnel equates sadness with lack of light. It’s usually overcast, there’s rarely bright sunlight and daylight comes and dies very fast in this strange musical odyssey.”I try to be consistent all through the movie, so for me the rule on this one was to have the light falling off every time in the background. And then I can work with different colors or different moods.”
Delbonnel shot on film, also not surprisingly, because it seemed most appropriate for the period and because of the grain structure of the Kodak stock. He used the iconic Gaslight Cafe as the chorus — “dark, contrasty, almost colorless.” In fact, the opening in which Davis beguiles with “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” was the only time Delbonnel set a period look. “There is no credits so here we have to establish what the Gaslight was. It was in a basement and I wanted to do a Bohemian club, so I kept it really muted with the brick wall and different practicals.And the alleyway is very catchy as well where the mood and palette change.”
By contrast, Davis’ meeting with the imposing Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) at the Gate of Horn in Chicago is grander and more mysterious.”The scene’s about failure,” Delbonnel suggests. “He picks the wrong song [‘The Death of Queen Jane’] but he’s truthful to folk music and its roots. But nobody talks about his talent; they always talk about the other guy’s talent. It’s an underlying idea, which is very interesting. I shot F. Murray with a rim light so you barely see him and asked him not to move.”
The cinematographer’s favorite sequence is the road trip to Chicago with all the night driving, accompanied by John Goodman’s cranky old jazz man and his taciturn driver. It’s almost surreal. “It was hard and we shot on location in winter and we were low budget and didn’t have a lot of equipment. But it’s dark and strange and dreamy.”
Talk about strange: the confusing fight in the alley that served as the catalyst underwent a lighting change after the rehearsal. “I wanted to light the guy with his hat and smoking his cigarette. But when I heard his strong voice, I realized it would ruin the mood completely, so I immediately decided to shoot him in silhouette. You only see the cigarette light and you hear his voice saying, ‘You’re a funny guy.’ Then you only see his face before he punches him. I like the unexpected. It’s cinema for me, which is about images and sound.”
Now let’s see if this unexpected New York state of mind will land the cinematographer his fourth Oscar nomination.