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Leos Carax’s Green Period: DP Caroline Champetier on Annette and Her Work with Jacques Rivette, Claude Lanzmann and Philippe Garrel

Annette

For Leos Carax, stories of love—or really, most any story—mean finding a new language of filmmaking. For Caroline Champetier, Carax’s longtime director of photography, that means realizing dreams that might not at first seem possible. Annette is the story of a dream yearned for but not fully realized, the great love between opera superstar Ann (Marion Cotillard) and ornery comedian Henry (Adam Driver). They have a child who becomes a singing star herself, but their bond is undone in the dark crucible of Henry’s discontent, and Carax and Champetier craft a kind of handmade journey whose very nature expresses the fragility and volatility of romance and existence. As with Holy Motors, but told over several years instead of a single day, there’s virtually an impatience with settling on any single look or mode of performance (opera, standup, musical, puppetry, tabloid, halftime show, haunting) and Champetier and her team kept up their conjuring, from the very first day of shooting (Annette singing for an audience).

Carax first told Champetier the story of Annette in 2015, with some specific ideas of how and where to shoot. The darkness of certain settings and the story itself—amplified by Driver, as Champetier explains—led her to opt for big color when possible (with certain Caraxian preoccupations accounted for: “I am in my green period,” he told her at one point, which broadly meant greens for Henry and yellows for Ann). The musical sequences, from songs by Sparks, were performed on camera, but while the actors had earpieces, Champetier did not have the music (which is why she joked she was shooting a silent film). Since the Amazon imprimatur did not mean an unlimited budget, Champetier (as she explains) conjured solutions that dovetailed with Carax’s desire to create the image on set whenever possible. The edited results returned to the cauldron of Carax anew with the pandemic: a new edit changed the movie from its 2020 incarnation, to Champetier’s surprise and admiration.

I caught Champetier while she was already at work on another project (in addition to which she’s helping Carax prepare a Centre Pompidou exhibition for next spring, which includes both artifacts and short videos Carax is making). Since Annette is only the latest in a monumental career, I had to ask about some of her prior work, which includes bringing a similar hands-on intensity to the productions of French New Wave mainstays (Rivette, Godard) and parallel legends (Garrel, Lanzmann, Huillet/Straub, von Trotta, Desplechin).

Filmmaker: Thanks for taking a break to talk. What are you shooting?

Champetier: I am shooting something with Isabelle Huppert [a documentary directed by Benoît Jacquot]. It’s a kind of portrait of who an actress is, what an actress is, before and after the play. She’s acting in Avignon [in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard]. 

Filmmaker: What cameras did you use to shoot Annette?

Champetier: I used the Sony VENICE and two Sony α7 III cameras, two main cameras, and then two cameras, C and D, to make additional shots. 

Filmmaker: What were the challenges of shooting a musical?

Champetier: Nothing is playback. Adam and Marion are singing. It’s always his voice. For Marion, sometimes when it’s an opera song, the voice is morphed with a lyrical singer. But everything [else] is direct sound. It was one of the difficulties of the movie. I think it is the reason there is so much liberation and reality in the manner of acting for the actors, and for us the great challenge was to make sure of the rhythm of the music.

Filmmaker: Annette has a darkness that not all musicals share, making me think more of New York, New York or Phantom of the Paradise.

Champetier: It’s like a fairy tale, and fairy tales are often very dark. Adam Driver chose to interpret the Henry part in a dark way. It was his interpretation. You know, American actors are responsible for their acting. It’s not exactly the same in the French school. But I think it’s really Adam’s choice to make so dark a character, because I think Henry doesn’t want to save Ann. But it’s a fairy tale.

Filmmaker: Let’s talk about some specific scenes. For example, Henry’s stand-up routine: What went into shooting that? Did you have an actual audience?

Champetier: Yes, absolutely. All is shot for real on the set. It can be a construction but it’s real. So, the extras are there, they are singing. Adam is on the scene, and they are on the scene—there is a spark between them. It was shot directly: we were two or three cameras. My camera was a big traveling camera in the theater, with a zoom. You can see that sometimes I go in close to him and sometimes I go back. I follow the rhythm of his movement. Then there was another cameraman who was in the first row with another camera. Because the [Sony] VENICE can be in two parts: the part with optic and camera, and the part with the computer. So, he was shooting from this first row. So when you see the show, there is this smooth zoom shot [that] follows Adam, and there are sometimes closer shots by the guy who is in the first row. But every take was the whole show.

Filmmaker: So he had to do multiple shows, as if Henry was doing multiple nights?

Champetier: Yes. I think we did something like seven takes.

Filmmaker: The fairy tale sense is vivid in the opera sequences, and that includes actual shots from a forest, right?

Champetier: Yes, we shot in a theater [the Concertgebouw of Bruges], then to make the real forest, we had a green screen in the back of the theater. And we shot the real forest in American night [day for night]. The green screen was just for the border, you see? 

Filmmaker: And the storm scene looked like an opera in real life. 

Champetier: You can think that, yes, of course. The storm was shot all on a boat and behind the boat was a big, big screen where we projected big, vertical waves on a loop. A grey, not green, screen [around 12×30 meters]. Because this was shot at the same time that we were shooting the boat and the actors on the boat. So everything is in the same shot at the same time. 

Filmmaker: So it is not a digital composite.

Champetier: Absolutely it is not a composite. Leos does not like the green screen at all, and he does not like compositing too much. He likes when the maximum is done on set.

Filmmaker: You’ve said you went to the shows of choreographer Gisèle Vienne in understanding the art of puppetry. But in terms of filming, was a puppet tough in terms of lighting and rendering some kind of skin tone?

Champetier: It’s a clever question because for me, I tried to make her real. So yes, with her lighting, I was looking for the skin like with a real child. And of course you can see that it’s a puppet! But Leos, myself, everybody—we didn’t want to fake that with silicone and so on. It was really more poetic, more charming and brave to do it like that with a real puppet, with real puppeteers working while we are doing the shot.

Filmmaker: Did you talk with Leos about what looks lifelike versus artificial? Where on the spectrum was the goal?

Champetier: Not so much. It’s artificial, like Pinocchio! You don’t ask Pinocchio to be a real boy. You understand, “it’s Annette.” Leos thought, and we thought, that it was impossible to shoot a child from 0 to 6 years. How do you do that? You would need 15 children, because a child changes so much. So, the big decision was to take the concept of a child. And the other decision is, at the end, it’s Annette [played by a real child] and we understand everything was real. 

Filmmaker: As part of conceiving the movie, Leos sent you a lot of references, including a Lin-Manuel Miranda wedding video and stand-up specials including some by Louis CK. How does that process of references work?

Champetier: The Lin-Manuel Miranda video was for the very first sequence. That was for the energy that the actors have to have at the beginning, but also for the energy we must have as a crew to make a movie like this. It’s not to copy, because [with the references] it’s never to copy. Leos gives lots and lots of references, but it’s to reflect upon and get us started thinking about the craft. At the beginning, for the storm scene, we thought of being in a real water pond outside, like the ones in Europe, then in the end went into the studio and it was absolutely fake. 

Leos also gave us The Night of the Hunter for the fear the child must have around his father, and also I think a bit for the expressionism of the image. He gave us many, many references of black-and-white movies with children who have a big look like this, and it was how we shot the child in the first Annette performance. All the time we had references from him.

Filmmaker: Like a running conversation?

Champetier: Exactly! We respond and, at some point, we make a test. So, for example, for the storm, I took a little model boat, and did a little shooting to understand what it could be like to project the waves behind the boat. You are absolutely right that it is like a conversation, with no stopping for months. We were going back and forth, and we started before the shooting. It’s a long road.

Filmmaker: One of the musical scenes people have talked about is the love scene when Marion and Adam are singing during sex.

Champetier: I think it’s so stylized, and we see that it’s not real. I think there is something here not funny but ironic from Leos—about what is love, what is a great love and so on. 

Filmmaker: It seems ironic about musicals. They don’t usually include that part.

Champetier: You are absolutely right.

Filmmaker: Early on, an important director in your career was Jacques Rivette. Can you talk about how you began working with him on Merry-Go-Round (1980) and Le Pont du Nord (1981)? 

Champetier: When I finished school, I began working with a great French DP, William Lubtschansky. He was doing all the Rivette movies, and one time he was not available, so Rivette asked me to do this movie. So, I was DP for a great director, someone really older than me, [when] I was not even 30. I think it was because I was in a kind of family, you see? My mentor William Lubtschansky was working with this kind of director. Also in the New Wave, directors often work with some DP and then with the assistant of this DP. So, I think it was natural. I thought it was because I was very talented [speaking with a smile] but now I see it was just natural for them! 

Filmmaker: What was it like shooting Le Pont du Nord on the streets? In a way, he is still making a Nouvelle Vague movie but much later.

Champetier: Ah, yes, it was 16mm and—how should I say it— like a documentary. Yes, there were characters, there was Bulle Ogier, it was with an auteur, but it was shot like a documentary. So for us, for the crew, it was just natural. 

Filmmaker: There’s such a game-like spirit to his movies.

Champetier: Yes, but it was another period. Paris was so easy, and it was so free to shoot. Now, you take a camera on the street, there is always police and so on. It was never like that.

Filmmaker: And how did you begin with Claude Lanzmann? You operated camera on Shoah, right?

Champetier: Yes, I was first AC on Shoah, always with William Lubtschansky, then Dominique Chapuis. They were the two DP’s of Shoah. Then Claude asked me to do more, and I don’t know why, because Lubtschansky was still living when we shot Sobibor. After Lubtschansky died, he also asked me to shoot The Last of the Unjust.

Filmmaker: What was the aesthetic for the interviews? What was the most important thing for Lanzmann in filming these?

Champetier: Making them comfortable. Being in their real environment, their real place. Not to be artificial about the body you are looking at and hearing, or the place. But sometimes it was to provoke a shock, because in the middle of Shoah, you have Filip Müller in Auschwitz, and it’s not exactly his space. Each time, I think it was always a clear decision by Claude Lanzmann. It’s very, very directed. Of course, Shoah is a documentary, but still it’s directed. It’s a gesture of someone who knows what he wants to find or what he is looking for. 

Filmmaker: He sets up a situation to help make it possible for memory to come out.

Champetier: Exactly, exactly. And you see, he was a strange person. He liked cinema a lot, but it was impossible for him to make fiction. Everything had to be real. Most of the time, we saw Claude come in with books and papers and so on, and so many things he had worked on for many years. What was very interesting is how much he knew about every person he was interviewing. He knew everything!

Filmmaker: What was the process shooting with Philippe Garrel, since his films can feel so intimate and personal? 

Champetier: I made two color movies with him [I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar (1991) and The Wind of the Night (1999)]. I think these two movies are the best that he has done. It’s like you are working with a painter. You see that he has in mind something he wants to paint, and he is very, very good with the actors. He puts them in a state that they can give you something true. He is a bit naive, but very cleverly naive, with the actors. When we made The Wind of the Night, he asked Catherine Deneuve to climb five sets of stairs in a Paris apartment building. And she was tired of that! At the end of the five, she was no longer Catherine Deneuve. She was the character. 

Nicolas Rapold is a critic and editor. He hosts the podcast The Last Thing I Saw, featuring conversations with critics and filmmakers.

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