Of all contemporary narrative filmmakers, Peter Greenaway is probably the most art-conscious, the most concerned with form and surface to the exclusion of traditional priorities like story and character. In his latest film, The Pillow Book, the bodies of Greenaway's actors literally become the canvas on which artistic pursuits--in this case, calligraphy--are carried out. This function for flesh is at least easier to take than what happens in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, the British director's best-known previous film, in which the body of one of the actors becomes dinner.
Besides making movies, Greenaway has also worked extensively as a painter and visual artist, curating exhibitions and museum installations across Europe. Some of the ideas and techniques he has employed in these installations, specifically involving lighting effects and projections, have been brought to the production of The Pillow Book. And the person most responsible for their adaptation to film is Reinier van Brummelen, a Dutch gaffer who has worked on many of Greenaway's films, and who also lit an opera he directed, Rosa, a Horse Drama.
But van Brummelen wants to make one thing clear: Director of photography Sacha Vierny is the one who is really responsible for the look of The Pillow Book. Vierny, a veteran of French New Wave classics such as Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad, Muriel, and La Guerre Est Finie, Luis Bunuel's Belle de Jour, and films for Marguerite Duras, Bertrand Blier, and Raul Ruiz, has shot every Greenaway movie since A Zed and Two Noughts, in 1985. But Vierny, who is in his 70s, is disinclined to talk. He will only praise, via fax, van Brummelen's abilities as an "artist who manipulates light and the computer," adding that he wishes he could have shot films for Georges Melies and a young Orson Welles.
So the ball is back in van Brummelen's court. The gaffer gets a special credit on The Pillow Book: special lighting effects. "They gave me that because I did a lot of work on it," he explains, "and because some things, like the idea to use slide projections, and profiles with gobos and animation disks, are something Greenaway is doing on non-cinematography projects. Also, the fact that we have everything on dimmers, and use dimming as a part of the cinematography language, is something which grew out of doing those exhibitions and the opera."
The Pillow Book is the story of Nagiko (Vivian Wu), a young Japanese woman whose calligrapher father once, in a type of ritual, painted birthday greetings on her face with brush and colored ink. This act has been fetishized by Nagiko, who also fixates on the title creation, a collection of lists, literary quotes, and the 10th-century authoress' romantic escapades. As an adult in Hong Kong, Nagiko seeks the "ideal calligrapher-lover": a man who will cover her skin with elegant text and satisfy her sexually. Instead, she falls in love with an Englishman (Ewan McGregor), and uses his body as her own writing surface. With flesh as her medium, she ultimately creates her own pillow book.
There is much else to the movie--subsidiary characters, sexual convolutions, intrigue and retribution, shifts between black and white and color. Greenaway divides the movie into literary-style chapters, and often breaks up the screen into smaller segments that may suddenly introduce new elements or simply add miniature reframings of the original image to the visual field. As usual for the director, distancing devices and nudity play crucial roles.
But the heart of The Pillow Book lies in the scenes of calligraphy, which generally take place on a blatantly stagy, visually spare set. (Studio filming was done in Luxembourg.) Artificiality is introduced into these scenes in various ways, including Vierny's typically high-contrast photography and gelling of the lights with Lee Filters or correction colors like CTO or CTB. Most noticeable are projections and effects that provide an ambience, dovetail with the calligraphy theme, or sometimes stand in for the Japanese characters themselves.
Opera foil, which van Brummelen used in Rosa, serves as a back projection material in many sequences. "It's so heavy that it could almost stand for a wall," says the designer. "So I proposed, why don't we make one of the walls out of this to be projected on. Then the only problem was getting Panis for a low budget." The Pillow Book cost about $5 million: not a lot of money, even by European standards. "The way we made the slides for the Panis was ultra-low-budget," he continues. "It was me doing it in the evening for the next day. Greenaway would give me, let's say, a couple of books, and say, 'I like this, I like this, and I like this,' and I would scan it into the computer, make it the proper Pani size, and laser print it on a transparency which we banked directly into the Panis."
Scenes incorporating complex projections, like text covering the entire back wall, were accomplished with 5k tungsten Pani projectors, "because they're silent." For more discrete elements--like the large Japanese figures for man, woman, fire, water--gobos were used, sometimes with animation disks. "They're not standard animation disks," adds van Brummelen, "because those are very, very expensive. What we use on the exhibitions, and what I brought to the movie, are cheaper plastic disks which I cut in a circle, and then tape filter on it, draw on it, things like that. And we move that in front of the gobo to give it a sort of movement."
Often these elements were projected through water trays under the floor of the set. Greenaway seems to have an affinity for water; many of his exhibitions are somehow dependent on the fluid. "Water flickering is a look he likes," says van Brummelen. "We put water trays with motors under all the holes in the floor. We started playing with projecting gobos through the water, and we also projected the Pani slides through the water." Sometimes the projected letters on the wall sway with the movement of the water; sometimes the flickering simply plays across the surface of the actors' faces or bare skin.
In a couple of instances, the Pani projections are almost the sole lighting source in a scene. In one, projected writing takes the place of ink on Nagiko's back. In another, "[one of the characters] is painting on her face, and you get a trompe l'oeil effect. He moves the face away, and you see that it's the slide projection which he has painted on the face."
With all of the projections, exposure was naturally a problem. "It would have been better if the slides had been more powerful," says van Brummelen. "Then we would have used them more, and also used them more as a light source." The use of the projections was one reason the filmmakers decided to go with Super 35 rather than their customary anamorphic format. "The other movies we shot CinemaScope, and a film like The Cook is almost exclusively shot between 8 and 11," says the gaffer. "Sacha and Greenaway like to work at high f-stops, and have everything in focus. Everything is tungsten on that movie, and we had a lighting package of about 35 10ks. Using the projections, Sacha wanted to go to 4-5.6 instead of 8-11. Also, shooting at 4 or 5.6, it's much easier to trust your eye; if you shoot at 8 to 11, you have to interpret the image more according to how you exposed it. Sometimes on the other movies we had surprises."
Because of the spherical format and lower f-stop, "10ks became 5ks, and when we shot in the studio, we used a lot less light," says van Brummelen. As in other Greenaway films, most of the lighting instruments are tungsten, apart from some HMIs on exteriors shot in Japan. "I like tungsten, partly because it's nice lighting, and also, because it's a straight lamp," the gaffer says. "A lot of times, when we have an HMI, we put CTO in front of it, and sometimes double CTO. So you end up taking away the light again. As a gaffer, I would rather have more cabling or thicker cabling, and have everything tungsten, than mess around with HMIs." Most of the lights on The Pillow Book are manufactured by Ianiro, and supplied by Singel rental house in Amsterdam.
Vierny's favorite lighting style remains intact in the movie. "I am not exaggerating when I say that about 90% of the light that he uses is hard," says van Brummelen. "Just straight fresnels, sometimes bouncing for general ambience, but a lot of the time not. I think, in a way, that's the trick of his beautiful images, because he has control over where it goes." The contrasty look meant that, when The Pillow Book shifts to black and white (on color stock) during certain scenes, "it is not like all of a sudden he has to light very differently. Because he is already lighting in a way which separates people from backgrounds. It's not like, 'Oh, this is black and white, let's take away all the diffusion.' Because Sacha almost never uses diffusion anyway."
All of the lights in the Luxembourg studio were on dimmers, a task made easier and less expensive because of the smaller lighting package. Van Brummelen says that dimming served several purposes on The Pillow Book. "We used it as a leveling thing, instead of putting in a scrim. We just take it down a little bit, so it becomes a little bit warmer, and you don't have to go to the light. Another use is, in The Pillow Book there are quite a lot of 360-degree circling shots, where we did backlight. So as the camera is moving, we crossfaded the backlight from one to the other, and faded the frontlight so it became fill. Reason Number 3 for the dimmers is theatrical effects, like fireworks flickering, or sometimes crossfading into a different atmosphere. Apart from slide changes, there are mood changes."
One problem with the dimmers: "There's not a real tradition of dimming on film in Holland, so all the dimmer packs are separate blocks, like six packs from Strand, and so on. I think, if we're going to do a movie like this again, I would press to get a system with more friendly connections, like a rock-and-roll rack. Because you go crazy when you have to run DMX everywhere, and you have separate patches. On the installations, I saw how easy it is when you have a normal rock-and-roll rack: you just connect and do the patch, and that's it." Granted, the installations are much bigger from a dimming point of view--up to 400 channels, as opposed to 80 or 100 on a movie.
Van Brummelen's background is firmly in film, including every Greenaway feature since Drowning by Numbers, in 1988, and his own projects as DP. "I sort of rolled into the other type of work through Greenaway," he says. "He was asked to do a curatorial exhibition in a museum. He had the idea to do something special with the lighting, and out of that grew bigger and bigger installations which are more and more light-conscious and theatrical, with lots of mood changes, and synchronized to sound. Those exhibitions were a lot of times about water, and playing with projections."
In one room of a recent installation in Barcelona, for example, identical-looking bottles of water are set on small rostrums containing 1k PARs. "We play with the light coming from underneath, where you get a very nice optical trick," says van Brummelen. "When you look into the bottle, you can't see into the rostrum, because the water becomes prismatic. So you get a magical sort of light. Every one of these things is on a separate channel. A PC is running a MIDI sequencer program, and the programming becomes so detailed. The soundtrack has lots of drips, and every time you hear a drip, one of those bottles gets lit up. Not only that, but the cue is tied into the sort of drip, and when you hear three drips, you have a small wave coming through the bottles. We use a lot of color mixing, and play a lot with soft chases. So it becomes like a little theatre that you can walk through."
Another room in the same exhibition contains Icarus-themed tableaux featuring live people. "There are about seven light sources on each person," says the designer. "There is light from underneath, there are profiles, water effects, animation disk effects. And because of the flying theme, there are propellers that give movement to the light." Projections also became important in creating a Greenaway installation celebrating the centennial of cinema in Munich. "We had 100 projections throughout the city," van Brummelen recalls. "It was always two profiles at least, one profile projecting a frame of film with an animation disk in front of it, and another with a gobo of the year. One city square contained about 15, and there was a 12k Pani projection very big on a building."
The biggest adjustment for van Brummelen in switching from film to curatorial exhibitions was that "you have to previsualize it a lot more. I had to give myself a crash course in how it works in theatre, how to make a light plan and things like that. In movies, and the way Sacha works, you put light source Number 1, and light source Number 1 dictates Number 2, Number 3, and Number 4. You have a certain package, and when it's gone, it's gone. It's very organic."
Van Brummelen has a more collaborative role with Greenaway on the curatorial exhibitions, while on the films he is usually assisting Vierny in giving the director what he wants. But there is never any question about who, ultimately, is in charge of the image. On The Pillow Book, where the Super 35 format made the frame more flexible, there is even evidence that Greenaway is wrestling some visual control from the cinematographer during postproduction. "He reframed a lot of shots in the editing process," says the gaffer. "That's done a lot in commercials and things which go through digital. But he did it on this and it was all finished off optically. The raw stock was really raw stock--it's for the director to play on it. Some of that magic of the cinematographer--'this is the frame, and that's what it's always going to be'--is changing."
On the other hand, van Brummelen marvels at Vierny, who goes along with Greenaway's innovations and supports them in the continuing spirit of avant-garde. "It's interesting that someone like Sacha, who is not a young dog, but who is an old master, is involved in such things. It's pretty amazing that of all the cinematographers I have worked for as a gaffer, he is the most modern, the most fresh, and the one to take the most risks and to try the weirdest things."
DIRECTOR/SCREENPLAY Peter Greenaway
DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY Sacha Vierny
SPECIAL LIGHTING EFFECTS Reinier van Brummelen
CALLIGRAPHY Brody Neuenschwander, Yukki Yaura
PRODUCTION DESIGN Wilbert van Dorp, Andree Putman
ELECTRICIANS Arnout Glas, Marc Huisman, Takuya Kodama, Cristian Lux, Gilles Mathony
Partial Lighting equipment Pani 5k tungsten projectors Ianiro tungsten luminaires Lee Filters