Listening to cinematographer John Mathieson describe the images in Love Is the Devil can be a truly visceral experience. Colors are "liver red" or "piss yellow" or "a bleached-bone color of white;" light is "nicotine-stained;" to sum up, "there's a layer of scum or filth across everything." But none of this is beside the point of the film's subject, British painter Sir Francis Bacon, who, as Mathieson reminds one, "loved his offal and his meat and his dead stuff."
Sir Francis, played by Sir Derek Jacobi, was known for distorted, disturbing, and sometimes putrefyingly colored figurative studies. Love Is the Devil zeroes in on one of the great artist's models, his working-class lover George Dyer (Daniel Craig). Written and directed by John Maybury, an artist in his own right and a former associate of late filmmaker Derek Jarman, Love Is the Devil is a Jarmanesque work, elliptically stylized and very low budget. Set in the 1960s and 70s, it concentrates on the period of Bacon and Dyer's increasingly sadomasochistic relationship, which ended with Dyer's suicide.
Rather than duplicate Bacon's works on-camera, Maybury chose to suggest them through the movie's visual style. Mathieson, another Jarman alumnus who had shot numerous videos and a short film for Maybury, says, "I wallpapered my apartment with the paintings, and it just seeps into you, the coloring of things and so on. He's quite photographic, underneath it all."
Working almost entirely on constructed sets, Maybury, Mathieson, and production designer Alan Macdonald sought to induce a feeling of entrapment. "Bacon's eye was quite flat, his proportions more telephoto," the DP says. "The sets were beautifully made, in Bacon-type colors. The walls could come off and slide around so you could get cameras where you wanted. They were 360 degrees, and they all had ceilings, so you could actually get this claustrophobic feeling."
Lighting, which was simple and flat, also took its cue from Bacon's work. "I think the biggest light we had in the studio was a 5k," says Mathieson. "Bacon's paintings never really have lighting about--you might get a lightbulb barely on in them. So we used strips of domestic lightbulbs, screwed into bits of wood. There was lots of lighting from above and soft silks on top. In his apartment, there's a murky skylight overhead that hasn't been cleaned for years, so there's a penetrating sort of ugly, unclean, winter London light in this oil paint-stinking place."
Distorting materials in front of the lens often dirtied up the imagery, particularly in the set representing the Colony Club, where Bacon hung out with his artist friends, played with varying degrees of grotesquerie by Tilda Swinton and Adrian Scarborough, among others. Mathieson shot into a Perspex mirror, through wine glasses and ashtrays. He also shot with a probe-like lens with an "incredible depth of field and very poor f-stop. They're used on natural history stuff."
Although Maybury has indulged in more than his share of digital wizardry on music videos, something about the subject led him to favor in-camera effects on Love Is the Devil. Says Mathieson, "I could have shot clean, straight images, and electronically distorted them, but working with the raw material felt more like you were getting closer to the weird stench of Bacon.
"Of course, it saved us money, too," he adds. "Anything you do in camera, you don't have to spend hours fiddling around trying to get back to something."