The Iranian-French cinematographer Darius Khondji has worked with an impressive roster of international A-list directors including Bernardo Bertolucci (“Stealing Beauty”), David Fincher (“Seven”), Jean-Pierre Jeunet (“The City of Lost Children”), Danny Boyle (“The Beach”), Roman Polanski (“The Ninth Gate”), Woody Allen (“Midnight in Paris”), Wong Kar-wai (“My Blueberry Nights”) and Michael Haneke (“Amour”). With his latest project, James Gray’s “The Immigrant,” hitting theaters last Friday, Indiewire spoke to Khondji by phone about working with Gray for the first time and about how it’s different from his collaboration with other directors.
Starring Marion Cotillard as a Polish immigrant arriving at Ellis Island in 1921, and Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner as the complicated men she encounters, “The Immigrant” exposes the darker side of the “American dream.” The look of the film is simultaneously dingy and spectacular, a fitting depiction of both the wonder and the grime that marked that time period.
Though “The Immigrant” divided critics when it premiered last year at Cannes, in his review Eric Kohn praised Khondji’s work, saying he “captures the era in magnificent golden hues and deep shadows that are particularly effective at making Ellis Island come alive early in the movie.”
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How closely did you collaborate with James Gray on the look of the film?
Darius Khondji: When I watch the movie and I think about it, I really want to answer that I feel James [Gray] is in every single photograph, every single frame. He is in the texture of the places, the walls, the tenement apartments, he’s in the texture of everything, the look of the costumes, the lighting, the characters. He’s in everything. What’s wonderful with James that I really never had with any [other] director at this point — maybe with David Fincher — was I felt the director was really part of the texture itself and the mood of the film. I know I sound like a nice guy who talks nicely about his director, but it’s really true about this director. That’s why I want to do as many possible films with him. It’s an incredible collaboration. It’s only with a collaboration like this that you have a result which is true to the film, to the characters. The colors, everything is led by him. It’s not that he directs you and tells you what to do, it’s more that he leads you by making you listen to various music like Puccini or opera. He makes you watch “La Strada,” which doesn’t have a direct link at the beginning, but then you realize everything — the characters, the texture, the emotion — all fit.
I imagine there’s a different way of working and collaborating with every director.
Every director has a different thing. Some directors are very musical. Some directors are very technical. Some are very inspirational and in the spur of the moment react to the situations with what the actors would do. With Woody Allen, he wouldn’t want to prepare too much. He would prepare, of course, but wouldn’t want to plan everything because he would want to be intuitive enough to react to some changes in his mind. When we scout together, we give general directions on things in the first scout. Then the morning of the shoot we see what the actors do and do a first design of the actors… With James, there’s also a lot of intuition and interesting things happening, but it’s much more designed and thought out before. With James, it’s planned and thought out, also because of the nature of the movie, but we were shooting a lot on stage and we had a very tight budget and we needed to find solutions to make a movie with $12 million — which is very little to make a movie of this kind.
How did the budget play a role in the look of the film?
Sometimes it gave us the right solution. We had a terrific producer, Anthony Katagas, who put all the money on the screen. Nothing was impossible with him. The costume designer Patricia Norris and the production designer Happy Masse are also very talented. James put a crew around him who were very talented and interesting people, not the usual crew.
Now we want to gather the same people together and do another film together. The producer, James and I want to find the same people — like a family of people who want to make films, more than just hiring people for the job because they’re good. It’s more like creating a family around a project. I really believe in that. That’s why I am not doing really big films at the moment. I believe in cinema as like family.
It’s the same with Woody Allen, right?
Yes, he does hire some of the same people.
What about working with David Fincher? What was that like? Was that more planned, as with James Gray, or more improvisational like Woody Allen?
I worked with him a long time ago, but he is an amazing director who plans everything very carefully and designs everything. I can’t talk about him now because people change. At the time, he was a very exciting director to work with.
You worked with Michael Haneke on the Academy Award-winning “Amour.” How did he like to work?
He is also a director that designs everything — the shots in the apartment… Everything has to be scrupulously designed, and there there is no room for improvisation as far as the camera technique go.
What was most challenging about your work on “The Immigrant?”
One of the obvious challenges we had was to be able to do a movie where we had some exteriors of New York in the 20s. Which meant we had to make it happen: The period piece of the street, the pier, the boat… Everything exterior in the park was a big challenge. It was a big challenge to make it feel like it was the 20s, so we really have the flavor of the time. It’s not enough to put actors in the costumes of the 20s and put some set design and be clever with it, you have to really believe you’re living in the time. Everything that is in frame has to really be from the time. You really have to transport yourself into the time and somehow really believe in it. That’s one challenge. Another one was to shoot in Ellis Island because it was a gigantic hall that we had very little time to shoot in, because we couldn’t keep it closed. So we came with the idea to shoot it at night and to reproduce daylight at night. Because we were shooting in winter, we could do 12-14 hours of night. When we came with this idea, we didn’t have enough in the budget to light the whole space — to make it look like daylight to light it from outside — so we lit only half of the hall and we mimicked the second half in digital.
How did you manage to create the look of the film, which in some ways, looks and feels like an old film?
We destroyed the negative. We used the Kodak negative, which is a beautiful texture and this incredible treasure we have in film negatives – I think we should still be shooting on film even if we shoot on digital. What you an do with film is destroy the negative, I underexposed it, I flashed the negative and we used tricks like this to make it like a really old picture. We looked at a lot of autochomres and images from the beginning of the 19th century — old photographs and paintings where photographs were looking like paintings with the pictorialists. We looked at the images and looked at how degraded the images were — we wanted to do it in a real way, but organically. So I used very old cool lenses from the 60s and 70s, that were probably used on movies like Fellini’s, old anamorphic glass. Then we did some tests. We did a lot of film tests. We flushed the negative with a special light box and we were shooting with gold light and we were flashing with blue. I underexposed a lot of the negative. It’s almost like ashes. We were inspired by a lot by the realist paintings — Robert Henri, George Bellows, John Sloan, Everett Shin, George Luks, the Ashcan school of painting. Another painter who inspired us is Caravaggio.
What are you working on next?
Woody Allen’s next film.