“There Are Only So Many Ways to Light a Kitchen with a Low Ceiling”: Ellie Foumbi and DP Tinx Chan on Our Father, The Devil
The past haunts Marie, a chef in a retirement home in the small French village of Luchon. An exile from violence in Africa, she has closed herself off to all but a handful of friends. Then, a new arrival forces Marie to confront a world she has tried to forget.
Written and directed by Ellie Foumbi, Our Father, The Devil was shot on a 20-day schedule. It was developed in part through Venice’s Biennale College Cinema. The film screened at the Venice Film Festival and recently at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it won the Best Narrative Feature Audience Award.
A native of Cameroon, Foumbi received an MFA in Directing from Columbia. Our Father, the Devil is her feature directing debut. She previously collaborated with cinematographer Tinx Chan on the short films No Traveler Returns and the Netflix-funded Home.
Chan has worked on narrative and documentary films for two decades. In 2019 he won an ICG Emerging Cinematography Award for Empty Skies. Recently he has been shooting episodes of The Problem with Jon Stewart.
Foumbi and Chan spoke with Filmmaker in Union Square Park.
Filmmaker: Ellie, why did you choose Tinx for this project?
Ellie Foumbi: We met when I was doing my thesis film, in a cafe not far from here. We connected immediately. No Traveler Returns was our first short together.We talked about process, about story being the key for both of us, about films that we liked. You start with this feeling of, “This person and I share a similar sensibility.”
Filmmaker: When did you film this?
Foumbi: We were initially going to shoot in April of 2020, but because of COVID we moved it to March 2021. Then, the European borders closed, but Tinx and I got travel permits so we could do a location scout. We spent a week in this small town in the Pyrenees where we shot the film. I remember Tinx seeing the sodium vapor lamps just walking around town. That changed so much of our plan of how we were going to shoot, to lean into the color palette that was there.
Filmmaker: How did you decide on camera and lighting packages?
Tinx Chan: First of all, what can we afford? We could have gotten a good equipment package out of Paris which included the camera, vintage lenses, a dolly—everything for a very reasonable price. But because of COVID rules restricting travel throughout the regions of France, and the fact that it’s a nine-hour trip with a truck, that was no longer an option.
Thinking of alternatives, I remembered trying out this new RED Komodo camera which has a global shutter, acceptable image quality and was relatively cheaper to buy compared to the rest of the line of RED cameras. After testing out my friend’s beta release version, I ended up getting one for myself so we could use it for the film. In the end, I didn’t realize how much more I had to spend for it to fully function in a feature film environment!
But I have to say, many people from several camera and lighting companies really helped us out. Tom Fletcher from Fujifilm kindly loaned us these lightweight Fujinon MK zoom lenses that work particularly well with the Komodo. The glass is consistent and sharp. In combination with filtration, I was able to get a look I thought would work for the film.
Where we were in France, it was extremely expensive to rent any equipment. They charge by the day, no weekend or weekly rates, as it’s all a la carte. So you can order a C-stand, but it doesn’t come with an arm! You have to order that separately. Hiring local crew was also a challenge.
Foumbi: You have to pay social charges on all the people you hire, so it ends up kind of doubling the salaries.
Chan: It became cheaper to fly our key lighting and camera crew in from the US.
Foumbi: The incentive being, you’re in the south of France, staying in a beautiful villa in a cute town and most of all you get to leave where you are.
Filmmaker: Tinx, can you talk about your overall lighting design?
Chan: We were limited in crew, equipment and time. I knew I would be working mostly off available light and existing practicals, like those wonderful sodium vapor lamps on the streets of Luchon. So, the locations informed the overall lighting design and, really, the look of the film itself.
For interiors with windows facing east or west, I would insist on scheduling to shoot at certain times of day depending on what the scene needed. Certain rooms called for sheers over the windows, which production designer Philippe Lacomblez provided. We also thoroughly discussed our options for practical lamps, bulbs and positioning based on the blocking for each location. Most of my lighting was just to supplement or intensify what exists already. Negative fill was used to shape existing light for the day interiors. We had minimal equipment but again, shout out to Rosco and the DMG Lumiere team. They loaned us their flagship SL series line of RGB lighting, which made matching all the existing practicals a breeze. They really helped us a lot, knowing how little we were working with.
Tiffen Filters kindly provided us with the filtration we needed. Since I was using relatively sharp lenses on a RED sensor, Black Glimmerglass helped soften the harshness in the highlights from the camera and also added a little glow in the light for certain shots that needed it. One thing we did splurge on: we had to get a dolly. Usually on a low budget, it’s easy just to go handheld and call it a style. But from scouting the locations, and after going over the script, we couldn’t justify going handheld for this film. It didn’t feel right.
The key thing is the scout. For me, the visual style always starts with the locations. I’m truly grateful Ellie is so open to the idea of collaboration, especially visually. I mean, some directors…they think they’re Stanley Kubrick. But I think the best directors are the ones who aren’t always stuck in their own heads.
Filmmaker: How do you collaborate visually?
Foumbi: I usually share some ideas with him. We talk about the story. What are we trying to tell? Take the opening shot where we see Marie in a bar. How are we introducing these characters? Who are they? What are we saying visually? I wanted to convey the idea of a double identity, the mystery of not really knowing who these people are.
Chan: There’s a movie called An Elephant Sitting Still, where the camera stays on the reactions of the characters, as opposed to cutting or panning to the action. Something could be happening in a scene, maybe something violent, but the camera doesn’t show what’s happening at the moment—you’re staying on a particular character’s face, on their reaction to what’s happening. They may not even be saying anything. But that asks the viewers to decide: what are they feeling? What’s going on in their heads? This was a huge influence on how we covered and blocked our scenes.
Filmmaker: Do you work from a shot list?
Foumbi: I did a rough storyboard for the editor, then Tinx and I shot listed together. We did one pass of the shot list here in New York. When we got to France, we went to the locations and Tinx would photo-board with his camera, take different pictures of what we had in mind.
Chan: Essentially it’s photo-boarding with the Artemis app.
Foumbi: I’m a firm believer in not locking anything in until I’ve seen the actors work. In rehearsals, we would watch the actors do their scenes in the space, then make adjustments to our camera and/or lighting based on what they gave us. Both Tinx and I believe that our job is to serve the performances and not impose a strict blocking that hinders it.
For a tiny space like the cabin, we would sometimes have to give the actors marks so that we could control how we were building the visual language in this space. Ironically, this also allowed us to visually track the arc of the relationship between two lead characters.
Filmmaker: You have an intense scene where Marie encounters Patrick, a priest, for the first time in the kitchen.
Foumbi: It’s the first time that they’re interacting one on one. We’re tracking her emotional response to him while he’s trying to figure out if she is going to be a problem for him. They’re actually testing each other. After rehearsals, Tinx and I already knew we were going to have a lot of long takes. There were a couple of moments we had to cover, but the idea was to cut as little as possible. In this particular kitchen scene, it was so tense that we decided just to follow Marie, which really heightened the tension in the scene, because we could only see parts of Father Patrick or his reflection.
Chan: Even in our previous films, that’s one of the things we discussed: we should be very intentional about what we want to capture. Do we really need coverage for this particular moment? Can this play out in one shot? So, for this scene, where do we put the camera? When I read the script, the scene is about what Marie feels. How do we translate that onto the screen? We start with Marie’s reaction, hearing Patrick’s voice. We keep Marie on the edge of the frame as Patrick creeps deeper into the room.
Foumbi: He’s a threat to her, so, the way we shot it, he’s always encroaching on her space. We added that once we saw the rehearsal to sort of heighten that perspective.
Filmmaker: You bring the camera around to face Marie, who’s bathed in an eerie light before she swings the pan at Patrick.
Chan: It goes back to locations. When we saw the kitchen, we knew Marie had to start at the pots and end up by the stove where the pan is. That helped with blocking, because that’s where it was. There are only so many ways to light a kitchen with a low ceiling. I decided early on to keep the fluorescent overhead lights and let it go green on camera, as warm sodium orange has already been established in the color palette of the film. Green is the contrasting color. In this kitchen, and in other kitchens I’ve seen as well, they have this weird orange light under the stoves. We accepted it, we used it, we knew she had to be there. It all fit together as it reinforced her emotion.
Foumbi: We had intended for this camera position to see Marie as Patrick approached her, but to sell the stunt, this camera angle happened to be the safest way for her to swing the pan and not put anyone in danger.
Filmmaker: How did you work out the love scene between Marie and Arnaud?
Foumbi: In Europe they have a very different relationship to nudity than we do here. I spent an afternoon alone with Babetida Sadjo and Franck Saurel and allowed them to get comfortable with each other. Luckily, they had an instant chemistry and trusted each other. That’s not always obvious. Then, we blocked out that scene after talking through it together, based on their comfort level. It was very organic. On the day of shooting, we kept it very simple. We very much adjusted the camera’s positions based on the blocking the actors and I had worked out.
Filmmaker: As an operator, how do you deal with their vulnerabilities as performers?
Chan: I think I felt more vulnerable.
Foumbi: I could see the camera shaking. I was like, “Tinx, are you okay?”
Chen: Babetida is fantastic. She understands where the lens is, where the light is coming from. She would talk to me in terms of timing to the movement of the camera, things like that. She’s a filmmaker in her own right. I think I earned her trust in the beginning, so she was very comfortable when it came time to shooting the intimate scenes.
Filmmaker: Did you see this as a theatrical film? And is there a different way to shoot theatricals?
Foumbi: Tinx and I are always trying to make things for the big screen. That’s our sensibility. But it’s not even something I think about when I’m making a film. I am making something I connect to with my sensibility as an African woman. There aren’t that many stories that depict trauma in this way. When we watched the first cut, it felt very universal.
Chan: Being a small indie film, you have the freedom to tell the story you want to tell, without a studio telling you this or that.
Filmmaker: When you’re not delivering content to a producer or studio, you are free from certain narrative restrictions.
Foumbi: Totally. We’re very lucky, the way this film was financed through the Venice Biennale, that I had complete control and final cut. The problem was we had two weeks to edit in order to make the Venice deadlines. We wrapped July 2nd. Venice wanted a cut July 15th. We somehow managed. My editor, Roy Clovis, Jr. and I didn’t sleep for two weeks. It was an even bigger nightmare for my composer, Gavin Brivik, but he somehow pulled it together. We got to watch it when it screened at Venice.
Filmmaker: That was your focus group.
Foumbi: That was my focus group. We got to feel what was working, what wasn’t working. We cut about four minutes between Venice and Tribeca. The big changes were in the music and sound design, which were much more polished.