Christian Berger 1

It’s the nature of the beast: a quiet, left-of-center project that a famous woman writes, directs, and leads alongside her also-famous husband is labeled a “vanity project” and disposed of by know-nothing entertainment journalists before it has any fighting chance of making an impression. This is the fate that’s been assigned By the Sea, Angelina Jolie Pitt‘s third feature as a director, her first as a screenwriter, and a work that’s deeply fascinating because of who is making it.

Also responsible for its creation is Christian Berger, a cinematographer best-known for his multiple collaborations with Michael Haneke. By the Sea shows off a different set of skills, however, being a far warmer and intimate work, though voyeurism, a favorite focus of the Austrian director’s, becomes a major part of its fabric. (While using it rather excellently, I should add.) When the film came to Poland’s Camerimage International Film Festival, I sat down with Berger to discuss the creation of a unique project, including ways in which the lead players’ fame became a nuisance for everyone hoping to make a compelling onscreen story.

The Film Stage: You’ve said that, while shooting, there was some instance where a photo of the three of you in a boat was taken, and it created a tabloid story about you potentially being some sort of relationship counselor?

Christian Berger: Ah, that stupid thing. We were on location, looking along the coast; we were in a little boat. Angelina was in the front and Brad in the back. So this is some “crisis of couple life.” But it’s [Laughs] such an enormous impact on their whole life. Sickness, couple crisis, the children — and always taking the worst.

Were you led to expect this sort of thing before you went into this film?

I think it’s a new tendency there. I lived it already, the first time, after The White Ribbon, because the camera got attention, and the industry magazines wanted to know about camera work and so on. American Cinematographer, whatever. Normally, if you’ve done a few films and you’re recognized, you have that. But that’s it. Suddenly, the daily press was there — the biggest papers — and they would always mention the camera work; that’s quite new. And it’s the same now, of course, with the celebrities. It’s easier. But they mentioned, her and Brad, how they were happy with the lighting, because it had such a freedom for the acting — based on, again, a lot of attention.

There’s this talk about how it’s a “personal project” for the writer-director-star. In what terms, if any, did she frame it as that? Or were you only speaking of technical and logistical matters?

In general, I speak technically with the directors — only if it’s a must. The first two questions are artistic questions. How it’s in my department to solve problems, if there are any, or if I have to speak with the directors if it’s not realistic to realize it — or I don’t believe it’s the effect he or she wants to have. But it’s always about location, about acting, about atmospheres, and then how I do it is more or less my problem.

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She’s onscreen for so much of this film. Did you find the tempo of things changing much when she isn’t? Was she more directly behind the camera, or were you generally given the same amount of control?

She was, all the time, in front of the camera! No, it didn’t change very much; it was quite the same. In some scenes, when she directs only Brad or the other couple, it was about the same. She’s not a control freak. If she checked at the beginning, and when she trusted it once, I was more often asking her to control it. “Listen, you have to check the scene!” “No. If you’re happy, I’m happy.”

A big part of the film’s story is them observing the couple through that hole in the wall, which the audience also sees through — complete with the tops and sides obscured. How was that view captured?

We were shooting without anything, normal. The problem is not to be too voyeuristic, which is [Laughs] not too easy, and it should not be that kind of effect — you know, to look through a telescope or to have that kind of “vignette” thing. So the best thing, we thought, is that we’ll pretend that on the other side was a little table, and that’s it. And that was an old installation from a heater.

What creates the effect of the view?

If you see only on the side, then it’s the real hole, but what you see through the hole was shot without hole — open. Then they were like a mask. They were editing at the table and they foregrounded it.

There’s a distanced intimacy to these moments. How did the team capture these moments and make them seem “present”? What kind of discussions were had about camera distance and what’s in view?

That was completely her staging. We were fixing the camera, we were taping out the angle so the actors knew exactly when they are in and out, and that she did very carefully — the staging, what they will do, if we see up to the knees, whether they use the mirror or they use the TV, all those things were completely, precisely planned. But the gag was to never change our camera. It’s one perspective, one lens, and it’s always the same. It doesn’t have to “look like that” or “look like that.” It brings nothing. In reality, you cannot shoot it, because if it’s that thick [creates small space between thumb and forefinger] you cannot see nothing. It’s a keyhole. [Laughs] And you cannot come with a lens near enough to make an angle. With an eye, you can do that; with a camera, no.

And you used the same lens as throughout?


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The visual rhythm changes quite a bit when both couples are at the table and talking, with the camera suddenly becoming a roving, active object.

It’s the first time she’s out in the story, and you have a kind of social obligation, suddenly. It’s a kind of small talk; she’s not really interested. She didn’t want to make a shooting of, “It’s her line; now her line.” We were floating with two cameras, parallel, with two lenses, but on the same dolly head, and we were just moving… it’s not a circle. One’s on this side, and one’s on the other side. And then they had enough material for the editing.

Was everything shot in a continuous manner?

Two cameras at the same time? Yeah. Otherwise, the repetition is very difficult for the actors — what they just did, and so on.

Did you notice an additional fluidity to their speaking at those moments? Perhaps there wasn’t as much need for additional takes, what with them going at the same time?

No. It was quite organic, how they spoke, and we were quite stable with our written… we were not faster or slower. We tried to make it completely, at a regular speed. That was good for editing. Even if you changed the side, it’s the same speed always. The speed and the background, because you keep the face in the background.

Was something like that visual choice laid out in the script?

That was clearly planned when we did blocking for the central scenes, and then, sometimes, the evening before the next day, we’d repeat the blocking to make sure we’d be prepared, if we had to change something. It was very small things; it’s never a big break. In general, really, the other departments needed more time.

Such as?

Sound set-up, for example. Sound was difficult because, if it was a little stronger wind, everything was whistling. You know, like in an old house. Because it was only built with little tubes, and the wind would be like open bottles, you know?

Did that happen often?

Yeah, but less often than in other movies where you have a plane, a car — less so. Because the bay was protected. The strong winds were sometimes a problem.

Were you involved in the film’s editing? I imagine you had a hand in color correction and the like, but was there anything else?

Concerning the grading, I hate to move around with the look on the set. We know basically what we want and we stay with that so I can see folds or changes, and I know what is possible in the grading. So I don’t try to make that on the set. In fact, we stay daylight or artificial light, and sometimes a small adjustment if it’s only candlelight or something — or only moonlight. Then it makes sense. Otherwise, not. It’s only the grading and if you know the material you know what you can do. Have exactly what you will have — or what you don’t have. [Laughs]

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I was surprised when I found out this didn’t use natural light, and then amused that the belief that you used it was somehow persisting.

[Laughs] No, it was a fault in the first press release, that “he only uses natural light.” It was unprecise, formulated, then it was a mistake and spread around. It’s a compliment, because it should look like a natural light, but of course it’s built. You cannot keep it for a few days in the same atmosphere.

I have to admit that the first few moments made me wonder.

You saw the film yesterday?

I did.

So is it natural light or not? [Laughs]

I certainly mean it as a compliment, though.

In fact, it’s not important. It’s just “blah blah” because the film is there and if it works, it works. So, however it’s done… It’s like to ask if the actor cries, really, or if you have to tell her first her mother died. [Laughs]

What about Jolie Pitt is distinct and separates her from other collaborators?

That combination from a very experienced actress and a young director, which is curious. She wants to try out things; she wants to experiment. I don’t know how you felt, but what they did with the whole project is really quite courageous, because they risk a lot, from their position. If you’re a celebrity, you could say, “I get the next $20 million from doing that.” But she wants to really… she’s an artist. She’s curious. She wants to create something. She wants that career, what she says: one step out in directing. And she wrote, for the first time, her own script. It’s risky in the states, to risk your brand mark. I mean, it’s all over a problem, but in Europe you might be more tolerant. Maybe we don’t have the top stars, but if they move their finger like that instead of like that, it’s already a drama. [Laughs] It starts a press avalanche? “What does that mean?” You’re the devil or something.

With this being a Universal release and you getting good notices, do you see yourself potentially going into a studio project?

I’m not really curious for that. It was never a dream of mine. I was never dreaming about Hollywood; it was never a goal for me. If it comes, if the script is good, and the director’s interesting, okay — but not because of Hollywood. I don’t really need that anymore. I was never dreaming about it, anyway! [Laughs] By the way, that impresses the Americans: because they are not used to somebody who’s relaxed, who maybe doesn’t want a career in their system, because they don’t need it. That, they don’t know. For them it’s a surprise — even shocking. [Laughs]

I’m obligated to ask if you’ll be partnering with Haneke once more on his next project — whatever that ends up being.

I’m in discussion with him for the next project — and I’m not allowed to speak about the script. [Laughs]

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By the Sea played at the Camerimage International Film Festival and is currently in U.S. theaters.

See all of our coverage from Camerimage 2015.

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