Benoît Debie’s cinematography – while I can’t quite boast to having seen all, or even most, of it – has fascinated me for quite a lot of years. So, with the most recent Speaking In Cinema event at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, I had an opportunity to sit down with the well-known DP and chat it up about his films. The first portion of our lengthy interview is over at the Miami New Times, and the conversation continues here at Dim the House Lights. Enjoy.
So there’s a lot of cool shifts in lighting in Spring Breakers, but I wanted to ask about the lighting at the school in particular. There’s a lot of cold fluorescent lighting to complement the scenes where the girls complain about how dull everything is, but then the bedrooms are a perfect contrast where everything is so warm. And you really do something special with the classroom scenes.
Part of the school was kind of tricky for me because the movie was colorful and the school is usually quite flat. And usually I’m throwing some lights on the ceiling and it’s white and I was thinking ‘whites suck’ because I wanted the same style for the whole movie and not have 20 minutes, 15 minutes, whatever, with just white. And I remember when I was scouting the classroom, you know the one with all the computers, and it was with a big window and completely white. All the walls were white and I was thinking ‘wow I don’t know what to do.’
And here in the United States it’s not the same as in Europe. A lot of kids are using a computer a laptop at the school and I had the idea to shut down all the light of classroom and to just use the screen of the laptop. And we did that. The other departments, they did a kind of link between all of the computers to be able to change the colors of the laptop and back, just to do blue and then yellow, and the room was lit with only the computers. It was an idea to avoid something more normal, and that’s it, it was just to find some trick.
And it always seems like you’re doing something elaborate or trying to find some new or interesting way to shoot things. Actually, can you tell me about some of the bigger crane shots for Enter the Void?
Which one because there’s a lot. [laughs] Mainly I think for us the two bigger shots for us that are crane shots, I think this is the bigger one: you know when they kill the kid and there was one where we could see the man on the floor and we see the kid enter the world. So we did that with two cranes: one was on top of a building, just a very wide shot of the body and man and everything and we were shooting down, and another crane was on the floor and was waiting for the first crane.
We were waiting for them to match almost at the same framing and Gaspar did it. After a month, there was nothing between the two cameras and the one from the floor kept going into the floor and after that the one on the top was waiting to go down to capture the boy behind the building. But one time, we had a crane running with the guy on the street like a top shot and a big crane on a truck and it was a technocrane and that shot was amazing. It wasn’t in the movie, but we were following the guy and only the side of the subway was lit, and with the crane we were able to go over the subway and come back to the guy and it was amazing with all of the wire and everything.
At the end we had to cut because the idea was to follow him and not to go everywhere, and that shot was three cranes almost together and in the end it wasn’t special effects. It was tricky. It took us two nights to get the shots properly, but it’s just fade in and fade out between two cameras and that’s it. Another big one was at the love hotel. That was just 7 or 8 rooms inside of a big stage and we had a big technocrane going, and it was flying above each room and it captures the action. So it was a big set up to make and light and shoot.
I think that was almost two days too, but it’s a long shot too – something like 7 minutes or 8 minutes – and it takes two days to get that. But after that we did many shoots and at the beginning some of the shots of the streets are CGI. The idea was to do it in life, but we were trying to shoot and it was too much because we had put a camera between two buildings and then hide the camera with a remote and at the end it wasn’t huge so we had to do some parts in CGI.
And how was moving into 3D with someone like Gaspar then?
It’s crazy because I did 3D with Wim Wenders before Love and, after that, I said to Gaspar – who had already wanted to do a movie in 3D but was concerned because it’s heavier, it takes longer to achieve shots – that it was fine because you can bring a small rig with small cameras and have stuff that’s quite compact. It’s a bit more, but I did some tests for him to show him all the stuff and we decided to do it in 3D. Which I think is quite interesting because it’s unique.
Do you ever find yourself trying to intentionally make things erotic or subvert that eroticism in movies? Like Spring Breakers for instance.
I’m not sure. I think, for Spring Breakers, it was more for me to shoot the reality of Spring Break in the US. And, even for me, because it was my first Spring Break, it was interesting to see how it worked. And it wasn’t so much to show off girls, but that’s more part of the concept or the idea; something to ask Harmony.
It’s always a kind of question I want to ask because you never really know how much the director of photography holds over the director and vice versa. How do your relationships with directors usually work out?
Usually we are quite close. Usually I am close with the director and also what I want to do is help the director, to be nice, so I never push for my work, but go with the director and do what he feels is best for his movie. Because I know sometimes people try to push for their own work. I play with colors a lot, but if the director asks me for green that’s what I do, and if the director asks me for red that’s what I do. To decide on color, it’s sometimes it’s very personal, so sometimes I say I don’t know. Otherwise I go with his idea if he wants something specific.
When it comes to Ryan Gosling and Harmony Korine, directors you’ve worked with less frequently than Fabrice du Welz or Gaspar Noé, how do they typically approach you?
For the movie? For Ryan, I met him almost 8 years ago. I was in LA, I think doing the color timing for another movie, and he called me through my agent just to take a coffee with him. He was already thinking to direct a movie, and was interested to do it with me, and it was much before Drive and everything. But at the end he didn’t do it. And I was again in LA years later for Spring Breakers, for the timing, and he called me again and said, “Can you come out again to my house? I want to tell you something for a project I have.”
So I went to see him, and he started to talk about his idea for Lost River, but he was still working on the script and trying to figure out the budget and everything and he asked if I was interested about that. Then we just stayed in touch and when he was ready I decided to do it with him, because I like him a lot. He’s a very talented guy and I was interested about the movie and him and all of the characters of the movie too. And then Harmony I think was also a close friend of Gaspar and he said, “You should work with Benoît on your next film.”
And with Gaspar?
I don’t know, it was a long time ago and I did three movies with him already [Irreversible, Enter the Void and Love]. Him, because I come from Belgium, he was in Brussels to show his first feature film, I Stand Alone, and before his movie I was working on a short film with Fabrice Du Welz. I did his first short movie with him and that was in 1999 and so the movie was before I Stand Alone for the release of the movie. And before the movie, Gaspar came to me himself and he said, “I love the short and the way you did it.” Then 6 months later he called me to do Irreversible and that’s it. I met Gaspar like that and it was quite quick, and now we are very close. And it’s a strange collaboration because Gaspar doesn’t speak so much, so I see him a lot, but I cannot tell you I know him so well. So it’s not like I can be like well we talk all the time and everything but it’s not like I know him so well that we can go eat together and talk about life. [laughs]
So, back to movies, one last thing: now that you’ve experimented with 3D, you’ve gotten to play with lighting in a way that you never expected, what else do you want to try that you haven’t already done yet?
I don’t know what I want to try. There’s what I like, but how do you experiment? I don’t know, because usually when I shoot a movie, when I shoot a project, I always need to challenge myself to try to do something different. I shot Enter the Void, but I don’t want to do it again. I shot that movie, but I don’t want to do similar in a year. I’m working on the new Harmony Korine movie [The Trap] and we stopped for the weather, but I’m thinking with Harmony about how we are trying to do something different and unique. I don’t want to say too much about the project, but this is the end of film. I think I am going to keep shooting on film as long as I can, but I really want to experiment something new on film to show it is the best.
And you know sometimes I speak with some DPs or producers, and they say film and digital are exactly the same. And for Spring Breakers and Lost River, for example, it was completely impossible to achieve that look on digital. I know because I shoot a lot on digital as well, and I know that, and some people tell me that, no, this is the same thing. And I think for the movie with Harmony I want to do something unique; to prove this is something unique and you can’t get that on digital. Even when I work on digital, because I don’t like the digital now, I always try to destroy it. Because I always try to challenge the idea that they’re always trying to push me to do the good level for the white and for the black and the middle. And this what I always don’t do, because I know, it’ll all be the same. It’ll be all flat, and so I always go very dark and they say if you go too dark on digital it doesn’t work, that you have to be careful. And I say, “Yeah, but this is a nice image. It’s not a signal, it’s just an image.” Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes I try to find something more organic.