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“A Mournful Look that Subtly Highlighted the Character’s Main Struggle”: DP Konstantinos Koukoulios on Pity

Pity

Greek director Babis Makridis premiered his debut feature L at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012. He returned to the festival this year for his follow-up, the dark comedy Pity co-written by the co-writer of Yorgos Lanthimos’s films. The film stars Yannis Drakopoulos as a self-absorbed sad-sack addicted to the pity of others. Pity was shot by Konstantinos Koukoulios, here making his debut as a DP of features. Koukoulios spoke with Filmmaker about the influence of Edward Hopper on the movie, lighting a forest at night and his primary aesthetic goal: to make a film about sadness that doesn’t look sad.

Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?

Koukoulios: I met Babis during a TV commercial shoot. We had tried to work together before but our schedules wouldn’t match. It was a three-day location shoot at a remote mountain in northern Greece so we spent a lot of time together. We were talking more about films than the shoot we were working on. We shared a lot of thoughts on storytelling and aesthetics and we realized that there is a lot of common ground. I was a big fan of his previous film so I got very excited when he asked me to shoot Pity. I’m not really the right person to say why Babis and Amanda [Livanou, producer] hired me but surely I’m glad they did.

Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?

Koukoulios: The first thing that Babis and I wanted for this film was not to look sad. The main character is trying very hard to be miserable surrounded by very pleasant scenery. The cinematography’s main goal was to visualize the balance between his need for pity and the happiness that was lurking everywhere around him. He couldn’t avoid the sunny beach but he felt so much better behind the curtains in his bedroom. The beautiful view was there but he was certain that he could not handle it.

Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?

Koukoulios: One of the main motifs of the film is the crying in the bedroom. There are five scenes where the main character sits on his bed being or trying to be very sad. When having to deal with sadness in a bedroom, one simply cannot ignore the composition in the paintings of Edward Hopper, such as Excursions into Philosophy or Morning Sun. Combined with Harris Savides’ unique lighting and texture in Jonathan Glazer’s Birth and Gus van Sant’s death trilogy, we found a mournful look that subtly highlighted the character’s main struggle. Babis also asked me to watch Oslo, August 31st by Joachim Trier; that made me very sad in the most beautiful way.

Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?

Koukoulios: Pity was my first feature film so the whole process was a great challenge for me. I was also hired two months before the shooting so we had a very short period of pre-production. The most significant difference for me in making a feature than any other project was keeping a continuity regarding atmosphere and building tension on a much larger scale. This was a location-only shoot so my main concern at that time was the weather. Even the house where we would work for two weeks had so many large windows that was totally exposed to the weather conditions. I wanted the weather to play a part to the visual storytelling, to go along with the main character’s mood throughout the film. But then it wasn’t always cooperating and there was very little possibility of maneuvering around the schedule, so I had to realize that the controversial state of mind of the main character could work on any weather. When he was sad, his emotional needs were fulfilled and when he was supposed to be happy he was suffering inside. Sunshine or heavy clouds could work on any scene. After all, autumn in the Mediterranean is so unstable that I just went along with it.

Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?

Koukoulios: We shot Pity on the Alexa XT using the Arriraw format. It’s usually my main choice of digital cameras, and the reason is the highlights roll off. I love how the Alexa rarely clips the highlights and when it does the clipped part is beautifully blended with the rest of the highlights. You don’t get these annoying white holes in your frame, and here in Greece contrast can get extreme so you need a camera that can really handle it. I also love its ergonomics and workflow. It’s probably the fastest and most reliable camera system out there. We chose the Bausch and Lomb Super Baltar lenses, mainly for the nostalgic feel they offer. They’re a very good match with the digital format, and they required very little to no filtration to achieve the look that we were going for. Viewing the beautiful scenery through this old glass somehow reflected the main character’s determination to secure his sadness.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Koukoulios: The one thing I was always certain about while planning and shooting was that I wanted lighting on this film to be as less intrusive as possible. I loved how the script developed the main character, and I think Giannis Drakopoulos was the perfect cast for this role. I wanted to leave space to the story and the character and not try to attract the eye of the audience. The idea that the viewer would relate to the film by finding the lighting familiar and simple. I didn’t want to tell the story using stylized lighting or following the norms of emotional lighting. I was very lucky to work with gaffer Stathis Tsiapas, who understood what I had in mind right away and had so many ideas on how to execute everything in the most simple and discreet way. We didn’t want to have any lights, stands, flags, etc. on set, so we were usually trying to have one or two reshaped sources outside the room and work with the light that was coming through the windows to give the maximum time and space to the actors.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?

Koukoulios: The most difficult scene to realize was probably the one in the forest. It was a quite long Steadicam wandering in the middle of the night inside the forest where the family was looking for the dog that the father had supposedly lost. It’s placed at the beginning of a series of crimes by the main character, but at the same time the whole thing is a farce because he knows that the dog is not there since he had thrown it in the middle of the sea earlier that day. My first intention was to light the forest with a couple of balloons, since it wasn’t very dense and then play with the actor’s flashlights as they search deeper. I wanted the scene to look like a crime thriller film where the main actor would look like a very serious and qualified detective as he would shout his dog’s name. But apparently this scene had to be scheduled with another one on a different location and there was no budget for pre-lighting or extra crew. Day for night was not an option since the forest was not dark and we would need bigger lights that we couldn’t afford. I’m sure there were a lot of great options but what we finally did was bring the family car as close as we could, turned on the headlights and used them as a backlight for the first part of the search. We got the brightest flashlights we could find and instructed the actors to point them in several places throughout the shot. As the main actor went deeper in the forest the light from the car faded away and we could see only where he was pointing the flashlight as he was searching with a lot of utter darkness in between. I was really worried when we were shooting this because we could hardly see anything for several seconds in every take but then the rain got heavier and we could see the raindrops when the flashlight was randomly working as a backlight for them. Now that I see the scene I like how the tension that is being built appears to be fake and unreasonable but at the same time contributes to the climax in the next scenes.

Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?

Koukoulios: Most of the look of the film was baked in the LUTs that we used on set. While we were testing, DIT Petros Tsampakouris and I created some LUTs that were quite close to the look that we were going for. We would make small adjustments in some of them while shooting different scenes so after the edit Babis and I had pretty much decided on the look. We spent some time looking for something different during the grading but got back to the baked in look that was created according to our pre-production references.

TECH BOX:

  • Camera: Arri Alexa XT
  • Lenses: Bausch and Lomb Super Baltar
  • Lighting: Available Light, HMI, Tungsten, LED
  • Processing: Digital
  • Color Grading: Davinci Resolve

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