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Jean-François Hensgens is a SBC and AFC member. He shot many films such as Joachim Lafosse’s latest films : Entre les mots (MM), A perdre la raison (2012), The White Knights (2015) and L’Economie du couple (2016). He also did the lighting of Dikkenek and Go Fast by Olivier Van Hoofstadt, and All three of us by Kheiron… His latest film is called Des nouvelles de la Planète Mars. It was released in march 2016, and directed by Dominik Moll, with whom he previously had worked on the english tv series The tunnel.
Synopsis : Philippe Mars is a divorced IT engineer who tries to live a quiet life, among his son, a schoolboy suddenly turned vegetarian, his high school performance driven daughter, an artistic sister with terribly immodest paintings and an ex wife who works in television. The accidental burst of Jerome, a slightly disturbed colleague completes transformation of his existence into chaos. But in a world that has gone mad, is madness really such a bad counselor ?
Principal cast : François Damiens, Veerle Baetens, Léa Drucker, Vincent Macaigne, Michel Aumont.
Running time : 101’
Language : French
Production companies : Diaphana Films, Artemis Production, France 3 Cinéma
Could you present yourself and your work in a few words ?
JFH : I went to IAD film school and graduated in 92. I worked as an assistant for 13 years, first in Belgium under Alain Marcoen on Dardenne brothers’ movies, and other SBC members like Glynn Speeckaert, Benoît debie, Benoît Dervaux… Later in France with Hélène Louvart and Denis Lenoir. About ten years ago, I got the chance to do my first feature film as DOP. It was Donato Rotunno, with whom I studied at the IAD and with whom I had done a medium length before who proposed me to do this turkish-german film Frère d’exil directed by Yilmaz Arslan and produced by Tarantula. Followed by the feature In a dark place directed by Donato and Dikkenek by Oliveir Van Hoofstad. I had worked on his short films some 8 years before, but we lost sight of each other. When he learned that I was doing cinematography he got in touch again to do Dikkenek. Afterwards the film became cult, but at the time it was not very successful. Following this we got to do Go Fast with Olivier. As this was well received within Europa corp, Besson asked me to do Banlieue 13, which was a big show with a bigger budget and more complicated technical challenges.
The last 5 years I’ve taken a bit of a different direction. In the beginnings the goal was to do as many films as possible to learn the craft. Recently I’ve done more auteur films, mostly with Joachim Lafosse. Our collaboration started with medium length film called Avant les mots, followed by A perdre la raison, Les chevaliers blancs and L’économie du couple which is not yet released. Working with Joachim has opened the doors to other auteur-directors like Dominik Moll who contacted my after having seen A perdre la raison to do an english tv series called The tunnel.
You worked on very different movies.
JFH : Yes, I always try to do different kinds of projects every year. In 2015 I was able to do Dominik’s film, as well as L’économie du couple by Joachim and a film directed by Eric Valette, a thriller with action scenes in a dark mood (Le serpent aux milles coupures, Ed). The previous year I did The Withe Knights, All three of us by Kheiron and also an action comedy in the style of Lethal weapon with Benjamin Rocher: Antigang starring Jean Reno. I find a lot of pleasure in mixing up projects. Also I find it interesting not to get stuck in one genre, as the different genres can influence each other. For instance, the lighting of Dominik Moll is more like the lighting of a thriller than like the lighting of a comedy. Dominik wanted strong visuals, he wanted to show a character that is trapped in some nightmare and in a complicated life where when he gets up in the morning it is a dark, when he goes to work it is dark, and when he comes home it is still dark. Navigating between different kind of films gives me the opportunity to create particular styles for each. For example on the last 3, I used a Stab one or a Movi, which could be associated with an action film. It is not necessarily a tool I would have used if I had not work on different styles of movies.
For how long and how did you prep ?
JHF : The prep lasted about 3 or 4 weeks. But about 3 or 4 months before Dominik had already spoken to me about it and had given me earlier versions of the script to read. As most the film plays out at night, the question quickly arose wether to shoot on location or on sound stage. The stage was not Dominik’s first choice, but given that we were planning to shoot between march and april, we would have had a schedule of shooting between 7pm and 3am. Fatigue would make it more difficult for the actors. A lot of scenes were scripted for evening and not at night, so shooting a scene at 2am that is supposed to be at 6pm is not easy. Also we had an adolescent actor, so law stated that he could not work past midnight. We talked about it long before we started prep. What got us finally sold was the comparison done by the production manager that financially either way was possible.
Dominik wanted everything to be as real as possible for the actors. So with the set designer Emanuelle Duplet they created the apartment with this in mind. The place was about 10% larger than a real location would have been, but the walls could not fly away and there was a ceiling in place. Not only because we would see the ceiling, but also because Dominik wanted it to feel real. For the view outside, he imagined the flat to be on the 11th floor. After doing some tests we settled on using large photo backings printed on Forex. The windows were cut out so we could put little lights like Ikea Christmas string lights behind it, we could switch it to red or go on and off, in order to sell the view. The sky was painted on a cycle and put up 3 meters behind the photo backing, so I could light them separately. It was a laborious and artisanal job, but fun. A bit hard at times, because we had such a small crew: 2 grips and 2 electricians. But it went well with handmade vibe of the film. For example at the end of the film there are scenes in a car for which Dominik did not want to use a process trailer, as this is very limiting, mostly for the sound and one can not talk to the actors, or get a good result. So we shot this either on green screen or on a black background. In front of the cycle we placed a 5 meter long Led ribbon by Litegear, that I could dim or change its colours on a dolly : it gives the sensation of a moving car. To make it even more interesting it rained in this scene, so the car was in a small water tank. It had something of a Méliès film, very old school. We had a lot of fun with it.
And I suppose you chose the lenses in accordance ?
JFH : Yes, we were shooting anamorphic, so the backgrounds became more abstract. The film also has an unreal feeling to it. It is a comedy, but one where the character is the prisoner of his problems. To escape this he starts to dream. For instance that he is an astronaut floating above the stratosphere. There is a dreamlike side to it, hence also the choice for night, that incites dreams or nightmares, apart from the last sequence of the film which is bright and golden.
Did you do the flight over the ring road scene on green screen ?
JFH : Yes, we shot that on a green-key set while François was hanging in a wire rig.
What camera and what lenses did you use ?
JFH : On Les Chevaliers blanc, I discovered the Red Dragon. My choice was mostly motivated by its size, as we shot a lot in small spaces like in cars or a plane. And I also liked the fact that I could choose the compression level, what I could not do with the Alexa, as you can only choose between Prores or the heavy Arriraw. Being in the dessert I could not afford to have too much data. While testing it, I discovered that I also like its look. I rated it at 2000 asa, which gave me a texture that I liked. I have a friend who had seen Dominik’s film, and mentioned that there were moments when the noise almost looked like film grain. I could have added some scanned grain in post, but I get away with it this way. So for now I don’t intend to change my choice in camera, only the lenses. And for this film I chose the G series, having used Leica Summilux, Master Anamorphic or Cooke anamorphic on other films. I don’t want to change 2 or 3 parameters at the same time.
Why did you choose anamorphic lenses ? Why the G set ?
JFH : We wanted to shoot in a 2:35 aspect ratio. Choosing anamorphic lenses, as I recall it, came out of the idea to add something more movie like or unreal to it. In prep we looked at movies with good cinematography like Fargo, A serious man and Inside Llewyn Davis. The other reason was that we were shooting in a studio and we had to use false backgrounds.
On Antigang, I used 3 older series of lenses: Elite, Kowa and Crystal Express. They have a nice look, a bit out of control sometimes, but that was the fun part. In this case I knew that Dominik wanted to concentrate on the acting, what I fully understood. I like the G set look, and they are technically perfect. When you use older lenses the front end is not always of the same size, so you have to adapt the matter box when changing lenses, and you loose time. Dominik wanted to work a lot with François on the acting. We often did 25 takes, which were quite long, up to 5 minutes. So we needed to reduce the amount of time spent on technical issues. Also as the G set is not really heavy for anamorphic lenses, I could use it on the Stab one.
Where did you rent it ?
JFH : At Panavision. When one rent their lenses, there is no other choice.
Who was your focus puller ?
JFH : Mathilde Cathelin. I often work with her.
What about the lighting ?
JFH : Xavier Cholet was the gaffer. As he was on another film he came onto the project a bit later. It was his assistant Luc Reyrolle who started it and when Xavier took over, the second electrician had to leave the film, as I was only allowed a 2 man crew.
What sources did you use ?
JFH : We lit the film with LED lights, either with Smartlights that we could attach anywhere, or with these fixtures by Litegear, which are lightweight Led tiles that one can tape to the ceiling and move easily. It contributes to a more dark film, as these sources don’t have a powerful output. If I had to do a bright film, I would not be able to use this method and we would have to think about arranging the set differently.
Where did you rent it ?
JFH : My gaffer owns some of it, as do I. The rest we rented from Transpalux.
I suppose you framed the Stab One yourself ?
JFH :Yes, I always operate myself.
Why did you choose the Stab One ? Why not a Movi ?
JFH : They are rather similar, but not quite. I use the Movi on Eric Valette’s film. It can carry less weight, but I think it is a bit more fluid in its movements and a bit more reliable as well. But since I used it with spherical lenses, less heavier than anamorphic lenses, one could ague that I did not push it to its limits. So comparing the two is hard. The Stab One has a thumb control, so you can control the frame like with a remote control, which is not possible with the Movi.
Did you use other equipments ?
JFH : We shot everything using the stab one. And we were pushing the limits a bit. As this was filmed with a moderate budget, yet using the Stab One and any other system, one really needs two camera bodies. Dismounting the camera from the stab one takes about 20 minutes. That is why we did everything with the Stab One which was not ideal. It was a bit absurd. For instance to do a dolly shot I would sit with the Stab One on a trolley.
Who was your key grip ?
JFH : Stéphane Rouillon. It was the first time I worked with him, and it went very well.
How did the work with the actors go ?
JFH : I already knew François, because we did Dikkenek and another film together. He is really nice, very available, always on board to find new things. Dominik knew exactly what he wanted and they would work a lot to get there. It was nice to find François on this project, we had a lot of fun. He pays close attention to what we would ask of him, to our problems. But honestly I say that of almost every actors that I work with, because as cameraman I have a rather intimate relationship with them. I am close by, I watch them and I try to establish a trust worthy relationship, so that they would be at ease, particularly on that kind of films. Joachim’s subjects are so hard that relations with actors are often strengthened. For instance with Emilie Dequenne that I already knew since Rosetta, with Tahar Rahim, with Vincent Lindon and Louise Bourgoin on the White Knights, with Bérénice Béjot and Cédric Kahn on the last one… Like I imagine it, in a film you watch only the actors. Our work is to help them, to help the story.
How about your collaboration with the other departments : make-up, costume design, art direction, etc. ?
JFH : It went very well. The set designer Emmanuelle Duplay was quick to come up with solutions for the studio. She is both very creative and a good listener. For the make up artist and the costume designer, it was the same, we had a good collaboration. Dominik is like a good conductor, he controls all aspects of his film. He really has a global vision of what he wants and at the same time he listens to our suggestions.
Do you know what was the budget ?
JFH : About four million I think.
Did you use any specific, expensive or rare equipment ?
JFH : Not really, with the exception of the last scene, for which we needed artificial rain, and also a lot of fireworks. We shot that scene in the middle of nowhere, where there was no available light, so it was two expensive days. But we had deal with the production to use a small crew in the studio, in order to be able to afford extra crew for the more complicated scenes.
How was the post-production handle ?
JFH : It went very well. The vfx were created at Artful in Paris. They did a good job, supervised by Michaël Tanguy who brought a lot to the project. The colour grading was carried out at Eclair, with the colourist I usually work with: Richard Deusy. We are connected. Dominik was mixing the film at he same time, in the same building so he could pop in often to see how we were doing.
How long did it last ?
JFH : Two weeks.
What do you think of the results ?
JFH : I am happy with it. It is a film with a special kind of visuals, even if it does not need a to be aestheticised. I enjoyed working on the gap between the dream and reality.