FRENCH cinematographer Hélène Louvart has gathered over one-hundred credits in an impressive career that has seen her collaborate with figures such as Wim Wenders, Eliza Hittman and Marc Recha.
For her latest project, Louvart teamed up with Mia Hansen-Løve for romantic-drama Maya, starring Roman Kolkina and newcomer Aarshi Banerjee. Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge spoke to Louvart about the film’s visual style, shooting in India and working with Mia Hansen-Løve following the film’s screening at the BFI London Film Festival.
Q: I believe ‘Maya’ is your first time working with director Mia Hansen-Løve. Had you been hoping to work with Mia for some time? What brought you to his project?
A: I knew of Mia as a director, I had already seen most of her films. We first met when she was looking for somebody to replace Denis Lenoir for the winter part of l’Avenir(Things to Come), because initially Denis wasn’t available during that period. I wasn’t either. After a few weeks Denis became available, and I ended up shooting at the end of the last two days of filming.
Q: What was your working relationship like with Mia and how did it compare with some of the directors you have worked with in the past?
A: Mia likes to do a lot by herself. She had a very precise shot list for each scene after seeing the locations, and before she had started to shoot.
She shared them with me, each scene, each shot, enabling me to have a very precise overview for each day of filming according to the schedule.
We worked together a lot to prepare, we went to the locations in Paris to check the shot list. We had seen the locations in India a few months earlier. It meant each day we were ready to shoot, well prepared to face the reality of a film set in India.
Of course, each director has his or her own way to prep a shoot. Sometimes we do a very precise shot list (as with Mia), other times we do a rough list, just to have an idea of the time and of the equipment we would need.
For Mia, her way of shooting is very precise, she likes to follow the characters in a very subtle way, trying as much as possible to include a tracking shot, or to pan with the camera. The characters move in a particular way so that Mia avoids the classic, and basic, ‘shot/reverse shot’.
But her way of shooting is never over the story, or over the acting, it follows the story, it accompanies the movement of the characters in a very invisible way. I would say in an elegant way. Mia takes the time to think about it many weeks/days before the start of the shoot. Her way to film is really a reflection of her thoughts.
It takes a lot of time to prep so precisely, especially that particular way of shooting, but Mia is a strong and a hard worker. I appreciate that as a cinematographer, because I can follow her and help to concretise her wishes.
Q: What was the visual style you were looking for in ‘Maya’?
A: Mia wanted Maya to have very natural lighting. The results had to be simple, illuminating the characters as much as possible, but showing them as they are, in a realistic setting. She didn’t want ‘false light’ which would become purely visual. We were both totally on the same page concerning the atmosphere we wanted to re-create.
We trusted the story, the acting and the way to shoot – the lighting had to follow this concept. Mia isn’t afraid to backlight a character when she places them in front of a door or a window, and she appreciates the darkness during the night.
We shot in 35mm and this choice was very important for the both of us, to catch the right atmosphere as much as possible, getting good skin tone and for also capturing the landscape.
Q: From what I’ve seen, the film has some beautiful Indian backdrops. What was it like shooting in Goa and Hampi?
A: We had to understand the right way of shooting with an Indian crew. We mixed French and Indian technicians. We had to adopt their way of working and they had to understand our own way of filming.
Mia knew the exact places she wanted to shoot, (she had gone to Goa and Hampi a few years ago), and was looking for locations/backdrops which could fit with her memory, without simply having a tourist’s point of view.
We tried to capture as many of the outside shots as possible when the light was good, and we were very precise with this, hour by hour.
When the main character travels through India, we shot differently, in Super 16mm, a way of showing the discovery of new cities, new places… Because of that we had to adapt to the locations, but it was easier as we were a small team. We had a lot less pressure on our shoulders because of it and so it meant we could be totally open about what could happen during this journey.
For the main shooting period we had a much bigger crew, we tried to bring the Indian backdrops into our plans and Mia’s vision, without changing the initial concept too much.
(Because of a change of planning, I unfortunately couldn’t be with Mia during all of the shooting. Celine Bozon (afc) shot the beginning of the film, and Claire Mathon (afc) shot some days in India. And of course we prepared and were ready for that.)
Q: What challenges did this project present you?
A: The challenge for me was to be able to adapt myself to her vision. The challenge for her was to trust that I would not go with a forced visual concept, because it’s also totally my point of view of cinema. We were on the same page.
Q: ‘Maya’ is Aarshi Banerjee’s acting debut, and she told us about what a fantastic learning experience it was working with you, Mia and the rest of the team. What was Aashari like to work with?
A: Aarshi is young, clever and very nice. She had a great presence on set and so we had a desire to shoot her as well as possible (the same goes for Roman Kolinka, the main character).
It was her first feature film, and with Mia, we managed to keep the camera a good distance in front of her, not being too intrusive, letting her have her own space…And the crew accompanying Mia knew how to be polite and subtle with this.
Q: I imagine you are at the point in your career where you can be very selective with the work you do. What does it usually take for you to be interested in – and excited about – a project?
A: I choose projects which give an importance to the story and speak to the sincerity of the director’s vision. It has been my main concern since the very beginning of working as a cinematographer.
Q: You have worked with so many legendary figures in the industry. Can you name one actor and one director who you would still love to work with in the future?
A: That’s a very personal question. I don’t like to name anyone in particular, but I have shared and continue to share great affinities.
Q: Do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
A: In Spring of this year, I shot in Rio de Janeiro with Karim Aïnouz, and then in London with Sarah Gavron. Now I’m in Sao Paolo with Marco Dutra and Caetano Gotardo.