Rohmer's Full Moon in Paris: Shooting Methods

Eric Rohmer: Grace and Rigor
Or how the overall economy of a story, budget and crew settle in a point of clarity that is both the evidence and the secret of the film.  

By Alain Bergala and Alain Philippon

The Actors: In Search of Natural Grace

The keystone of Eric Rohmer’s work is the time he devotes to the preparation of a film with his actors, an amount of time that nine out of ten French filmmakers could not or would not take: eight months on average are devoted to familiarizing the actors with the project, with the lines, and with Rohmer himself.  At the very beginning, Rohmer vaguely hints that a film will maybe be shot.  With the greatest discretion, he lays out a slow approach to the film (in the words of Tcheky Karyo, “he distills the elements”).  A lot is spoken of around the film (women and seduction with Fabrice Luchini, architecture and painting with Pascale Ogier, Rohmer himself and his preoccupations as a filmmaker with Tcheky Karyo).  Rohmer and his actors, then, see each other a lot, but the talk isn’t necessarily about the film as such, except by detours.  This centripetal approach consists in approaching, step-by-step (vague allusions, then pre-projects) the dialogue itself.  (During the shoot, there will be no question, in principle, of touching this very precisely written dialogue.  Incidentally, this is one of the first worries Rohmer shares with Tcheky Karyo.  The filmmaker, however, will remain open to slight modifications).

This point is about midway between the first discussions and the shoot itself.  Fabrice Luchini, for example, knew about the project a year in advance and received the script six months before the shoot.  From this point on, the meetings without any specific purpose continue, while the preparation takes shape (text in hand this time), punctuated, in turn, by several steps: table readings and audio recordings, then what could be called “rehearsal/location scouts,” during which the actors familiarize themselves with their lines and with certain shooting locations at the same time, as if, more than ever, the lines and the location where they will be uttered cannot be thought of separately.

The audio cassette work is succeeded by a partial pre-filming on Super 8, Rohmer holding the camera himself.  According to Fabrice Luchini, these rehearsals represent “work that is not always clear for the actors.  It involves,” he says, “saying the lines in a variety of ways to arrive at an extremely sober point,” or, “to desert them.”  The shoot itself can only benefit from such a “desertion” since the faults and errors in direction will have been eliminated and detected in advance.  Then the rehearsals are interrupted before things become stale.  

On set, the takes themselves (sometimes even the take), then, benefit from all this preparation, but the knowledge has been so ingrained in the minds and bodies of the actors that they can both get in front of the camera in a totally fresh state and be happy with a small number of takes.  The preparation is like bedrock or a barely-conscious memory that allows for the reinvention indispensable to all living labor.  There are, then, very few takes, sometimes only one, and two or three on average.  It isn’t while watching the rushes, but on set, that Rohmer decides which take is the best.  It has sometimes even happened that the take to print is chosen while listening on to it on headphones.  Rohmer’s entire art consists in creating on set a veritable osmosis between himself, the actors, and the crew.  This osmosis - the term is used by more than one of his collaborators, Pascale Ogier even evokes the image of the hand’s five fingers - comes neither from a “boy scout” quality or a symbiotic relationship, but creates on set a mobilizing tension, to use Renato Berta’s term.  Even if small conflicts do take place, the same passion for the film circulates from one participant to another.

An Eric Rohmer film thus rests on a true economy of work with the actors, just as it rests on an economy of production: it consists in best managing the work opportunities and the emotional capacities of the actors.  Having an economy also means having a contract - more or less explicit according to each actor.  There is no contract without additional clauses (and no outline without fine print): since Les Nuits de la pleine lune deals with affairs to a large extent, let’s move on to the little negotiations that mark the singularity of Rohmer’s relationship with some of his actors. -A.P.

Pascale Ogier

Pascale Ogier is on her third collaboration with Rohmer, after a small role in the chorus in Perceval le Gallois and, in theater, Katherine de Heilbronn (by Kleist).  Rohmer wanted to work with her again, but with patience, waiting for the right time.  Pascale Ogier has a particular stature here since she also set designed the film.  Walks around Paris, visits to boutiques, finding props, materials, and colors.  After Ogier had made more than one proposition, Rohmer officially asked her to deal with the film’s set design.  He found in her someone who could help him attain one of his main goals: to show the 1980s.  As for the actress, she felt that her tastes and Louise’s could come together.  “In this film,” she says, “more than in Le Pont du Nord, I’ve really followed a line from beginning to end.  In any case, I didn’t work without knowing what I was going to do.  Eric always explained to me why he was asking for such and such a thing.”  The directions?  To take more time, so much so that Ogier recognized having the tendency “to enter the shot, and to leave it, like a fireball.”  She pays tribute to Renato Berta, who always “saved” her.  “Supported by Berta’s very attentive and comforting presence, I didn’t look to break Rohmer’s ban on seeing the rushes.  I told myself that if the image had to be hard on me, it would be.  It wasn’t my problem.”  

Finally, it was Ogier who took the initiative of the tears in the last sequence.  “Rohmer had written his script without specifying if Louise fell apart.  There was only the dialogue, entirely flat.  I thought with him that something moving had to be done, because it was the end of the film.  I offered to cry, and to start crying when I go upstairs to call Octave on the phone.  I thought that it was crucial, and yet it wasn’t fun for me to do it.  For Eric, I could do it, it wasn’t obscene.  When we talked about it, he told me, ‘I can’t do anything.  If an actor can’t cry, he can’t cry.  The film will be different.’”  Ogier was able to cry, like Marie Rivière in La Femme de l’aviateur.  -A.P.

Tcheky Karyo

Although the experience of Les Nuits de la pleine lune has been terrific for Tcheky Karyo, the shoot has sometimes been for him, if not conflictual, at least, he says, “feverish.”  This is his first collaboration with Rohmer, who noticed him in La Java des ombres.  A graduate of the National Theater of Strasbourg (one of the best French schools for acting), Karyo expressed legitimate demands on set that come from his experience in theater.  
Faced with the ban on viewing the rushes, he asserted himself - as he made Rohmer act in the theater just before the shoot - in order to be in good form.  To give weight to this character who is difficult because of his childish side didn’t only mean for him to slightly modify the dialogue.  “My work with Rohmer was to try to meet him.  I’m a tool, but not the subject of a Master.  I want to bring my area of creation.”  Karyo’s presence, then, somewhat altered the frontier between the two “camps” of direction and performance.  An example: for the violent scene at night between Rémi and Louise, Rohmer at first refused Karyo’s proposal to hit his head against the wall.  Yet, says Karyo, “I felt the need to find something that had the dimension of what I felt.”  Rohmer’s response: “But you’re intervening in the direction!”  The actor sums up the working atmosphere between Rohmer and himself like this, “Rohmer was intrigued, a bit defensive, but ready for combat at the same time.”  Like Pascale Ogier, Karyo benefited from Renato Berta’s complicity, with whom little conspiracies were spun.  A significant feature is that at the end of a take, Karyo’s gaze went towards Berta first, then towards Rohmer. -A.P.

Fabrice Luchini

Fabrice Luchini has known Rohmer for ten years.  Aside from his lead role in Perceval le Gallois, we’ve seen him in Le Genou de Claire and very briefly in La Femme de l’aviateur.  Aside from the films, he and Rohmer maintain “rather close contact.”  Luchini evokes “an absolute bond,” between him and Rohmer, “through work, through the dialogue, we no longer need to talk to one another, we’re in agreement, he puts you in a state of total ease.  He doesn’t let you do everything, but he doesn’t direct you either.  The work happens in this in-between.  As for the comments, they never relate to the acting.  Rohmer doesn’t indicate the color in order to obtain the emotion.  When this doesn’t work, it means you haven’t the found the natural grace...  Eric was never with me on set, because we know each other so well.  Still, I had the feeling of being loved.  It’s important to say it, since on a film shoot, the director’s attention falls more willingly on the heroine...”

Fabrice Luchini, who considers himself a “to-the-letter actor” (but who doesn’t want to hold himself to this style alone), defines his approach to the film like this, “to make a very written style work in real situations.”  In addition, Les Nuits de la pleine lune marks a step in his development, in the sense that he says he was preoccupied for the first time with his image, having looked to place himself well in the light, to have finally worried about the formal qualities.  He therefore defines the play between the constraints of the lighting and framing, and his freedom as an actor as the very essence of acting. -A.P.

Technique: The Risk of the Single Take           

“A film,” says Renato Berta, “is composed of several lines - the frame, the actors, the photography, the sound - and often all these lines don’t cross at the same point.  When it’s right for the frame, it’s not good for the light, when it’s good for the actors, it isn’t right for the crew.  That is the cinema of idiotic professionalism.  Each person does his work but it doesn’t work together.  Whereas here, very often, there are moments of grace.  A single take, and all the lines come together!  I’ve rarely seen that.  It builds little by little to the right moment, where everyone is complicit, where you have to be ready to film, and at that moment, the light is longer there, the frame is no longer there, you have to shoot.”

Everyone - actors, crew - told us about the beautiful risk of the single take.  “The difficulty and the pleasure of working with him,” says Georges Prat, his sound mixer since La Femme de l’aviateur, “is that the first take may be good and the only one shot.  On this shoot, there were single takes everyday where there is no second one.  Everyone is a little afraid, but it’s stimulating.  I felt like a gambler, it was risky!”

By his method and on principle, Rohmer does few takes, rarely more than three.  He himself says he abhors waste and prefers to prepare before instead of during the shoot.  When he says, “camera,” everything has been minutely regulated.  The actors have known their lines for months, everything was negotiated in advance with the crew and the actors, the necessary time was taken for a precise blocking, and there is no reason for the first take not to be the best one.  In the case of an error or accident, Rohmer very quickly goes on, soon does another take or two, but never any supplementary ones when he thinks that he has a good one.  This is not done, one suspects, for the actors, who would like to sometimes shoot an extra one.  -A.B.

The Director of Photography’s Place

“All directors,” says Renato Berta, “have in their heads a kind of image, but which is completely in the realm of dreams, and once you get on set, the dream falls apart.”

There is nothing of the sort on Rohmer’s films, where things, between him and his director of photography (it’s the first time he’s worked with Renato Berta), have advanced by successive attempts, negotiations, and the game of proposals and counter-proposals, within a very precise frame which is the film’s economy.

“It’s a film,” says R.B., “really based on a praxis.”  A first trip to the eventual locations several months before the start of shooting allows them to “breath in a bit of the atmosphere of the locations, to look for solutions for the découpage and lighting, but always in relation to the reality of these locations and our means.”  The definitive choice of certain sets is, then, decided in accordance with Berta.  Thus begins a second trip to the sets, two or three months before the shoot, where Berta takes pictures with the film stock he will use for the film (Kodak’s new Eastman 5294) while Rohmer, sometimes, tries things on Super 8.  The projection of these photos and Super 8 films allows them to advance to more specific points in the discussion, choices of light and material, for example.  “What scared Rohmer,” says R.B., “were the night shots, especially outside where we were starting from zero with the light, without any reference point in reality.  He was afraid, also, of the whole ceremony around this in the usual filmmaking.  To set up a light, when there is a team of four electricians, is really involved... Here, we used a system of batteries and low-voltage lights that I could set up in five minutes, without electricians.  Each light had its own battery, it never failed, and there wasn’t all the usual filmmaking fuss.”  Georges Prat also spoke with us about this constant care about discretion that animates Rohmer’s shoots: “Outside, he doesn’t like to set up, we have to be very mobile, almost like a news crew.  Passersby can't realize that we're shooting.  His problem is always to not get us noticed, to be as discreet as possible.”

In regards to the general lighting principles, Berta insists a lot on his need to light the actors because often, he says, “Rohmer has a tendency to choose lighting that comes from the set and not from the actors.”  But the actual lighting choices are negotiated as they go along, almost shot by shot, with great mutual respect.  Rohmer, says Berta, “worried a lot about the way in which we were going to light Pascale Ogier in the scene where she gets out of bed, in the middle of the night, to leave her apartment where Bastien is still asleep.  “I told him, let’s decide on a point of departure, a lamp on the floor, and from there, we add lights, but I’ll tell you everything I’m doing.  I proposed something, he looked and said, “it isn’t very good!”  So I did another thing, and so on... Well, it was real lighting work, and in filmmaking it is never done like that.  He said to me, “It’s bizarre, it’s as if we were painting.”

After two weeks of shooting, and seeing some of the rushes, Rohmer is sufficiently confident in his new director of photography to sometimes give him, on certain locations, the freedom to choose the placement of the camera himself.  And very quickly, on this shoot - all of the actors confirm - the director-actors-cinematographer triangle began to function in a harmonious manner, without ever posing itself in terms of territory or authority.  “If you are complicit in what is happening,” says R.B., “and you aren’t abandoned to your destiny, you inevitably get wet.  On this film, we only lit the actors, so you’re obligated, at one time or another, to negotiate about points of direction like: if we moved the actor a bit further from the wall?  Where are the borders and limits of the cameraman’s work and where does the work of mise en scène begin? -A.B. 

Story of an Ambiance

Lots of filmmakers let their sound mixer record the ambiances that he thinks are necessary and it is generally the sound editor who chooses them at the last moment, in the rush at the end of editing, at a table where one never hears very well.

Here is, as told by Georges Prat, the story of an ambient sound (meaning the lowest and most discreet sound there is, that isn’t even there to be consciously heard) in a film by Eric Rohmer.  It gives an indication of the amount of Renoirian care for detail and the demanding nature his cinema shows.

“One day, while we had been shooting for a week in Marne-la-Vallée, we heard kids playing in a little square, it was very calm, very Rohmerian, and this sound immediately interested Eric.  ‘This would be really good,’ he said to me, ‘for the sequence on Saturday, when Rémi comes back.’  Because there were only two sequences in this place where there could logically be kids outside.  I went out but I wasn’t able to record the sound because there were construction noises.  I went back on Saturday to have the kids without the construction but I didn’t find them.  So I spent my Sunday, in Paris, looking for places where there could be kids and acoustics close to Marne-la-Vallée’s, and I ended finding three places that could work.  Another day, I went on foot with Rohmer - he walks, as do I - to record.  We went to the three places, and at the third one, we had a sound of children that was very close to Marne-la-Vallée’s.  We worked almost undercover, sitting on a little bench, and I recorded three rolls almost one after the other.  It’s a real pleasure, for him, to make the ambiances.”

Once the film is almost finished being edited - here it was less than two weeks after the end of production - Rohmer makes a list of necessary ambiances with Georges Prat and he spends a day, in a good recording studio, listening to the original sounds again, at the level that he hopes they can be mixed in.  “That,” says G.P., “is a little dramatic, because he constantly asks me, ‘can’t this be lower?’”  He then makes his choice, but always keeps a complete ambiance, in its actual duration, even if there are dead times.  This choice always respects the logic of the location and the time: “He only puts on his soundtrack what could really exist, even if it is entirely reconstructed... Moreover, we shot almost all the scenes at the real times that they were supposed to happen.  And it’s true that the night scenes have a real night sound.”

During the mix, which lasts four and a half days, there are very few soundtracks, but Hennequin’s work must be very precise: “the soundtrack seems very simple,” says G.P., “but it has a rigor that is very difficult to obtain.  The difficulty, for the mixer, is that he is playing with very few elements, it is held together by a thread.” -A.B.

The Production: In Praise of Reason

Eric Rohmer and Margaret Menegoz’s collaboration, at the heart of Films du Losange (with Barbet Schroeder, who was there at the beginning), goes back close to ten years, to La Marquise d’O, exactly.  To speak with Menegoz about the production of Les Nuits de la pleine lune is to find a haven of calm, intelligence and coherence; something like a tangible utopia, a possible model, as well, of what should be more than a production, or at least a successful example of appropriateness between an aesthetic project and its structure.  According to Menegoz, “Eric Rohmer acts as the producer himself, and we are his assistants.  He has no assistant director, he has production assistants.”  Rohmer is, then, the only master on the shoot.  “A producer, normally, doesn’t have to step foot on set, since the shoot is the execution of everything that has been prepared and anticipated beforehand.”  Rohmer and Menegoz share “the same horror at waste, the same sense of economy, the same desire to eliminate everything that is superfluous,” which drives them to avoid the spirals of overtime (the taximeter, as Menegoz says) and union obstacles.  A preliminary agreement is signed with the crew, hired and paid for eight weeks, even if, in the end, they finish a week ahead of time (Rohmer envisions seven weeks for shooting, plus a “safety” week).  This initial agreement, which Menegoz recognizes as being facilitated by the smallness of the crew and the concentration of the shooting locations, allows them to not submit to the disturbing course that characterizes more than one film production, where every moment when one is not shooting is considered a waste of time.  Here, a day can be spent rehearsing, leaving between midnight and three in the morning to shoot without any problem if need be.  It is thus Rohmer himself who organizes his work schedule and who decides on the shooting time.  Menegoz broadens the principle, “It’s the director who has to decide.  Besides, schedules imposed from outside, by the producers, are never followed.”  In these conditions, what is the producer’s role?  Before the shoot, she worries about the financial plan, administrative and legal problems, and hiring the crew.  After the shoot, she works on the film’s release, the eventual festivals, the publicity, etc.

It is perhaps here that such a “micro-system” runs into some problems, in that the film, once finished, is obligated to enter into distribution as it is practiced (to confront the macro-system in its own territory: competition).  On the question of the film’s release, for example, the dialogue with Rohmer was, according to Menegoz, a bit difficult on the last three films.  Rohmer wanted neither publicity nor press screenings, and wanted the film to be released in one theater that would keep the film for as long as possible.  We know that this principle, which Rohmer isn’t the only one to use, goes totally against current distribution trends.  Menegoz and Rohmer met midway on the last three films, at a compromise.  For Les Nuits de la pleine lune, for the first time, Rohmer was hands off, all while keeping an eye on the film’s poster, for example (but with less attention than the film itself, we feel).

The pre- and post-production come together around a policy of principles that Menegoz defines like this, “It is a matter, while getting the financing together, of thinking as little as possible about the film’s audiovisual future.  For Pauline à la plage, for example, FR3 agreed to a co-production, but under conditions that were so abusive that I had to turn it down.  I then made recourse to the avance sur recettes, which has more loyal conditions than TV co-productions, and which doesn’t mean a sharing of property.  Pauline having been successful, this advance was, moreover, reimbursed.  But as soon as possible I do without it.  Pauline’s success let me finance Les Nuits de la pleine lune without going through the avance.

“The policies that underpin the financing of a film are inseparable from the spirit that reigns at Films du Losange.  Losange has always been a company for auteurs.  The true capital of a production company is the directors who are attached to it and the negatives of the films.  There is no other capital.  Here, each director has an account and each franc that comes back is available for his next film.”  In these conditions, how are new directors welcomed (like Jean-Claude Brissau with Un jeu brutal, last year)?  By agreeing to executive produce for other companies, Gaumont, for example (on Un amour de Swann).

Such a mode of production, whose healthiness is evident, obviously has its limits.  The year of preparation that Rohmer spends with Pascale Ogier would be difficult to imagine with another star.  But the essential lesson here is that a production like Losange-Rohmer’s completely turns on its head the idea by which the more money there is, the more luxury one has.  Today, as much luxury is found in “poor” films as in “rich” films: the real luxury is time.  Renato Berta, the cinematographer who is collaborating with Rohmer for the first time, considers Les Nuits de la pleine lune, “one of the most luxurious films I’ve ever shot.”  And that, on a budget that represents about half the budget of an average French film.

It must be acknowledged that at a time when aesthetics, ethics and economics are,
more than ever, one and the same, the real successes, the real artistic advances are produced, overall, in a kind of substandard economy.  From Garrel to Carax, Akerman to Doillon, Ruiz to Rivette, the examples multiply and constitute today the only alternative to standardization.  The “middle path” of subjects, styles, and actors that we have stigmatized more than once here, correspond most often to average budgets and standardized productions.  Save for some exceptions, only non-standardized modes of production favor the emergence of a new cinema. -A.P.

Orgiginally published in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 364, October 1984.   
Translation by Ted Fendt, 2012

Note: Another piece from this issue of Cahiers - on Straub-Huillet - can be found on Kinoslang here. The other one, on Rivette's shooting methods, will hopefully be up on here sometime soon.

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