Growing up in the mid-to-late nineties, the pan-and-scan generation, I can remember the first time I saw a movie that was shot by Darius Khondji. Se7en, the cinematographer’s first American film and best-known work, looked scarier that any movie I’d seen other than The Shining; it was miasmic and biblically unclean, with deep shadows that seeped and stuck like gunk, rain pelting from a pre-apocalyptic sky. Then came The City of Lost Children, a dark storybook fantasy of Gilliam-esque camera angles, about a squalid port town lost in fog and a mad scientist’s lair built on piles out in a sludge-green sea. That one I watched maybe twenty times, always with sympathy for the disembodied brain Uncle Irvin and for Krank, the child-snatching villain who cannot dream.
Later there was Alien: Resurrection, the video for Madonna’s “Frozen,” and The Ninth Gate, another movie I had more or less memorized by my mid-teens. Along with Delicatessen, the film that first brought him to international attention, these works gave Khondji a reputation as a grotesque, gothic, and set-bound director of photography who epitomized the nineties extremes of grunge and glamour—the latter in the form of the hokey Weber-Rice musical Evita, which scored him an Oscar nomination, his only one to date. His signatures were the dark, greasy set and specular lighting that glistened off surfaces prepped with high-gloss paint, methylcellulose, or cooking oil.
The digital revolution hadn’t happened yet, but film-based cinematography was already in its decadent stage. It started in the seventies. The New Hollywood decade of the director as godhead had transformed cinematography, especially in the United States. The European and Eastern Bloc art films of the sixties had broken new ground in terms of camera placement and intimacy; the New Wave had innovated the use of handheld cameras, bounced lighting, and fast, push-processed black-and-white film. Emboldened by an influx of talent, their seventies admirers took many of these techniques and combined them with new ones: flashed, fogged, or underexposed color film; super-fast lenses; zooms; a bevy of options for filtration.
Seventies cinematography was the comic-book silhouette of John Shaft, the baddest of all private dicks, standing in a phone booth with only enough light to draw the outline of his hair and the shiny folds of his leather jacket and gloves. It was the camera bouncing with the suspension of Travis Bickle’s cab, the defocused New York streetlights cut into pale trillion emeralds by a Zeiss B Speed lens, the pavement and the glass glistening with a wash of end-times rain, steam coming up through the grates to suggest an inferno just below. It was the greenish cast of mercury-vapor lighting on push-processed Eastman Kodak film and the existential compression of Cosmo Vitelli in a zoom with blue-violet lunulae in the highlights. It was Michael Ballhaus’ dolly track. It was Suspiria, The Conformist, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
The eighties that followed were conservative in comparison, but marked by developments that would change cinematography in the nineties: the use of silver retention by Vittorio Storaro on Reds and Roger Deakins on 1984; the invention of new and smaller options for lighting, including Philippe Rousselot’s China balls and Robby Müller’s fluorescent tubes, now better known as the ubiquitous Kino-Flos. For the first time, directors of photography had a choice of color film stocks: new Kodak lines, plus the alternatives offered by Fuji and Agfa. The next generation of cinematographers—a number of whom, like Khondji, got their start in stylish commercials and MTV—embraced these possibilities. Bleach bypass processes were in, and Khondji was their early master: Deluxe CCE, Storaro’s Technicolor ENR, Khondji's own custom NEC. He avoided hard light in favor of China balls and Kino-Flos; his secret weapon was a dimmable glass filter gizmo called the Varicon. The blacks of his images were dense and the warm tones were sulfurous.
Then came the aughts, Khondji’s in-between years of troubled productions (including Panic Room, from which he was fired by David Fincher early in the shoot) and atypically straightforward, forgettable assignments. Wimbledon. The Interpreter. Anything Else, the start of his unlikely association with Woody Allen. One of those movies that “isn’t without interest,” though most of that interest comes from Khondji’s cozy bohemian lighting of New York interiors and a certain shot of Christina Ricci's entangled legs that goes a long way toward explaining how a film that otherwise embodies one of Allen's lazier slumps ended up being rated so highly by Quentin Tarantino. Then, his reinvention as a nomadic master director of photography (D.P.) to the Cannes set, beginning with two arthouse flops: Wong Kar-wai’s My Blueberry Nights and Michael Haneke’s shot-for-shot English-language remake of Funny Games.
As with any considerable talent, there were always other sides to Khondji. His romanticism. His evolving eye for the great outdoors. His most consistent gift, as evident in early films like Se7en and Delicatessen as in his more recent work with Haneke and James Gray, has been for lighting faces—an important point of distinction from his peer, the late Harris Savides, who followed the philosophy of the seventies master of shadow, Gordon Willis, in placing characters “inside the picture.” Scowling beatific, dirt-seamed, or wrinkled, Khondji’s faces glow. There is also the matter of recurring subjects, which are consistent across his career and seem to hearken back to the films of the silent era: fantastical cities, tunnels, rowboats, uncolonized landscapes.
Consistency of theme, developing technique: Is this what makes an artist? Part of the agenda of Jordan Mintzer’s Conversations with Darius Khondji, published in a bilingual edition by France’s Synecdoche Books as a sequel of sorts to the author’s impressive 2012 volume Conversations with James Gray, is to challenge some of our auteurist preoccupations and perhaps pose some questions about how craft informs art. After all, Khondji is nowadays as well-known for who he works with as for the work itself. Roger Deakins and Emmanuel Lubezki may have more name recognition, but no cinematographer can claim Khondji’s range of directors: Fincher, Wong, Haneke, Allen, Gray, Roman Polanski, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Bong Joon-ho, Stephen Frears, Danny Boyle, Bernardo Bertolucci. And that’s without factoring in the commercial shorts he’s shot for Wes Anderson, the unaired HBO pilot he lensed for Gus Van Sant, or his upcoming projects, due next year: an Amazon series directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (who provides an afterword) and the next feature by Josh and Benny Safdie.
But how exactly does one go from The Treasure of the Bitch Islands (now streaming on MUBI!) to Amour? Not that there are any other books that pose similar questions about a cinematographer’s career. Despite the attention that our One Perfect Shot movie culture lavishes on the almighty D.P., the stature afforded to the likes of Lubezki and Deakins, the literature on cinematography remains extremely limited: a few interview collections, a handful of textbooks, a couple of out-of-print memoirs. Critical writing is just as scarce; as far as demystifying reading is concerned, one’s best options remain the back issues of the indispensable American Cinematographer.
In fact, Conversations with Darius Khondji might be the first book ever published about an individual, working director of photography. Its qualities as a designer object can’t be overstated. Aubergine cover embossed with movie titles and directors’ names. Pages of sturdy art paper filled with behind-the-scenes stills, production Polaroids, scans of wrinkled script pages with extensive marginalia, storyboards, copious footnotes. One page shows a lighting diagram sketched over a copy of the floor plan of the United Nations General Assembly hall for The Interpreter. Two pages are reproduced from the cinematographer’s script for the remake of Funny Games, printed with time-coded stills from the original version and a wire-frame rendering of the set for a pivotal scene, into which someone has drawn a supine figure in pencil, a lamp in goldenrod marker, and a squiggly pool of blood in red felt-tip pen. Elsewhere, a photo of Khondji’s DVD collection.
Mintzer, who has more behind-the-scenes experience than most critics (he is Matthew Porterfield’s longtime producer), portrays Khondji as a cinephile, a craftsman, and a straddler of traditions and conflicting seventies influences—the pragmatic Willis on one side, the maximalist Storaro on the other. Of his early years, we learn that his first passion, aside from cinema, was karate; that he grew up in Paris and went to film school at NYU in the mid-seventies, where Joel Coen was a classmate; that his first film class was taught by Haig Manoogian, Martin Scorsese’s favorite professor, to whom the director would later dedicate Raging Bull; that the first professional film sets he ever set foot on were Marguerite Duras’ Agatha and the Limitless Readings and L’homme atlantique (both 1981), on which he had been hired as a clapper and film loader upon returning to France; that he has a lifelong obsession with Dracula but has somehow never gotten to shoot a vampire movie. As interviewee, Khondji is diplomatic, except when talking about Wong Kar-wai, on whom he throws considerable shade.
Like most veteran D.P.’s, Khondji regards himself as a director’s helper and a technician of narrative. When Woody Allen wanted to shoot the 1920s scenes of Midnight in Paris in black-and-white, he talked him into simply shooting color with an older generation of the same lenses. When he felt that the time spent switching film magazines would put too much strain on Amour’s leads, he talked Michael Haneke into shooting digital, despite his own preference for 35mm. He talks a lot about how about how directors talk—“the color and tone” of Sydney Pollack’s voice, how David Fincher’s explanation of Se7en “literally sounded like a serial killer was talking”—and about how actors look.
Other recurring topics of conversation: Cooke lenses, window lighting, the importance of set and production design. Khondji tells us he doesn’t mind control freaks as long he’s allowed to be involved in every step of the process, from pre-production to color timing, and compares the rise of digital cinematography to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. (Here, I must out myself as a total geek by pointing out that he used the same metaphor, albeit in a different context, in a 1995 issue of American Cinematographer.) More than anything, he talks about artistic inspirations: Claude Lorrain, Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, Robert Guinan, George Bellows, Robert Frank. The unifying characteristic of film people, it seems, is that they always want to be someone else.
Following the format of Conversations with James Gray, Mintzer intersperses these career-retrospective chats with shorter interviews with Khondji’s collaborators: directors, camera operators, production designers, colorists. (The basic visual layout of both books seems to be inspired by Alex Ballinger’s excellent—albeit out-of-print and terrifyingly expensive—New Cinematographers, which profiled Khondji alongside peers like Savides and Jean-Yves Escoffier.) Throughout, the book reasserts its themes: the collaborative nature of film, the sheer amount of work and testing and trickery that can go into the most basic camera set-ups, the need to strike a balance between artistic aims and practical concerns.
The point being that these issues are not unique to the craft. When we start to study film, we learn that the cinematographer, like the editor, is an illusionist. When we look closer, we come to appreciate the cinematographer as a master of technique and intuition. Not unlike an artist.