Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel on melancholy, the Coens and 'Inside Llewyn Davis'
On Jan. 16, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel picked up his fourth Best Cinematography Oscar nomination to date, for the Coen brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis." He has previously been nominated for "Amelie" in 2001, "A Very Long Engagement" in 2004 (for which he won the American Society of Cinematographers Award) and "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" in 2009.
A few days before nominations were announced, I finally got around to talking with Delbonnel about his work on the film, which is really one of the shining examples of the medium this year. We discussed, among other things, his philosophy of carrying a single idea through a film with his work, personal inspirations in the world of modern art and his fear of stepping into the shoes of Coen regular Roger Deakins.
Read through our back and forth below and keep it tuned here this weekend to see if Delbonnel can pull off his second ASC win. (Though this year he'll be up against six contenders as the wealth of great work this year ended in a tie, yielding seven nominees.)
HitFix: "Inside Llewyn Davis" really seems like a movie that doesn't fully hit you, no matter how you feel about it initially, on first glance. Did you feel that way?
Bruno Delbonnel: That's why the Coen brothers are brilliant and I'm not! A lot of things are happening in this movie, and in every movie from the Coen brothers, but you have to see it twice just to understand that there is a lot of things happening. For example, nobody ever mentions that the first song of the movie is 'Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.' Basically what he's saying is, 'Hang me, hang me, I'm an asshole, so, yeah, go ahead, hang me.' This is the first song of the movie, which relates to everything you see afterwards. And the last song is 'Fare Thee Well, My Honey' and it's basically — this guy is saying goodbye to everything he loves, which is folk music and everything. So if you understand the use of music in this movie, it's very subtle, and all those songs are not just folk songs. They are really related to his story. That's why if you go back to "Queen Jane," you understand that, for me, Llewyn Davis picks this song to sing to Bud Grossman and he knows that he will never succeed in singing this song. Every time he sings a song he knows exactly why he's singing it. That's why Joel and Ethan are absolutely brilliant directors. Because there is always something underlying in their scripts. That's my understanding. Maybe it's too European or whatever, or too intellectual, but I really believe in this in their movies.
I actually saw it at Telluride for the first time and I knew I needed to see it again before leveling an opinion of it. There are just so many layers. I saw it again and it opened up more, and then the third time I saw it, it really revealed itself as a movie that was so elegantly about giving up. And as an artist one understands the idea that maybe you don't have it in you and you've come to the end of that road. It's a fascinating thing for them, of all people, to make a movie about.
I totally agree with you. I'm kind of disappointed that nobody gave them an award for this script. I don't mean that the other scripts that won any awards are bad, but this script is so subtle, so intelligent that it really deserved something. And as directors, they are geniuses, really.
So few people see movies more than once this time of year. It's the kind of movie where in a few years, people will smack their foreheads and say, "What were we thinking?"
Yeah. It's okay with me, you know? They've won a lot of awards. I saw them last week and they are very happy with everything and that's who they are. They said, 'Yeah, that's fine. The movie's a success.' So that's great. But it's definitely something you have to see two or three times just to understand how delicate it is.
To tell you the truth, when I graded the movie, that's when I saw it for the first time, really. And I was shocked. I said, "Fuck, that's a movie I shot." And it's a different movie than the one I read, somehow. Even if nothing changes, you know, it's exactly the script I read but I read it like a DP, you know, "What can I do with this and how can I solve this kind of problem and blah, blah, blah, what kind of light can I do?" I did it really in a very critical way, let's put it this way. And when I discovered it, I remember I told them, "Wow, it's a very sad movie. It's really – there are so many layers."
I have to ask about the fact that obviously the Coens shoot most of their movies with Roger Deakins and they have an on-going shorthand with him. I know you had worked with them before on "Paris je t'aime," but were you nervous at all? Was there any trepidation?
What do you think? I was so scared. You wouldn't believe it. I finished "Dark Shadows" two months before I started prepping with them, so I was kind of in a good mood in terms of — I was very active and "Dark Shadows" was a very long shoot, so technically I was feeling it, let's put it this way. But I was shitting my pants! Really, I was so scared just to have them compare me to Roger at some point or not to give them what they expected. So I was really, really scared. But they are gentlemen. They never, ever mentioned his name. And even if the crew was the same they worked with for the last 10 years — I was the new guy in the family — nobody ever on this set mentioned Roger Deakins' name. They were so helpful. And after a week it was okay because after a week of dailies when they said they liked it I was a bit more confident. But, you know, yeah, Roger is a legend and everything he's done with them is fantastic. So how can I put it other than I was scared?