Dogme Founder and Director Thomas Vinterberg and Director of Photography Charlotte Bruus Christensen insisted on using 35mm for this classic English tale while using ‘Gone With The Wind’ as their driving force.
To remake a Sixties English classic is brave enough but then to ask a founder of the Danish Dogme method of film making to direct the story might move ‘brave’ up to ‘foolhardy’. We talked with DP Charlotte Bruus Christensen.
What were your concerns going in to preparing for this movie?
“Among the many conversations I had with the director Thomas Vinterberg was how do we live up to the expectations that this story has and the fact that there is already a well received version of the film. (John Schlesinger’s 1967 movie with Julie Christie and Terence Stamp). Almost everyone in the UK knows the story or has read the book or seen that film so I guess it’s the same for everyone who does an adaptation or a remake of a film. You watch that film and think either we go somewhere completely different or we try to live up to those expectations. I think being Danes and this strange match of Thomas Hardy, a very English and beloved piece and matching it with a Danish ‘Dogme’ director was a match. Thomas Vinterberg was always going to give the story his vision, an odd Danish Dogme free thinking direction to this classic English piece. So we agreed to go with that, lets just go with the Danish or more Scandanavian feel to a Hardy novel.
“Practically that means it is probably darker and we talked a lot about the close-up. That this is the portrait of Bathsheba and the three men that she is seeing. We wanted to be very detailed about the faces and the close-ups and the big landscapes. So we had those visuals as a priority, telling the story through a very simple close-up of Carey Mulligan who was playing Bathsheba.
“It was a very simple way of thinking - close ups and wide shots! We tried not to be too dictated to about what had been made before but at the same time we were giving it an overall feel saying ‘Lets not run away from what it is, lets stay true to an old fashioned story’. This isn’t a new thinking narrative, there’s nothing surprising in the story. Lets not try to make something that is handheld or trying to be exciting or shock for the sake of it.
What were your references beyond the previous movie?
“Actually we were more inspired by Gone With The Wind so wanting to go even more old fashioned. So an old fashioned well composed landscape can be a great shot, lets not try and grade some crazy sky or some DI re-composed image, just shoot what you have. Find the location and shoot it, that’s ‘the truth’.
“Let’s find the Dorset landscape that Hardy was writing about. We wanted to be true to the story and true to the time and not visualise it in a modern way. The close-ups become the heart of the film and those landscapes are not manipulated, they are the real Dorset. It was back to basics in a refreshing way because a lot of films these days have the ability to have so much done to them, there are so many possibilities and opportunities, we were ignoring those and saying this is about the close-ups and that face and her looking at him and a very old-fashioned Gone With The Wind feel, two people looking at each other.
“In some sense we were holding back technology and also why we were shooting on 35mm film. Shooting with film is a bit of a fight to get these days but one of the arguments was that it’s about texture and when you read the book there are so many descriptions about the night sky and the stars and the way they looked at that sky or the green landscapes. How do we visualise that, how do we stay true to what Hardy sees?
“He wrote pages writing about the stars, these are the same stars that are outside my door but they sound so magical. So we thought if we try too hard to make them even more beautiful skies it maybe more beautiful to stay with the truth. You have to think in a minimalistic way or a truthful way and not get carried away with opportunites - the media of film helped us to do that. With film you can’t shoot everything, you have to plan it and shoot what you plan for. So also the planning of it was also quite old fashioned, shot lists and visualising the story. We would sometimes gives titles to a scene so that those titles were what you were looking for.
“We were fighting to use 35mm from the beginning but we knew that it could fall through just weeks before we were meant to start. The second choice was to use an Arri ALEXA digital camera and probably going with some older lenses to try and soften up the image which is what many DPs do. The battles we have for using film is cost and post production. Today’s set-ups are easy workflows for digital, with film it is more difficult especially in the eyes of producers. It is slightly more complicated and that incurs costs. Also there are time issues. So it comes down to ‘You want to shoot on film? This is what you can have.” I think I am quite an old fashioned person in a sense, I love those conversations we used to have with the labs just five years ago. You go with a person you know and he knows you and the look that you are after and the lenses you use and all these things, but luckily it was a really good lab and in London there really aren’t that many choices any more. (The film used iDailies www.i-dailies.co.uk for processing and Company3 looked after the picture post.) Our producers said that if we were going the film route that this was the offer. But the good people are there.
What was the film workflow?
“You’re not relying on seeing rushes every night which you do when you are digital as you have the lab on-set with you. For Thomas the director it’s not an issue and not one for me either because we don’t normally watch rushes every day, he doesn’t like to so it wasn’t a lose in that sense.
“The way we were shooting was not to improvise – when you do period pieces the set is there, you don’t turn the camera around and shoot the modern houses – but within a set there were certain scenes where Thomas wanted to improvise and say that this is a scene that we don’t want to plan, this is a scene where I just want to go in and improvise the actors. We know what the scene is, we’ve got the lines but exactly what they do, how they do it, where they go and where they sit is totally improvised. The dancing, party scenes for example were much looser and much more what you would do for a Dogme film actually. So the overall structure maybe seen as old fashioned but within that there were certain scenes that we attacked in a different way.
“You could say that it was those scene where you see Thomas Vinterburg comes through and the thought of ‘why bring a Dogme director to a classic English period piece’. I’ve worked with Thomas on a couple of movies and I know what he’s good at so I can just go in and support him. To a degree we had to forget about the period piece and the dresses and the colours on the walls and just focus on telling that story, those feelings are more important than the design and the dress. We had to let go of the ‘Hardy’!
“Certain scenes are just a woman watching this man and just observe her doing that. So that became a much looser documentary scene within the structure of the ‘Gone With The Wind’ old fashioned landscape shots. So I can go handheld and slightly out of focus and suddenly you are in a ‘not modern’ but in a relaxed atmosphere.
“When doing it we were worried that it wouldn’t cut with the previous scene, did we change the style too much? But we had to stay true to the scene and feel that this was about her eyeballing the soldier or the farmer or whatever then it’s just about that. Her look to him and we can do whatever we want to do and if we are with her, people won’t notice the change of style. So it was important to stay to true to Thomas Hardy but also to stay true to Thomas Vinterburg.
“We were fighting to use 35mm from the beginning but we knew that it could fall through just weeks before we were meant to start.” Charlotte Bruus Christensen, DP.
How did you design the lighting?
“We tried to go with the natural light of exteriors, but sometimes just working on the faces so again when we go in for a close-up we wanted it to ‘up’ that close-up in the right way so whenever we could we would be using natural lighting and not doing too much exterior lighting. For scenes like say in a courtyard, for a close-up I would choose to bring in lights to just do a bounce or lift the eyes, to try and get that old fashioned close-up where you have two lit eyeballs and you feel that you see more than just a close-up in normal light. Again I was choosing techniques depending on the scene. If a close-up was the most important part of a scene we would spend more time lighting but if it wasn’t the most essential shot of the scene it would be a natural thing. It was kind of feeling every scene and feeling ‘is this about Bathsheba’s close-up’ then I would light that even in exteriors. Interiors were almost all lit.
“But to mention just some of the major lighting decisions we made for this film, we decided to use tungsten light for day exteriors, and for night exteriors, we mixed tungsten and HMI to created a dynamic colour palette on the negative. For all the party scenes, we were lighting for handheld 360 degree shooting. And lastly I want to mention that some scenes were dictated lighting-wise by how and where we wanted to create real black. Not film black; ‘We still wanna see into the blackness’, but a solid darkness. So a lot of flagging and blacking out was important for those interior scenes.
“The DI was just a tune-up exercise really as we were shooting with filters which is now another old fashioned way of thinking. So we were effecting the lens and the stock as it goes through the camera. People wondered why we would do that and not adjust it afterwards. We wanted to make decisions on-set as you would do 50 years ago, it is old fashioned and it is a risk because you do risk bounce-back in the lens, double images and all these things when you shoot with filters. But there is something about it that is very truthful, for instance if you have a warm scene and you put a warm filter in it, you’ve already made that decision. you’ve chosen a colour that was right for the script. It’s a judgement on a script basis not a DI basis and what transfers from a previous scene.”