A Conversation With: Guillaume Schiffman

Remi Ohlik/IP3 Press/Newscom

The Frenchman behind the lens of black-and-white sensation "The Artist" reveals his obsession for old Hollywood, what it's like to shoot a 'perfect' dog and the perils of a bilingual set.

Was The Artist always meant to be shot in black and white? Yes. From the beginning, [director] Michel Hazanavicius wanted to do a silent movie in black and white with a ratio of 1.33 [which means shooting a film for full-screen, not widescreen], like in the old times. We were asked to shoot a color version for TV, but Michel was not at ease with that, and the producer Thomas Langmann encouraged us to do it only in black and white.

THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: Had you shot much in black and white before?

Thomas Langmann: I've shot commercials in black and white and my first two short films … but never a long feature. The only prize I've ever won was for one of those short movies!

THR: So you were clearly the right person for the job.

Langmann: Maybe! I've known Michel for a long time. We've been working together on the OSS movies [retro James Bond-style parodies popular in France]. We also like the same kind of movie culture. We both love American movies, old comedies, silent films and musicals. I also have dual citizenship -- French and American -- so to work in the United States is like a dream for me.

THR: Describe your process. You shot in color first, correct?

Langmann: Well, first Michel and I watched a lot of old movies. We traveled through them looking for the story we wanted to tell. Then, after choosing our references, Michel said, 'Well, now that we found out what the movie should look like, let's be free and tell our own story with our own language.' For example, George Valentin's [Jean Dujardin] universe has to be very black and white and contrasty at the beginning, but then very gray. For Peppy [Berenice Bejo], it's different. She should be a little bit in the darkness at the beginning, then get more and more white. After we had the bases, we had to do a lot of tests in Fotokem and Panavision trying to find the right stocks, the right lenses and the right filters. We tried shooting black and white, but it was too sharp -- there wasn't enough grain. We had to fight against sharpness. It was like working on a souvenir; what we all remember about black-and-white movies. The biggest difference between new movies and old movies is sharpness. So we shot it first in color with special lenses and rigs made at Panavision by Dan Sasaki and then transformed to black and white, working the shadows and faces with lights.

THR: What were the most difficult scenes to shoot?

Langmann: There were two sequences. The scene at the beginning in the screening room was difficult because Michel had a certain idea about how it should look -- in the darkness. For reference, we watched the beginning of Citizen Kane where there is that great screening-room sequence. But the very big challenge is that Kane is very 1940s, 1950s; very sharp, very contrasty. If we did the same, it would look strange for a film taking place in the 1920s. The end song and dance sequence was very challenging. I love musicals -- all those Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley movies … and I thought about all those big clear and very shiny mirrored floors they used. We wanted to do the same, but it was a nightmare with all the reflections. My gafferJames Plannette -- he is a big gaffer in Los Angeles -- helped me a lot.

THR: The movie's smallest star, Uggie the dog, has garnered a lot of attention. How difficult was it shooting a tiny canine? 

Langmann: You have to avoid the sound! You're shooting the movie very romantic, but then there's always a guy near the camera shouting in your ear, 'Go Uggie, go go! Up!' It was very hard sometimes to concentrate. But the trainer was amazing, and the dog, too. We didn't have to shoot things twice for him. At the beginning, we thought about doing a lot of special effects with the dog, but we didn't have to do any. Uggie was perfect.

THR: Which portion of the production took the most amount of time? 

Langmann: The longest was the preparation. Michel and I prepare a lot. We spent four months in L.A. before we shot. The shooting was very fast -- only 37 days! The timing and the editing had to be fast because we had to be ready for Cannes. We had a wonderful crew. It was bizarre for them, making a film about an old-time American movie shot by French people.

THR: Were French and English spoken on the set?

Langmann: Yes. Michel speaks English, but he had to speak with Jean Dujardin so much that we always used French. But I had to make all the effort to speak in English because my crew had to understand what was going on. It's supposed to be my second language, but I'm not used to speaking it! When Michel said to me in French, "Maybe we can do it like this?" I had to translate everything to the dolly grip and gaffer.

THR: What was your favorite part of making this film?

Langmann: For me, it was very emotional. My father -- he's gone now -- was American and was raised with these kinds of movies. It was very much an honor for me to shoot at Universal, at Paramount -- all those places I'd seen in those movies. It's the right time for this movie. We're moving into a new era. Cinematographers especially have to move on; it's not coming, it's here now: shooting in HD, in 3D, etc. So shooting a black-and-white silent movie was like going back in the past before jumping into the future.

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