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.
“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.”