Sophie Marceau and Gad Elmaleh in a scene from Un bonheur n’arrive jamais seul. Photo: Christine Tamallet
United for the third time on a movie set, director James Huth and director of photography Stéphane Le Parc continue their exploration of genre films with a romantic comedy entitled Un bonheur n’arrive jamais seul starring Sophie Marceau and Gad Elmaleh.
Compare and contrast; on the one hand, you have Sacha, a jazz pianist and confirmed bachelor who only goes out with girls under 21; on the other, Charlotte who works for a modern art foundation and has two ex-husbands, three children and a Philippine nanny. Sacha lives in an attic in Montmartre, Paris; Charlotte lives in a 300 square meter apartment in Paris most expensive neighborhood.
Director James Huth explains, “I’m telling the story of two people who apparently have nothing in common and are complete opposite...except that they are made for each other! With a couple like this, Sophie and Gad, two of the most popular actors in France, everyone expects a glamorous film in scope – I prefered the 1.66 format. What interests me in this story is the humanity of my characters. Actors take more space in the frame in 1,66. You feel closer to them. I love actors and I’m primarily a spectator. Un bonheur n’arrive jamais seul is a love story, intended to fill you with good feelings.”
The day setting is a huge twenty feet high hall, a relic of late 19th century Parisian architecture, surmounted by a monumental canopy created by Gustave Eiffel’s prestigious workshops, who created the tower that bears his name in Paris. Formerly occupied by a large French bank, the site is now home to offices on either side of a large gallery. On this occasion, it is the setting for the multinational led by Charlotte’s ex-husband, who will soon learn, from Sacha himself, that Charlotte and Sacha have decided to live together.
L to R Stéphane Le Parc, DP and director James Huth. Photo: James Espié.
At first glance, it seems difficult for a director of photography to capture a place on this scale. “My biggest inspiration for this setting,” says cinematographer Stéphane Le Parc, “was the work of photographer René Burri, including his series of pictures of the roofs in Argentina and a railway station with such beautiful shadows. This is the style of image I had imagined the day we did location spotting when the sun was shining brightly...except that today, obviously, it is raining and with my three 18 kW, it is impossible to find this type of contrast! So I’m adapting and mixing artificial light on the dome with natural light from the gallery to work in some ambiance shifts.”
Since the pace the actors and the extras adopt in each scene is determined – “unbeknownst to them” – by the shooting pace, James Huth continuously stimulates his troops – an energetic, swirling figure dressed in a gray suit in unison with the office decor. “If I film in a suit,” he explains , “it is primarily out of respect for my team. I ask so much of them that the least I can do is to be well dressed. But it is also one of the outfits in which I feel most comfortable (the other is in jeans and sneakers): I have no intermediate zone.”
More seriously, talking about “romantic comedy” implies talking about “writing.” So are there any “specifications” for portraying a great love story?
“The peculiarity of James Huth’s writing on this film,” the director of photography explains, “is that he has chosen to make each shot a sequence shot covering the entire scene so that his actors can act continously. So the difficulty for me was constantly juggling the contrasts created by light so as not to generate gray images, knowing that a fill light could quickly become a key light. Un bonheur n’arrive jamais seul is the most realistic comedy I’ve worked on so far,” James Huth adds. As this story gives pride of place to humanity, I need a realistic image that also conveys heat and glamour. The colors must be there and most importantly, the skins should be beautiful. Rendering skins is also one of the reasons that led us – Stéphane and me – to choose Kodak film. Why? Because with these stocks, the colors are present and natural: it is both the universe where I want to immerse my characters and this movie’s truth. Nothing like my previous film, Brice de Nice where the character embodied by Jean Dujardin was largely already so colorful himself that going at it this way would have risked viewers feeling nauseous from the first second. To counteract this zany universe, I needed an image that was a bit dull and flat. In Hellphone and Lucky Luke it was different again: this time it was brilliance and youth. There is no ready-made lighting approach that can be applied to comedy! What you need to do first of all, is consider the universe in which the action takes place.”
And probably also consider shooting on film as an essential contribution to the image to stand out from sometimes overwhelming television writing! “Anyway, I am a strong supporter of film,” James Huth continues, “I haven’t found yet what I’m looking for in digital. Today, I still feel an incredible nostalgia for the days when, on my first short films, I opened the cans of film back in the lab to inhale the smell. It became my favorite smell. To me it was the smell of dreams.”
"For Un bonheur n’arrive jamais seul, the director of photography adds, “film was irreplaceable as its definition and fine grain for skin rendering was something we were looking for, something that is impossible to achieve digitally. Under an intense and colorful light, it would be possible with any capture medium, but definitely not when you deliberately create layers of light on faces and work with nuances. Although we obviously cannot produce a sad and slightly hard picture when “selling” a comedy, I nevertheless always try, in my case, to keep areas of density and shade in the image. Even when I allow ‘blacks’ in the image, I manage to keep some light in the shadows. In general, I do not ‘push’ the film, I just overexpose a half f-stop or whole f-stop so as to ‘saturate’ the negative and be sure to find everything I want in dark areas.”
Three film stocks were used for shooting this romantic comedy: KODAK VISION3 500T 5219, KODAK VISION3 250D 5207, and KODAK VISION2 50D 5201. “These are three very soft films with a huge advantage for me,” continues Stéphane Le Parc “in that they quickly saturate the colors, which is perfect for what James Huth wants from me. I use the 5219 for everything at night, either in studio or on location and the 5207 for all that is inside or outside during the day instead of the 5201 when I’m running short of wider f-stops or when filtering with polarization, I find myself almost ‘at the limit.’ The novelty for me is that I used to shoot evenings with the 5219, including in studio while now, for the first time I’m using the Vision3 250D. For the actors to maintain a ‘natural’ look, I mix a daylight HMI with tungsten ‘hot spots’ where previously I would ‘simply’ cool tungsten sources for this type of effect. The difference is that, visually, you do not have the same impression of ‘natural’ and that on this movie, ‘natural’ is fundamental.”
How do you define a “natural” image? “For me,” the director of photography continues, “it is an image where you don’t feel the light: a picture that is an integral part of the place, looking exactly the way one would expect in terms of lighting ambiance. In a way it is an ‘invisible intervention.’”
Reinforcing the collaborative nature of this project, James Huth adds, “In this film, we took inspiration from pictures and movies dating from the fifties or even a little before. This is no accident – we all grew up with Capra’s films, with actors and actresses like Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart and with films like The Philadelphia Story, It’s a Wonderful Life‘ and Roman Holiday.
“But there is also something from romantic comedies of the 60s, like Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” said Stéphane Le Parc, “an image – and I return to this idea – fairly soft yet colorful and cheerful. What we must not do, is confuse softness and graying. Let’s say that what makes photographing comedy somewhat complicated, is that we must always remain ‘in tune’ with regards to the story being told.”