DP Philippe Rousselot on The Nice Guys, Learning from Néstor Almendros and Loving China Balls
Shane Black was just 24 years old when he sold the spec script that would become Lethal Weapon. Since then Black’s name in the credits – whether as writer or director – brings a certain set of expectations: tarnished, mismatched heroes (likely of the cop and/or private detective variety); a plot overflowing with set-ups and pay-offs, reversals, and sly humor; the subversion of genre tropes; and at least an 85 percent chance of a Christmas setting. Most of that checklist gets ticked off in Black’s latest The Nice Guys, a detective yarn in which a private investigator (Ryan Gosling) and a freelance strong-armer (Russell Crowe) search for a missing girl amid a tangled web of porn, smog, and car shows in a dilapidated ’70s Los Angeles. It’s all old hat for Black – but not for The Nice Guys cinematographer Philippe Rousselot. The Oscar-winning French DP — whose long list of credits includes Diva, A River Runs Through It, The People vs. Larry Flynt and Big Fish — has never done anything quite in the same vein as this romping action comedy.
Rousselot spoke to Filmmaker about what drew him to The Nice Guys, the lasting impact of Néstor Almendros on his work, and why he prefers shooting driving scenes on a sound stage (hint: it includes proximity to craft services).
Filmmaker: Tell me a little bit about the town in France where you grew up.
Rousselot: Nowhere you would know. It’s in the east of France.
Filmmaker: Small town? Big town?
Rousselot: Small town. It was an industrial area — farms and industry and metal mines.
Filmmaker: As a kid did you know pretty early that you didn’t want to work in the metal mines?
Rousselot: Yes. I wanted to be in the film business when I was 11.
Filmmaker: Was that after seeing a particular film?
Rousselot: After seeing a lot of films, actually. I happened to be in a place on vacation where there was a Cineclub that played several films every day for two weeks – kind of a retrospective of the history of cinema. I saw a huge amount of films (during those two weeks) and that’s what got me into (movies).
Filmmaker: Were they mostly French films?
Rousselot: There were Jean Cocteau films, including Beauty and the Beast. There was a series of American films, mostly comedy classics. There was a retrospective of the German Expressionist cinema. And there was a series of films from the Italian Neorealists like Rossellini and De Sica.
Filmmaker: You would have been around 14 or 15 when The 400 Blows and Breathless were first released. Did the films of the French New Wave have a big impact on you?
Rousselot: Yeah, all of the New Wave — the first Chabrol, Truffaut, Godard. But also, there was Bergman and some English filmmakers, like Karel Reisz and the angry young man films of the time.
Filmmaker: When you were still in your early 20s you worked as a camera assistant for Néstor Almendros (Days of Heaven) on a series of films directed by Eric Rohmer (My Night at Maud’s, Claire’s Knee, Chloe in the Afternoon). How did that come about?
Rousselot: I saw a film by Rohmer called La Collectionneuse and I thought the photography was absolutely brilliant. It was really one of the turning points in the history of cinematography. And I said, “I have to meet the DP.” Somehow through friends I got (Almendros’) phone number and I met with him and he was very nice, but he didn’t have any (work) to offer to me. Then through other people I had been working with I got a call for My Night at Maud’s because they were in need of a clapper loader. It was a happy accident.
Filmmaker: Did you get to spend much time on set watching Almendros work or were you always somewhere in the bag loading film magazines?
Rousselot: There actually was not much (loading) to do. Rohmer used so little film. I was loading 400 foot mags and maybe only three in a day. So I did spend a lot of time watching what was happening (on set). It was a very small crew and you could talk to everybody. It was wonderful.
Filmmaker: Are there any lighting techniques that you learned from Almendros that you still carry with you?
Rousselot: Néstor was basically the first to start bouncing lights. There was a little bit of that with Raoul Coutard (cinematographer of Breathless and Jules and Jim), but apart from that Néstor really invented a way of lighting that everybody has used since. So not only was I influenced by Néstor, but everybody was.
What I also learned from Néstor was an intellectual approach to lighting. Néstor did not learn lighting in school, so basically he used good sense and logic to invent this whole new way of lighting. The traditional way was you have a key light and then you have fill and then you have a backlight, and you do things by the numbers, basically. Néstor didn’t know how to do all that. So he said, “Well, what is logical? If the light would come from the window then I should put something out the window. And if it’s a soft light, then it has to come from a very large source so I’m going to bounce the light against sheets of paper.” It was a completely different way of thinking, which I hope I still carry.
Filmmaker: You also shot one of Sam Fuller’s last films, Thieves After Dark. Any good stories from that one?
Rousselot: Sam was absolutely wonderful. I don’t think he cared about that film in any way. (laughs) He just wanted to have fun and he never did more than one take, even if the take was absolutely lousy. It was a very short shoot and it was a very small film, but I enjoyed it because he was telling all of these stories about his wars and his films and his life. He was extremely colorful and a very nice guy.
Filmmaker: Well, let’s hop into The Nice Guys. You’ve shot nearly 70 films at this point…
Rousselot: No, I’m not there yet. Not there yet.
Filmmaker: You’re in the 60s, right?
Rousselot: Yeah. I refuse to count, though. (laughs)
Filmmaker: I don’t see anything else in your filmography that’s quite like The Nice Guys. What hooked you when you first read the script?
Rousselot: I’d seen (Shane Black’s directorial debut) Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which I thought was hilarious and very, very good and that was in the same genre. I have done a couple of comedies or films with comical elements in there. Quite honestly I love a film that makes me laugh, but it just doesn’t happen very much and I haven’t been asked to do that many comedies. People tend to offer you things that you’ve done before and the comedies that I have been offered most of the time I haven’t liked the script. And then I got the script (for The Nice Guys) and it made me smile and laugh for 120 pages.
Filmmaker: I was surprised to learn that this is actually your first feature shot digitally. What finally convinced you?
Rousselot: I think it was just time to stop saying no, because you have to recognize that digital now is on par with film in terms of quality. I’ve resisted digital for a long time because I could see (the difference between a movie shot) digitally and I hated it. And then it was less and less until now I can’t see it. The other thing was that we had a 50-day schedule and we had a lot of night shoots. If you work with a camera like the Arri Alexa, you can easily shoot at 1280 ASA and get away with it. It’s a big difference from the 500 ASA you get from film, or 600 if you push it a bit. That means that you can shoot streets and action scenes outside at night in a much easier way.
You know, it’s funny, the more technical things become, the less interested I am in technical things. I’m far more interested in trying to collaborate on making a good film. You don’t make a better film because you shoot with this or that.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about a few shots from The Nice Guys, starting with this behind the scenes pic of you shooting some driving sequences on a soundstage. It seems like so much driving stuff is being shot on stage now.
Rousselot: It’s so much easier on the actors. We don’t have to track the vehicle, light from the insert car, or block streets – and then you do all that and after one take you’re at the end of the road and you have to reset. When you do (the scenes on) the stage, craft service is very close, the actors are comfortable, everybody is there, and instead of taking five hours to do a two-minute scene, you can shoot it in two hours.
And the other thing is that you can’t find a street even at night that looks like the 1970s. If you shoot on real locations there is a huge amount of doctoring that has to be done to all the backgrounds. So you might as well do it on green screen, then you shoot the plates and doctor the plates. From a visual effects point of view on a period piece, it makes sense and in the end it’s cheaper.
Filmmaker: You’re known for your love of China balls and sure enough in this picture there’s a China ball hanging out in front of the car.
Rousselot: I’ve been using China balls for 30 years. I’ve used a huge amount of them. That’s the secret of the economic success of China is me buying China balls. (laughs) I used them before everybody else and it took about ten years (for other cinematographers to) understand that those things are very, very useful.
Filmmaker: The next one is a scene where two fellow professionals – played by Keith David and Beau Knapp — come to Crowe’s apartment to pump him for information.
Rousselot: That was shot on a set in Atlanta that we built in a warehouse. There is kind of a twist in this scene. If anyone else is writing a scene like that typically the hero would switch off the lights and then everybody is in the dark and the hero can escape. Shane is very clever with everything that he does and he imagined completely the opposite. He turned the scene upside down. We have this very long scene that is set in the dark and then (Crowe) switches the lights on (to escape). Usually when you do that kind of thing you put a blue light coming from the window. So the same way that Shane turned the scene upside down, I turned the (lighting) cliché over on its head too. Instead of blue, I used warm light. Then in the back room to create depth I used the opposite color – cyan. I also pushed a bit of green in because (a bank dye pack explodes blue paint in the scene) and if the whole room was in blue light then that gag would not play. It’s all those factors, but you know, we just played with it. It’s a comedy so I’m trying to have fun.
Filmmaker: There’s a great scene where Gosling – perched in a bowling alley bathroom stall – tries to keep his gun on Crowe while pulling his pants up, and the stall door keeps drifting shut. It ends up playing largely in a wide shot. Do you even bother to shoot coverage of a moment like that?
Rousselot: Well, it’s obvious that the gag plays in the wide shot, because it’s about the relationship between the gun, the cast on his arm, the magazine that cover his privates, and the pants. The minute you isolate one or the other, the gag doesn’t play. (Shooting) comedy is common sense. In this scene, it’s all about body language. So, if it’s body language, film the body. If it’s about actors showing emotion, you want to get close ups. I’m simplifying everything, but there is always a logic that is dictated by the scene. Also, if you are at the monitor and you laugh at what you see, it can’t be wrong.
Filmmaker: In this shot Gosling has just toppled down a hill from a hedonistic Hollywood party. When he sits up against a tree and lights a cigarette, the flame reveals a dead body resting next to him. What did you use as your lighting gag? Is that another China ball being dimmed up?
Rousselot: That’s exactly it. There is one China ball and it’s all about the timing of the dimmer and making sure that you get the light on the body at the right moment and not before.
Filmmaker: Is a gag like that something Shane writes into the script or do you develop it in preproduction?
Rousselot: No, I came up with the idea. Originally the guy was lying on the ground and (Gosling) was going to stumble over him in the dark and I thought that wasn’t very interesting.
Filmmaker: So you found that on the day?
Rousselot: I think it was on the day. It probably came up just because there was a tree there.
Matt Mulcahey writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.