Camera's another actor in 'Diving Bell'


Cinematography conversation: Although we pay the most attention to directors, they're typically the first to acknowledge how many other peoples' efforts actually go into making movies.

And considering all those other contributions, cinematographers clearly lead the pack in terms of what they bring to the party. To begin with, whatever a director calls for, a writer writes, a production or costume designer designs or an actor delivers, doesn't really matter if it doesn't wind up looking great on film. On top of that, cinematographers are telling a film's story through the nonverbal language of the camera's eye.

One of the most visually unique films competing for Academy members' votes this year is Miramax Films' "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." Its director (Julian Schnabel), cinematographer (Janusz Kaminski), screenwriter (Ronald Harwood) and film editor (Juliette Welfling) are all Oscar nominees. "Diving Bell" stands out because so much of it is shot from the point of view of its central character, Jean-Dominique Bauby -- Jean-Do, for short -- who's completely paralyzed except for his left eye, through which we see how he sees the outside world. Produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Jon Kilik, its screenplay by Harwood is based on the book by Bauby, who's played in the film by Mathieu Amalric.

For some insights into what cinematographers do and how they work with directors, I was happy to have an opportunity to talk recently to Janusz Kaminski. A two-time Oscar winner for Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan," Kaminski also received an Oscar nod for Spielberg's "Amistad." In addition, he's a four-time American Society of Cinematographers nominee for "Diving Bell" and those three Spielberg titles.

"People don't really understand what the job of a cinematographer is," he told me. "They think that we're there to just create pretty images. It's much more complex than that. I really run several departments (and am) keeping the production on schedule and (am responsible visually) for telling the story in a way that viewers are moved by. It's not just making sure it's in focus and that you can see the actors. And we're true collaborators (with directors) in terms of (being) contributors to how the story is perceived by the audience."

Asked about working on "Diving Bell," Kaminski explained, "It was a tremendous experience to be involved in a movie that at first (seems to be) about really, really dark subject matter, but it's really an affirmation of life. I love that, in my mind, this is a really quintessential independent movie. It was put together by Kathy Kennedy, who's an American producer. She hired Julian to direct. She got Ron Harwood, who is a British screenwriter. She got me, a Polish-born American cinematographer. And it was financed by Pathe and done in French. So to me it was a really great experience to work on an independent movie that was truly an international movie production."

As for how he works with directors, he observed, "It varies depending on the individuals. With Steven, who loves working and setting up the set for camera, I'm mainly focused on supporting his camera ideas and creating the lighting. That's my responsibility -- the things that (involve) the camera. He directs. Other directors may not be interested in the camera at all. They just focus on the actors' performance. Other directors may have some ideas, but they really rely on the DP. I think the best collaboration that I envision (is) where I'm hired as the director of photography by another filmmaker to work on (a) project and they let the director of photography create the visual representation of the movie.

"That's how I see my job. I work in a nonverbal language, and I create story by using the camera, by using the lenses, by lighting the scene or not lighting the scene. That is my tool. I don't interfere or engage in verbal storytelling. That's a primary job that belongs to the director. But I'm there to really reflect the written words that the screenwriter envisioned. And that is a really great process. I really don't expect too much collaboration and discussion with a director because I see the job (as being that) a director does the story through performance and the written words and I'm a director of photography who tells the story through a nonverbal language. It's good if we both are seeing the same movie and that's definitely the case between me and Steven where we've done 12 movies (together) and we really kind of expect to do our best and be surprised by each other's work. That's absolutely fascinating to be surprised by what he does and (for him to) be surprised by what I (do)."

Kaminski has an advantage in working with directors in that he's directed several feature films, himself, and has experienced firsthand what directors are up against. He made his feature directorial debut in 2000 with the thriller "Lost Souls," starring Winona Ryder and Ben Chaplin, and directed the Polish-language drama "Hania" in 2007.

"Diving Bell" was the first collaboration between Kaminski and Schnabel: "Julian is not a filmmaker who's interested in conventional storytelling. So for a cinematographer that creates a great opportunity to invent language that is essential and appropriate for the story, but allows you to also be nonconventional. So we did a lot of work where the camera would pan from the actor during the middle of the dialogue and pan across the room and find the actor as the actor was continuing speaking. And that's very liberating because that is not conventional filmmaking. You seldom get an opportunity to pan during the dialogue and look at the color of the walls and look at the curtains blowing in the wind and then come back to an actor. Usually in a movie you stay with an actor (while he or she is talking)."

In "Diving Bell," of course, the camera's point of view was very frequently that of Jean-Do. "In this movie, the camera is almost another actor," he explained. "It's a very active participant in the story. It's one of the actors. For the first 25 minutes, we really don't see Jean-Do. The actors are interacting with the camera. So that, again, creates another opportunity for the cinematographer to create visuals that would reflect what the character's feeling. Although, at first, you might think that he's completely paralyzed and he's not able to move, but he does have freedom. He has freedom of choosing what he's looking at. He may be looking at the curtain while you're talking to him or the camera can focus on the dark wall while you're talking to him. So there's a certain freedom in establishing what appears at first to be a really desperate and hopeless condition. You realize slowly that there's hope in his state of being. He's becoming more reflective. He starts seeing things around him that normally as a physically fully functional person you would ignore. That's why we're able to see the colors of the walls, to see the texture of the walls, to see the curtain blowing in the wind, to see the light change in the room. We're able to play with the sharpness of the image because his eye is not fully functioning.

"That gave me an opportunity to invent this language that normally would be called experimental, but because this is from the first person's point of view I'm trying to allow the audience to see what he's experiencing as the main character of the movie. I think it was very interesting for the actors to interact with the camera. Normally you're being asked to never look at the lens and here, indeed, you are looking at the lens, You're catching the lens just like the lens was a functioning and emotionally aware person. So it's definitely a different way of (working). Everyone had to reprogram themselves (so that) you're looking at this piece of steel that has no emotion and all of a sudden you realize that it does have emotion -- that the camera has that ability and chance to capture and reflect emotions."

Lighting is another of Kaminski's contributions to filming: "Well, the lighting especially in the beginning (of 'Diving Bell') is very, very present because as he is waking up from the coma that's when he starts seeing. You know, your eyes, your brain doesn't function properly so everything became slightly exaggerated. The highlights are almost to the point where they hurt you. The curtains are not really sharp (images) yet. The light that the doctors are using to inspect his eye (is so very bright) that you almost feel the pain of what it feels like. And the colors are (distorted). Everything becomes like you are in a vacuum because your world became so enclosed (and) the lighting and the color reflects that. (It's) like we poetically enhanced it so it looks much more beautiful than, perhaps, it would look in reality.

"But since the movie was about optimism, I wanted to create an environment that is not depressing. By the nature of the story, it's a very depressing story, but because he's able to escape his hopeless reality by creating hope through his processes, through his optimism, through his flashbacks, I decided to create a world around him that's full of love (and) that's full of life because he's wrapped into it. He's wrapped into things that normally he takes for granted -- so the way the light travels across the room through the course of the day, I was trying to capture that. I was trying to make the audience aware of that."

Certain things that we don't typically pay much attention to, Kaminski continued, "become an essential way of feeling that you are alive. The sexuality in his life was immense. He felt totally sexual although he was, of course, not able to experience that. But all the human emotions that we experience as a fully functioning creature, he still experienced that. He couldn't participate in this, but nevertheless the imagination allows you to express that. So you see the very sensual shots of women's thighs or you see the dress blowing in the wind as his wife is walking across the beach. He's paying attention to that where normally he wouldn't because his main sense of physical existence has been deprived. So other elements become more and more important in his life."

In terms of setting up to shoot scenes, he explained, "This movie was a relatively simple process because a lot of (it) takes place when actors are interacting with the camera. So actors are coming close to the camera or away from the camera and the camera doesn't move much. That's relatively easy. But when (I) do movies with Steven, then it becomes much more complicated because frequently we start with a wider shot and then in the same take we end up with a close-up. So that becomes a bigger production and then we spend several hours lighting it. But once you're lit you can accomplish a tremendous amount in a day's work."

Shooting in France brought with it some special advantages, he added, "because we worked in France with a French crew and constitutionally they're only allowed to roll the camera for eight and a half hours. So the days were very luxurious. We would start at 9 and we'd finish by 6 p.m. (In the U.S.) you do a standard 12 hours and usually go into 13, 14 and 15 hours. I'd say 14 hours is the standard day on a Hollywood production. But on top of that, in the morning I usually go to the lab. So my day starts usually at 4:30. I get up. I go to the lab. Usually it's Technicolor and I spend an hour and a half looking at the material that we shot on the previous day.

"So from 5 to about 6:30 I'm viewing the dailies and then I go to work and I work for 14 hours and go home. It's very laborious and intensive work. It's a little bit different than the director because they come in at the call time. They have to do homework when they're at home, but physically I usually put in about two hours more every day than the director and the rest of the crew."

While he's shooting does he know if he's getting everything OK? "No, no, no," Kaminski emphasized. "It's still a little bit of a mystery because you're still exposing a negative and various things happen in the photochemical process. You may suspect how it's going to come out. Frequently you are surprised by how nicely it comes out and occasionally you are disappointed. I could do my job and have a very comfortable safe life. I could come back and light and expose film and compose images in a safe way, but I'm not interested in being safe.

"If you look at my work, there's a certain aggressiveness and a certain need to experiment and even when I'm working on an action-adventure movie like (Spielberg's) 'War of the Worlds,' I do walk that line between being, maybe, too dark occasionally or too bright because that's when it gets exciting to me."

When Kaminski goes home after shooting interesting or stimulating scenes, he noted, "I don't sleep because I'm (thinking about) what I shot. I anxiously await the morning when I can go to the lab and look at the material from the previous day. Sometimes I'm disappointed and sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised. But in the photochemical world when you're working with motion picture material -- when you're working with Kodak film -- there's this element of the unknown. Is the lab going to show me something that I haven't seen? Is the lab going to create what I intended? Is there going to be any problem where the chemicals go bad on me and the negative is going to be not necessarily ruined, but not exposed properly? When you work with digital -- which I have not experienced -- you're looking at the monitor and the monitor pretty much tells you what the material looks like."

Kaminski likes working with film because of what he calls, "that unexpected element where there's another unexplained thing when that film goes to the photo lab. There's so many variations that there's an element of surprise when I see the dailies the next morning. And that's exciting. That's very stimulating. That gives me tremendous joy and every time I see that film going through the gate in the projector and the light goes down, I almost get into a state of excitement and happiness. And I get very depressed when the stuff doesn't look good and I'm not happy with the work. It's very emotional, the whole process of viewing the dailies for me in the morning.

"It's very fragile because you see potentially the mistake I've made or potentially you see the chances that I missed. I could have gone darker. I could go brighter. Maybe sometimes I see my work as (being) too safe and I wish I was pushing the medium even more. And sometimes you're totally satisfied (with) your work and you go to the set and I see the director and I say, 'Man, we did really great work yesterday. The stuff looks beautiful.' And beauty doesn't mean it looks pretty. It just looks beautiful-fantastic because I am emotionally moved and emotionally the material reflects what the story's about."

Looking back at shooting "Diving Bell," are there any scenes he'd point to as ones he was especially proud of having done? "You know, I'm very proud that the majority of the film was done in a photochemical way without any CGI effects," he observed, "so there are no optical manipulations. It's all done on camera, particularly the last scene when Jean-Do is dying where there's this layering of images and we see people coming to his bedside and they're saying goodbye to him. All of that was done organically on camera where I'm using hand-cranked camera and I'm going forward with the film and changing the camera speed, I'm going backwards where I'm layering and double-exposing the film and layering the images simply because I felt that emotionally as the brain starts dying you're not really aware of what's reality, what's past, what's future.

"As you're dying, you're losing the sense of reality. So the present moment may feel like the past or memory. I felt that when I saw the dailies from that particular scene I felt that I fully succeeded in terms of conveying the emotion of what the person must have been experiencing on film without using any computer tricks."

Kaminski's next feature shoot will reteam him with Spielberg and could put them both back in the Oscar race again: "We're going to do the 'Chicago Seven' starting in April ('The Trial of the Chicago 7,' written by Aaron Sorkin). That's the story of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. I'm fortunate that (Spielberg) is a very productive director. Every year and a half we'll make a movie. It was really great that after 'Munich' he wanted to take a little break and I had a chance to go outside Steven's world and make another movie where I (also was able to feel) fully engaged and appreciated and was able to create an interesting story. That was 'Diving Bell.'"

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Sept. 21, 1990's column: "Although Hollywood spends tons of money making films aired at an audience of younger (under 25) males, some of its biggest boxoffice hits are the result of wooing adult (25 and older) female moviegoers.

"It's a list that includes such films as Paramount's 'Ghost' and Buena Vista/Touchstone's 'Pretty Woman,' this year's two top-grossing films; Warner Bros.' late summer hit, 'Presumed Innocent;' Columbia's 'Postcards From the Edge,' which just opened to excellent business; Warners' Oscar-winning hit from last Christmas, 'Driving Miss Daisy;' and Tri-Star's 1989 success 'Steel Magnolias.'

"'Over the last five or six years the adult female audience has taken on more importance to us in marketing in the motion picture business,' points out D. Barry Reardon, president of Warners' domestic theatrical distribution division. 'Obviously, it's an audience that is very receptive to movies that appeal to it and comes out in great strength when they see something that interests them. This audience has to be taken very seriously (because) it does represent a sizable part of our boxoffice on certain pictures.'

"Adult females are an especially attractive audience because they typically bring other people with them to see films. 'That is one of the main factors,' Reardon told me. 'Women do have a dominant effect. If they want to go to the movies they usually drag their date or, maybe, their husband along with them.' The bottom line, he adds, is that if you can motivate adult women to want to see your film 'you'll probably sell two tickets instead of one...'

"Adult female appeal pictures also tend to cost less to produce than action-adventures aimed at younger males. Moreover, because they don't require the same very wide distribution pattern involving small towns that action films do, print costs are generally less. Most action-adventures opened at 2,000-plus screens last summer. On the other hand, 'Ghost' opened at just 1,101 screens and 'Presumed Innocent' debuted at only 1,349 screens ..."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel