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In Monsieur Lazhar, the most recent feature by Quebec director Philippe Falardeau, a Montreal elementary school is rocked by the dramatic suicide of one of its most beloved teachers. The titular character is a 55-year-old Algerian refugee who takes over the deceased teacher’s class. The film follows as he tries to simultaneously educate the children and shepherd them through their grief, while struggling with his own tragic past. This latest offering by Falardeau, whose films include Congorama and C'est pas moi, je le jure! (It’s not me, I swear!), is an intelligently nuanced and moving film that has gained momentum on the festival and awards circuit – it was named the best Canadian Feature Film at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival; it won six 2012 Genie Awards, including best feature, and was nominated for Ronald Plante csc’s cinematography; and it was among this year’s five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.
The film’s popularity with audiences despite its heavy subject matter is thanks in part to Falardeau’s vision for the cinematography, which he says he did not want to indulge in the story’s dark themes. "Because of the traumatic premise of the film you try to bring it to the light, to make the film luminous visually so it doesn't drown at the bottom of the ocean," the director says. “So I asked Ronald to try to use mainly natural light. I wanted a natural feeling. We could have flooded the class with electric light from outside. But I didn't want that, I wanted the light to be really the light from the daytime, the real daytime. The last thing I wanted to do was make an aesthetic statement with the film."
The resulting look is more Europe than Hollywood, and in fact, Falardeau referenced contemporary French and Belgian cinema. "I looked at a film by Laurent Cantet called L'emploi du temps and a beautiful film by Julie Bertuccelli called Depuis qu'Otar est parti. Small films that had a more documentary look than anything else." Such films employ a cinematic style that Plante has affection for. "I call it un-lighting," says the director of photography, who also shot last year’s popular feature Funkytown. "You never see the lighting intentions, and I really like that. I almost never put any lights in the rooms. I'm a very big fan of the cinematographer Harris Savides. His lighting philosophy is you light the room, you don’t light the people. And usually when you light the room, the lighting falls very well on the people. And it gives the director and the actors an enormous amount of liberty as far as camera movement and actors' movements."
As most of the action in Monsieur Lazhar develops in the classroom, the room virtually becomes another character in the film. "We had to have three seasons in the classroom – spring, autumn and winter," Plante explains. "And everything was done in July. So that was the biggest challenge." Falardeau selected a classroom with a lot of windows, some of which were tinted "to give a nice warm feeling to the light," he says. "Basically I wanted naturalistic light, and I wanted at the beginning of the film the light to be a little colder because it was winter, and as the story progressed and time progressed, the light could become just a little warmer."
Plante requested a west-facing classroom so the sun would be backlit most of the time. "I put the main camera angles facing towards the windows, because the lighting was nicer. And to do that we used Rosco polarizing filters in the window and on the camera. That was the perfect tool because whenever the light changed outside, I just had to turn the polarizer on the camera, and the windows wouldn't look burned out," he says. "In the classroom we had the neons. Outside I had six 4Ks hanging from the roof on a grid. So there were never any lights in the shot, there was no crane. The same frame structure for the lights we used as a base to lay down a 20x20, either black or white, to cut the direct sunlight, because we didn’t want any direct sunlight, and that would help us control the sun.”
Plante says one of his favourite tools to use, the JOKER-BUG 800 lighting kit, had particular practical advantages on Monsieur Lazhar. “I would take the tungsten light out of a Leko and take the JOKER-BUG and put that in the light itself so that the JOKER-BUG becomes a Leko. So it’s a light that’s already flagged. When you shoot you need lights and then you need flags to control the light. And that takes a lot of stages in a classroom. So basically if the lens is inside the lamp, the light that it throws is very, very sharp. You can control the lighting from inside the fixture itself. It’s like theatre lighting. Because in theatre you can’t fix the light on the stage, you have to control it from the grid. So that device helps me a lot to do lighting without too much intrusion on the set. You can throw the light exactly where you need it, and I use it a lot as a bounce. Instead of putting a light up on the ceiling or on the roof or behind the people, I just put the light on the frame and bounce it where I would want it exactly. It’s very handy and doesn’t take any space and it’s so quick. It’s like residual lighting, it’s always residual lighting.”
Plante employed almost no lighting for the day exteriors shot in the school playground and in the streets. “If I can do it without any lighting, even inside, I'll do it. There's nothing more beautiful than real light. In French films they rarely light outside. Technically sometimes we have to control it; I'll do bounce. But if you don't have to touch it, it’s way better. Because we're human, we're not very good at creating a sun," he says.
For night interiors, Plante likes to place a regular bare household bulb on a lighting stand and then set a lampshade over it. “When you go to a room in a house and the lighting is warm and well-designed it’s usually through lamps that are well placed. I always like the quality of the light because the quality of the light in a lampshade is always nice and warm and very soft. It’s a very beautiful light,” he says. “I usually use the lampshade to light people because the lighting is nice, and if for some reason in a reflection, or even if I pan and I hit the lamp, you see a lampshade, and it’s a lampshade, it’s not cinema lighting.”
Plante also works with the art department for efficient lighting. “I want to be able to do a wide shot, pan, tilt up, and I don’t want to have lights hanging and then people say, ‘It’s cinema lighting.’ So I always work with the art department so that the lighting is rightly placed. So I work closely with them and say, ‘Let’s put it there and there.’ I want to be able to see the whole set.” In fact, he adds, laughing, “I say to the art director, ‘You’re the gaffer.’ Because lighting that is built in the set will be useful for me 95 per cent of the time.”
Although the director and DOP had not previously worked together, Falardeau selected Plante – who has worked for over a decade in television – because of his ability to maximise time, which was essential on Monsieur Lazhar with many of the children acting in a film for the first time. "We thought of him because he works very fast," Falardeau says. "And if we needed additional lighting because the light was too low outside, I didn't want that to take too much time because of the children. You don't want to tire the children, you want to work with them and make them the priority and not the camera or the lighting."
"In TV you have to go very fast, and you have to find ways of shooting fast and being happy at the same time. Because I don't want to be a frustrated DOP, I want to be a happy DOP," Plante says, laughing. "So my lighting technique has to make a nice picture but still very fast." According to Plante, when it comes time to shoot he is always last in position. "I arrive after the actor and director. We wait for the scene changes and makeup, not for lighting. I’ve always worked like that. And been happy as well, not frustrated, having a good time."
Although almost all of Falardeau's previous projects were shot on film, the director wanted minimal interruption for the children, so Plante employed the RED ONE M-X. For lenses, he opted for the Cooke S4. "I really like them because they're soft. There's a danger that when you go from digital to postproduction it's very sharp. I used the S4 because they're not super sharp; they're nice on the skins. Kids’ skins are heaven for a DOP," he adds. "Kids with perfect skin, it's a dream. So that was very easy. No zooms, just a series of regular S4s, no filtration whatsoever."
Plante notes that he believes it is a common misconception that skin colours have to be lit differently, and the range of skin tones the ethnically diverse class of children comprised posed no particular challenge. "I don't do anything special for black people and white people. I light them, and they turn out black and white. I find that so silly. The cameras are so good. The equipment is better than us. The human is very lazy and very slow, and he's always doing the things he’s used to doing. I always challenge the pre-conceptions. I say, 'Why do we do that? We can do it differently.' We always do things because that's the way it was done. And I hate that. We have to think outside the box all the time."
Plante defies convention in other ways. For example, he says, "I usually don't like having marks on the floor for the actors and all that. I like it very free floating.” He also does all the camera settings himself, leaving the focus pulling to first assistant cameraman Filippo Viola, who on Monsieur Lazhar used a hand-held laser distance meter to measure the distance between objects in the room before each scene. “I point at the object [with the meter], and there’s a screen on the laser that tells me the distance between the laser tape in my hand and the object. In my head I memorise the distance so I have a good idea when we’re shooting where we are in terms of focus pulling,” Viola explains.
“It’s tough,” says the first AC of focus pulling without marks. “With Ronald I need to have more confidence in myself.” But Viola appreciates Plante’s methods and has been working with the DOP for 15 years, along with gaffer Marcel Breton and key grip Franck Develey. “I like it even though it’s really hard, because he works fast,” says Viola. “It’s good to work with him because any time we do something, it’s always beautiful. What you lose in technical perfection you’re going to have in the spontaneity of the actor. The actors have more liberty; they won’t search for their marks.”
When it comes to pre-production, Plante abhors over-planning. "I hate storyboards,” he says. “I don't believe in them. How is it possible to know what will happen? I'm more like, 'Let's figure it out and we'll do it. I'm fast, I have a good crew, and we'll do it.” All this stems from his philosophy that “a film is a life,” he says. “I truly believe a film is actually a living thing. I lose something every time I do a film. My own flesh and blood is given to the film. You cannot know where the film will go because it has a life of its own. The film went in every direction, which is good. You have to be open to that. If you fight that, you're dead. You have to respect the life of the film. Same with the look. How can I do look-up tables before I shoot the film? The film will add its own look while we're doing it. I always discover the look of the film at the end."
According to Falardeau, Plante’s intuitive nature makes him a powerful collaborator on set. "He is an instinctive and I'm a cerebral," the director posits. "So I thought it was complementary that he would use more his gut and his instinct." Falardeau recalls an early conversation with the cinematographer. "One of the first things he said to me was, 'I think you should shoot [the film] in 2:35 ratio.' And I disagreed. I wanted to use the normal ratio for cinema, because I thought it was more documentary-like, and he said, 'No, I think you should use the other one.' And I said, 'Why? Explain to me why, give me some arguments.' And he couldn't, but he said, 'I feel that it's the right movie for that.' So when we were making camera tests in the class and experimenting with the different lens formats, I tried the CinemaScope format, kneeling down at the level of the children, where they would be sitting at their desks, and I understood that [2:35] was the perfect format because you would have the sense that you have more children in the frame and less unnecessary view of the ceiling for instance, so I had this horizontal view of the children sitting down at their desks. So he was right. And when I look at the film now I think it was beautiful shot that way, so it was definitely the right decision."
To further illustrate how intuitively Plante works, Falardeau says, "Many [DOPs] will take, for instance, five, six measurements of the lights before shooting just to make sure. Ronald eyeballs the light. He doesn’t need his equipment to see what aperture or what filters, he can eyeball all that. That's an amazing gift. He's quite impressive when you see him working. He's like a guy who's going to war."
Of working with Falardeau, Plante says, "It was great. Philippe Falardeau is a very witty and intelligent person. He knows what he wants and what he doesn't want, and he's amazing with the kids.” For the cinematographer, Monsieur Lazhar was special long before the accolades began rolling in. "I did the film with my wife, who's the boom operator, and she was pregnant at the time, so it’s like we did the film, the three of us," he says, chuckling. "We had a good time. It was very laid back. I would ride my bicycle to the set. It was like summer camp. And that's the beauty of cinema. Had you said we would go to the Oscars when we shot it, nobody would have believed it. We were not doing an Oscar film; we were just doing a good little film with kids and a good story. So the film is a critical success and a box office hit. What more do you want?"