Few master cinematographers working today are more associated with a classical approach to shooting on film than Darius Khondji. The very look of his movies has the feel of celluloid – the “China ink” blacks, the shadow detail, the softness and uniquely rich, but not sharp color palette, along with a density of image that comes from literally putting the silver back on the film in a special lab process.
It’s not surprising then that Khondji hasn’t been shy about his distaste for shooting digitally.
“I felt we left film for digital too early, not in the right way and not for the right reasons,” Khondji told IndieWire in a recent phone interview from Cannes, where his new film “Okja” premiered. The great cinematographer’s opinion was not changed shooting Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning “Amour” and a pilot for Gus Van Sant with a digital camera, adding “I was never completely happy [with the results].”
Khondji’s opinion changed radically when he started working the large format Arri Alexa 65 camera. In the early days of the Alexa 65, there weren’t many available – “The Revenant” and “Sully” were the first features to use the camera – but being Darius Khondji, he was given access to shoot a small art project for a friend in Europe using the Alexa 65. That’s when he started seeing the potential.
“It’s a camera that was originally made for Vista vision, like 70mm, and it’s very interesting how it reproduces and transposes reality,” said Khondji, who used the Alexa 65 to shoot “Okja.” “It’s not film at all, but it’s a very exciting mutation. A different way of having pleasure making images.”
The word that DP Greig Frasier – who also feel in love with camera while shooting “Rogue One” – describes it as is “emotionally immersive.” Khondji agrees.
“I talk about presence – when you put a large 70mm lens on and you are in front of a face, or tree, or a landscape, the presence of it on screen is amazing,” said Khondji. “It has all the beautiful flavor of 3D, without being the vulgar 3D that I hate. It’s a 3D that is emotional and sensual. I fell in love with this camera.”
I spoke to Khondji a few hours before his Cannes premiere and he was so excited for an audience to see what he feels is something very new from him. Yet, he also knows those in Cannes will be amongst the very few to have the “emotional 3D” experience on the big screen, as “Okja” will premiere on Netflix next month, something that’s posed somewhat of a controversy for the world’s most prestigious film festival. The cinematographer can understand the resistance.
“When we first talked about [Netflix], early on before I accepted to shoot the movie, it was a difficult thing for me,” said Khondji. “I talked about it with Bong and a producer, and it was hard for me to imagine.”
It was Khondji’s time with that director that started to change his mind. He spent a great deal of time in South Korea with the filmmaker – scouting the mountains, the Han river, all the time talking about the characters, story and landscape of “Okja.”
“I get to know him like this and get into the story,” said Khondji. “It became very exciting for me. I love being in Korea and entering the film through his personality.”
The South Korean director knew better than to talk to his prospective DP about technical matters – something Khondji is adverse to, he’d rather it emerge organically from the demands of the project itself – but instead focused artistic discussions on music, through which Khondji was able to understand and visualize how Bong wanted to shoot the film and the director’s effusive cinematic style.
“The rhythm of the scene and the way the actors and camera play the scene – it’s very much related to music and rhythm, which is why I love this director,” said Khondji. “His camera has a personality.”
These collaborations are what Khondji loves. Having turned his back on Hollywood, even their prestige awards films, and has very conscientiously reached for the type of international auteurs – Woody Allen, Wong Kar Wai, Michael Haneke, James Gray, Roman Polanski, Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Bernardo Bertolucci and now Bong.
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