Raoul Coutard - Photo by D. Kirkland
""Making a film is a love story. You must be happy to make the film with the director, the actors, and the team. You must learn to communicate and delegate, and to promote cohesion. Cinematography is not the technique, but the eye. It's a way of looking at things. A frame is like a photograph, a moment, but with cinema that moment has a before and an after. The time of viewing is limited, imposed by the director. A succession of these moments gives birth to emotion for the spectator. No one wants to see a film for the beauty of the photography only. For a film to be an artistic success, the vision must be a whole. A good film is when you come out of the theater totally stunned. You have no idea what hit you. You don't remember if you had dinner or where you parked your car. You want to be alone to think about it."
Raoul Coutard was born in Paris and started his career as a photojournalist in Indochina. His career in the film business started in the late 1950s with his friend, writer-director Pierre Schoendeorffer, and producer Georges de Beauregard. His 1960 collaboration with Jean-Luc Godard on Breathless gave birth to the Nouvelle Vague. He went on to make 17 films with Godard, including My Life to Live, Contempt, Alphaville, and Pierrot Le Fou. With Francois Truffaut he made Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim, and The Bride Wore Black. As a director, his credits include Hoa-Binh, Military Coup in Kolwezi and S.A.S. a San Salvador. He is the recipient of countless awards, including the American Society of Cinematographers International Award. [All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]
A CONVERSATION WITH RAOUL COUTARD
by Bob Fisher
QUESTION: Were you a movie fan during your youth?COUTARD: I was raised in a family of communists, and the first films I was ever exposed to were Soviet films. I did not know who Sergei Eisenstein was. For me as a child, it was a bunch of silent action movies, lots of guns and bayonets. I have no idea if I ever saw Potemkin. I was too young. But that was my introduction to the cinema.
QUESTION: You worked as a still photographer and combat reporter for Life, Paris Match, and other pictorial magazines during the late 1940s and early 1950s. How did you begin working as a photographer, and what are your memories of that time?COUTARD: I started as a soldier. I enlisted in 1945 to fight the Japanese, but for many reasons the boat never left. The Americans and the Brits who were controlling the seas did not want colonial powers to go back to the colonies. So as a joke, I always say that when the Japanese found out I was coming to fight them they immediately asked for the Armistice! Anyway, we ended up being shipped to Indochina. When I arrived in 1945, we fought against a few Japanese who had refused to surrender. Then I went back to Paris. I wanted to study chemistry but for financial reasons decided to become a photographer instead. About a year later, I went back as a photojournalist and worked for magazines for a decade.
QUESTION: Did your work as a still photographer influence your approach to cinematography?COUTARD: My going into the film business happened totally by accident. I was sitting in Saigon more than half a century ago, eating the famous soup Imperial of Van Su - you can find the recipe for it in my book - and my friend Pierre Schoendoerffer stopped by. Later on, he introduced me to the producer Georges de Beauregard, who produced The Devil's Pass, and Georges introduced me to Jean-Luc Godard with whom I made Breathless. If I had a career in the film business it was thanks to - or the fault of - Georges de Beauregard and Pierre Schoendeorffer. Both were instrumental producers in the creation of the Nouvelle Vague.
QUESTION: We understand that you earned your first credit for Paradisso Terrestre in 1956. How did you get that opportunity, and what do you remember about that experience?COUTARD: Paradiso Terrestre was a combination of documentary footage, stills and sound recordings. In the 1950s, there was a lot of interest in what was going on abroad. My first real feature film in 1956 was The Devil's Pass in the Mondo Cane genre. It took place in Afghanistan. Now people know where it is, but at the time most didn't even know it existed. That's when I really learned about filmmaking. To make a film you need a script and money! We were a crew of four. We had to find the money, and Joseph Kessel was going to write the script on location. We left the day (Gamal Abdel) Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Needless to say, we weren't greeted with open arms. We managed to eventually finish the film, but it didn't get a commercial release till 1959, after winning a prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 1958.
QUESTION: Your first collaboration with Jean-Luc Godard was Breathless in 1959. We understand that you shot that entire film at practical locations with a handheld Éclair camera, mainly in natural light. Was that an aesthetic decision, or was it driven by the realities of the budget and schedule, or was it both?COUTARD: Of course it was an artistic decision. This was over 50 years ago. The way we did it then is of no interest today. Now you have faster films and a lot more possibilities, but then it was a revolutionary way of working - no sync sound. It changed a lot of things in filmmaking. During the shooting of Z with Costa Gavras in Algeria at a camera club meeting, I was even accused of taking work away from electricians because of my use of natural light!
QUESTION: What do you remember about your first collaboration with Godard? How did he express his vision to you, and was he open to your suggestions? COUTARD: There was never a problem. Right from the start, Jean-Luc simply said, 'We are going to shoot this film like a photo reportage.'
QUESTION: You worked with Godard on 17 films in all. Can you recount for us the evolution of your collaborations with him?COUTARD: The next film I did with Jean-Luc was A Woman is a Woman with Jean-Claude Brialy, Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo, produced by Carlo Ponti and of course Georges de Beauregard. Michel Legrand did the music. The Nouvelle Vague was totally fascinated with American musical comedies like An American in Paris with Gene Kelly. So this was an effort in that direction, as was Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg with Catherine Deneuve. On Contempt with Brigitte Bardot, Jean-Luc had a tough time because the crew was much bigger. He preferred working with a minimal crew. This was a bigger film. She wasn't a problem herself; she was quite pleasant actually, but she moved around with quite an entourage. For Pierrot le Fou, Jean-Luc, who was always ready for new challenges, wanted to have saturation in his images. You can create the mood of a scene with vivid colors. We used a new system that was developed by the Italians, called Techniscope. It was a panoramic film in CinemaScope. Because of the film perforation, it was already in CinemaScope in the camera, and it was anamorphed later for screening rooms. Jean-Luc is full of idiosyncrasies. There are always 20 magnificent minutes in all his films. But from the dramatic standpoint, they are all constructed on the same frame, the same story, and his stories are wrapped up in convoluted poetry as in La Chinoise or complicated emotional statements like Passion, which he really made to annoy the president of France, Giscard d'Estaing. By the time the film came out, though, d'Estaing had lost the election to (Francois) Mitterrand, so the point of the whole exercise was lost!
QUESTION: Many of the films that you shot during the 1960s and 1970s were seen around the world with subtitles in different languages. Critics in different countries referred to those films as an important part of the French New Wave. Looking back to that time, what drove that style of filmmaking?COUTARD: This was new way of approaching filmmaking. We were young and adventurous. At first when you read a script, you may get an idea of how you see it shot, but communication is essential with the director. The difficulty starting a film is to get a global idea of the look after having discussed it with the director. … I am going to tell you a funny story. When I did Lola with Jacques Demy in 1960, with Anouk Aimee, for her I was as transparent as a piece of glass. She looked right through me, never said hello and didn't seem to be aware of my existence. Years later, I did a film in Canada called Bethune: The Making of a Hero, again with Anouk Aimee. This was 1992 and I was the only French person there. She came up to me the first day on the set and said, 'It is so great to see you again Raoul. You really photographed me well in Lola.' So I told her, 'I am an old guy and I can't remember how I did it!'
QUESTION: Were there other cinematographers whose work inspired you? COUTARD: Inspired is the wrong word. It would be pretentious for me to say that. Let's say that I am impressed by the quality of the work of a number of my colleagues, and especially my American colleagues. One cinematographer that comes to my mind is the Englishman Douglas Slocombe (BSC). I remember a scene in a greenhouse in The Great Gatsby, I think, with women dressed in white lace - an extraordinarily complicated job of lighting that left a big impression on me.
QUESTION: Do you have any thoughts to share about the collaborative art of filmmaking?COUTARD: Collaboration has many meanings. When I started in the movies, I did not have the slightest idea of what I was doing. I have told that story a thousand times. Then, after a while, I started to understand how things work, the system in general I mean, because some idiots tend to be secretive about how they actually do things, as though they possessed state secrets. Technology is something you can find in books. You can learn it, do tests and perfect your technique. But to go back to collaboration, one important thing is that you have to learn to delegate some of your power and still get there before the mistakes happen. Sometimes it is too late. But you must let people deal with their jobs and not breathe down their neck. If there is a problem, you can guide them. That is collaboration. To make a film is the compilation of so many different things. You need to create the right environment. For instance, it is impossible for me to forget the making of one of my favorite films, Le Crabe-Tambour. We shot in zero and 100-plus degree temperatures, in water. That was a great adventure. Moviemaking is teamwork. A film is a group effort, because you are all going to be sleeping in the same bed for months. You have to want to make love to the same team for months! Of course, as with an orchestra, if you don't have a good conductor or leader, you are in deep trouble. You can't do it all by yourself, even if everyone follows their part. Every single person brings in something special to the table. You can each record each instrument separately in a studio and get a perfect recording but what you get is a perfect technical recording. It is the same in the cinema. There has to be a collective soul.
QUESTION: You tried your hand at directing in 1970 with Hoa-Binh, which was produced in Vietnam. You directed several other films. What did you learn from that experience, and why did you decide to concentrate on cinematography?COUTARD: Hoa-Binh was the first feature I directed. I directed a number of shorts before that. From 1970 to 1982, I directed a number of films, shorts and TV, and I went on to direct two more features, Military Coup in Kolwezi in 1979 and S.A.S. a San Salvador in 1982. Both experiences - directing and being a cinematographer - have contributed greatly to my career.
QUESTION: In 1997, your peers in the American Society of Cinematographers presented you with that organization's International Award. Do you have any memories to share about that experience?COUTARD: This was the most interesting award of my career. I mentioned earlier that I am fascinated by the work of American cinematographers, so for them to give me a prize for my work, I thought that was quite fantastic. You have to have a body of work in order to be recognized, but the work of cinematographers is often ignored, so this award meant a lot to me.
QUESTION: You earned approximately 80 cinematography credits during your career as a narrative film cinematographer. If you had to choose four or five of your own films to show to today's film students, which ones would they be and why?COUTARD: It is always very difficult to answer this question. I think that a film is good when you come out of the cinema totally stunned; you have no idea what hit you; you don't remember if you have had dinner or where you parked your car; you want to be alone to think about it. That is the definition of a great film for me. One that represents these feelings is Jules and Jim - you cannot imagine what the film would be if you took one of the three extraordinary characters out and replaced them with someone else. The 317th Platoon, directed by Shoendoerffer, is a fantastic film - the best war film ever made in my opinion. But of course all this is very subjective. Le Crabe-Tambour, also directed by Schoendoerffer in 1977, is a sumptuous film. It is magnificent.
QUESTION: What advice do you have to offer to the next generation of filmmakers?COUTARD: I always say the same thing. My advice is that the first thing you have to learn is what injustice is. Here is a little story: a journalist brings his story to the managing editor of the newspaper and the managing editor tears it up telling him, 'This is shit, rewrite it.' So the guy rewrites it, comes back and the managing editor says, 'This is impossible, buddy, you don't know how to write any more? This is worse than shit.' He tears the paper again and says, 'Now we are closing the issue in a couple of hours, so bring me back something readable.' So the guy comes back and the managing editor says 'Finally, you got it; that's great.' And the guy says, 'That was the first draft I gave you!' That is injustice.