How do you create a cinematic language for the unconscious? That was the challenge for director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Darius Khondji on “Bardo,” a movie that sprang from Iñárritu’s dreams, memories, and fantasies. “There is no story, there is no structure, there is no plot,” Iñárritu told IndieWire. “There’s just a mental landscape of a character.” Working with Khondji for the first time when his usual collaborator, Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki was booked on another project, Iñárritu discovered he had the ideal partner to translate his most personal experiences into images. “It was an incredible privilege to find another brother late in my life.”
Khondji and Iñárritu’s initial conversations were less about filmmaking than about the essence of what the filmmaking needed to convey. “Right from the beginning, he wanted me to understand how personal the story was,” Khondji said. “He talked to me about the characters before he even sent me the script. After two conversations with him, I already understood the story and how he wanted to tell it with the camera. Then he sent me the script, and it was just magnificent — maybe the greatest script I ever read.”
For the freshly Oscar-nominated Iranian-French Khondji, the pivotal role Mexico played in the script was particularly exciting, as it provided him with an opportunity to discover a new country alongside a filmmaker whose identity as an artist was forged there. Once Khondji agreed to shoot the film, he flew to Mexico and spent a long prep period simply walking the streets with his director.
“Mexico was very exotic and new to me,” Khondji said. “The sensations of the city and the people were very exciting. Alejandro showed me downtown Mexico City and we talked about things like shooting a scene at dusk that would start in daylight and then go through an eclipse so that the world was falling into darkness. It was a more spiritual approach to prep, though little by little we slowly started to think about it in more technical terms.”
Because Iñárritu wanted the audience to feel immersed in his main character’s experiences, the decision was made to shoot the film with wide-angle lenses on a large format ALEXA 65, with the camera in constant movement. “We wanted Silvero to feel bigger than life, and we wanted to feel close to him,” Khondji said. “But we also wanted these angles where you could always be aware of the world around him: his friends and family and people in the desert and the city and its buildings.” Khondji felt the ALEXA 65 made the actors’ presence feel bigger than 35mm or a camera with a regular digital sensor would have, and that combined with lenses around 17mm would give him the effect he desired.
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It also created big challenges for Khondji in terms of his lighting. “Technically it was madness,” Iñárritu said. “You see everything and the camera is moving in 360 degrees, so how do you hide the lights so that they don’t look harsh but elegant and natural?” The movie’s pivotal scene, set in Mexico City’s famous California Dancing Club, is a case in point, as the camera swirls around Silvero in a long, unbroken take with seemingly infinite depth of field. “That was a very big challenge,” Khondji said. “I was constantly thinking, ‘There is nowhere to hide the lights.’ The wide angle is seeing everything all the time.”
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Khondji’s solution was to rely entirely on practicals — thousands of lights that were, like the characters and camera, in constant movement and precisely timed to the dancing and music. “Everything was on cues with moveable lights,” he said, noting that lights would dim or disappear just as the camera moved one degree, in accordance with Iñárritu’s plan. “Alejandro had planned and designed everything before we were shooting, which made it better for us. It was a very well-prepared film.” From Iñárritu’s perspective, coordinating the lighting, camera movement, and music was essential. “We were trying to emulate the way that life is constant movement,” he said. “Through the movement and music and light changes, you transmit different sensations and transform the emotions.”
While Khondji’s artistry is obvious in set pieces like the California Dancing Club sequence or the immense crowd scenes set in the desert, it’s no less impressive in the subtler, more modestly scaled scenes set in houses and apartments — in some ways, these moments in smaller spaces were even more challenging when it came to hiding lights and equipment. Complicating the work further is Khondji’s awareness that the technical requirements demand as much of the actors as they do of the crew, and his insistence that his job is to accommodate that and create an environment that facilitates their best work.
“Even if we’re shooting an apartment on a stage, I want the actor to feel the mood of the light coming in from outside, the exterior light of Mexico,” Khondji said. “And it’s not just about what’s in the frame. The world outside the frame is very important. It’s good not to have flags or equipment in the way of the actor’s gaze because I want them to feel the scene.” Khondji’s philosophy is that if the actors feel the truth of the scene and he captures it with his camera, the audience will feel it as well. “The world of cinema is not only technical. It’s about feeling the world around the actors, becoming them.” Khondji’s technical expertise combined with his intuitive sense of how to capture and convey emotion left Iñárritu convinced he made the right choice. “Very few DPs can do what he did on this movie,” the director said. “It requires a master like Darius Khondji.”