A MOST WANTED MAN
Benoît Delhomme AFC burst onto the international cinematography scene in 1993 with The Scent of Green Papaya, a visual poem in which images and sounds took precedence over dialogue. That film was well-received at the Camerimage Festival of the Art of Cinematography in Poland, and in subsequent years Delhomme has worked with directors Mike Figgis, Anthony Minghella, Michael Radford, Mikael Håfström, Hideo Nakata, and Lone Scherfig, among others. His collaborations with John Hillcoat, The Proposition and Lawless, have been widely acclaimed.
In designing a visual strategy for A Most Wanted Man, Delhomme worked closely with Anton Corbijn, the visionary Dutch photographer-turned-director best known for Control and The American, and for his striking music video work.
“I was very happy for the opportunity to work with Anton on a spy film,” says Delhomme. “I knew that working with Anton and Philip would be very demanding, and I was excited by the challenge. Anton told me he chose me because he thought I could make the film look both modern and poetic. I saw the story as a spy tale that was based on human characters rather than in technology. It’s a rather poignant love story between very lonely people.”
A Most Wanted Man was filmed mostly on location in Hamburg, and the city looms large in the film’s iconography. Delhomme took his first inspiration from The American Friend, the 1977 Wim Wenders film photographed in Hamburg by Robby Müller.
“Colour plays an important role in that film, and I wanted to pay a secret homage to Robby's work, playing with colour temperatures mixed together to infiltrate more emotions in the scenes, while always staying realistic within the setting,” says Delhomme. “With Anton, we scouted and chose locations with great care. We were both excited to frame the variety of architectures Hamburg has to offer, which are often hypergraphic.”
Practically 100% of the film was done with a handheld camera, often wide open, and usually with little or no rehearsal. ”Even in static shots, we wanted the image to breathe, to give the audience the sense of a person spying or watching,” Delhomme says.
First AC Birgit Dierken says, “For me, the handheld work was the main challenge on this project. Marc Dando of Codex has always been very helpful. He introduced us to a harness for ALEXA cameras on World War Z. On A Most Wanted Man, we could use it like a rucksack when necessary, and for other situations, we came up with a cart version. That helped.”
The preponderance of handheld shooting was one factor that led to the decision to go with lightweight ARRI ALEXA M cameras. In combination with Codex Onboard Recorders, the ALEXA was also key to success in the many night exterior situations.
“That gave us the ability to shoot nights with the actual light that existed in the streets and other city environments,” says Delhomme. “Quite often, we would ask shopkeepers to leave on or turn off the lights in their shops after closing time.”
“THE CODEX/ARRIRAW WORKFLOW GAVE US THE LATITUDE TO CREATE FILMIC IMAGES”
Delhomme says that it has been difficult to find a gaffer who could understand his approach. “Many gaffers who do international films in Germany seem to think that you want to light nights like big American DPs, with a lot of HMI lights and ‘cherry pickers’ everywhere,” he says. “Shooting with existing city lights was so important to this project. Our characters were either spies or trying to escape the spies, so they favoured dark places! I really wanted to give the film an authentic urban flavour. The camera’s ability to see far in the cityscape enhanced our night scenes with additional depth and texture.” The lenses were the older high speed Zeiss series, with the 35 mm focal length used extensively. In dialogue scenes, the camera was often close to the actors with the lens wide open, throwing backgrounds nicely out of focus. The idea was to concentrate the audience’s attention on the internal lives and souls of the characters.
All monitors were timed for consistency, including set monitors, onboard monitors, eyepieces, and those used in editorial and for screening dailies. On-set timing was minimal. During the day, the cameras were ND’d extensively. Delhomme says that Corbijn was surprised by the cinematic quality of the resulting footage. “The CODEX/ARRIRAW workflow gave us the latitude to create filmic images,” Delhomme says. “We used a single LUT developed with ARRI, and there were no surprises in post. That’s important.” Dierken had worked with Codex and ARRIRAW on several previous projects. “Codex is a very reliable recorder,” she says.
The final shot of the film was a good example of the filmmakers’ spontaneous approach. As is typical for Le Carré, the ending is loaded with ambiguity. After a breathtaking climax, Hoffman’s character is driving through the city. He parks, gets out of the car, and walks away. The shot was totally improvised at the last minute, filmed with Hoffman driving the car himself, with Delhomme and his 1st AC in the back seat and Corbijn in the passenger seat whispering suggestions to Hoffman.
“We jumped into the car and just drove around the city, doing take after take in a quite contrasty and sunny afternoon light,” Delhomme recalls. “The ALEXA M with the Codex allowed me to go back to my old way of shooting. I knew instinctively I would get all the latitude of exposure to hold exteriors and Philip's face inside, as if I had shot it on my favourite Kodak stock. It was a great way to make a film.”
Images courtesy: Lionsgate