It’s the final day of the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and Darius Khondji is reminiscing. “The films that inspired me to be a cinematographer,” he explained, dipping into the memory banks, “Citizen Kane was a film that inspired me a lot. The films of Orson Welles—The Magnificent Ambersons, you know—the films of Carl Dreyer: Ordet, Gertrud, or Vampyr. Dreyer inspired me a lot!”
Unless you’re someone like Léa Seydoux, or Paul Mescal, few artists have more than one reason to attend Cannes any year, yet Khondji could boast that feat in 2022: as DP on James Gray’s Armageddon Time, playing in competition, and as the recipient of this year’s Pierre Angénieux Tribute, an annual award for achievements in cinematography.
If the plaudit was overdue, the film was right on time: a deeply moving, autobiographical work from Gray with serious things to say about white privilege. As Khondji explains, the job didn’t come easy: “I wasn’t sure if I had the energy, the creativity, but then I realized how important it was. You can’t refuse a film like this. The script was just so personal, so intense. James puts a lot of himself into it. When you have a director like this, you have to give yourself, too—and everyone did.”
The Film Stage: It’s your third time working with James Gray. How did it come about?
Darius Khondji: James had called me before to do this film, but he was pushed. You know, some smaller-budget films are difficult to make. This was one of them. He was pushed to a later date and then, suddenly, it happens in fall of last year. I was not sure—I’d just finished a very long film with Alejandro Iñárritu in Mexico and had had a life-changing kind of experience.
So I’d just finished in Mexico and suddenly James and Anthony Catagas, the producer, wanted me back in New York to start prepping right after, in August. But it’s a smaller film, you know—it won’t take a year, or half a year like the last one—so I decided to prep, and then it just went deeper and deeper.
The film is set in Queens in the 1980s and really seems to capture this period. What was your approach, in a technical sense?
I don’t think about “my approach.” It’s “our approach.” I feel my work is so mixed with the work of the director, of the team, of the people close to me. The person doing the color for me, Gabriel Kolodny, or the grips, Richie Guinness and Joe Belschner. I had amazing grips. Key grips are always underrated. Crews are always underrated in film! For instance, the dolly grip here, Joe, is like an artist, like a musician.
It’s hard to say because there are so many dolly grips in the world, but he was exceptional. You know, for me, it’s like watching a violinist playing like a Sibelius. So technically it was a very interesting film to do because James was always thinking about the smallest little things, finding exactly the means you need to do the film. We didn’t have anything that was superfluous.
Given that this Pierre Angénieux Tribute is for your career achievements, I’m curious: from all your films, which do you get asked about the most?
Seven is the one. I’m asked a lot about Delicatessen; sometimes it’s Uncut Gems. Amour is asked for. I love that one, I love a lot of movies that I’ve done. But yes: the one I’m asked most about is Seven. I don’t know why that is—maybe for the look of it at the time.
When you’re looking back at your own work, are there films that you’re especially proud of?
This one. Armageddon I’m very proud of because of the feeling of the film, that feeling that the light at the time was different, and the life was different. In French you say un temps révolu—it means the time that doesn’t exist anymore. I’m very proud because I think we all helped James to do a film that was very close to that, very personal.
But Bardo I’m also very, very proud of. I’m very proud of Uncut Gems, you know; I would do it right away again. If they would ask me I would do another movie with them right away. They’re the best.
How was that experience for you?
That was a completely different experience than anything I’ve worked on, working with Josh and Benny. Almost everything that you would do in cinematography, you would have to think about it again, and think about it differently. They were very creative. They make you discover things that are hidden, things that you would never think of doing.
You spoke about Dreyer earlier. What was it about his work that inspired you?
The feeling of it. Vampyr is a very important film for me. The Danish film, it’s just on the edge of the silent and the talkie. It’s a film that I watched in different periods of my life. When I was a student at NYU, when I came to New York for the first time, I arrived in New York and I was amazed by New York, it was the most amazing place in the world for me, in 1977. I started a class at NYU with Haig Manoogian and I remember the only film I watched the night before I had to do my first little one-minute film was Vampyr.
Silent films were very important for me growing up, like Greed, you know, Erich Von Stroheim. And then there was Italian cinema, I learned how to speak Italian because when I was 17 I thought I was going to work in Italy. I thought I was going to work in Italy because some of the cameramen that I loved were Italian. And then there were different moments, like Barocco by André Téchiné, It was very influential for me, for the cinematography. Or The Conformist by Bertolucci. Zoo zéro by Alain Fleischer. They were movies that were very inspiring.
Do you remember what this one-minute film was about?
It was a black and white film that was shot in reverse. I’d shot it for Haig Manoogian’s class. He was great professor.
I’ve always been curious about the Zidane film you made, A 21st Century Portrait, with Douglas Gordon.
Yeah, we made this film with Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordon. Philip is coming tonight actually, they’re two great artists! It was very exciting to do, it was a very different muscle, a very different work. Sometimes I’m amazed that I’ve been able to do things like this. I was lucky to be offered a story like that and that I was even able to do it.
With Zidane we were dealing with like 17 cameras. We studied the plan, how he moves along the football pitch, and we studied a lot during the match. The idea was to be able to film him very tight. At the beginning there was supposed to be hundreds of cameras.
Yeah, hundreds! You know, in a football club there is a group of club members that will be there during the match and they basically wanted everyone. So they thought it would be like 200-plus cameras shooting. I said, no, no, no, let’s think about it. We did a test with small H8. We did it with 16, with 35, with digital. We did a lot of tests for them but they preferred film so we shot it on twelve 35mm cameras, you know, with very long zoom lenses.
Then there were two super 16 cameras and three digital cameras and two were equipped with special lenses that were given to us by Panavision that were used by the US Army, that were special. We pushed the shoot for a year until we were able to get those two prototypes. The idea was to be able to film him very tight.
Behind the scenes of Bardo
For Bardo, I don’t know how much you’re able to discuss, but Iñárritu has been kind of synonymous with Emmanuel Lubezki for years. Was that strange for you in some way?
Yeah! But Alejandro has always worked with very good cinematographers, Rodrigo [Prieto] and Chivo. And it was another hard time when he called. It was the hardest moment of COVID. It was January of last year; there was no vaccine and we were going to Mexico from France, where I live. We had a few conversations over the phone. I hadn’t read the script yet, but he was just very inspiring—you know, the conversation. At some point he said “Hang on, Darius, you haven’t read the script.” He doesn’t send the script so easily but he sent it to me and it was incredible. But the director is really what triggers my desire to work them. Again, it’s another very personal film. I can’t talk much about it, you know?
At the moment it’s very difficult because the film is still in fusion; it’s not finished. We finished the main D.I. of the film. We finished the cut, but there is still some mixing VFX to be done. When the film is done, you’ll see. I hope you like it.
Without giving too much away, The Revenant was a notoriously difficult shoot, was this similar in some way?
It was a labor of love for us. This was a difficult shoot for other reasons, but that’s not what I see. What I remember of it is the extreme excitement and pleasure of it, it’s not the difficulty. I would be lying if I said it was easy, not because of Alejandro of course, but because of the nature of it, and COVID.
Armageddon Time and Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths will be released later this year.