Oscar-nominated 'Llewyn Davis' cinematographer was scared to fill the shoes of a legend

Posted by · 3:11 pm · January 30th, 2014

On Jan. 16, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel picked up his fourth Best Cinematography Oscar nomination to date, for the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.” He has previously been nominated for “Amelie” in 2001, “A Very Long Engagement” in 2004 (for which he won the American Society of Cinematographers Award) and “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” in 2009.

A few days before nominations were announced, I finally got around to talking with Delbonnel about his work on the film, which is really one of the shining examples of the medium this year. We discussed, among other things, his philosophy of carrying a single idea through a film with his work, personal inspirations in the world of modern art and his fear of stepping into the shoes of Coen regular Roger Deakins.

Read through our back and forth below and keep it tuned here this weekend to see if Delbonnel can pull off his second ASC win. (Though this year he’ll be up against six contenders as the wealth of great work this year ended in a tie, yielding seven nominees.)


HitFix: “Inside Llewyn Davis” really seems like a movie that doesn’t fully hit you, no matter how you feel about it initially, on first glance. Did you feel that way?

Bruno Delbonnel: That’s why the Coen brothers are brilliant and I’m not! A lot of things are happening in this movie, and in every movie from the Coen brothers, but you have to see it twice just to understand that there is a lot of things happening. For example, nobody ever mentions that the first song of the movie is ‘Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.’ Basically what he’s saying is, ‘Hang me, hang me, I’m an asshole, so, yeah, go ahead, hang me.’ This is the first song of the movie, which relates to everything you see afterwards. And the last song is ‘Fare Thee Well, My Honey’ and it’s basically – this guy is saying goodbye to everything he loves, which is folk music and everything. So if you understand the use of music in this movie, it’s very subtle, and all those songs are not just folk songs. They are really related to his story. That’s why if you go back to “Queen Jane,” you understand that, for me, Llewyn Davis picks this song to sing to Bud Grossman and he knows that he will never succeed in singing this song. Every time he sings a song he knows exactly why he’s singing it. That’s why Joel and Ethan are absolutely brilliant directors. Because there is always something underlying in their scripts. That’s my understanding. Maybe it’s too European or whatever, or too intellectual, but I really believe in this in their movies.

I actually saw it at Telluride for the first time and I knew I needed to see it again before leveling an opinion of it. There are just so many layers. I saw it again and it opened up more, and then the third time I saw it, it really revealed itself as a movie that was so elegantly about giving up. And as an artist one understands the idea that maybe you don’t have it in you and you’ve come to the end of that road. It’s a fascinating thing for them, of all people, to make a movie about.

I totally agree with you. I’m kind of disappointed that nobody gave them an award for this script. I don’t mean that the other scripts that won any awards are bad, but this script is so subtle, so intelligent that it really deserved something. And as directors, they are geniuses, really.

So few people see movies more than once this time of year. It’s the kind of movie where in a few years, people will smack their foreheads and say, “What were we thinking?”

Yeah. It’s okay with me, you know? They’ve won a lot of awards. I saw them last week and they are very happy with everything and that’s who they are. They said, ‘Yeah, that’s fine. The movie’s a success.’ So that’s great. But it’s definitely something you have to see two or three times just to understand how delicate it is.

To tell you the truth, when I graded the movie, that’s when I saw it for the first time, really. And I was shocked. I said, “Fuck, that’s a movie I shot.” And it’s a different movie than the one I read, somehow. Even if nothing changes, you know, it’s exactly the script I read but I read it like a DP, you know, “What can I do with this and how can I solve this kind of problem and blah, blah, blah, what kind of light can I do?” I did it really in a very critical way, let’s put it this way. And when I discovered it, I remember I told them, “Wow, it’s a very sad movie. It’s really – there are so many layers.”

I have to ask about the fact that obviously the Coens shoot most of their movies with Roger Deakins and they have an on-going shorthand with him. I know you had worked with them before on “Paris je t’aime,” but were you nervous at all? Was there any trepidation?

What do you think? I was so scared. You wouldn’t believe it. I finished “Dark Shadows” two months before I started prepping with them, so I was kind of in a good mood in terms of – I was very active and “Dark Shadows” was a very long shoot, so technically I was feeling it, let’s put it this way. But I was shitting my pants! Really, I was so scared just to have them compare me to Roger at some point or not to give them what they expected. So I was really, really scared. But they are gentlemen. They never, ever mentioned his name. And even if the crew was the same they worked with for the last 10 years – I was the new guy in the family – nobody ever on this set mentioned Roger Deakins’ name. They were so helpful. And after a week it was okay because after a week of dailies when they said they liked it I was a bit more confident. But, you know, yeah, Roger is a legend and everything he’s done with them is fantastic. So how can I put it other than I was scared?

What were the conversations about the look of the film? Was it you who brought up the cover of Bob Dylan’s “Freewheelin'” or was it them who said they wanted to emulate that? Tell me just about your first discussions about the visual identity of the movie.

“Freewheelin”” was the first thing. I think I did bring it to them. But, in fact, what happened was they called me and I was shooting on “Dark Shadows” with Tim Burton and they said that, “We know that you’re shooting so we’ll call you back in two weeks and if you have a couple of ideas that would be fine.” So I made some research and I had the “Freewheelin”” album at home so I remember this cover. And when they called me back I said, “I have this idea about ‘Freewheelin’,'” and they said, “Yeah, we had the same idea.” So in fact, we never mentioned it but they had it in mind. And I’m sure they would have mentioned it later if I wouldn’t have mentioned it before. Because the reference was New York, winter, slushy and blah, blah, blah. So “Freewheelin”” was the obvious idea. And there is Bob Dylan’s shadow all along the movie anyway. So it was kind of an obvious thing. That was a starting point and that’s when we started discussing. I said, “But that’s not enough. I’m not really creating a look of the period,” you know? I kind of don’t like when people say it’s a period look. I hate it because that’s not what I was looking for. I was really looking for sadness and melancholy, you know? And obviously winter helps you to carry this kind of mood. But that’s what I was looking for, just really melancholy, as if the image was really related to Oscar, to Llewyn Davis.

Maybe that reaction is a response to the production design and set decoration, because Jess Gonchor’s work does such a great job of meticulously recreating the period, but the photography is different. I don’t think there’s anything particularly “period” about the photography, per se.

I don’t think so, either because – I mean, again I totally agree with you. Jess did a fantastic job and that”s the period look. That’s really the period thing, and he did extensive research and what he found and what he recreated is absolutely amazing. It was really helpful for me. And I worked really closely with him on that. But in terms of look, you know, I always say, “What is a period ‘look?'” The only reference we have from the 60s are movies shot on ektachrome or, you know, whatever. So it means that the look we know is based on a technology. And by the time they were using ektachrome or kodachrome or those kinds of stock, it doesn’t mean that was the reality of things. I mean the kinds of color that Jess brings to the movie are more accurate, and probably what I did is more accurate to the period than anything you can see on film from the 60s. I don’t know. If people would have had the stock I have now in the 60s, they would have done the same, probably, except for the melancholy!

I also wanted to talk a little bit about camera movement. There are a few instances where dollying here and there stuck out to me. What was the overall plan for how the camera would move when it did?

First of all there are very, very few movements. It’s kind of a static movie, so there are very few movements. That’s why I think you notice those, because there are very few of them. Otherwise you wouldn’t notice them. For example, when he’s singing to Bud Grossman, that’s when you can notice it. And the philosophy around it is keeping it as simple as we can. So it’s basically locked-off shots. The push-in on the car when Oscar is leaving the cat is a post effect. We didn’t move the camera, and later Joel and Ethan decided to do a slow push-in. I don’t know why they did it but we didn”t do it [on set]. So there is even less movement in this movie than what you expected.

I’m also thinking of the very first shot when Oscar Isaac kind of floats into frame.

That’s the only handheld movement in the whole movie. It’s funny you mention that. That”s the opening shot of the movie and it’s handheld because we had the discussion at some point at the very beginning that we would do the whole movie handheld. And they said, “Come on, no, no. It’s not this kind of movie. It would be more interesting if it’s static, very static.” The only movement is in Llewyn Davis’ head and what’s happening to him. The story is the movement, it”s not the camera. So we discussed this for a couple of hours and they kind of agreed and said, “So what if we only keep one handheld shot for the very beginning, as if it was a fake documentary.” And I said, “Okay, let’s do that.” So that’s the only handheld shot of the whole movie.

So they wanted the camera locked off to make it more observational as a movie? To keep from providing too much commentary on the story with how it was shot?

No, I”m not sure – they are not, how can I say…

I know they don’t think in those terms at all. If I asked them that question, they’d laugh at me.

Yeah, yeah, I think they would! You know, in “No Country for Old Men,” there is no movement at all. They like static shots. It’s all about composition and they let the actor give the performance. They don’t emphasize a performance with camera movement, never, ever. Sometimes a movement has meaning and sometimes they don’t even know themselves. They think at this point of the story they should move the camera and I think that”s the way they work and the way they think. It’s not like Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who I work with a lot and he’s always moving the camera. That’s his style. He needs to have this kind of fluidity and Baroque kind of thing. That”s his style. But the Coens are very static. All their movies are static. They use movement when they need to follow something, they need to follow an action or emphasize or something. And on this movie the story was so strong that they didn’t need to emphasize that much. It would have been an error, I think. It would have been a mistake just to move the camera that much. I think they made the right decision, as usual.

The last thing I want to ask you is I’m curious about your personal inspirations with your photography. I feel like there’s an aesthetic to your work, that I can identify when you’ve shot a film. There are certain elements that pop out, like there’s something about the softness of lighting in your work that is gorgeous to me, and seeing that married with the Coens on a film like this was fascinating. So I’m just interested in knowing what your personal inspirations are.

Thank you. I think now my inspirations are not coming from photography or movies anymore, you know? It’s more about abstract painting and playing with time. I really appreciate you mentioning that but it’s a very hard question, somehow. I think for me now there are painters I really worship, Mark Rothko, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg. For me, they are very important in terms of references, because their paintings are so strong and they are not figurative. That’s why I’m interested in what they do because when you look at their paintings, there’s something coming back to you, which is their interpretation of the world. It goes back to you and it becomes your interpretation of the world through their painting, if you see what I mean. So I’m looking for the same thing in movie-making.

That”s why “Llewyn Davis” is one concept. It’s melancholy and it’s sadness. So the question was, “How can I bring this to film? How can I be consistent all through the movie with this idea?” I did the same on “Amélie” or “Harry Potter [and the Half-Blood Prince].” Every time I try to find an idea which I can follow through the whole move, which is a feeling. It’s not a look. I’m not interesting in look. It’s really a feeling. What is the feeling of this movie, which is my own personal feeling, my own interpretation of this movie? That’s why I think it’s a bit peculiar in this world. What I’m doing is a bit special, somehow. I’m not arrogant about it, it’s just my way of filming. And every time I read a script I try to understand what I can do in terms of feeling, not aesthetics. The aesthetic comes later, but what is the feeling of this movie and how do I respond to it or what is my answer to this script?

Well with that in mind, what were the ideas you wanted to convey throughout “Amélie” and “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” since you mention those.

Oh, “Harry Potter” was about having Hogwarts, the castle, as the main character. Not the story. The story was boring. It was not a very interesting story. I wanted to feel something very disturbing, as if the castle itself was a person and in every corner you could have something happening. It’s not about Voldemort or all those big visual effects scenes, which are, you know, they are what they are and they were absolutely well done. The visual effects supervisor was brilliant and they did a fantastic job. But to me it was about this thing, which always comes back, so it was a variation, you know, they always come back to the school. Always, always. And the one I shot, 80 percent of the movie happened in the school, so my question was the main character could be the castle. And it’s a very desolate place, so I wanted something not very appealing, you know? There is no seduction about it. There was a romance going on, Harry Potter’s going to fall in love in this school, but who cares? Because it’s not the main thing. I didn’t want to do a romantic comedy. I wanted something very disturbing, so it’s as if this love story inside the school was something very, very uncomfortable. I was looking for this kind of thing. It’s a variation on gray, and I used a lot of Mark Rothko references for that.

And “Amélie,” I don’t remember. That’s 12 years ago. I’ve moved on!

Does that happen with you? Does it leave you after a certain amount of time, the experience of making a movie?

No, I just don’t care anymore. I mean I just move on. First of all, as any other DP, I don’t watch the movie I’ve done. I’ve done it. I’ve done them and I’m happy I’ve done them. There is nothing I regret and I”m happy I’ve done “Potter” and “Amélie” or whatever. But I move on and I try to explain something different every time. That’s it. “Amélie” was 12 years ago and I don’t even remember what I did, you know, and why. And maybe it was not those kind of concepts anyway, when I did “Amélie.” You evolve, you know? And so I changed. If I would do “Amélie” now I would do it totally differently. But I don’t think it would be better. I don’t have a clue. I don’t really ask myself these questions anyway.

Fair enough. Well thank you again for taking the time to talk. It’s a fantastic piece of work, immaculately crafted on all levels.

Oh, thank you. I really appreciate it. And, you know, I must tell you your questions are very interesting.

Well thank you!

It’s really quite rare. There are a lot of people who talk about how you achieve something, which is a bit boring. But, you know, I really appreciate it. Thank you very much.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is now playing in theaters.

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