Choosing Lenses, Designing Shots, and Softening the Hard Italian Sun

Darius Khondji, ASC, AFC, the cinematographer behind the images of Seven, The City of Lost Children, Delicatessen, The Interpreter, Panic Room, and Alien: Resurrection, first collaborated with director Woody Allen for the Oscar-winning Midnight in Paris. The film offered a rich visual palette, as the script included scenes in which a character travelled back in time to Paris in the 1920s, and then to La Belle Époque, around the turn of the 19th Century.

Khondji followed that project with Michael Haneke’s Amour, which recently took the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Then he reunited with Allen for To Rome with Love, another lighthearted yet tender comedy set in a European capital. This time around, the setting is Rome, and the period is contemporary throughout.

“It’s a bit like Woody’s early comedies,” says Khondji. “It’s very fun and really direct. The images are very sunny and warm, and at times very sensuous, lush and glamorous.”

The cast includes Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penelope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page, and, for the first time in five movies, Allen himself. The roles include an architect reliving his youth, a regular Roman who suddenly becomes a celebrity, a young couple from the provinces, and an American opera director.

Khondji says for Midnight in Paris, he took inspiration from George Bellows paintings and photos from the 1920s. He shot Kodak film stock in 3-perf Super 35, sometimes pull-processing. He found the right lenses for the 20s scenes, Cooke Speed Panchro Series II and III, collecting dust on the shelves at Panavision in Paris. Khondji felt that the older coatings – or lack of coatings – helped render the right feel. The period images were darker and warmer.

In To Rome with Love, Khondji also found opportunities to change up his visual design even without the shift in periods. The comedy has a structure that splits the film into four segments. Two sketches follow Americans in Rome. These are treated with modern Cooke S5 lenses tending to wider angles and cooler light. “The new Cookes are very beautiful and very sharp, and when you use them at wide angles, they have a very nice quality,” he notes.

The native Italian stories were treated with the older Cooke Speed Panchro lenses that Panavision had refurbished for Midnight in Paris. These lenses tend to be more saturated and red, resulting in a “Kodacolor” look, according to the cinematographer.

The aspect ratio was 1.85:1, but this time the film was shot in Super 35 4-perf, which results in a larger negative area. The film stock was KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219, sometimes pull-processed for a softer, more pastel image. The camera movement is energetic and sometimes frenetic, in keeping with the Roman setting. The camera was sometimes on Steadicam, but a dolly on tracks was used for most of the 38-day shoot. 

The entire film was done on locations in the Eternal City, which Allen and Khondji scouted together as much as possible during pre-production. "When we find a location we like, we talk more at length about how we might shoot it," Khondji explains. "After that, we talk rarely. We just get along very well. We have a wonderful collaboration, and he trusts me and gives me a lot of freedom.”

Khondji made extensive use of large black grid cloth from The Rag Place in North Hollywood to cut and diffuse the hard Italian sunlight. Some pieces were as large as 30 by 40 feet, and at times Khondji would combine two or three. “In the summer in Rome, it’s always extremely hot and sunny,” he says. “Woody and I didn’t want much hard sun. He loves overcast weather and soft light, and I do too. Due to our schedule and budget, we couldn’t just wait for the light like Terrence Malick. We shot all day, and we always shot backlit. The large canvas rugs cut most of the light, and gave me a kind of overcast, even look. It’s similar to negative fill, but it lets a little bit of light come through. The result is that it looks like a cloudy day.”

The post was done at Deluxe New York with Joe Gawler serving as colorist. Gawler also worked with Khondji and Allen on Midnight in Paris. “Joe understands what Woody and I want – and it’s very much about understanding both of us, especially when we didn’t want the same thing,” says Khondji. “He found a way to make it work.”

Khondji says that over two pictures, he’s found a comfortable working relationship with Allen. “Once Woody trusts you, he lets you design the shots,” says Khondji. “If he has something specific he wants to see in the shot, he’ll explain how he wants it and why it’s important, but then he’ll allow you to design it. On rare occasions, he will ask for a certain mood or ambience.”

Khondji has said that the most valuable advice he ever received was to learn how to listen, to choose one strong idea per film, and to fully understand the motivation for doing something on a film set.

“You must listen very carefully to a director, because sometimes there are coded messages,” he says. “But Woody is very articulate. He says exactly what he wants.”

To Rome with Love opens today in New York and Los Angeles.

All photos by Philippe Antonello; © Gravier Productions. Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.