Call it a remake, a reboot, or a rethinking, the “Irma Vep” series on HBO is above all meta. Start with Louis Feuillade’s 1915 French serial about a criminal gang, Les Vampires; jump eight decades into the future to 1996, when Olivier Assayas’ “Irma Vep” found Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung starring in a movie-within-a-movie adaptating the serial. Now, more than a quarter century later, the “Personal Shopper” director’s latest work both expands upon and in some ways contradicts the Cheung movie.
The fast-paced dialogue, twisty narratives, freewheeling soundtrack, and extraordinary visuals are back. Alicia Vikander plays Mira Harberg, a Swedish actor famous for American comic-book blockbusters, who arrives on set as director René Vidal (the remarkable Vincent Macaigne) is struggling with a special effects shot. As the series unfolds, relationships form and break, careers shift, and ghosts from the past haunt the set. But Assayas brings an honesty, sincerity and sense of responsibility that weren’t always as apparent in his other films.
“Irma Vep” is a clear-eyed account of the chaos of filmmaking, a primer in French film history, a critique of film form, and in particular, a lesson in the “gaze.” We watch four different version of Irma as she slinks, steals, and seduces her way through Paris. The director watches his stars work out his own sexual proclivities; the crew watches the cast; the actors watch each other; Mira, who can move through walls, watches her lovers and exes.
Shot over 21 weeks, the series used two cinematographers, both longtime Assayas collaborators: Yorick Le Saux (“Clouds of Sils Maria”, “Non-Fiction”) and Denis Lenoir, (“Demonlover,” “Bergman Island”). Because Lenoir was simultaneously shooting Mia Hansen-Løve’s “One Fine Morning,” he could only work on “Irma Vep” for 7 weeks. Via Google Meet, the cinematographers spoke with IndieWire about their working relationship, their collaboration with Assayas, and whether or not they would want to work on the type of set depicted in the new “Irma Vep.”
Carole Bethuel / HBO
IndieWire: First, can you explain how you work together?
Yorick Le Saux: It happened the first time on “Carlos”, which was a six-month shoot. We decided to divide it in two, and it worked very well. Now we do it a lot. We even enjoy it.
Denis Lenoir: We also did it on “Wasp Network” — or “Cuban Network,” the actual title depends on where you see it. For “Carlos,” Yorick shot in France, Belgium, England and Germany. I joined for a few days in Germany and then took over. I hardly looked at his dailies, and Yorick told me the bare minimum: the film stock, the different filters he wanted me to use inside and outside.
The funny thing is, when Olivier was editing, he told us that he couldn’t tell who shot what. He had to go back to the schedule to remember who was behind the camera that day. I interpreted that at the time as ultimately it’s not the DP who is making the image, it’s more the director in some way. Now I think that the location, the actors, the wardrobe, all contribute to how the image will look. If you feel this way instead of that, of course it will be different. If you feel the same, it will look the same.
Le Saux: Olivier’s a great director. If you love the image, the look of “Irma Vep,” it’s because Olivier’s a great director. He directs the camera the same way he directs actors. Honestly, he was on my back even more than on the actors’ backs. He has really precise ideas concerning movement and rhythm. It gives the real tone to the work of the DP.
Lenoir: I need to make it clear that Yorick is the maitre d’oeuvre of “Irma Vep.” He was offered the job first by Olivier. He designed the LUTs. I’m very happy and grateful to help on this. When I was working, I was of course doing my own thing. But this is Yorick’s project way more than mine.
Can you talk about the different visual approaches? Each style has its own palette and aspect ratio.
Le Saux: So the Feuillade stuff is black and white. For the Musidora memoir, we thought it could be like a ‘behind the scenes’ or ‘making of’ footage of the original serial. The idea was to keep the black-and-white feeling, but put in some colors. Working with saturation levels, we decided to keep only certain colors.
Lenoir: At one point Olivier thought about shooting in sepia. I was very reluctant about that and pitched the concept of Autochrome Lumière [an additive color process], which I love. It might be seen as an inspiration for the Musidora approach. It almost looks like when they colorized black-and-white films 30 or 40 years ago.
Le Saux: Then there was René’s film, the remake of Feuillade. That was 2.35:1. Olivier wanted to mix period details like the cars and costumes with more modern feelings. We had to find a way to give René’s footage that image and texture. We played around a lot with diffusion, flicker, grain. Finally there’s Olivier’s series, which we shot 1.78:1, a more classic style without diffusion or things like that.
We used an Arri Alexa Mini LF. Denis recommended we use the Panavision Primo 70 lenses. For the rooftop scenes we used a Sony Alpha because it was very light and easy to move around. Because there was no way to put lights up there, we set it at something like 4000 or 8000 ISO.
I don’t understand how you set up your shots. Some of them are intricate extended takes that travel through four or five rooms on a set. Others, like scenes between René and his therapist, seem very carefully composed and lit, strict and formal. And then there are these shots that seem improvised, off the cuff, capturing moving action.
Le Saux: Maybe one or two improvised sequences, but otherwise it’s all really precise. For example, when Mira is taking a dance lesson with the choreographer, she’s a bit lost, has trouble following his advice. For this the camera and actor movements were completely improvised. The whole scene was just a long take.
The rest is super precise. Olivier comes in that morning with a list of shots. We look at it before the actors arrive. Then we adapt it and shoot it mainly his way. Right, Denis?
Lenoir: Yes. He doesn’t give much freedom to the actors regarding blocking — where to sit, when to get up, where to go and all that. So actually we follow his shot list very closely. We don’t have access to it in prep. But it’s very precise.
Le Saux: Olivier is the kind of director where it’s the camera that leads. He has a precise idea of that, and everything else has to conform to it.
What about that long take that follows René through the mansion?
Lenoir: That’s Yorick’s work for sure. I suspect it was made with the Ronin. We were both operating our cameras. I tried to work with the Ronin but it’s not that easy to operate. You need practice to do it properly, you can’t just take it and shoot. It’s also heavy. So I went back to handheld. In post Olivier was able to stabilize the footage if it needed it.
The problem with Yorick and handheld is that he’s very tall, so he’s always looking down. It’s not as convenient for him to carry the camera.
How about the scenes between René and his therapist? Are you using two cameras for those long dialogue sequences?
No. If it’s a scene with like three pages of dialogue, we do one page facing René, then the same page facing the therapist. We come back to the second page and do the same. So we have to build the light for each angle three times.
That must add a lot of pressure when you’re shooting eight episodes.
Le Saux: Yes, yes, but this is Olivier’s style. He prefers to work like that for the actors. I never really felt a lot of pressure on the set. I mean sometimes because we have to leave a set and will no longer have access to it, but I felt the schedule was okay.
Lenoir: We’re used to working that way with Olivier.
Le Saux: I mean, it was a bit stressed, like any movie, but not as crazy as it usually is with Olivier.
There’s a very intricate scene in Episode 6 where René rehearses a scene with Mira. The camera’s in close and follows them as they move about an office set.
Le Saux: That looks super easy, but it was a nightmare to shoot. There were so many shots, so many difficulties. This is where we were like, “Oh no, not one more shot.” But at the end it looks super easy, super precise.
René’s set and crew and actors are incredibly dysfunctional. Assayas portrays filmmaking as chaotic, filled with intrigues and gossip and back-biting. That’s not really how your sets are, are they?
Lenoir: No, no, not at all. Olivier doesn’t yell. We don’t hear him much on the set at all. He has a very good first AD, Dominique Delany. The sets are very tight, very well behaved.
I actually shot very little of René filming. I did the one scene with Lars Eidinger, who plays Gottfried. He’s a famous theatrical actor in Germany. I shot the wrap party where he ultimately crashes onto a table. It was insane because on every take Lars was going further and further. We were worried he was going to hurt himself. At one point he broke a champagne bottle on Jeanne Balibar’s head. It was all right because it was made from sugar glass.
Would you have taken the job as cinematographer on the film René is making?
Lenoir: I don’t enjoy working with directors like René. I flourish more with directors who know very well what they’re doing and are in control of their crew and themselves. So I’m not really missing that.
I think the most surprising thing for me about the series is how much Assayas reveals about himself.
Lenoir: I wrote to Olivier after watching this that it is his most personal film ever.