Cinematographer Yves Belanger teams up again with director Jean-Marc Vallée and brings their distinctively minimalist cinematic style to a wilderness setting in Wild, which was shot on location in California’s Mojave Desert and Oregon via the rugged Pacific Crest Trail. The film is based on the best-selling novel by Cheryl Strayed adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby and features a radiant performance by Reese Witherspoon complemented by Belanger’s stunning cinematography. The story chronicles one courageous woman’s transformative journey as she sets out to hike the PCT, the longest, toughest and wildest through-trail in America, completely alone.
In an exclusive interview, Belanger discussed his collaborative partnership with Vallée using hand-held digital cameras and natural light, their rehearsal process, his experience shooting on the trail with Witherspoon, the economy of doing everything in one slate for the shorter scenes with no cuts and no set-ups, controlling the light and choosing the angles, his core camera crew, why the Alexa was his camera of choice, changing the exposure as he operated the camera, using a remote focus puller, combining modern and old lenses to create the look of the film, and his upcoming films Brooklyn, Demolition, and Janis Joplin: Get It While You Can. Check out our interview after the jump:
Can you talk about bringing this distinctively minimalist style that you first used in Dallas Buyers Club to a wilderness setting? Why was shooting this way, using a hand-held digital camera and natural light, the right approach for Wild?
YVES BELANGER: It’s something that Jean-Marc developed over the years. He wanted to have less and less people on the film sets. He thought the process was very complicated. We were always waiting, and there wasn’t enough time to shoot. Over the years, the film stock got better and better, and the new digital cameras were very sensitive to low light situation and gave very good performance in the highlights, too. With the new digital camera, especially the Alexa, the one that we used by Arriflex, we could overexpose or underexpose a lot of scenes and the image would still be great.
We started that on Dallas Buyers Club, the movie just before. It was maybe a little bit for an economical reason. We said, “We have no budget and not enough time. We have 23 or 24 days. So, we’re going to use no crew, only a hand-held camera, three or four lenses, and no artificial light.” And we did it, and it looked great, and it worked, and everybody, even the actors, loved it. We said to ourselves, “We’re going to do the same thing for Wild.” And we did the same thing for Demolition which we just finished. It just makes the process so much better. It works for us. Jean-Marc and I like it because we don’t wait. We like to shoot. The actors love it because there’s no cut in the concentration, like when you stop for five minutes, or just the slate, or the hairdresser touching up your hair for different takes. Now we shoot a lot, and we have no lights in the frames, so if we want to change our mind, we can do it very fast. At the same time, we like the look. For Wild, because it was nature, maybe because we did a lot of the country too, we realized that natural light is always better. You just have to know when to shoot it. There’s a certain time of the day that you don’t shoot. But we were lucky we were in the fall and the beginning of the winter. It’s the best light.
How would you describe your collaborative relationship with Jean-Marc? Do you guys have a shorthand with each other when you work?
BELANGER: We think the same. But nobody thinks like Jean-Marc. He’s so special. But I understand him, I think. And I like the way he works. We frame the same way and we like simple things. We don’t like when the camera is complicated and the colors are crazy. We like to go right to the point. I did a movie (Laurence Anyways) with Xavier Dolan who’s a crazy young Canadian filmmaker. He won at Cannes this year with Mommy. When I did a movie with him, we had 53 days of shooting and it was so fun, but it’s not my cup of tea. It’s very colorful, very crazy. It’s a little like Pedro Almodóvar, and I’m more like a naturalist, like Jean-Marc. The guy was great and it was so fun to be with him, but when a movie is too complicated technically, usually I don’t go for it.
What was the rehearsal process like with Jean-Marc and the actors? I understand he likes to block the scenes with the actors and use you like a viewfinder.
BELANGER: Exactly. On the Wild, he used me as a viewfinder. A lot of times, he will do it for 30 seconds, and then he’ll go, “Okay, that’s a good position,” and we shoot the rehearsal. We realized that a lot of times the actors do some very interesting things in the first rehearsal. Maybe it’s because we haven’t spoken to them yet. That’s why we shoot the rehearsal sometimes. The only thing we would do is find the first camera position or the point of view, if you will. Usually it’s the story, but sometimes it’s the lighting, too, because we use natural lights. Maybe we know we have two people and there’s a chance we’ll put them like this (side by side) so they’re both side lit. But if we do it like this (across from each other), you have a nice soft light, however the background is brighter than me. And then, when you cut from one to the other, sometimes it’s weird. But it always depends on the story what we want to say in the scene. When I’m doing a feature, especially with Jean-Marc, it’s the story that inspires the style. It’s always in service of the story.
How was your experience shooting Reese on the trail? What was it like walking backwards filming her as she’s walking towards you?
BELANGER: I’m not a big outdoor sportsman but I love to be outside. So it was great. I just had to get in shape because it was tough. With Reese, it was very easy. We were in the same boat. She was carrying more or less the same weight as I was. I was doing the same thing as her, but backwards. Usually we would get tired at the same time, so it was nice. Jean-Marc would sense it and say, “Cut!” And then we would do something else.
Was it challenging being out in that environment? Was it cold?
BELANGER: Yeah. I forgot about it, but someone sent me some pictures of the shoot, and Reese is wearing a little T-shirt. I’m there, and I’m wearing my winter coat, and I have a hat and gloves. That was complicated, because we couldn’t show that she was cold. I’m talking about the desert, not the snow scene. The desert was cold. The snow was not that cold, which was weird.
Can you talk about doing it all in one slate for the shorter scenes with no cuts, no set-ups, and shooting different angles? Is that something that the actors prefer?
BELANGER: Yes. We were very scared the first time we did it on Dallas Buyers Club, and whether the actors were going to like it, and the fact that we had no light. But they forgot about it right away and they loved it. It’s like doing theater. There’s no cut in your concentration and it becomes almost like hypnotists because you do a slate. Imagine with a scene we have to walk from here to here. When we do the scene, I follow you talking to the person. Suddenly, Jean-Marc will say, “Okay. Go back to first position.” So we all run at the same time, and we’re still in character, and we do it again. And then, we walk and at the end you sit at the stairs there (referring to the entrance to the hotel bar where we’re doing our interview), and Jean-Marc says, “Okay let’s do it, but from the back.” And we’d do the same thing but following you from the back. And yes, it just gets better and better. I would do 360 degrees sometimes without cutting. But that’s why we have no lights and no flags and no reflectors, because each time we’d move the light, someone would have to move the equipment. So we have no equipment. If we were shooting here (in the bar at the hotel), our equipment would be hidden behind the other side of the bar, and the script supervisor would be under the table so she could watch us. It’s quite funny to work like that.
What were some of the challenges of shooting this film using only available light? How did you control the light and choose the angles?
BELANGER: Jean-Marc and I have the same taste. Usually we will just look at the existing light and find a good angle. Sometimes maybe there’s too much light or maybe there’s not enough, so we’ll turn some practicals on or off, some lamps. Or sometimes, like in hospitals, there are a lot of fluorescent lights. Depending on what emotion you want, sometimes we will kill some of them or turn off some of the tubes to create the atmosphere. So, instead of adding lights, it’s cutting lights, but it’s really personal taste and common sense. I’ve been doing that since I was 25 years old. It’s like second nature. You look in the viewfinder and it’s just taste.
How do you handle the instances when available light won’t work, like when you were shooting outdoors at night?
BELANGER: That’s what happened in the night scene in the forest. It’s not a secret. We have to stop at this point and we have to do what everybody does. For the night scenes in the forest, we had a big crane with a light that looks like the moon. It’s soft strong light and I just put it above all the trees and I create a moonlight, so that’s my base. My room tone, I call it. The rest were the flashlights and the fires. Sometimes there is a limit to our concept of shooting with available light, because there are certain situations where there is no light, so we have to cheat it.
What about the café scene where there’s supposed to be a snow storm?
BELANGER: It’s very simple. We add light from outside through the windows, and outside we have a big green screen. I lit the green screen. And after that, Marc Coté, the visual effects supervisor, shot some plates of a snowstorm in Montreal, and he blended both of them. It’s like a Superman movie. (Laughs)
How large was your core camera crew?
BELANGER: The camera crew is the same as in a normal movie, but it’s the grips and the electrics that we have a lot less of than the average. In a typical movie, they have between 5 and 8 electricians and maybe between 5 and 8 grips. I have one of each and sometimes they add an assistant. But my camera crew is like everybody’s. There is a focus puller, there’s a second assistant cameraman, and there is someone taking care of the rushes, the data wrangler as we call him, and he takes the cards and transfers them into the computer. So, there are only 3 people with me. If there’s a second camera, there are more people. But it was very rare that we had a second camera. I think we used it once or twice. Usually, Jean-Marc used the second camera if it was something that would only happen once, like a stunt or an explosion. In this case, in Wild, there’s one point where there are two skiers who go very close to Reese, and it was a little dangerous, and the guys weren’t that good, so we used two cameras to have at least two angles.
Are there advantages to shooting in the wilderness with a small group?
BELANGER: There are advantages everywhere actually. It’s nice in general. We forget that a lot of movies were made like that. Even Stanley Kubrick, all his movies even at the end were big budget, but there were maybe between 7 and 14 people on the set. Like The Shining, the whole hotel wasn’t a set. All the lighting was coming from the set, too, like the fixture and the light coming from the windows. They had maybe a lot of people working on it for two weeks, but actually when they were shooting, there were only 14 people.
Why was the Alexa your camera of choice? What made it ideal for this film?
BELANGER: A lot of the digital cameras have great performance, but Alexa sees like the human eye. If there’s a bright light, like the window, and a dark side, like under the table, your eyes adjust and they can see those kinds of details everywhere. Alexa does that, too. It has a lot of range and latitude. Plus, even with the different colors, because lights have different colors. If you look at the daylight, it’s a little bluer and this is more orange. With a lot of film stock, when we were shooting in film, the difference would be very obvious. This will turn very orange and this very blue. But with the Alexa, it’s softer and you would have the same kind of difference. So, because Jean-Marc is doing a very realistic movie, it’s very good for us to use Alexa because it’s realistic.
Can you talk a little bit about your style of changing the aperture and the exposure as you’re operating the camera instead of adding or cutting light?
BELANGER: Because you can’t add lights or cut the lights, a lot of times a D.P. does that, not because of an aesthetic reason but because he has to level everything. Usually, you set one exposure. So, if something is too bright or if something is too dark, it’s not good. The camera has a very great range, but even though it does, what I do is I add my longer finger on the aperture on the lens and I change it. If I follow you from outside to inside, I start with the lens very closed, and very subtly when you enter inside, I open it. But usually you don’t see it if it’s well done. I do it constantly with Jean-Marc because I can’t light, so it’s like second nature now. I just always play with it.
Do you sometimes use a remote focus puller?
BELANGER: If I’m not operating, I do that. It’s easier for the focus puller because Jean-Marc wants to be all over the place. When you’re shooting digital, the monitors are very precise. You can see the image very clearly. Now the focus puller has a remote, and he has a monitor just for him, and he sees the movie, and just by eye he follows the focus, following the actor moving in and out of the shot. Sometimes Jean-Marc likes to operate so I use the remote aperture too, and when he’s operating, I change the aperture with the remote looking at the same monitor.
Can you talk about using a combination of modern and old lenses depending on the look you wanted? Also, did using the more modern lens eliminate the need for lights or bounce cards and allow you to get closer to the actors without skewing the images?
BELANGER: Even 50 years ago, there were some lenses that would allow you to shoot in bad conditions. So they were always there. In Wild, we used modern lenses and old lenses to change the look because we wanted the flashbacks. Most of the movie is made with master primes which are very sharp but are nice, good color lenses. For the flashbacks, we used these old Zeiss lenses that are more contrasty, more yellow, almost more dirty, and the focus is very weird. We used them for the flashbacks to have a different look. But it’s always been like that. The digital world hasn’t changed that. It was always a tool that we could use — the different lenses or shooting with fast lenses. Breathless was in 1959 and they shot a lot of the night scenes with available light. That’s almost 60 years ago. The lenses could always go closer to the actors, but they used to be afraid of doing it just because the lighting was so complicated. If you were going too close, you would make a shadow with the camera, so that’s why they used long lenses. But it’s two different things. I actually like to be able to do the close-up closer. With a person like Reese who has blue eyes, the eyes are paler. Her eyes would reflect the color of the set because I have no light or bounce card. If I’m in a forest, her eyes were going to be more green. If I’m in the sand of the desert, her eyes are going to be more blue because of the warm yellow or blue the sand is bouncing on her. In her eyes, you can see the landscape. So, it was very useful that she has blue eyes.
How was it using the new master prime package from Arri? What were the advantages?
BELANGER: It’s a question of taste again. Usually, when you do a movie, you test a lot of lenses and you just choose, like I shot Reese with all these lenses – her face, her skin tone, and the landscapes. They were just a little bit sharper but at the same time less contrasty. So, we thought it was great for shooting the desert and all these varied landscapes. We could have used other lenses, but we just liked it.
What were the advantages of shooting Arriraw?
BELANGER: It just gives you more information. Shooting Arriraw is like having a negative where there are details in the bright parts and the dark parts of your negative. You just have more information so you can have better colors at the end if you play with the colors and add color grading.
You shot for 35 days. What was the craziest day of the shoot for you?
BELANGER: Usually, the last days are always crazy because a lot of times you have your normal schedule, plus the scenes that you didn’t have time to shoot. So, the two last days in California were quite tough. We didn’t sleep that much. (Laughs)
How did the final film compare to what you originally envisioned?
BELANGER: It was just better. I’m very amazed each time I see it how good it is. It was a great script, but I think the shooting of the movie made it better.
What are you working on next that you’re excited about?
BELANGER: Brooklyn is next year. We shot it in the spring. It’s almost finished. I just finished Demolition. And next year, I don’t know if I’m going to have time to do something else because Jean-Marc and I are already prepping a movie about Janis Joplin (Janis Joplin: Get It While You Can) for the beginning of the year. I don’t know when we’re going to start, so maybe I’ll have enough time to do something else with another director. Jean-Marc and I have so many projects that I don’t have time. Over the last three years, I’ve done three movies with Jean-Marc, but I had time to do two other movies with other people.
Wild opens in NYC and L.A. December 3rd and in additional cities December 5th.