Stefano Falivene on recreating 19th century Paris for a scandalous tale of high society
Based on the 1885 novel by Guy de Maupassant, BEL AMI is the feature debut of renowned theatre directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, who founded the highly successful international theatre company Cheek by Jowl in 1981. The film stars teen heartthrob Robert Pattinson as Georges Duroy, a humble Parisian clerk who rises to social prominence by manipulating and seducing a succession of powerful women. Filming took place in London and Budapest, where Italian cinematographer Stefano Falivene made use of camera equipment supplied by ARRI Media and a lighting kit provided by ARRI Lighting Rental.
ARRI Media: What was it like working with first-time film directors who were coming from the world of theatre?
Stefano Falivene: Actually, it wasn’t hard because they had a strong idea of what they wanted. Perhaps they weren’t able to express it in technical terms, but they made it clear enough. Also, the script was very well written and it was easy for everyone to understand what was required. Unfortunately I jumped onto the movie rather late so I had no time to prep with them, but they were both very kind and very precise. It was especially helpful that they started each day by rehearsing with the actors on set, because it gave me time to understand what atmosphere they wanted for the scene. Obviously we would pre-light the day before, but the real lighting would be adjusted after the rehearsal, which made it much easier for me.
AM: Was Georges Duroy’s upward journey through society mirrored with any transitions in the visual approach?
SF: In the first part of the movie, when he is poor, we tried to make the images seem dirty. Then during his passage to becoming rich you start to notice that something is changing with the picture. In the beginning we see him in a brothel in old Paris, surrounded by prostitutes; it’s very cold, very dirty, and you feel that the people around him are bad people. His journey upwards begins when he meets another soldier that has become rich and after that the picture becomes gradually warmer.
We really just did it with the lighting. Declan and Nick referenced Toulouse Lautrec when we were speaking about what kind of atmosphere they wanted for the brothel. To get that look I felt we needed strong shafts of light providing backlight and a lot of contrast. The scene was shot at an old pumping station in the East End of London; we lit it from above with ARRI T12 and Source Four lights, giving us as much freedom to move the camera as possible. There was an existing metal grid in the roof so we had a lot of light coming through that to create strange shadows on the ground and it looked really good.
AM: Aside from reflecting Duroy’s social ascendance, did you develop different looks for other themes or locations?
SF: There was a lot of discussion at the start about whether we could incorporate electric light fixtures as practical sources, because the book was published at the very beginnings of electricity being used to light buildings. We did use bulbs for the richer houses, but there were also a lot of flame-based sources, so my solution was generally to keep the light quite warm. An exception to that was in the apartment of a character called Madeleine Forestier; the directors felt that she was a very cold person who controls everybody around her and they wanted her apartment to feel cold. So the lighting at that location is colder than the rest of the movie.
AM: Were there difficulties lighting real locations in London and Budapest?
SF: For the last scene in the film, in a church, the directors wanted the church doors to open and everything to become overexposed, with the movie finishing on the white light. The ending is completely different now, but that was the idea when we shot it. Unfortunately there was a misunderstanding about where we were allowed to position lights, but we found a solution by putting a couple of ARRIMAX 18Ks just around the corner. We carried two ARRIMAX lights with us for the shoot and they were very useful for a hard sun highlight or nice rim light from a distance. At another location in London – an old factory – we had three big windows and there was only room for one cherry picker, so we did it with a single ARRIMAX.
John Colley, the gaffer, was brilliant; he was a really good man and he supported me a lot. I do have another gaffer that I use all the time and who knows me very well, but it wasn’t possible to get him on this film because it had already started shooting. I hadn’t worked with John before but after just two days we understood each other completely – he was a real professional.
AM: Were you content to be shooting with the ARRICAM Studio and Lite when you joined the production?
SF: Absolutely – I use the ARRICAM system in Italy whenever I can, and if there is no budget then I might choose the ARRIFLEX 535, but it will be an ARRI camera. The only thing I changed when I jumped on the movie was the lenses – I brought in Cooke S4s. I’ve been using Cookes for a long time and traditionally they are associated with a warmer, more romantic look, so they were the right choice for this film.
AM: Did you operate a camera yourself?
SF: Normally I operated the second camera, and I brought Stuart Howell onto the production to operate A-camera and Steadicam, though Robert Patzelt took over for the last week. Stuart helped me a lot because he had a good relationship with the directors and if I was lighting a complicated setup then he would think about the scene and break it down with them.
AM: Was there a lot of camera movement and Steadicam work?
SF: I love to shoot Steadicam when Steadicam is really necessary; if it’s not necessary then I prefer the dolly. There was a love scene between Robert and Kristin Scott Thomas where we decided to turn around them two or three times on a long lens and the only way to shoot it was with Steadicam. We had a lot of Steadicam shots but we used a lot of track too. We weren’t trying to be clever with the camera, but it’s not a static movie either – we moved only when we really needed to move.
AM: How involved were you in the postproduction?
SF: I returned to London to carry out the grade, which was done at Technicolor. The grade was only two weeks, which is quite quick, because I prefer to do things in the traditional way as much as possible. I didn’t change a lot in the DI because I had enough time on set to prepare each scene as I wanted it and the color was very good, so two weeks was enough.