Cinematographer Benoît Debie: "The Idea Was to Shoot a Kind of Porn Movie"

With five editions of Speaking in Cinema under their belt, the Miami Beach Cinematheque hit their sixth event last night. They've had actors, actresses, directors and producers so far, but June's event was a little different. The cinema has done a retrospective of not a director, but of cinematographer Benoît Debie.

The director of photography joined local critic Kai Sacco and Salon film critic Andrew O'Hehir at the Cinematheque to discuss his films, specifically those featured during the retrospective of his work. That includes Ryan Gosling's Lost River, Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, and Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void and Irreversible. 

Prior to this event, he sat down with New Times outside of the Sagamore Hotel, where the after party will take place, to chat about his work in build up for the night of conversation.

New Times: I can't think of anyone else in cinematography who utilizes lighting in the kind of colorful and abundant ways you do. So what kind of approach do you typically take to making every image pop the way it does?
Benoît Debie: I don’t know exactly, I think it’s more the style I got from when I was younger and I think now I have this standard style. But also, I like colors and contrast more than trying to put color in, and what I try to do is to internalize the script and the movie to know which type of lighting can be good for it. But I think also it’s because I’m always working with a very strong director, in terms of visuals. Like for an example, in Spring Breakers, Harmony [Korine] was asking me to be very colorful, very candy.

Yeah, there's a lot of pink everywhere.
Yeah, a lot of pink. And for me it was really nice; this is what I like. Also I was thinking, 'this is the perfect movie to try colors I cannot try on another movie'. It’s hard to use pink or purple in classical movies, so that movie was perfect. I was trying to find color I wasn’t able to use on other projects, and so it was fun. Instead with Enter the Void there was lots of neon, inspired by Japan, by Tokyo, because Tokyo is already full of colors and so it was for me to adapt the visual of the city and try to capture all of these colors for the movie from the city and to amplify all of the colors.

And for Spring Breakers that pink and amplification of color works really well because you don't usually get to see the sunset captured with that kind of perfect color.
Yes, that's exactly right. And that scene - because we had to shoot the scene with sun and we had three or four minutes of it — I said to Harmony that it's almost impossible to capture all of the scene during the sunset. And we had the idea to shoot in three days, but that's three sunsets, so in the same house, we had to stop shooting other sequences at 5 or 6 o'clock and go back to the sequence. And it was fun but each time we did it the sunset was completely different; one was cloudy, one had just one cloud, and one was perfect.

It always seems like you're trying to find something different to do, and I love that. In Lost River, you see so many inspirations from different places but it's so unique to look at. And you never expect to see this kind of purple hue for such a location.

For Lost River I was concerned because Ryan [Gosling] was asking me for specific stuff visually and I was concerned to not go too over the top because I was also trying to tell the story with the lighting and with the camera. But at the end I feel like it’s very colorful and I think each color works with the place we were. I was thinking every character has a color at the end. I wasn’t thinking about that beforehand, but when I started to shoot the movie, I felt the mother was purple, the kids it’s more of a green, or green shade of yellow or yellowish green. And the part with the fire and the parts with girls had their own, and it’s weird because there’s a color for each character.

Your last project with Noé, Enter the Void, was so elaborately shot. I haven't seen your latest collaboration, Love, but did you go for a similar approach?
No, for Love, it's kind of interesting because it's the opposite. We shot Love in 3D and the idea was not to move the camera at all. So it's all fixed, static. And what I like with Love is that it's more like just being in an apartment in 3D. It's beautiful because you have just the bodies in shots, and it's quite flattering to see the bodies on the bed, or on the floor, simply moving in 3D. Even in the lighting, it's more simple.

It's so rare to see a focus on production being mixed in with pornography or just presentations of sex nowadays. Back in the early '70s, porn was almost high art.
It's interesting because at the beginning, the idea was to shoot a kind of porn movie. But it doesn't feel all that erotic. It's really quite beautiful, and the way we shot the movie was so simple and respectful to the couples.

And this, like many others, is considered a provocative film, which is something you typically seem to tackle. What makes you choose these projects?
Usually it’s more that people come to me to give me this kind of project or this kind of work. And it’s weird to because like a month or so ago I was shooting this new music video for Rihanna and it was also the same thing. It was very crazy and sexual and someone told me, "Wow, you’re always shooting this kind of thing," and I don’t know they want me to shoot that, but I shoot that. But sexuality is a good thing and it’s also what I like to do: shoot a strong visual.

Now I have lots of scripts to read and sometimes I prefer not to do it if I don’t feel it’s a good project for me, even if it’s a very good script. Sometimes I have very good scripts, but there is nothing there that's really visual inside and I don’t know if I will be able to give it something else, so I prefer to pass and wait for a project I feel is better for me.

The last one I did with Wim Wenders was very different and it was beautiful. It was nice for me because it was the first time I was working with a high level director, someone who has been established for a long time, and somebody who knows how to do everything so well. And it was really nice for me to understand the way he works and the way life also works. So I don’t want to do my style all the time, you know? I don't know what I want to try, but I want to keep experimenting and challenging myself to try to do something different. 

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