Benoit Delhomme

Benoît Delhomme, self-portrait
in Taipei (cyan light)

We have all heard it said countless times: cinema
is a collaborative art. Anyone who can deliver the goods at a high
level of craft and work well as part of a team is likely to find a
healthy amount of success is the industry. Such a person could be,
like French Director of Photography Benoît Delhomme, a very
busy artist, moving from one interesting project to another, collaborating
with some of cinema´s most exciting, innovative moviemakers.
Already, Benoit has worked with some of his country’s finest, including
Jean-Jacques Beineix, for whom he shot Mortal Transfer (2000)
and Benoît Jacquot, whose latest picture, Sade (2000),
was lensed by Delhomme last year. In the last decade, he has been
traveling the globe making pictures like Miss Julie and The
Loss of Sexual Innocence
for Mike Figgis, The Winslow Boy for David Mamet and the highly acclaimed The Scent of Green Papya for first-time Vietnamese director Anh Hung Tran. Delhomme shot his
latest film, What Time is it Over There?, for Taiwanese director
Ming-liang Tsai, and is currently working with Doug Liman on his remake
of The Bourne Identity, starring Matt Damon, Franka Potente,
Julia Stiles and Clive Owen.

A few minutes with Delhomme reveals a man very much
in love with his job. For him, each film is a new adventure; another
chance to play with the form. What Time is it Over There?,
is in many ways a ‘difficult picture,’ a film designed to frustrate
the story expectations of the audience. Constructed as a series
of master shots, the film is linked together by a sparse and oblique
storyline. A painter in his off hours, Delhomme embraced the opportunity
to shoot a film which demanded that he take his time with each
camera set-up; that he use light to tell a parallel story, enhancing
and underscoring the film´s minimalist narrative.

Phillip Williams (MM): In What Time is it
Over There?, the camera is very static. Were you looking to
add more weight to the image itself?

Benoît Delhomme (BD): Of course. When
you hold the same frame for more than five minutes, you have to
study the image much more than usual. Normally, when you are doing
a scene, the director wants a lot of coverage and many angles
to try and put the attention of the audience on one specific thing
in the shot. Maybe by going to a close-up, for example. When you
are holding a wide shot, as in What Time, you say, "Okay,
the audience is going to see the scene only in a wide shot, so
I have to give them all the information they need.’ You have to
study the composition a lot. It’s like painting in a way.

MM: In that you’re directing the eye?

BD: Exactly. I wanted to compose the lighting
and the frame with this idea. I wanted the audience to know exactly
where they have to look; to concentrate the light in the most
important part of the frame; to make the shot readable without
close-ups. It was something-I’ve never had enough time in the
past to do my lighting. In this film, it was fantastic. I would
spend three hours preparing the shot.

MM: Is that just the way Ming-liang Tsai

BD: Yes, since each scene was covered with
one shot. If you are covering a scene with 20 shots, you’re going
to have less time. This director felt it was better to think before
shooting. He would come in in the morning and we would talk for
a half hour about the meaning of the scene. I never had this luxury
on a film before. From there we would try one or two lenses. It
was fantastic. Normally you fight for time to light the scene
and everybody says, ‘You have to work faster.’ Often, the problem
is that the director doesn’t know which shot is the most important.
When they shoot 20 shots, for example, 10 of them may end up in
the garbage. On this film, each shot was more precious.

MM: Do you have ideas about how a film
will be lensed before you start to shoot?

BD: Well, usually the director won’t discuss
this before he starts the film. It’s rare, though sometime guys
might say something like, ‘I want all long lenses on the faces,’
but it’s not often. It has to come after, I think. On What
Time Is It
, we used two lenses: the 20mm and 24mm.

MM: How long do you like to go with a

BD: I never go too long because I like to
respect the natural look of things. I never go extreme with wide
or long lenses. The cinema I like is close to what the eye sees;
I don’t like to transform reality too much. I think it comes from
my French culture.

When I see something like a Wong Kar-Wai film, the
way they try something new on every film, it’s great. He did one
film, for example, using only a 10mm lens, but I don’t tend to
be so extreme. Again, it’s probably the culture I come from. The
directors of photography I admire are people like Sven Nykvist.
The films he did with Bergman don’t use extreme wide or long lenses.
The grammar in these films is simple and powerful.

MM: Would you like to try something a
bit more extreme?

BD: I would say that I would like to do something
bolder, like what Christopher Doyle, Wong Kar-Wai’s DP does. Perhaps
I could go extreme like that and still come back to a style like
Sven Nykvist.

MM: You mentioned the grammar of film.
Does such a concept exist for you?

BD: I don’t know. Do you believe in film

MM: Sometimes you can say there is a clear
reason for going to a close-up, or whatever. I think you create
a new grammar for every film you make.

BD: Sure. When you see a film like Eisenstein´s Potemkin, you can see a real grammar- fantastic grammar.
I saw it recently and I thought ‘Wow, it’s so modern.’

MM: Yes, it’s incredible how modern it

BD: Even the photography is fantastic. There
was a real grammar; these guys were creating everything at the
time. I think Eisenstein was sitting in his cutting room saying,
‘This works; this doesn’t work.’ Personally, I would say there
is such a thing as film grammar, but it’s more like what Jean-Luc
Godard would call a moral problem: if you are going to go in closer
on an actor, you must know why, in a political sense, you are
choosing to do that.

MM: How do you create a balance between
what you see as a moviemaker, in terms of symbolism, and what
the audience actually sees? The trend in commercial cinema is
to make sure the audience always knows what’s happening; that
they always know what to feel.
What Time Is It? is just
the opposite. It’s clear that the director is trying to say something,
but I’m still left guessing a bit…

BD: Yes, this is true. I think he is in fact
trying to show you another reality; to show you something you
don’t normally look at. Many of the scenes you see in his work
would normally be cut. I think perhaps he wants to put the level
of reflection of the audience very high. Perhaps it’s asking too

MM: The audience gets smaller when you make
those demands.

BD: He said to me, ‘If I have to worry about
the audience, I might as well stop making films.’ Basically, he
wants to show things about reality that are normally hidden. I
like that idea.