“THE NICE GUYS.” Cinematography by Philippe Rousselot, ASC, AFC
“THE NICE GUYS” opens in Cannes on May 15 and in the US on May 20. It is one of two “first digital features” at the Festival. “Café Society” premiered at Cannes on May 11. It was the first digital motion picture for Director Woody Allen and Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC. Woody Allen has directed 47 films on film. Storaro has shot 58 films on film.
“The Nice Guys” was the first digital feature for Philippe Rousselot. He had shot digital commercials, but not a full length digital film.
Here is an interview conducted a few days ago about “The Nice Guys,” cinematography, digital, lenses and life.
JON FAUER: “The Nice Guys” trailer looks really good.
PHILIPPE ROUSSELOT: Believe me, the film is even better than the trailer.
How did you choose this project, and how did they choose you?
This is my fourth film with Joel Silver, the Producer. He seems to appreciate my work, which is always very pleasant. He might have been part of my being hired. He sent me the script. I enjoyed it very much. It was well-crafted, funny, enjoyable and very entertaining. I had seen many films written by the Director, Shane Black—all really good.
Which films did you work on with Joel Silver?
Prior to “The Nice Guys,” I did “Sherlock Holmes” and “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” (both directed by Guy Ritchie) and “The Brave One,” (directed by Neil Jordan).
Tell us about the plot of “The Nice Guys.”
It’s a story of two men. One is a private eye (Ryan Gosling) and the other is a hired guy (Russell Crow). When you have a problem, you hire that kind of guy to solve the problem. An enforcer. By accident, they happen to wind up working on the same case which becomes much bigger than what they expected.
What style did you and Director Shane Black decide on? A 1970s look?
That was a question: should we make it look like a film from the 70s? My answer was, “I was working in the 70s, so what are we talking about? My style or somebody else’s style? There were as many styles as there were DPs, filmmakers and directors in the 70s. So which one are you going we pick?” My second argument was: if you pick a film from the 70s, are you really going to entertain your audience with the way films were shot in the 70s? Obviously, I don’t think that would be the case. My third point was that the sets, wardrobe, dialogue and the music would all be sufficient to evoke the 70s. You don’t need to add lenses from the 70s or film techniques from the 70s to tell the audience that it takes place in the 70s. I don’t think the camera has to mimic a period that most people have forgotten in terms of how films were lit at the time or how they were shot. So basically for me, it was taking the script, looking at what was happening in front of the camera and shooting it in the most visually efficient manner for the film to be enjoyable.
It’s ironic that our present-day memories of historical looks, vintage lenses or equipment often are totally removed from how the images actually looked back then. It’s our imagination, isn’t it?
It’s a total imagination and I think it’s kind of a gimmick that might work for an audience of seasoned DPs or film buffs, but that’s about it. I don’t think an audience is interested in that. I’ve done those things when I was a DP in those years, but I nowadays I certainly don’t want to do things we remember from the 70s, like zooming in and out for no possible reason on all kinds of shots. We don’t do that anymore.
But you know what? In the 70s, the English had a way of shooting films. The Americans had a way of shooting films and I had a way of shooting films. And it was not a uniform style.
So how did you determine the style for this film and how would you describe it?
That’s more and more my philosophy now, unless there’s a real purpose that is embedded in the story and the script to go one way or the other. My view on cinematography is to pay attention to what is in front of your camera and reflect on that. Go with it rather than impose a style that is predetermined and may end up being out of whack most of the time. Sometimes I tell students, “Imagine the film you want to do. Imagine the image that you want to produce. Those are not bad things to do. But then you get on the set and it could be a sunny day. It could be raining. So don’t lose your attention to what’s happening at that very moment. Because that is the reality. That is what you have to deal with. Your imagination three months before might have been completely inappropriate.
You have to stay flexible?
Absolutely. We photograph a reality that’s been given to us, even when we’re on a sound stage. The reality is the set. It’s costumes. It’s makeup and actors. It’s a director who also has ideas or desires to do things in a certain way. You must pay attention.
Does that influence your lighting?
At the time “The Nice Guys” took place, streets were very often lit with sodium lamps. There were tungsten fixtures and fluorescent lights indoors. TV sets didn’t look like the pure light that we have from them now. Things were different, so we had to take that into account. Also, it’s a thriller. At times it’s a comedy, but for a very good portion it’s a thriller that does not necessarily go with convention.
You can be bold and invent things to get the atmosphere of the film. I would say it’s flirting with convention but staying away from it. I don’t know how else to express that. It’s a question of contrast, color and mood. There is a very interesting scene in the film where you see an example. Russell Crowe has a serious problem with two guys who want to beat him up. Shane Black plays with the genre. He takes it upside down. The whole scene plays in the dark. And then, at one moment, in order to fool the two guys, the character played by Russell Crowe turns on the light. Usually the scene would have been written the other way around: punching people in the dark to confuse them. But he does exactly the opposite. That’s interesting because then you have a very long scene that has to be played in semi-darkness. So you decide, okay, light comes from the windows. And the convention is usually a kind of bluish light that comes in through the window at night from street lights. But I played it completely the opposite way. I had very warm light coming through the window. There’s a kind of playfulness that I sometimes like to go with by changing things in reverse.
You probably worked with practical lights as well.
Yes, many practical lights. There was a big party scene in a house on location with lots of people and no room for lights. You fill a room with a crowd, and you don’t have room to put anything else there. So I played with the practicals, just changing the bulbs of the recessed lights in the ceiling. We had a very tight schedule and had to go rather fast. So I also was very concerned about being quick.
What about added lighting?
I used LED panels often because they were easy to hide. They were very convenient in many locations. We could sometimes just plug them into the wall outlets. It was a way of going much faster.
This was an anamorphic show?
Yes, I have a weakness for anamorphic.
I remember that. What lenses did you use?
We used the Panavision G series primes and the Angénieux Optimo 56-152mm A2S T4 Anamorphic zoom.
Did the primes and zoom match? Different generations and technologies?
I think they matched well.
When did you use the primes and when did you use the zoom?
That depended on the situation. I don’t have a theory for that.
Since you said you want to work quickly or efficiently, does that mean you’re using the zoom more often?
Sometimes. We shot with two cameras and sometimes we had to put the zoom on one camera and the prime on the other. The zoom is great because you put it on the camera, you don’t ask questions, and you frame the shot. You adjust the framing a bit more or a bit less. But I’m not always completely crazy about using zooms, because I think you lose a certain discipline. I like films where you use only two prime lenses, because you get some consistency in your way of shooting if you limit yourself to a minimum number of lenses. It’s not always the most efficient way to do it. At least it’s nice to try, because you know certain shots done on the 75mm are not the same if you do the same shot on the 65mm. But sometimes it’s politics that’s really hard to maintain.
What do you mean by the politics?
It means that sometimes you have to adjust your way of thinking. For example, when you shoot on location you’re always limited by the walls that you can’t move. So if you decide at the beginning, “Okay, I’m going to do the film with only two or three lenses,” you’re stuck in a corner and you can’t do anything. That’s a problem. And even on a stage you don’t want to necessarily move all the walls just to gain the equivalent of 10 millimeters so you can get your frame. That’s what I mean. It’s very difficult. But it’s a nice concept in your head.
I don’t want to be a fanatic about this theory. It’s just a nice feeling. I remember a specific production. I’ve done two films with a French director I like very much, Bertrand Blier, and we used the 27mm and 150mm spherical primes. Sometimes other lenses, but rarely. It was very funny because after he rehearsed a scene we said, “Okay, let’s look at it on the 27mm.” And then the director said, “I’m not sure that’s working. Let’s try it on the 150mm.” It went between these extremes, and opposites, and he always worked like that. It was very funny. I like the idea that there is this kind of consistency. But again, there are other more important things when you make a movie than the consistency of lenses. There are other factors to take care of.
Like the ever increasing awareness of budget and the pressure to work faster? Doesn’t the zoom help you to work faster? As you said, to adjust the focal length by just a few millimeters rather than change lenses?
Yes, it does. But working faster is not so much a technical thing. I feel that to work fast, the best way is to make quick decisions. If you start pondering how you’re going to shoot the scene and then wind up in doubt and worried about maybe missing something, then you lose confidence and you start reshooting the entire scene from all kinds of different angles. This is how you kill a schedule. If you shoot quickly, and I’m not saying it’s easy, but shooting a film quickly means making the good decisions rapidly. It requires confidence which sometimes you don’t deserve. With Shane Black, we made decisions very rapidly. It went extremely well, and I think the film is terrific.
Specifically on “The Nice Guys,” take us through the process of setting up a shot.
Shane blocks the action and then we discuss how we’re going to shoot it. “Okay, we need this shot, that shot. We don’t need that one.” Breaking down the scene is a matter of figuring out the important aspects and making a little list of what we need to see in order to understand and enjoy the story. What do we need to see to make the shot or the scene funny or dramatic or interesting? I’m not saying you have to write this kind of thing on a piece of paper. Once you’ve done that list, it’s not brain surgery. You just look and see from which position you can achieve that list. Then you ask yourself, do you want to move the camera? Moving the camera is basically deciding how you can accelerate, slow down, intensify a shot, an idea or a purpose. In order to do that, you have to have a very good knowledge and understanding of the script. What I do most of the time during preparation is basically read the script and know as much about it as I can.
How much prep time did you have on this show: scouting, reading the script, making notes?
Probably six weeks. We started shooting around the end of October.
Do you make notes in the script? How do you prepare?
I make lists of specific problems. And then I make notes of what I think we should do along with all kinds of ideas. Most of these ideas, by the way, don’t make it into the actually filming. As I said, you wake up in the morning, go on set, and realize that the beautiful, bright idea you had five weeks ago just doesn’t work because the actors are doing something else. But it’s nice to have at least a mental preparation because it’s much easier to improvise if you have a solid base. Writing down ideas is not so much making a decision about exactly what you want to do. It’s more about understanding the script and what is interesting in the story or the points that are to be made.
And then you are there on the day and say, “Okay, that was a silly idea. Here’s a much better way to do it.”
What can you tell us about the camera operating?
We used Steadicam when it was convenient, going around obstacles, walking and talking.
Will Arnot operated the A camera and did Steadicam. Tom Marvel was B camera operator, but when I use two cameras, I usually think of the cameras as being both completely A cameras. They’re both equally important. Valentine Marvel was First Camera Assistant; I worked with her many times before and she is very good.
What cameras did you use?
ARRI Alexa XT cameras. This was the first feature that I shot on digital. I’ve been very reluctant all these years to use digital for a good reason. I didn’t think it was very good for many years.
But now I have to admit that it’s a good comparison to film. I hope I will shoot film again one day. I must say that the Alexa, and the speed of the Alexa, helped me a lot with the lighting.
Was there a noticeable difference in the way it looked compared to film?
It’s funny because I had shot with the Alexa on commercials. It’s not a camera that was totally foreign to me. But when I thought about shooting this feature with digital, I said “Okay, it’s not going to look like film and when I get to the DI, I will have to do a lot of things. I’m going to add grain so it looks like film.” And then I did the DI with a colorist I’ve been working with often in London. We finished and presented our work to the director and the producer. Everybody was happy. A couple of weeks later, I realized that I had forgotten to add grain. Since I had forgotten, perhaps I didn’t need grain in the first place. To be honest, I don’t think anyone is going to leave the cinema saying, “I can’t take it—the image looks too digital.”
It’s different. But you know what? You don’t do the same film twice with different media. I think for this film it’s not going to hurt that it’s digital.
How and why did you decide on digital for “The Nice Guys?”
I knew I could go faster with digital. And I just thought it was time for me to try it.
It’s interesting that both your and Vittorio Storaro’s first digital features are being presented at Cannes this year. Vittorio said that the time had come for him to make the passage from film to digital “because progress is something that we cannot stop or criticize from afar. I think it’s time for us to embrace digital capture.”
I think you can still find a good lab, but that means that you may see the dailies two days later. There’s always a fear with film that it’s not going to go well and it may be scratched. It’s not that you can’t make a film on film anymore, because it’s been proven that a lot of people still do shoot on film. And why not? I hope I will still use film one of these days. But now studios are used to this digital process. The editors and the visual effects people are used to it. It’s becoming a way of doing things.
Remember when oil paint replaced tempera pigments in the 1400s? I don’t think there was a huge outcry back then.
What I’m a little bit nervous about is the tendency of cinematographers, and this goes for many professions, to only see their technique and their craft as the most important things in the process. For me, the most important thing in working on a film is trying to make it as good as possible.
I know it seems a little bit pretentious, but I don’t care about my photography. If the film is good, my photography is good.
If my photography’s brilliant and the film is bad, then I don’t think my photography is brilliant. We are trying to make the film in the best artistic way possible, but I think cinematography is never better than the film itself. If it is, there’s something wrong. I have to think about my cinematography as being the best possible way to achieve a good story. But we are not photographers. We are not painters. We’re filmmakers.
And the camera is just a tool like your analogy of the oil versus tempera.
Exactly. I’ve done it. I’ve done painting with oil.
Are you still painting?
No. I tried to get back to it. I will get back to it. But I think I’m not old enough. I’ll wait another 10 years. It’s terribly hard. I was not very good at it, but I used to absolutely love it.
What do you do in your spare time now? Or you don’t have any spare time?
I work in my garden in Brittany a little bit. I try to play the piano. And I hike a lot.
I have some spare time because I’m not piling up job after job. I need breaks between films so I do not lose the pleasure of doing them. That’s very important.