Certainly one of the most distinct and talented cinematographers working today is Bruno Delbonnel. Most first sparked to the French cinematographer’s work on the 2001 film Amélie, and he subsequently lent his talents to films like A Very Long Engagement, Across the Universe, and Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, Big Eyes, and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. And when the Coen Brothers found themselves in need of a new cinematographer due to Roger Deakins’ absence, they enlisted Delbonnel to shoot the gorgeous Inside Llewyn Davis (and he’s also shooting their upcoming anthology series).
Most recently, Delbonnel teamed up with visionary filmmaker Joe Wright for an unlikely choice of project: an intimate drama about Winston Churchill. Putting Wright and Delbonnel to the task was an inspired choice, as Darkest Hour stands as one of the year’s best films, which extends to Delbonnel’s cinematic and striking cinematography, which works in concert with Dario Marianelli’s pulsating score to tremendous results.
With Darkest Hour now playing in limited release before going wide in the United States on December 22nd (it opes in the UK on January 12, 2018), I recently got the chance to speak with Delbonnel about his stunning work in the film. He talked about his collaboration with director Joe Wright and how the two worked together to zero in on the dual personality of Churchill, and he also discussed the challenge of shooting Gary Oldman’s transformative performance as Churchill in a way that kept the magic alive. Additional, as I’m a massive fan of Delbonnel’s work on Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I had to ask him about his collaboration with David Yates on that film and the cinematographer kindly indulged my fascinating.
Delbonnel is a monumental talent and his work on Darkest Hour is terrific. I could have spoken with the cinematographer for four more hours, but below you’ll find our full—and all-too-brief—conversation.
I believe this was your first project with Joe, so I was kind of curious, how did that courtship go? How did you come to be shooting this film?
BRUNO DELBONNEL: In fact Joe called me three or four years ago when he was prepping Pan. Seamus McGarvey was not available and so he asked me if I could shoot it for him but I was working with Tim Burton on Miss Peregrine. So I couldn’t do it and then he called me for this one, he said Seamus is not available again so would you mind shooting it, and I read the script and I said yeah, okay. Why not?
I’m always interested in the early conversations between the director and the cinematographer. So what were your early discussions with Joe like about the visual approach to the project?
DELBONNEL: I think the first thing was in some ways he had to convince me to do this movie. It was a lot about people talking about the politics of England and how to save the world in some ways, and so Joe came to Paris and he told me that what really interested him was the double personality of Churchill. How this guy had a lot of doubt and was a leader as well but with a lot of failure behind it. So it suddenly opened a lot of things for me like, ‘Okay, so its more about a person than the moment in the world history.’ Then I got interested. Then we start talking about maps and how those people are playing with soldiers and human life and looking at the world from God’s point of view somewhat, and this spoke to me as well. So it was an early conversation we had, and then we kind of developed a general concept of what the movie could look like.
Joe is know to be a very cinematic director and the camera work in his films is striking but this project, it’s basically a succession of scenes of people talking in rooms but yet I think you guys succeed in making it feel cinematic without it being kind of overbearingly so or too showy. Were you guys talking about that balance while you were shooting, kind of trying to find a happy medium?
DELBONNEL: Oh yeah, yeah. I mean, Joe was really aware that we had more than 20 minutes of people talking, shooting around table, talking about what to do. So he was really aware of how dangerous it could have been for the audience. There was one scene that I think that’s 10 minutes long, it was 15 pages. So both of us started to discuss that. How can we sort it out? In fact the plan was going the opposite way. It was just like, how can we make the scene more interesting? So instead of finding the solution within the room—when people are talking and they are sitting, there is not much that you can do unless you’re moving the camera in a very obnoxious way. In a way that has no sense what so ever and I really don’t like pushing too much when people are talking and suddenly the camera is pushing in and you say, ‘Oh God. The guy is saying something interesting. That’s why the camera is pushing,’ which annoys me a lot. So we said, ‘Okay, it’s much more interesting to work around those scenes and to find a way just to make those scenes interesting and dynamic.’ Then there is a pause when those guys are talking in these rooms. So it was kind of developing a musical score within the movie, within the script.
Yeah, I mean Dario Marianelli’s score in this movie is one of my favorites of the year and I think this score and the cinematography worked together in kind of this dance in a way, which is kind of amazing going that the score comes afterwards.
DELBONNEL: Yeah. Exactly. I agree with you.
I was also curious. When you’re framing a character like Winston Churchill, who’s larger than life, and then you have a performance as spectacular as Gary’s. How are you setting up those shots? You can almost feel his personality bursting through the screen at times and its not exactly like framing kind of any other character. This guy is huge.
DELBONNEL: To tell you the truth I don’t think about this. That’s the problem with any biopic you’re doing, but we’re not doing a biopic. I don’t feel this movie is a biopic. It’s just like, two months in the life of Winston Churchill. So I don’t know what’s before, I don’t know what’s next. What is interesting for me is only those two months, which are within the script and it could be anyone, in some ways. This guy was larger than life like you said but you could say that Joey’s larger than life. You have this double personality or triple personality and that’s what is interesting, is when you try to play with them. So what was more complicated was shooting Gary Oldman as Churchill. That was the challenge and because even, you have to have in mind that the audience is looking at Gary Oldman being Winston Churchill so you have to help Gary to make the audience forget about it and that’s my job in some way. The question is how can I find a way just to cause the audience to forget that it’s Gary Oldman with prosthetics? It’s not about Churchill.