Filmmakers of all stripes can count themselves fortunate to work with Oscar-nominated cinematographer Darius Khondji. Among his varied collaborations, he shot the confining interiors of Michael Haneke's Oscar-winning feature Amour, Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris and To Rome with Love, Wong Kar Wai's My Blueberry Nights, Alan Parker's big-screen adaptation of Evita (which earned Khondji an Academy Award nomination, among others) and Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Delicatessen (for which he was nominated for a BAFTA).
Most recently he teamed up with New York-born director James Gray on The Immigrant, starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner, currently playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. In the film, which had its U.S. debut at the New York Film Festival, Cotillard plays Polish emigre Ewa, who is separated from her sister after arriving at Ellis Island. She is “rescued” by Bruno (Phoenix), who in fact has other plans, forcing her onto the mean streets of Manhattan where her struggle only begins. Gray told the audience at a recent Film Society Free Talk that his own family's immigrant past was in part an inspiration for writing the film.
When his script was completed, Gray approached Khondji about shooting the project. The two had met on a commercial project in South America and, as Khondji told FilmLinc Daily on Friday, he was excited to work with Gray, whom he says is a towering cinematic figure in Europe. Khondji has won praise for his work on The Immigrant with Indiewire commenting in its review that the cinematographer “captures the era in magnificent golden hues and deep shadows that are particularly effective at making Ellis Island come alive early in the movie.” The New Yorker observed: “The great cinematographer Darius Khondji shoots Bruno’s apartment, the streets, the theatre, the women in a bathhouse or Central Park with a subdued color palette. The undernourished tones suggest the desperate yearning for status that remains always out of reach.”
FilmLinc connected with Khondji, who had just arrived back at his home in Paris after a long flight from Vancouver. Understandably tired from the trip, he nevertheless talked exuberantly about working with Gray and the cast, why collaborating with strong directors is important to him even if it can be unpleasant at times, and why The Immigrant in particular was an emotional journey for him personally.
FilmLinc: James Gray came by and did an informal talk here at the Film Society and sang your praises. How did this project come your way and what about it sparked your interest?
Darius Khondji: Before I even received the script for The Immigrant, I had been wanting to work with James. One day I had received a request from a production company to work with James on a commercial in Uruguay. I went there to meet him and work with him. I really wanted to meet him because for us in Europe, he's very revered as a filmmaker, much more than in the United States. I really love his movies very much. So I was happy to work with him on this commercial and to meet him, etc. Then I went home and received an e-mail from him saying he wanted me to read a script, which was for The Immigrant. I read the story and thought it was very good and ambitious. I knew we were going to do it with very little means, but I was excited to work with him. I met [producer] Anthony Katagas and this whole group of people who love films, and little by little the group expanded with more passionate people.
I was very attached to this story because it's about immigrants who come to the United States. I've seen other stories about this in movies, including of course The Godfather, which I watched with James. It's a very emotional story. I'm half French and half Persian. I was born in Tehran, though I never lived there and don't speak the language, but there's an attachment emotionally.
When James takes on a story like this, it becomes very real. It's something he feels strongly about and knows a lot about. It was very important for me to work with a director to treat a story with a strong core of humanity from within in the way of like a John Ford. When you work with James, you have the feeling you're working with a great director who's in his fifties or sixties—someone who really knows his craft. I was incredibly drawn to The Immigrant.
FL: When you received the script, was the cast already in place?
DK: Joaquin [Phoenix] and Marion [Cotillard] were there at that point. Marion had been there from the very beginning and Joaquin came after. I had always wanted to work with an actor like him. For me, he's the modern Marlon Brando in a way—that's my personal opinion. Along with the director, one of the reasons I decide to do a movie is the cast. I'm very cast-driven and very sensitive to that. If I feel the casting isn't right, then I don't think I can do a movie. All the directors I've worked with have had actors that I love. And then it's the script of course—the director, the actors, and the script.
FL: The Immigrant takes place in New York in the 1920s in the Lower East Side, how did you go about representing that time on screen?
DK: We went by layers. I always wanted to imagine myself in the era and represent the time that way. We walked the streets of New York and visited the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side a few times, and I took my crew there. I almost want to be sensitive to being able to capture ghosts in a sense that I want to feel the place and the people that were there. We decided to shoot film. Both James and I love film. We went through various film stock and worked on how we were going to work with it. James is very visual and ambitious. He's wonderful to work with, but he's never satisfied with his work. He always wants something more somehow. But when he is satisfied I know it because he bursts out laughing. There's a spark in him and he'll joke on the side, but he's usually looking for more. He pushed me and that is something I can only do with very few directors. He's a courageous filmmaker.
FL: Yeah, along those lines, I'm curious as to how much collaboration you like when working with a filmmaker. Obviously you've worked with some more than once, like Woody Allen, Michael Haneke, David Fincher, etc.
DK: I love strong collaboration with directors and I love strong directors very much. Some are agreeable and wonderful to work with like James. Some are tough and very hard to work with and not pleasant, but I don't care honestly. I like the results of what you get onscreen afterward. When you see that you're successful and see what the film does for the audience and transforms you like a time capsule and you can cry when you see the characters on screen—that's my reward. It's so wonderful to move the audience. I don't care how directors are. It's more important to me to work with directors who are passionate about film.
FL: When James came to the Film Society, he said that The Immigrant was one of the first to be allowed to shoot inside the facilities on Ellis Island, which is of course an icon of American history. What was that like and how did you want that to present itself onscreen?
DK: It was very impressive and very intimidating at the same time. We traveled there a few times as a group and tried to figure out how we were going to do it. The first time I went was in 1978 and it was very different then. Now it is clean and well-maintained as a museum today. But you have to get into the feeling of how it was at the time. We had long scenes and wanted to give the sense of what it felt like. It was a challenge, but we all worked together to find solutions.
FL: I think of Ellis Island at that time as being a place full of hope and full of fear. I can only imagine what it must've been like for people standing there awaiting their fate.
DK: That's it. Exactly. You can feel the ghosts if you are sensitive. If you're open, you can capture the feeling of the ghosts of the people who were there. You can imagine the stream of people waiting to see what will happen.
FL: The film looks beautiful, though I understand the shooting time was tight—was that your biggest challenge?
DK: Yeah, it was a very short shoot considering everything we wanted to do, but we knew that going in. We knew that we had a certain budget, but before we started we weren't even sure it would happen. But there was this energy and we all had this feeling of excitement. We were very passionate and I think that comes through.
FL: What is your next film collaboration?
DK: I will photograph the next Woody Allen film. Yeah, it's a very interesting script…