The idea of wrapping a London townhouse in a cocoon of tents and placing light boxes in the windows seems perfectly normal to French cinematographer Benoit Delhomme. In fact, he did just that when shooting David Mamet's new film The Winslow Boy, based on the play by Terrence Rattigan. In contrast to this controlled studio-like interior is the highly stylized look of Mike Figgis' latest, The Loss of Sexual Innocence, shot largely on location in Europe and Northern Africa.
Controlling light is one of Delhomme's obsessions, yet his goal is to make it look as if it is more natural than artificial. "I like to recreate natural light in the studio. I don't want you to notice the lighting, which is always reflected, never direct. I like to give a different texture to the light, depending on how it is filtered."
Working with Figgis gave Delhomme a few real challenges. The first was to shoot a cornfield in northern England and make it look like the African country of Kenya. "I searched for a special film," says Delhomme, who used Kodak Ektachrome slide film and developed it as a negative. "This is using the film in the wrong way," he explains, but both he and Figgis were delighted with the golden, grainy look the film produced. "We really took some risks and broke all the rules, but the result is beautiful, almost like a painting." Not only did they use the "wrong" film stock, they also shot in Super 16mm, using an Aaton camera, rather than the 35mm Panavision that Delhomme usually favors.
"Figgis is a very visual director, who creates his film during the shooting. The scenario is just a base to create the images," says Delhomme, who found that Mamet sticks much closer to the printed page. "This is normal: He is a playwright, and the word has all the power. He wanted something simple in terms of the images." So when Delhomme first met with Mamet in Boston to discuss The Winslow Boy he brought a book of portraits by painter John Singer Sargent. "Mamet thought this kind of imagery was perfect. He wanted the film to look like a series of portraits of English people at home."
Since the film is set in the early part of the 20th century, Delhomme wanted to work like a painter of the period, as if northern sunlight was streaming into a studio. He used LTM HMIs reflected in the large styrofoam light boxes he placed in the townhouse windows for a soft, directional light. This allowed him to control the rosy English skin tones of the characters he describes as "emotionally blocked. This is more a cinema of words."
Born in the suburbs of Paris, the 38-year-old Delhomme spent most of his early life in the French town of Cherbourg, and cites The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, filmed there by Jacques Demy in 1964, as an influence in his choice of career. "Everybody was talking about the film," he recalls. "Tess by Roman Polanski was also filmed there. These two films were very important for me." As was the work of his "muse," cinematographer Nestor Almendros.
Delhomme studied at the Ecole Louis Lumiere, graduating in 1982. He worked as an assistant cameraman in France, and his credits include assisting Bruno Nuytten on Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. The first feature film he shot was The Scent of Green Papaya for director Tran Anh Hung, which won numerous awards and brought Delhomme a certain amount of international attention. His other features include Agnes Merlet's Artemisia and Cedric Klapisch's When the Cat's Away.
Perhaps his most unusual assignment to date was the shooting of Anh Hung's Cyclo, which was filmed in Ho Chi Mihn City in Vietnam. "This was very complicated, and took a colossal organization. Every neighborhood there has a leader who had to ask every resident if we could place lighting instruments in certain places. Everything had to be mounted three months in advance to get their permission."
The other challenge was that there was ordinarily no light in those neighborhoods at night, so that when the sun went down it was dark. "We had to create ou r own look, an imaginary style of light that they might have." To do this, Delhomme used a mix of HMI lamps and Russian household-style fluorescent tubes to create a monochromatic night look with a blue-green tint.
In every different project, Delhomme sees his role as "enriching the film. We get to work in many different centuries and have to be able to recreate everything from the flicker of candlelight for a film like Artemisia to futuristic special effects in science fiction." His second project with Figgis is a filmed version of the Strindberg play Miss Julie, shot in a studio with pre-programmed lighting cues. "The lighting is all tungsten in large light boxes for a soft, natural look," he says. As always, he doesn't want the audience to be aware of the lighting.
Cinematography appeals to Delhomme in that it pulls together many different artistic disciplines, from painting and photography to architecture. "I like to find things that even the director cannot imagine. Often they are searching for images from their past without saying that the film is autobiographical. You have to show them things they don't dare to explain."