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Woody Allen's Cinematographer Has 6 Life-Saving Tips for Low-Budget DPs

Photo of Jay A. Fernandez By Jay A. Fernandez | Indiewire June 14, 2012 at 12:45PM

Cinematographer Darius Khondji has worked with some wildly divergent and distinctive talents: David Fincher (“Se7en,” “Panic Room”), Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (“Delicatessen,” “The City of Lost Children”), Bernardo Bertolucci (“Stealing Beauty”), Danny Boyle (“The Beach”), Wong Kar Wai (“My Blueberry Nights”) and Michael Haneke (“Funny Games,” “Amour”) among them. His next film in release is Woody Allen’s “To Rome With Love” June 22 – the film has its North American premiere to kick off the Los Angeles Film Festival tonight – and it’s yet another opportunity for the Oscar-nominated DP to show off what he can do with a location. (Yes, he shot Allen’s romance-drenched “Midnight in Paris,” too.)
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Darius Khondji on set

Cinematographer Darius Khondji has worked with some wildly divergent and distinctive talents: David Fincher (“Se7en,” “Panic Room”), Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (“Delicatessen,” “The City of Lost Children”), Bernardo Bertolucci (“Stealing Beauty”), Danny Boyle (“The Beach”), Wong Kar Wai (“My Blueberry Nights”) and Michael Haneke (“Funny Games,” “Amour”) among them. His next film in release is Woody Allen’s “To Rome With Love” June 22 – the film has its North American premiere to kick off the Los Angeles Film Festival tonight – and it’s yet another opportunity for the Oscar-nominated DP to show off what he can do with a location. (Yes, he shot Allen’s romance-drenched “Midnight in Paris,” too.)

Khondji, a Frenchman born in Tehran, is currently on a rare professional hiatus after the Palme d’Or-winning Cannes Film Festival run of “Amour” and the completion of principal photography on James Gray’s forthcoming New York City-set period drama. (He actually passed on a few movies, including, sadly, Allen’s next film, to get a summer break and recharge himself.) Khondji has made a point of turning his attention to these lower-budget indie films recently, shooting commercials to help underwrite a less commercially driven feature career.

Midnight in Paris

“I don’t mind if a movie is made for a lot of money if it is great, but I don’t want to choose movies because I’m paid twice more,” he says. “It’s nice to be able to choose movies only for artistic reasons. All of these great movies that I’m making now, it’s because of that. After I did ‘The Interpreter’ with Sydney Pollack, which was a good experience, I just wanted to do films where I know that the director is free to choose the way he wants to make his movie, write the script the way he wants, have the actors he wants, has final cut, doesn’t have to listen to any studio telling him what to do. That’s the choice I’m making at the moment, deliberately.”

Since he’s now focusing on work in the $15 million-or-less range, Indiewire thought he'd be a great talent to ask: What can you do to make the most of a location on a small budget? Here are six essential tips from the Oscar-nominated cinematographer.

Go on scouting trips as early as you can so you have a say in what will work or not work.

“I love going to see the last two or three locations to choose from, to be able to say something,” Khondji said. “When I do a movie on location, it’s really important for me to go and scout locations even before the technical scout with my crew. It’s crucial to go with the production designer — and the director, if you can — to figure out how you’re going to make the best out of it for the storytelling.”

Lighting can highlight character. And headaches, if you’re not careful.

“Of course, your work has to first correspond to who the character is and what the story is about,” he said. “The most important thing to bring out when you shoot a movie is to figure out how you’re going to light the location in order to bring it into this area of the character. Often you want natural light coming in through the windows, let’s say. When you do movies on low budgets, you don’t want to have a location that requires a very big light right outside the window when you’re 10 stories up. You have to find a location where you have a terrace outside, or you can light from a second floor, or you can light through the windows for daylight. You also want to have a certain height of ceilings so you can put toplights.”

It helps to be strategic (and lucky) about the mutability of locations.

“If you like a location for its architecture or mood, for the feel of it, but you don’t actually like the color, you need to have a location where you’re allowed to change the color,” he said. “It’s all always aiming at who the character is that lives in this location. For instance, when we were doing ‘To Rome With Love’ with Woody in Rome, we were looking for a location for young architects (Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig). We looked in many locations. Woody had a problem finding a location that really fit what he had in mind. So with the art director and production designer, we sketched how we could transform one into what Woody had in mind, because we found one that we really liked in the Trastevere area. There was an artist living in this kind of loft in an old house. Then we transformed it, we made it to what Woody had in mind. And the artist’s daughter was actually a location manager on another movie!”

Woody Allen's "To Rome With Love"
Leave yourself a wide-angle option.

“Then you do your technical scout with your crew,” he said. “Working in Rome on this movie was a wonderful experience, and very easy thanks to the excellent Italian crew we had – the production and all camera, lighting and grip crew were a dream to work with. But when you shoot on location, you have to be incredibly prepared because you can’t move the wall around like when you’re in a studio. You really need to know that the camera is going to fit there, that with the focal lens you’re going to be able to go back far enough to get a wide shot without putting on a ridiculously wide lens that would be very vulgar or warping. In order not to do that, you need to have a location where the wall or the side of a room allows you to go back enough to get the wide shot that the director wants. This sounds obvious, but sometimes let’s say you shoot CinemaScope anamorphic with 2.35:1, you have to go much further back to go to a wide shot, in terms of height. Otherwise, you shoot medium and close-up all the time. If you don’t scout out your location, it can be really bad.”

Learn how to use natural light on interiors.

“Unfortunately, a lot of these low-budget movies have to shoot small-format digital,” Khondji said. “You have to calculate. If you shoot daylight, what would be a great thing to do is have a Plan A and Plan B with the Sun. If you don’t have the money to put up lights, you have to think about how the building is in front of your location and bounce the light into the apartment. Or try to schedule your shooting around the sunlight. I light mostly from outside the windows for daylight, but if you had to light from inside the windows or on top of the windows to reproduce the light, then you have to make sure you have high enough ceilings.”

Norah Jones in Wong Kar-Wai's "My Blueberry Nights." Photo by Macall Polay, courtesy The Weinstein Company
Have one strong thematic idea, not a bagful.

“I’ve learned one general thing in filmmaking: to work with one strong idea,” says Khondji. “One strong concept that pushes you to work in a certain way artistically. Then you can bring it into a family of ideas. Then it’s like a tree: You have an idea for each scene, but one main idea in the film. The more you have concepts and ideas like this before you plan the film, the better it is. I’ve found that the great directors I work with, usually for the movie they have one strong idea visually that makes the film what it is. I realized that usually they don’t have multiple ideas, because you always get clogged when you have so many ideas to tell a story visually. I don’t think it’s great to come with a bag full of ideas. It’s better to be behind one strong statement or one strong idea for a film. For ‘To Rome With Love’ it was the saturation of the colors, the fact that the Italian scenes were more like the old Italian cinema of the ’60s and ’70s, and the modern scenes, when the Americans are in Rome, are more wide angle, a little bit colder, sharper, less saturated. It’s thematically brilliant.”

This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit, Darius Khondji, To Rome With Love