After collaborating with director Jean-Marc Vallée for “Dallas Buyers Club,” cinematographer Yves Bélanger reunited with the director for “Wild,” adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir of the same name about her experiences hiking along the rugged Pacific Crest Trail. To bring the film to life, star Reese Witherspoon had to re-enact Strayed’s arduous hike — with Bélanger trudging right in front of her walking backwards.
In his review of the film, Indiewire Chief Film Critic Eric Kohn highlighted Bélanger’s photography: “Cinematographer Yves Bélanger develops a rich green-and-brown palette to match the lyrical relationship that [Cheryl] Strayed develops with her surroundings,” he wrote.
Though Bélanger has been working in the field for years, predominantly in his native Canada, his career has perked up recently and he’s busier than ever. We recently spoke to the veteran cinematographer about his late-in-life professional success, using a hand-held digital camera and natural light to shoot “Wild” and the physical rigors of the production.
I’m calling you from Portland, Oregon coincidentally. “Wild” filmed all over the state, correct?
Yes, over the state, and all the scenes set in Portland were made in Portland. Even when we were supposed to be in — Minneapolis? I’m so bad at geography! — we shot it in Portland. Even the snow. We went everywhere from Ashland to Mount Hood. We went to “The Shining” hotel, you know?
Yes, the Timberline Lodge. Did you shoot there?
No, we were just close by, but we didn’t stay there either. It’s weird, inside it doesn’t look like the movie. It’s only the outside they use.
Obviously most of “Wild” takes place outdoors, so how did you work in terms of natural lighting? Did you schedule around the weather and the light?
With Jean-Marc we have to be ready to improvise everything so there’s no equipment around us, no lights, no reflectors, no flags. It’s only the crew that we need. It’s just that he wants to be able to shoot any angle any time to further the concept. When you have a project like this, you have two great friends: it’s a production designer and the assistant director who makes the schedule. The assistant director would make the schedule according to the position of the sun, the most he could for me. And Jean-Marc and me, the only good thing about being a little older and having experience is that we know which lighting situations are interesting or good or not good. So basically that’s what we did. And especially with this movie where we’re mostly dealing with one actress, it was easy to do the schedule according to the light because sometimes when you do a series in the city all the actors are working in other jobs so the schedule usually is not done with the DP and his needs (laughing). It’s done with the schedule of the actors and people like that.
Did you have any other films in mind in terms of the look of “Wild”? Or did you looking at art and paintings?
Yes, we were. We saw some movies. They were even sometimes good movies but Jean-Marc would say, “Don’t do like this, don’t do like this” with three or four examples. But mostly our first concept was John Ford. We want to treat the landscape like a human face and the human face like a landscape. But what Jean-Marc didn’t want to do like John Ford, John Ford sometimes was shooting with very big formats — it doesn’t cut. If it’s a wide shot or a medium shot it stays like that, but Jean-Marc likes to go closer. He likes to rack focus, to shift the focus. He likes to tell, with the focus, to the spectator where to go. Where to look at John Ford movies, he uses a depth of field. Everything would be in focus so you could choose what to look at. But with Jean-Marc, he doesn’t like the depth of field, so I’m always shooting almost wide open, even during the day, so there’s only one thing in focus. And we decide which part of the image is in focus, and which part the spectator should look at. So it’s very interesting to work in this way. Jean-Marc is very special.
You shot with an Alexa. How and why was that the right camera for this particular production?
A lot of DPs in my generation still say for landscape and things like that you have to shoot film, because it’s true that the last years of the film stock were very, the last film stock had a lot of overexposing or underexposing part of the image, and it’s softer and everything. But with Alexa, I thought it would react the same way as film stock. The camera can take a lot of details in the bright part of the image and the dark part, so I could overexpose or underexpose without being scared I will lose all the detail. And we shoot digital because Jean-Marc a lot of the time wants to shoot more than ten minutes without cutting. With the film stock you can only shoot ten minutes. And with digital sometimes, you can shoot 42 minutes if you want to without cutting.
So much of the story involves watching Reese hike. Was that a challenge to make that visually interesting?
The general part of our concept is always the camera should not be more important than the story. We’re not trying to make it look nice or interesting or beautiful. We just want it to be at a good place for each scene. But at the same time, me and Jean-Marc, we have some visual aesthetic standards. We would never make an ugly image if it’s not interesting. We always try to please ourselves in a situation where it’s going to look good, but it’s not the first. The first thing is tell the story, tell the story. When we have flares of the sun in the shot that’s not because it looks good, it’s because we want to show that she’s very tired (laughs), that it’s very hot and she’s blinded by the light. When I see movies when they’re inside a bar and there’s a big flare I’m always like, “Where does it come from, this big flare?” (laughs).
What was the biggest challenge for you in terms of the actual shoot?
It’s very boring — my biggest challenge was to get in shape because this movie’s very physical. I’m not a sportsman, I’m not an outdoorsman, and I’m 54 so I had to get in shape. So my biggest challenge was not to pass out during the take (laughs).
So you hiked the trail with her basically.
Yeah, everybody. Everybody lost weight.
How was it logistically, did you stay overnight on the trail?
There was very great organization. We were maybe on the set, we were between 7 and 14 people. But there was another 60 people working for our organization and transport and everything. Each place, we were in the very nice hotels. And if we had to drive one hour to go to the place, we just wake up earlier. But we were in great hotels, the food was great and we would wake up before sunrise and get in a bus or a car and be driven there. We would usually be on the location just before sunrise, so if the actors were not ready I would just shoot the sunrise for fun. A lot of these shots are in the movie.
How do you and Jean-Marc communicate? Do you have a short-hand?
With Jean-Marc it’s very simple. The actors come on the set, they know their lines. I take the camera on my shoulder, he takes me by the arm and looks at the little monitor beside the camera and he finds the camera placement for the first shot. Sometimes you would rehearse, a lot of times you say, “Let’s shoot the rehearsal and see what happens.” And when a scene is shorter, like less than a page, a lot of the time we do one slate and we just shoot the whole scene without cutting. He likes the accidents of the first take. Sometimes people, actors or even I do something weird and he likes that. But at the same time, he’s very precise with the framing. You could hear him sometimes he’d say, “Pan to the left, pan to the right,” during the take. He would want to have a very precise frame. “Tilt up a little bit.” Or he would take my arm and just guide me to change something very subtle. But a lot of directors, there’s some directors I used to work with that like to do a big blocking with the actors and after that they’ll put marks and everything. After that they leave and I’ll do a little bit of lighting and we’ll go and I’ll shoot it. Sometimes it’s nice when a director likes to do very elaborate shots and everything but sometimes it can be very boring. With Jean-Marc it’s never boring because we never know what’s going to happen (laughs).
I know you’ve worked with Xavier Dolan also [on “Laurence Anyways”]. I imagine he’s different.
He’s very precise too. I would say he likes to rehearse, he loves the process of movie-making, but he’s very precise like Jean-Marc. But he would not talk to me. He would more like touch me during the takes, if we’re handheld. If we’re on a dolly or something it would set the frame very precisely with me. And he loves to play with colors and everything. Jean-Marc is more classical. Jean-Marc has two or three lenses that he always use, but Xavier tries everything. His last movie, “Mommy,” it’s very well-controlled now. At 25, after five films, I think he’s mastered it. It takes five films to become a filmmaker, minimum. Some people start at 40, he started at 20.
And you’ve been working for many years, but in terms of big films, that’s only happened recently.
I work as a DP’s assistant in 1989, 1990. I always had work, but frankly, I didn’t have a lot of interesting work. It happened in the last five years that I’m ready. I had a lot of fun and I was working with great people but we were just not lucky, we didn’t get great things. But we did a lot of TV and things like that. A lot of music videos too. It’s not as flashy as features.
Right, and I think that’s encouraging for other filmmakers and cinematographers to see.
Right. Great things can happen to you at 30 or at 50. Don’t worry if it hasn’t happened yet. Just laugh. Just stay in shape and laugh and something’s going to happen if you stick around. I would have never wanted to be a DP star at 30. I would have turned completely nuts for sure. Like a hockey player, you know? That’s why some hockey players or some stars are so fucked up because it’s not good to have too much power when you are under 30.
Was there anything you want to add?
The catering was very good!