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“For My Department, We Would Behave Like a Team of Surgeons”: Benoit Delhomme on Minamata, Painting During Quarantine, and Post-Coronavirus Set Life

Benoit Delhomme

In February, cinematographer Benoît Delhomme attended the premiere of Minamata, which he shot for director Andrew Levitas, at the Berlin International Film Festival. After finishing another project in London, he returned to Paris just as the Covid-19 lockdown began. Delhomme spoke with Filmmaker in early June via Skype.

Filmmaker: When did you become aware of the COVID-19 virus? 

Delhomme: When I was in Berlin, it was obvious by reading the news that the virus was approaching. I was quite surprised that the Festival could run normally. I did not feel very comfortable because of the festival crowds. We had a huge screening of Minamata at the Friedrichstadt Palast theater. Fully booked, close to 2,000 people. It was a very emotional screening. Andrew asked the cast and crew to join him on stage. We had a standing ovation, we were all crying. We even had an after-party in a nightclub. Then we had to return to our lives. 

Nobody had any idea of the scale of what was coming. I flew to Paris to shoot a YSL commercial with Anton Corbijn, and I think the production said that if someone had been in Italy, in the Milan area, before this shoot, he would not be able to participate. That was it. We did not wear masks, but we didn’t shake hands anymore. I shot a last commercial for a fashion brand in London just a few days before Macron announced the lockdown in France. This time we had hand sanitizer everywhere on set, definitely no hand shakes but still no idea still of social distancing and still no masks. The bar of the hotel where I was staying in London was packed every night like nothing was happening. When the job was wrapped I took one of the last Eurostar trains back to Paris. It was ghostly. The few business men in my coach were wearing masks. You could feel anxiety in their eyes. 

Filmmaker: Any word about Minamata‘s release? 

Delhomme: I talked to the director last week. I think they are in the process to finalize the deal with a US distributor, but I have no idea about the release date. It’s very frustrating to have had a great response from the audience in Berlin, and yet nobody can see it. Personally, I would prefer it to be on a platform like Netflix. It could move so many people. But it was planned as a big theatrical release, it was planned to be seen on the big screen. 

Filmmaker: Your last feature, At Eternity’s Gate, was about Vincent van Gogh. In Minamata, Johnny Depp plays photographer W. Eugene Smith. Did you prepare for it in a similar style? 

Delhomme: Minamata follows W. Eugene Smith when he goes to Japan to photograph the victims of an environmental catastrophe, when villagers were affected by mercury released from a chemical factory. It is one of the most famous photo essays in Life magazine. The photos are heartbreaking. Smith had planned to go there for two weeks, and he ended up staying three years, totally immersed with the fishermen of Minamata. 

I love the fact that the Life editors thought Smith was totally out of control. He had an obsession for showing the truth. He was a total perfectionist, which is always a problem. He had to lose himself in his subjects. I guess I recognized myself quite a bit in that process. 

As far as prep, I studied the book of Minamata photos Smith made with his wife Aileen, as well as all the other books that he made before. You can see how composition was key to him. Also how much he worked in the darkroom, dodging and burning the photographic paper with his hands to enhance the light in his photos. Very much how a DP would work today, but digitally. 

We knew the film could not be in black-and-white, but early on I had the idea that for some scenes we could start a shot in color, and as we enter Smith’s mind, when he takes a photo fade to black-and-white. Andrew Levitas liked the idea and used it in some key moments. It’s powerful to experience the slow disappearance of colors on a big screen. You can really see what you gain with colors, and what you see better without them. Maybe this is the kind of truth Smith was looking for? 

Filmmaker: In At Eternity’s Gate you frequently used a subjective point of view. Did you do the same here? 

Delhomme: With the Van Gogh film I was working with Julian Schnabel. He literally wanted to put the audience in Vincent’s head. He wanted you to experience the camera movement physically. When Julian is directing, he also uses everything he learned as a painter. He welcomes happy accidents. He puts you as a DP into a very specific place where you cannot say no to him. I was like a living brush trying to paint a canvas and I felt ecstatic to do so. 

You can’t bring this uncompromising style to every director. Andrew Levitas wanted a less intrusive aesthetic strategy, and he was right. The film isn’t only from Smith’s point of view, it also gives a lot of space to the Minamata victims. That meant a more neutral and restrained camera style. 

But for the scenes of the activists’ demonstrations, I felt the most logical approach was to frame in movement, like I was Smith looking for the perfect photo. You can analyze this process when you look at Smith’s contact sheet. You see all the photos he took before the iconic photo that he selected. You can see how he focuses on certain people, how the composition transforms itself as people move, how some accident in composition suddenly achieves the perfect frame. So once again, like for At Eternity’s Gate, I used a very small camera, one as light as a still camera, one that I could carry all day in my hands. 

Filmmaker: How did Johnny Depp adjust to that style? 

Delhomme: The week before the shoot we had a kind of make-up test day with Johnny on the set, a replica of Smith’s iconic New York loft. I had lit the loft before, I had my small handheld camera ready to follow Johnny anywhere he wanted to go. Andrew asked him to improvise a scene. Johnny had not seen At Eternity’s Gate at that time, so he wasn’t familiar with the style I had developed, how spontaneous the process could be. He’s been acting in very big movies, where everything’s already been positioned within the frame as per storyboards before he even gets onto the set. 

I think he was looking forward to a totally opposite experience on Minamata. It’s a project he had been fighting to get filmed for years. It was clearly a passion project for him. So he was over the moon with my strange dance with the camera around him. He loved the organic process. He would say, “Benoît, I’m arranging the shot for you, just do what you feel.” He has an incredible sense of where the camera is, how to position himself. We could develop the shots together without talking beforehand. I was surprised to see how easy the process was. He never asked me to light his face like a movie star. 

I think that people forget how good he is, so I can’t wait for people to see him in Minamata. 

Filmmaker: You also just shot a feature called Beauty for director Andrew Dosunmu. It’s based on a Lena Waithe screenplay. 

Delhomme: A completely different kind of project. I had never worked with Dosunmu, but I saw his
Mother of George and Where is Keira and thought he was a real film auteur, like French critics used to say. I was surprised that he knew Scent of Green Papaya and Cyclo, films I shot 25 years ago, so we connected easily at our first meeting.

Beauty is about a young singer in the early 1980s, right before she’s going to sign her first recording contract and become a huge star. I thought Lena Waithe’s script almost had the quality of a Greek tragedy. I wanted an intimate style, but not hand-held. The shots had to be beautifully composed and still to focus on the family drama. It felt great to put the camera back on a dolly again after two hand-held movies. We shot it all near Patterson, New Jersey.

Filmmaker: This is the first time you worked with Netflix. Did that change how you approached the shooting? 

Delhomme: I was surprised, they were incredibly open to what Andrew and I had in mind aesthetically. They didn’t check on us very much during the shoot, no notes about what we should do or not do. I felt we were doing an independent movie, that we were free, able to make decisions with very few people on the set. The only thing they questioned was the aspect ratio. From the start Andrew wanted to shoot in 4:3, and I did all the location scouts with that in mind. But some people at Netflix were worried that their customers would question the pillar-box effect, think that their TVs were broken. 

Filmmaker: How close to the start of shooting did you decide on the aspect ratio? 

Delhomme: The week before the start, we did a kind of pre-shooting day with Gracie Marie Bradley, who plays Beauty. We were in her house, which is the main location. We did a series of shots in both 4:3 and anamorphic 2.35. What do you see in a room in one ratio versus the other? What do you gain, what do you lose? It was a super interesting process, and it made me want to combine both aspect ratios in the same film. Some shots were so much better in 4:3 and vice versa. The ceilings would be included in a lot of the shots if we used 4:3. I told the production designer I didn’t want white ceilings, and pushed him to paint them all dark grey. But because we shot 2.35, we barely see a ceiling in the entire film. 

I feel it was a good choice to go 2.35. It certainly gives a much bigger scale to this intimate story, even with static shots. On the last couple of movies, I was giving priority to the camera movement, the energy of my operating was more important to me than the lighting itself. On Beauty I did the opposite: I wanted the shot to be like a theater stage and let the actors occupy that space and go in and out of that shot without having the camera reacting to their movement. So I was able to build a very structured, precise lighting, back to my roots. 

Filmmaker: What camera did you decide on? 

Delhomme: I shot with the Sony Venice and Atlas anamorphic lenses. You have so many options these days that it becomes very tiring to compare cameras and lenses. I honestly would like to keep the same lenses and the same camera for all my films until I retire. Henri Cartier-Bresson used a Leica camera with a 50mm lens all his life. The real challenge is to have ideas, to be really alive, and to try to see things with fresh eyes each time you start a film.

On Beauty I used the same camera settings throughout the shoot, something similar in the past to using the same film stock and a unique printing light. So in the lab they will only need to push one button, because every image has the same setting. It was a tough discipline, but it may be helpful if I cannot travel to New York to do color correction. Maybe I had already a premonition of what was to come.

With digital you are sometimes too relaxed, you feel you will be able to fix mistakes and flaws later. You know, there are two ways you can approach work on the set. You can say you will make things better later, or put all your energy into the now. Sometimes it is chaos on set, I cannot find the light but I know there is a solution somewhere and I try until everything falls into place. I’ve learned this as a painter. When you’re a painter, everything happens in the now. Sometime you are close to destroying your painting, you think it is hell. Suddenly, when you don’t expect it, it happens. Even Picasso experienced this. Like Julian Schnabel used to tell me, you need to create without a safety net. 

Filmmaker: Beauty is still in post-production? 

Delhomme: Yes, it’s still the editing process. Usually I try to visit directors when they are cutting, I like to see how things are shaping up. Sometimes I discover visual connections between scenes that I did not plan consciously. I saw a few scenes when I was in New York at the end of January, but nothing since. I was supposed to do the color grading in June, but now I have no idea what’s going to happen. Maybe I’ll do remote sessions from Paris. 

Filmmaker: When the shutdown began, people were thinking two weeks. It’s now been two months. How do you prevent getting rusty? 

I’m a lucky man because I’m not only a DP, I’m also a painter. I make images everyday. I’ve been painting on and off, between movies, for 25 years. I see some DPs getting frustrated artistically, maybe they want to direct. I didn’t go that way yet because I had painting. 

I feel as a painter I can work on my life, my ideas, work on who I am. Nobody’s asking me to paint, I didn’t become part of the art world, I’m not trying to sell my paintings. So I have total freedom. I am always circling the same subjects. Every morning when I return to the painting studio, I look at what I’ve done the day before, and I want to repaint it. I want to destroy it. You can’t do that with film. On a film you have to be very positive, you have to always go forward. You very rarely have the chance to relight, to reshoot. 

Filmmaker: Which process gives you more pleasure? 

Delhomme: When I’m on a movie I forget everything, all my troubles. Real life is terrifying sometimes. On a film set, it’s like you’re in a bubble, a special world that exists for a few months. You feel very protected, you can control nearly everything. You know when you are going to eat, where you are going to be tomorrow. 

I love to operate and I love to be with actors. When I operate I forget my body, it’s a kind of trance. When everything is going well on a film set, you’re lighter, you feel like you’re two feet off the ground. 

With painting, you are alone, you are alone facing a canvas. It’s scarier. You work with your own psyche, with your dark sources. Sometimes it’s hard. You feel solitude. You start a dialogue with yourself and your painting. You can go too far. You can destroy your painting and nobody’s there to stop you. 

There’s a beauty in making something nobody asked you to, to create something from scratch. When a painting works, it’s beautiful. But many times you fail. It’s never exactly what you want. As a painter, I’m never happy. I start with an idea, and every time it ends up something else. Maybe my paintings are too personal. I can see my flaws. 

There’s this invisible force on movies. A film set has all this energy pushing you. You have to stand up after lunch and say, “Okay, let’s get back to work.” The film wants to be made. The actors, everybody wants to do it. Sometimes as a DP I feel I want to make the film even more than the director. 

Filmmaker: What will it take for you to feel comfortable shooting again? 

Delhomme: I’d like the set to be really well organized. I always say I want to be spontaneous and organic, but in fact behind the scenes there’s a lot of work that people don’t see. So if we are asked on a film set to wear a masks, keep social distance, I think we are already used to that sort of discipline. When I was a camera assistant in France in my 20s, it was forbidden to approach the actors. You could not talk with just anyone, you were only a camera assistant. I’ve been raised on this kind of very disciplined set. So I’m kind of fine with that. 

You don’t need to put paint all over your clothes to be a good painter. 

Crews will be smaller, fewer people on the set while you’re shooting. I’ve always been a fan of pre-lighting, prepping the set the day before and then making small adjustments on the day you shoot. I could make a film with a very small crew. My first AC, a grip to help me to not fall over if I’m hand-held, two grips if I want to use a dolly. A gaffer dimming the lights from his iPad. 

You need a bigger crew to pre-rig and to de-rig the day before and the day after. And of course if it’s a complex tracking shot with people moving furniture, etc., you need the right number of people. But you can make films in different ways. A guy like Kiarostami can make a beautiful film alone in a taxi. Ideas are key. 

I got a call from Al Pacino’s producer a few weeks ago. He told me Al wanted to shoot an adaptation of King Lear next year. Al had watched The Passion of Joan of Arc by Carl Dreyer and wanted to do it that way, saying, “I don’t need a thousand horses to make King Lear.” 

Good stories can be extremely simple. I’ve been watching Mizoguchi on MUBI. The simplicity, the beauty of the shots, the framing. Maybe it’s only a woman sitting in a room — the way she’s placed in the frame is everything. Emotion can come from simply placing an actor on a chair in the right place. 

Wearing a mask for me is also okay. My father was a surgeon, he worked all his life with a mask. You work with your eyes. I’m worried for the actors, maybe it’s weird for them to be surrounded by masks. But for my department, we would behave like a team of surgeons. When you work with a camera, you see through the eyepiece, and everything else you forget. 

Filmmaker: You will be a surgeon on the set, a doctor of cinematography. 

Delhomme: I’ve always dreamed of being a doctor. When your father is a surgeon it’s a big thing. All my childhood I remember my father being called to some emergency and coming back five or six hours later, tired. To be able to save a life —you know you will never be as good as him. As a DP, you never touch something so close to life and death, you just become good at faking it. 

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