Director of photography Eduardo Serra worked with two of his favorite filmmakers recently. First, the Portugese-born DP enjoyed his sixth collaboration with French director Patrice Leconte on The Widow of St. Pierre, a historical drama starring Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, and Emir Kusturica. That movie will be released stateside through Lions Gate Films in March. Then he shot Unbreakable, the Bruce Willis - Samuel L. Jackson thriller released by Touchstone Pictures last November, for American writer-director M. Night Shyamalan. Since this was their first time working together, Shyamalan is a new favorite.
But Serra's relationship with Leconte stretches back two decades, starting with projects where he acted as focus puller, and includes films such as The Hairdresser's Husband, Le Parfum d'Yvonne, and Les Grands Ducs. The Widow of St. Pierre is set in 1850 on the title island, a French territory off the eastern coast of Canada. Kusturica, best known as a Serbian director, plays a prisoner awaiting execution for murder, Auteuil is the military commandant who jails him, and Binoche is the commandant's wife, who takes it upon herself to redeem the murderer. The widow of the title is the guillotine making its way from France.
The movie's exteriors were primarily shot in the rebuilt period town of Louisburg, Nova Scotia, in winter and spring, with Paris stage work sandwiched in between. Leconte, an extremely visual director, worked in his customary anamorphic format, and operated the camera himself. "When I work with Patrice, we talk for about 15 minutes, and then we do the film," says Serra. "He understands the language. On this one he told me, `I want strong contrasts, very clearly established light directions, and I want it to be on the cool side. And I hate snowy landscapes with blue sky, so find something to kill that.'"
This led the cinematographer to two lab processes. "The winter section is done with bleach bypass, for an almost black-and-white look," he says. "And then we used a silver-retaining process for all the exteriors where we had a blue sky or summer feeling, just to bring that down. I also used very cool filters; I would be working on stage interiors with normal tungsten light, but also with some blue filtration, to make it a bit harder." Serra adds that when Leconte films onstage, "The absolute rule is that you work as if you were on location. Everything is built, but you don't have floating walls and you have ceilings. You respect the normal light sources. When he feels any conventional studio light from above, he's very unhappy."
The Widow of St. Pierre was shot on Fuji 500 ASA film stock. "Most of the time I go with Fuji, I think it's more suitable for the work I do," says Serra. "Sometimes I mix Fuji and Kodak. But I did Unbreakable on Kodak, and I was very happy with that. Fuji is a softer stock, Kodak is harder, and on Unbreakable I thought it was important to go for something hard. Of course, the reference was to have some connection to comic books. There is that catalog of images you keep in mind - backlight and silhouettes. As Bruce Willis' character becomes the hero, you go from normal source light to more dramatic light, a kind of chiseled light on his face. I used 79, a harder 500 stock for all the hero stuff, and for the domestic scenes, I used 77, which is softer.
"Night knows exactly what he wants," Serra says of the director who made such a splash with The Sixth Sense (shot by Tak Fujimoto) in 1999. "Everything is story boarded. He doesn't want to shoot traditional coverage; he wants to go for interesting shots. On all those long takes, no coverage is even shot - if we are wrong, coverage won't help. He wants to take risks."
Which is the quality Serra also likes about Leconte. "I always present him with choices," says the DP. "He always goes for the most radical choice, and that encourages me to go for more radical options." In conclusion, he says, "Night and Patrice are the two directors I'm happiest to work with."