Philippe Le Sourd on shooting 'The Grandmaster' and the historic final roll of Fujifilm

Posted by · 11:13 am · February 5th, 2014

Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster” is just the latest stylish entry in the filmography of a revered auteur. Yet remarkably, none of his films had been nominated for the Oscar for Best Cinematography until two weeks ago when his latest broke that unusual streak with a nomination for Philippe Le Sourd.

“It’s very exciting,” Le Sourd, who was also nominated by the American Society of Cinematographers, says. “I was surprised and feel like a kid. It was a long, long journey of shooting the film. I’m very honored and very proud.”

It was three years from the moment the director approached Le Sourd about working on the project to the moment final reshoots were finished, but of course, the cinematographer didn’t realize that’s what he was getting himself into. “I didn’t know when I met Kar-wai – he says ‘come with me for six months’ and it took three years! But every day was a discovery of a new scene. It was a unique experience with a film like that.”

Notwithstanding the grueling schedule, the invigorating spirit of a filmmaker like Wong Kar-wai went a long way. “He would try everything,” Le Sourd says. “Nothing is impossible, and we always have to make it better, have to be proud in our work. It’s challenging for everyone – every day, every night. And in China, you shoot seven days a week. It’s very challenging. The train station scene, for instance, took two months in the cold.”

Not only was the Chinese filming schedule new for Le Sourd, but he also needed to jump into Asian cinema in a way he never had before. While he had worked with Wong on a commercial and a short film, he had never worked on a feature with the director. As a Frenchman, he nonetheless thought, “Wong Kar-wai chose me, so I had to prove I was the right choice.”

That became a challenge right away as the first year was shot in Manchuria in sub-freezing temperatures. “Physically, it was very difficult, very challenging for the actors,” Le Sourd says. Mentally it was also trying. “What are you going to do in the middle of nowhere? One year later, you want to make sure it could be the same movie. Can you imagine shooting something and then two years later having to re-create it [during reshoots]? I have notebooks from every day to make sure of the same continuity.”

Filming martial arts was something Le Sourd had not done in this manner before, either. The action is swift and in order to operate the camera and properly capture it all and grab the right moment, he and his team had to be on top of things. As a result, one of Wong’s principal features of filming became all the more important: using shadows and silhouettes to convey movement and, consequently, the story. “I had to think about the shape,” Le Sourd says. “The main idea for me was ‘I want to see black-and-white’…if I see only the shape, I will better see the movement than seeing the face.”

The film is an interesting one, historically speaking, in the realm of cinematographer: it was shot on the last roll of Fujifilm ever produced. But Le Sourd isn’t absolutist about celluloid. “I think everything is possible on digital,” he says. “‘Gravity’ is amazing work and we couldn’t do it before. It’s a great adventure today to be a working cinematographer.”

But while not resisting the inevitable shift to digital, and acknowledging how it can improve filmmaking, Le Sourd is still nostalgic for film. “When you’re on the set, there’s something magical about film,” he says. “I would say it was a nice emotion to shoot the last roll of Fuji film on stock. It’s like an old friend that is passing – and old friend who was with you for such a long long time. You’re afraid to lose the memory. But you have to embrace new technology.”

This was just one thing that Le Sourd will never forget about the experience that was filming “The Grandmaster.” He had to be “the servant of the idea of the cinema with Wong Kar-wai,” he reminisces. “You start to change over three years. As the only foreigner [or close to it] on the film, I felt I was part of something unique.”

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