“Choosing the Perfect Lens for Us Was the Bigger Challenge”: DP André Jäger on The Persian Version
When Leila’s (Layla Mohammadi) Iranian-American family gathers in New York City for her father’s heart transplant surgery, a secret that she’s been keeping is unceremoniously spilled. What she wasn’t expecting, however, is learning how much her own life parallels that of her mother Shireen (Niousha Noor) decades ago, causing Leila to further appreciate the nuances of her dual identity. Set between two distinct countries and eras, Maryam Keshavarz’s sophomore film The Persian Version comes from a deeply personal place.
Cinematographer André Jäger discusses how he got involved in the shoot and the difficulty he and Keshavarz faced when it came to choosing the perfect lens.
See all responses to our annual Sundance cinematographer interviews here.
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?
Jäger: In the fall of 2021 I shot Afloat, a feature by Turkish-American Filmmaker Aslihan Ünaldi who is a good friend of Maryam Keshavarz. Maryam saw the first rough cut of that movie, liked the cinematography and got in touch with me. The fact that I had already shot several films in Turkey and was familiar with working there might also have factored into her decision. It was one of these serendipitous moments in life when everything fell into place I think. After Maryam sent me her amazing script we had a series of conversations to get to know each other and find out how we wanted to tell the story.
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?
Jäger: Since we’re telling a story that takes place over several decades I initially wanted to separate these decades by creating a unique look for each decade. But Maryam preferred that we keep a consistent look throughout the movie to underline the similarities between Shireen and Layla. It totally made sense to me. So we decided to tell the story in a more consistent visual style and differentiate the different eras by their color palettes. Maryam and I knew that we would tell the story mostly by using handheld and Steadicam. We wanted to create an atmosphere of constant movement and restlessness, and choose sticks or subtle dolly movements only in select moments to slow the pace of the movie.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, or photography, or something else?
Jäger: There were a lot of different references we exchanged throughout the pre production phase, anything from films, contemporary art, photographs, historical Persian paintings or classical artworks. And we specifically looked at images and compositions that capture bigger groups of people. For example Punch-Drunk Love by Paul Thomas Anderson or Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tennenbaums served as references when it came to capturing a large family. One of the biggest inspirations were photographs of Maryam’s family from all the different decades.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Jäger: To me the biggest challenge was the fact that it’s such a personal story we tried to tell. It’s the story of Maryam and her family and of course you want to be as close as possible to how she and her mother actually remember things. On the other hand you want to put your own vision into it. Finding the right balance was an awesome challenge and a great experience.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Jäger: We shot on the ARRI ALEXA MINI in 3.4 ARRIRAW. Shooting handheld and Steadicam on location in a large variety of environments most of the time I knew from a very early stage that the MINI will be the perfect tool for us. Choosing the perfect lens for us was the bigger challenge obviously. Since our story takes place in different decades I intended to shoot anamorphic because of the timeless look and other characteristics they deliver. One of the things Maryam kept repeating throughout the whole production phase was that we should embrace the imperfection. So it made even more sense to me to go for anamorphic lenses. Especially their imperfection like their susceptibility to flares was what interested me the most. But after testing a bunch of lenses (spherical and anamorphic) on different cameras we felt that anamorphic wouldn’t be the right kind of choice for our needs. We needed a more versatile set of lenses. Maryam watched the results and we discussed what we like and what not so much. The COOKE S7 with their natural look, the soft rolling off focus in combination with the ALEXA MINI was what excited us the most. Especially the way the COOKE S7 capture different kinds of skin tones and their natural rendering convinced us. Of course choosing the S7 is a bit contrary to my original plan of having a small and lightweight camera build. So we took a set of COOKE S4 along with us. They match perfectly with the S7 and so I could use them for smaller camera builds whenever needed. There are also several slow-motion shots we shot on the SONY VENICE.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Jäger: Since magic realism has a big part in the story I wanted to incorporate this into our approach to lighting as well. In order to combine the different story lines I wanted a natural approach that feels realistic and yet has a subtle poetic touch to it. For example in rural Iran in the 1960s there was no electricity so we had to use natural light sources. Also, we had quite a lot of people in the frame from time to time, which forced us to create a lighting set up that enables us to capture every character as well as possible while remaining as flexible as possible.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Jäger: The most challenging was definitely the scene capturing the crucial moment in young Shireen’s (Kamand Shafieisabet) life. In order to give Kamand the right kind of emotional space Maryam knew she needed to create an intimate environment. We had a closed set where only Maryam, the actors and I were present. It was very emotional for every one of us. In the end the scene turned out pretty well and Kamand’s performance is just breathtaking.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Jäger: I used four different LUTs throughout the whole shoot for our different needs. Since we decided to separate the decades by using different color palettes there was already a look “baked in”. At the same time shooting in ARRIRAW gave me the opportunity to be flexible in post and make subtle changes when needed. The post production took place at BASIS BERLIN. Our colorist was Philipp Orgassa who has a very distinctive approach and is a very pleasant person to work with. He was a great support for me throughout the whole grading process.
Film Title: The Persian Version
Camera: ARRI ALEXA MINI
Lenses: COOKE S7i
Lighting: Tungsten, HMI, LED, Available light
Processing: 3.4K ARRIRAW
Color Grading: Philipp Orgassa at BASIS BERLIN (DaVinci Resolve)