“When You Get on Set You Don’t Dream Anymore”: DP Hélène Louvart on Beach Rats
Hélène Louvart, collaborating with Wim Wenders, Agnes Varda, Leos Carax, Larry Clark, et al., has shaped herself into a maven of cinematography and her name into a renown of its own. Shooting features since 1986 with, as of now, more than a hundred IMDB cinematographer credits, Louvart’s experience is ample and never slowed. Since Beach Rats, Louvart has shot five feature films: two in Italy, two in Spain, one in Argentina, and one, Mia Hansen-Løve’s Maya, that spanned France, Jordan, and India. During a brief break in Paris before a trip to India to shoot pickups for Maya, Louvart summoned the collaborative process of Beach Rats.
Filmmaker: In the kiss scene between Frankie and Simone their faces are out of focus. The camera, instead of following lips, puts Simone’s hand in the thirds as it sifts over the back of Frankie’s head. This says nearly everything you need to know about their relationship. How’d a movement like this come about?
Louvart: Eliza asked that only the boom operator and I be on set during the intimate moments. The rest of the crew stayed outside. It was a very clear demand. So, I did the focus by myself and Eliza was checking the frame through her monitor. She could guide me, silently with hand gestures, to pan the frame right or left, according to the movements of the characters. Sometimes I did it on my own. Eliza and I were on the same page before we started to shoot.
Filmmaker: What rules did you and Eliza establish prior to working in this mode?
Louvart: We did a shot list before shooting, a very precise one — an ideal one, I might say. We discussed it explicitly, knowing we wouldn’t have the opportunity to shoot all of the shots we planned. But it didn’t matter; it was a way to think, to speak together about what we wanted for each scene of the script. And also, perhaps a way to define what Eliza and I didn’t want to shoot. On set we kept the possibility of change, though, and it was very important that we retained that freedom.
Filmmaker: Prior to the funeral, there is a shot of Frankie looking through a window that tilts down to a reflection of what he’s looking at: a couple of kids playing, in the same window. Was this coincidence? Something you found on the day?
Louvart: The couple of kids playing was planned. If I remember correctly, in our shot list we were supposed to shoot the scene shot/reverse shot. On set, Eliza proposed to keep the kids only in the reflection of the car, to have only one shot. Because the car was dark, we could clearly see the kids in the reflection. So, it was possible to get the scene in a quick way. I agreed immediately.
Filmmaker: In Frankie’s trips to the woods, the stark shadows fall off so quickly into the abyss. Is this part of the reason you chose Super 16 over digital, which would have held on to more of that range?
Louvart: Yes, of course. We liked and chose Super 16, in part, for the total darkness it gave us in the beach scenes. It was also because Super 16 provides an organic feeling to the whole film, and Eliza liked this feeling. The way Super 16 handled the range in the shadows also helped us establish our approach to shooting the scenes. If we let Frankie move away from the camera, for instance, we knew that he’d disappear quickly into a real darkness. And this totally made sense in the context of the story. We were underexposed. But Eliza wasn’t afraid about going to these extremes. We decided on a visible state that we both found agreeable in tests, and we followed that decision and never turned on it. She wasn’t afraid.
Filmmaker: Did you ever push the stock for these dark scenes?
Louvart: Yes, sometimes I pushed it a half stop for the dark scenes. With only a half stop, on Super 16, it still stays dark.
Filmmaker: And how were you lighting these beach/woods scenes?
Louvart: We decided to use a frontal light, just behind the camera, held by the gaffer Lyon Taylor. Of course, the exposure on Frankie’s face changed all the time, especially as the camera was handheld. For example, in one of the beach scenes, when Frankie is following a guy, he doesn’t feel so comfortable, and with the light, he is trapped like an animal, overexposed to evoke the feeling of a flashlight in the darkness. For that effect we got very close to him, and then, when we stop moving, Frankie continues to fade, step by step, into the darkness. So you can see how the latitude of Super 16 dictated our technique here. We used 2 or 3 Astra 1×1 Bi-Color LED Panels.
Filmmaker: Were the Astras your workforce lights for night scenes?
Louvart: Only for the beach, the street with Frankie and his friend, and the parking lot close to the beach. The characters were placed under the streetlight, the same for the cars in the parking lot. Just under the streetlights, so that we could get the most light out of them. We used also 6 mini LitePanels for the fireworks, with different color gels.
Filmmaker: Did you use any lights for the train scenes?
Louvart: No light for the train scenes. It was already very bright in the train and all around the subway. We used some HMI 1800ws, Kinoflos and Tungsten lamps for Frankie’s house, pharmacy, church, and the vape shop.
Filmmaker: I love the look of the train light. Did you put diffusion in front of the lens to dampen that harshness?
Louvart: I don’t remember precisely which. But perhaps just the Mitchell Diffusion Filter A that I usually like. Even without it, though, Super 16 would have absorbed a lot of that harsh feeling on its own. In digital, of course, I would use a stronger diffusion for sure.
Filmmaker: You stay fairly tight in focal length throughout.
Louvart: We essentially used the 20, 24mm and 32mm. Sometimes tighter for specific shots. Like, for example, when Frankie is walking down the street.
Filmmaker: Are you increasing camera shake in the final third to escalate unease?
Louvart: On the last beach scene, with Jeremy and Frankie’s friends, we knew we’d be more shaky, and harsher in our style, in accordance with the story. Also at the very end, when Frankie is walking alone on Coney Island, he’s starting to get paranoid, so the motion could be less soft. But I don’t remember if we planned that precisely in our shot list. I don’t think so.
Filmmaker: Do you like this way of shooting?
Louvart: Yes, of course I like it! But I also like other ways of shooting. There is not only one way, but different methods. I’ve worked in very precise environments, and even looser, open ones than this. It depends on the director, on the script and on the cinematographer’s relationship with the director. The most important thing is to be on the same page.
Filmmaker: So much of a cinematographer’s job can be to remain open to the needs of the director and to the needs of the story. But I’m curious about how your ability to disagree and say no when you believe a choice doesn’t align with the story’s intent has developed through your many collaborations.
Louvart: I’ll add also “open to the needs of the budget,” which is very important in our job. When I feel we’re not doing a scene the right way, I can suggest it to the director in a way than he or she will listen to me, and perhaps, or perhaps not, change their perspective. But I’ll never say “No” to a director if they are sure about their choices. I’m somebody who works with a director, and not against them. Of course, if I disagree, I will say so, but in a way that everything remains open. It’s very important. It’s a collaboration, it’s not an individual job. And sometimes, I can say no when I feel we don’t have enough time to shoot as the director would like, and I will try to do my best to propose the same ideas, but in a practical way.
Filmmaker: Some people believe cinematographers must operate as chameleons. What’s your crack in the camouflage? Is there a pattern in your photography that make it yours?
Louvart: I think a cinematographer doesn’t exist so much [laughs] without a director. But at the same time it’s a job where you have to share, in a deep manner, your own taste. And I have to understand the taste of the director. It’s my job. Of course, after, I‘ll compose with my own taste; I‘ll adapt my way of lighting and framing to the wishes of the director.
And I also know what I don’t like, especially for the light, and always I arrange myself to light in a way that I appreciate. I would never arrange to have to light in a way that I dislike. I don’t think directors like chameleons for cinematographers. I do think they appreciate somebody who’ll work with them, who is able to recreate their own wishes, without taking too much time on set for that, and who won’t lie to them.
Filmmaker: You’ve worked with so many great directors. Has there been a specific film set or director that has taken you by surprise in the way they operate?
Louvart: Every director has taken me by surprise in the way they operate. Sometimes when I’ve shot with two cameras, the director decides — and this is clear prior to shooting — to operate the second one (Christian Vincent, Jacques Doillon). Sometimes, the director wants to operate one or two shots, and I do appreciate this sharing moment (Marianna Otero, Larry Clark). Marc Recha operated his last two films by himself with the easyrig. It gave me some distance, in a good way, from what we were shooting,
Filmmaker: With all this experience, how has prep changed for you?
Louvart: It’s the same for me as before. The prep is very important; you decide more than 50% of your job with the director at this moment. The shooting is 40% and the color correction 10%, more or less. Sometimes you have a shorter prep, because of the schedule, and the money, but I always try to spend as much time in this moment of preparation as is possible when time permits. It’s important, not for just thinking technically or about the list of equipment, which we must do, of course, but to spend time with the director. And it’s an interesting moment, because you two can share a dream. When you get on set you don’t dream anymore. When you’ve got many people around you, the dream, you keep it to yourself [laughs].
Filmmaker: When shooting digital, do you utilize LUTS to make sure what you’re shooting in camera is close to the final image?
Louvart: Yes, of course! I try to do the maximum on set, lighting wise. I don’t like to tell myself I’ll do it later. Now, I also ask for stills from the footage to share with the director and with the editor after shooting. The colorist can use also my own LUT; in fact he or she prefers always to use their own reference, but we try to reach a mutual visual point, not so far from what we’ve already shot.
Filmmaker: I imagine the color grading on Beach Rats was minimal.
Louvart: Yes, five days total of color grading, which means you can’t change too much what you did on set. And we didn’t want to use the digital functions; we only tweaked the overall brightness and minimal color adjustments, without changing the medium, the highlights or the black levels, unless we really, really need it. No mask, no shape.
Filmmaker: What are your thoughts on monitor/video village?
Louvart: It depends on the director. He or she prefers to be alone with a small monitor, or they prefer a bigger one at a distance from what we‘re shooting — even if all the the crew is around them. Personally, I’m OK with both, even if I might prefer the first option. But I don’t have any hard rules for that.