Wong Kar-wai‘s historical epic “The Grandmaster” charts the mostly true story of Ip Man (Tony Leung), the martial arts master who would eventually teach a young Bruce Lee how to fight. Whatever your take on this expansive and arty picture, it’s easy to agree that the movie is absolutely magnificent to look at. This is due to Wong’s close collaboration with French cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, who was able to bring out the vivaciousness of any scene, whether an intense fight sequence or a quieter moment of subtle yearning (this is, after all, a Wong Kar-wai movie). We got a chance to talk with the cinematographer about what it was like working on the movie, how difficult it was to maintain consistency with such an lengthy shoot (almost spanning three years from stem to stern), and much more
The first we discussed with Le Sourd were the different cuts of the movie. While internationally, the film has a 130-minute runtime, North America received a shorter cut (approved and edited by Wong Kar-wai) of 108 minutes. It’s become an area of contention for certain film fanatics, who claim that the truncated version of the movie undercuts the film thematically and on a narrative level. But Le Sourd doesn’t think so.
“I like all of the [cuts] because they are all different mood and texture and emotion. So it would be hard for me to say,” he explained, taking a somewhat philosophical approach. “I think all of them bring something different to the story. It’s a hard choice.”
But perhaps more notable than the different versions of the movie was the lengthy production itself, which started as a six-month job for Le Sourd but became much, more more.
“I met Wong in 2009. And he said we’re going to make this movie about a martial artist. And he said we’d shoot it for six months. So I left for six months in 2009. The idea was six months, that was it,” Le Sourd explained. “So he said, ‘Philippe we need to go back for two months.’ So we went back and it ended up being for eight months. In the end, I spent two years on it, back and forth, and 20 months in China.”
However, Le Sourd rolled with the punches, going in with an open mind and knowledge that the job’s parameters might be expanded. “I knew when I started I would never know when I would finish the movie or when I would go home,” he told us, matter-of-factly.
Le Sourd described the experience as “a beautiful journey” and one that was transcendent. “It was a feeling of doing something about cinema. It’s not about film anymore. It’s about cinema,” he said. The photographer explained when you work on something as long as he worked on “The Grandmaster,” it moves beyond a professional experience. “When you stay so long, it becomes part of you. It becomes your personal journey also.”
Wong Kar-wai’s improvisational style remained, even for what was obviously a huge and daunting project (“We didn’t have any idea what the scene would be”), something that required Le Sourd to keep a journal on hand just so he could remember where all of his lights were and what the colors were doing. “It was very hard,” Le Sourd said about maintaining visual consistency. “I kept a diary of what I was doing every day, with the position of the lights. Because we would come back and shoot the same scene two years later.”
When asked him to compare working with Wong Kar-wai versus Ridley Scott, a director he had worked with on the Russell Crowe wine tasting romance “A Good Year,” La Sourd said, very succinctly, “Every day is a discovery. At the end of the day, you have no idea how to shoot. Wong Kar-wai changes everything to make it different. With Ridley, everything is the same.”
And while his experiences on “The Grandmaster” were challenging, Le Sourd seems more than happy to jump back into the fold. “I did a commercial last week with him in China,” he said. “It’s about making something different happen with the camera. It’s an honor and a challenge.”
“The Grandmaster” is the official Hong Kong selection for Best Foreign Language film at The Academy Awards.