Papillon‘s arresting looks are no matter of judicial negligence. German cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski’s breakout film, the 2006 Stasi drama The Lives of Others (directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck), was an exquisite portrait of paranoia and deception during a shadowy period of recent German history. It received the Oscar for best foreign film in an upset win over Pan’s Labyrinth.
Since then, the veteran DP, whose prolific cinematic career has been divided between television and film, went on to finish very different kinds of movies, including The Young Victoria, Emily Blunt’s first major role Case 39, Madonna’s monarchy drama W.E., the medieval epic The Physician, and the Mel Gibson dark comedy The Beaver.
Bogdanski new film, Papillon, is the second film adaptation based on the 1960’s memoirs of French convict Henri Charrière. Directed by Danish filmmaker Michael Noer, the prison-buddy drama co-stars Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek in roles originated by Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in the 1973 film, which was perhaps not a classic but a hit at the box office.
Following is a wide-ranging interview with the prolific cinematographer that included questions about his career, why he had no trepidation undertaking Papillon, the challenges of filming on location, and more.
Paula Schwartz, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How did you go about becoming a cinematographer? I read you worked your way up the ranks. What advice would you give aspiring cinematographers in pursuing their career?
Hagen Bogdanski (HB): Traditional film schools in Germany rejected me. So I studied art and photography while making my living as a professional photographer. During this time, I set out to create my own network of directors and producers, and started to land work as a cameraman. Then, within a few years, I started shooting a couple of no-budget features. Some directed by people going to the film school I was rejected from. Eventually, enough of those made it to the European festival circuit to get my name out there.
Try to pursue the necessary education, and then do as much networking as possible. Especially with directors and producers. Your short-term goal should be to eventually make your way to the festival circuit. The first step is really going to be finding as many aspiring directors as possible.
MM: What turns you on about a film project?
HB: Script, script and script: it’s the most important part of filmmaking. Of course, it’s also important to look at who’s directing it, and what the shoot will entail. But the script really is the most important thing. I need a script that has a strong emotional core, because working with actors is really the most exciting thing about working on a film for me, and if you don’t have a story that will allow for strong emotional beats, you’re just not going to get that from the actors.
MM: This is the second movie adaptation based on the 1960s memoirs of French convict Henri Charrière. Did you have any trepidation signing on to a film that would be scrutinized and compared to the 1973 movie, which was perhaps not a classic but had big wattage stars and was very successful at the box office?
HB: No, never. The original movie is quite aged in almost every way (acting, cinematography, set, etc.). Our films our connected because they’re both based on the same novel, but otherwise, I think they’re drastically different. Between the art direction, costumes, Michael Noer’s staging, and Charlie and Rami’s performance, the movie goes beyond comparisons to the original. I have complete faith in all these craftsmen, so I never had the fear of people comparing it to the original.
MM: What sort of conversations did you and the director have about what your cinematic approach would be to making the film?
HB: [Michael Noer] comes from a documentary background. We were always talking about making things look as naturalistic as possible, from the lighting to the makeup to the costume. In a way, it was a question of how far we should commit to this look. Should we shoot entirely on handheld cameras (which we did, for all but 90 percent of the film). Should we shoot actors’ rehearsals? We both knew the kind of look the film should have, so it was really just a question of degrees.
MM: Cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp filmed The 1973 Papillon in Panavision. Probably nobody can afford to shoot like that anymore. I’m assuming you shot digitally although you get really vivid color saturation. What cameras and lenses did you use?
HB: We shot digitally on reflex cameras, mainly Arriflex HT and Arriflex mini. We shot digitally, but in the standard widescreen format. These cameras were great because of their weight and easy maneuverability. I also love the look of these cameras, because it gets something very close to the look of film.
MM: The movie opens with a close up of Henri’s (Hunnam) face in black and white showing the ravages of one year in solitary prison confinement. It’s a very powerful scene to open with. How did you achieve that look?
HB: It wasn’t actually shot in black and white. We achieved that monochromatic look using art-direction and lighting. We shot that scene in a warehouse and painted the walls to make the entire setting look as monochromatic as possible, but we still wanted some flesh tones to come through. Prisoners were forced to live in a black hole for nearly a year in this cell. It’s an unbelievable form of torture, but it’s true; it killed something close to 98 percent of people who were subjected to it. Of course, that whole set piece was a really interesting one for us to film around, because a situation like that would naturally send someone’s fantasies spinning and push them to the brink of madness, which was very interesting to capture.
MM: According to the production notes you shot in Montenegro, Serbia and the Mediterranean island of Malta with no additional CGI. What advantages and challenges did location shooting present?
HB: Like all location shoots, weather basically controlled everything. The terrain posed other issues; for example, we built the prison on a mountain with no existing roads, so we had to build roads to get to and from the stage. But really, weather was the ongoing issue. You need to constantly adapt to the continuity issues presented, whether it be rain, fog or sunshine. At the same time, it’s also a positive, because intense weather can add tremendous texture to scenes.
MM: There are many water scenes, which are pretty spectacular. Which was the most difficult scene to shoot and how did you achieve it?
HB: The most difficult parts of the shoot were the small sailboat scenes. We shot them in a tank in Malta, which gives things a very old-school movie look that can look very fake if you do it wrong. Also, if we shot it from the wrong perspective, you would see a bunch of modern ships that were sailing along the Mediterranean which, unless you remove them using CGI, would completely ruin the authenticity. This required us to wait for the horizon to be empty while nervously looking at our schedule. There were one or two shots where we just had to CG out the ships in the background.
MM: The depravation and horror these men experience in the penal system has as its backdrop this beautiful scenery of ocean and wild landscapes. Did you and the director have concerns and discussions about not making the location shots look too beautiful?
HB: The director and I did have this discussion, because we didn’t want the movie to look too beautiful (that area is actually even more beautiful when you’re there in person). We didn’t want to take away from the hostility and harshness of the story. Still, we did want something that could counter the ugly prison world; you focus on the bleakness for too long and it takes a toll on the audience.
MM: There’s constant movement in Papillon. What was your reaction to the improvisation and how did it impact your work and the final cinematography?
HB: In a normal world, the director works with the actors, first in private rehearsals and then on set. This was followed by intense blocking work, then they set up lighting and cameras. And then they set up stand-ins for rehearsal, and then they do another rehearsal with the principal cast. That’s the traditional way of doing things. We stripped the process so that we would do a director’s rehearsal, and then bring in the camera and shoot. This meant that the technicians and focus pullers never really knew exactly what was going to happen. That was a basic principle of shooting throughout the movie.
MM: Your breakout film The Lives of Others is set right before the Wall came down. Since you were in your early twenties when the Wall came down in 1989, was this an intensely personal film for you to shoot? What are your memories of that period and how did that inform how you shot any of the scenes?
HB: Most of my memories of East Germany were of it being a very dark place in winter, where the street lamps didn’t shine very brightly and the coals they used for heating would always create a hazy smog over the city. This was definitely something I tried to recreate in the film, giving it a very dark, colorless look. I reduced the amount of cars you see on the street to make the city look empty. MM
Papillion opened in theaters August 24, 2018, courtesy of Bleecker Street. Featured image photograph courtesy of Bleecker Street.