Filming High Life marked my first feature collaboration with writer-director Claire Denis.
Part survival story and part erotic science-fiction, the film’s primary setting is a spaceship on which a group of prisoners are forced to participate in a mission to search for new forms of energy in a black hole, and are subjected to sexual experiments by one Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche).
Running a Tight Ship
To give Claire the ability to move seamlessly throughout the spaceship and shoot the multiple close-ups the film called for, we used a mostly practical set-up with not much additional lighting. The story spans 20 years, which meant that we had to conceptualize how the spaceship would look in its different stages. In the spaceship’s “pristine stage,” our lighting had to be extremely bright. In the spaceship’s “destroyed stage,” the ship is run-down and malfunctioning, so our lighting becomes gradually darker. To convey this sense of change, it was important for Claire that we shot the spaceship with brown, yellow, blue, and greenish hues—colors that change cyclically like day and night, spring and autumn.
Our shooting schedule was about 35 days, so executing everything depended upon what we did in prep. To develop the look of a greenhouse located on a lower floor of the spaceship, for instance, Claire and I spent a lot of time attending garden exhibitions and reading books on various forms of greenery. Our crew also watched a lot of films together—especially Stalker, which served as our prime example of the mood we wanted to capture: Like Andrei Tarkovsky’s great film, High Life is ultimately a story of what happens inside human beings’ bodies and minds.
Living Inside of a Scene
Claire usually doesn’t like to move the camera much. Her ideas and instincts are what make her a great director. While shooting High Life, she would walk in the middle of the set as an actor would to feel the scene from inside. She can feel where the energy is, and where the best camera angles will be. She lives from the inside of a scene, so whenever she would say certain words to me, or give me even the slightest indication that I would have to follow her lead, I would. Working like this is actually pretty easy. Sometimes if your director works this way and doesn’t “feel” a scene, you might have to wait for it to come, and that takes time. But with Claire, this process usually happens very quickly. She may turn an actor around toward a different position on set, and suddenly we will agree that, “Yes—that was the angle we needed. That was the little push that will give us the feeling we’re look- ing for.” I learned a lot when working with Claire about how to exercise control and communicate intent by analyzing a scene live, as it’s being shot.
No Dead Formats
One key conceit of High Life is that most of the film feels tiny and claustrophobic, and the screen space only opens up toward our climax. This meant that we had to shoot most of our scenes in a 1:6:1 aspect ratio. Our scenes that take place in small rooms and small beds called for a small, near-invisible camera, so we used the ALEXA SXT Plus to shoot them. But because Claire believed strongly that our yellow-tinged lighting should look “alive”—organic, rather than digital or rendered with special effects—it was clear to her that the only way to convey that would be with the grain of 35mm. So, for the last three to five minutes of the film, during a moment in which our characters exit the spaceship inside of a little capsule, we changed formats again and shot it in 35mm.
Thinking Inside the Box
Perhaps High Life’s most memorable visual motif—the “fuckbox,” a device on the spaceship designed to bring those who enter it to near orgasm, mechanically—was shot quite differently from how we shot the rest of the film. To shoot a scene in which Dr. Dibs uses the machine, we filmed with Juliette over the course of one afternoon in Paris, two months after the rest of our scenes had already been finished. An important concept here was to dim our lighting up and down to create a fluorescent look. Because Juliette’s black hair surrounded her naturally in darkness, her skin appeared pale white by contrast, so the scene wasn’t especially difficult to light. And whereas most of High Life was shot mainly on a dolly, we shot the fuckbox scene handheld, so Claire and I could give the movements of Juliette’s body a certain kind of rhythm and musicality.
Blowing a Hole Inside the Budget
Creating convincing effects such as the impression of a black hole in space on High Life’s low budget presented a major challenge for our crew. At Claire’s instruction, we shot various five-second clips for “texture”—smoke and fog against a backlight, sandpaper, rain, laser lights, and so on. At the time we shot this footage, we didn’t know exactly what it was for—only that it would give Claire and her special effects team something tangible to edit and and use as references. These clips were later layered together to create the black hole as it’s seen in the film.
Flight of Fantasy
Working with Claire, the shoot is the part of the process I value the most. She’s happiest and most excited when she’s shooting, too, and as she begins to explain the rules of the film’s world to you, suddenly everything becomes crystal clear. Claire has always been interested in stories that capture the beauty of the sun, or the events that unfold in a subway, a boat, or a taxi, which requires her to shoot on real locations. But in High Life, there is no sun— no “real” events or sets to capture—so we had to create them ourselves. As a DP, usually you’ll feel a little lost early in production, but with Claire, she’ll settle in first thing in the morning and then boom, you’re ready. I’m proud that we conceived of every sequence we had to execute well in advance to make cinematic magic every morning.
If, like Claire, your director doesn’t really talk about any of how this works before it happens, at first that might make you nervous. But after a week, you adjust. Why? Because a good DP needs a good director. When you first walk onto a set built like a spaceship, it’s just a piece of wood. It’s not until you’re living inside each frame that you begin to think, “OK, I believe in this. We’re really flying and this is really a spaceship.”
Arri ALEXA SXT Plus (Digital)
Arricam ST (35mm)
Cooke S4/i (Digital)
Kowa Anamorphic (35mm)
Kodak Vision3 500T color Negative Film 5219 /7219
— As told to Caleb Hammond
High Life opened in theaters April 5, 2019, courtesy of A24. All images courtesy of A24. Feature image: Flying Colors: To convey the transformation of High Life‘s spacebound characters Monte (Robert Pattinson, R) and Willow (Jessie Ross, L), Le Saux lit them in several deep hues that reflect changing seasons. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Spring 2019 issue.