“By the Sea,” the new film written and directed by Angelina Jolie, may seem like a simple premise—a couple in the throes of entropy hit upon a quiet hotel in the South of France where they examine life around them as well as their own relationship—but dig a little deeper and you realize just what it takes to bring Jolie’s vision of 1970s life in a languid seaside town to the big screen.
Besides Jolie, and her husband Brad Pitt (who also stars and has a producer’s credit as well), one of the people most responsible for “By the Sea” is cinematographer Christian Berger. The Austrian-born Berger is one of the most respected names in European cinema, and was behind the camera for such acclaimed films as “The Piano Teacher” and “The White Ribbon.” He has been nominated for an Academy Award and won the American Society of Cinematographers’ Best Cinematography Award.
In addition to his work as an innovative director of photography for the past four decades or so, Berger is the inventor of the Cine Reflect Lighting System (CRLS), a set of power-saving tools designed to increase the scope of existing light sources and decrease the complexities of working in difficult environments. This revolutionary system frees up the creative workspace for both directors and actors, and has won rave reviews from Jolie and Pitt, among other people he has worked with since he introduced CRLS in 2001. As Berger says, chuckling, “I cannot imagine working without it anymore. If I have to work with conventional equipment I feel like I’m working on a steamboat or something or an old locomotive.”
Berger was in L.A. recently as “By the Sea” kicked off AFI Fest 2015 during the Opening Night Gala. Film Slate Magazine caught up with him the next day to get his insights about making “By the Sea,” working with Jolie and Pitt, and the differences between budgetary concerns in the U.S. versus Europe (nothing shocking there—even small American movies are big to Europeans).
Berger laughs easily and excused his English (which is actually quite good) as the interview started. It’s clear that after all these years he still maintains his passion for filmmaking and enjoys trying new things to solve what seem like age old problems.
Initially, it seemed that there was a bit of secrecy when Berger was approached to film “By the Sea.” He was contacted through his wife and manager, Marika, but even though he was asked about his availability, there were no names attached to the script or the project itself.
“I said, ‘Listen, I want to see the script and I want to know who the director is,’ and so it was kind of top secret in the beginning,” Berger said, laughing. “And finally she called and said, ‘Okay this is Angelina Jolie,’ and I said, ‘OK, and I’m the emperor of China–because I had heard those kind of stupid jokes from colleagues before and I didn’t know if somebody was trying to put one over on me.”
There are a few major components of “By the Sea.” Set in the South of France in the 1970s, Berger knew that Jolie was looking for a certain kind of mood and feeling as Vanessa and Roland, Jolie’s and Pitt’s respective characters, draw closer and interact with the people around them.
“The story was quite interesting. It’s not a question of how many people—it was an intimate story anyway. It was clear how she was looking for the atmosphere from the seventies,” he said.
Berger had a few concerns at first because not only was the movie set in the 1970s, but Jolie was looking for that certain New Wave aesthetic, something Berger can relate to as a filmmaker who emerged from that era. But trying to recreate something like that poses its own challenges. Throw in the usual time constraints, as well as finding a suitable location for the time of year for the shoot (September/October), and the challenges began to take shape.
“That concerned me a lot because…for my generation it was marking us, with all the movies from that time. I knew exactly what she meant. I think the most interesting thing for a cinematographer is to create atmosphere. And there were many atmospheres needed in that script and in the locations as well. It took place in the South of France, but we were shooting in Malta,” he said.
One of the biggest challenges for Berger and his crew was to continually match the light of the interior shots with the natural light of the exteriors, all the while maintaining the atmosphere that was so important to Jolie.
“It was not to imitate a certain movie,” Berger said. “It was more to capture the spirit of the time, with the movement, with making the shot lists, how to expose the figure in the room…A lot of the movie takes place in the hotel suite which was actually built as a kind of studio on the rocks. And it was very interesting to have the mixture between studio conditions, but at the same time, you’re also depending on the daylight of the original location. It was quite challenging, for example, to keep it looking like a sunny day the whole day, or to say it’s early morning to keep it the same because the scene is long.”
While “By the Sea” is considered a smaller, more intimate movie by American standards, that doesn’t mean that it came cheaply. With the backing of Universal and the star power of Jolie and Pitt, this was no regular indie offering. Berger noted the differences in what he’s usually used to with European cinema as opposed to an American production.
“For European standards, it wasn’t such a small movie,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s a different scale there. For them (Jolie and Pitt), it was kind of experimental, and for Universal as well. The budget was $27 million or something like that. But for Europe it’s a big budget. There were two months of
shooting, and one month of prep; there was one hotel and one café which was completely constructed next to the studio on the rocks. My gaffer was in the Czech Republic—he was constructing a very special rig to be able to come in with the light, because it was this protected area that we weren’t allowed to build on. So we had to come from over the top of the roof into the rooms with the light. That was a special challenge as well.”
When asked about working with Jolie as a director, Berger related it to his experience in general. A director (or a writer/director, as in this case) may have certain ideas on how he or she wants the movie to be shot, but things always change when the camera starts to roll.
“It was quite near to her expectations. I never see a movie as, ‘We have to stand here, and there has to be a sunrise or sunset’ or something like that [meaning that there has to be specific marks and/or no deviations from the script],” Berger said. “It’s more about how it’s written and the general mood of the script. Whether it’s funny or melancholic; if the pace is slow or fast, serious—that kind of thing.”
Berger was quite positive in talking about the experience of working with Jolie, and remarked how inquisitive she is about the filmmaking process.
“It was interesting how I explained to her why I used a particular lens, and why not more or a different one,” he said. “She’s very curious and cooperative. She never insisted anything when it came to the script except with certain emotions or feelings that she wanted to get across. If there was a misinterpretation then she would stop filming and say, ‘No, not like that, because I want that and that.’ But it was a very collaborative set and we worked together well.”
Something that was a bit unusual for Berger was the fact that Jolie was one of the main stars of the movie; it took a bit of an adjustment period for him as his director was often in the scene he was about to shoot.
“Usually the director is beside me but she was in front of the camera,” he said. “Sometimes at the end of a very emotional scene, and she’d turn towards the camera and say ‘Cut,’ which is very unusual. She’s very intelligent and doesn’t play around a lot. She was very well-prepared and she has this kind of on/off switch when it came to her directing duties and her part on-camera.”
For Berger, when it came to making “By the Sea,” one of his biggest impressions came from his experience of working with Jolie and Pitt. As actors it’s fairly apparent what they bring to a movie, but behind the scenes, he was quite impressed by their curiosity. Not only for the process of filmmaking, but the technical abilities that he and his CRLS bring to the set.
“It was the first time that I had actors who were very interested in my lighting system because they enjoyed a set that was so free of the usual equipment,” he said. “I think that was the most important thing for them—they were able to move around so freely on their stage. They weren’t blocked or hindered; they could choose any direction they wanted. We could do so many different things so quickly, like change from day lighting to night, which helped the production. It was different for me to have those kinds of stars, who are also partners, who were also patient and curious, who were always asking how I or my crew did things. This doesn’t happen all the time. It’s quite rare.”
For information about Berger’s CRLS, please visit: www.thelightbridge.com
Images courtesy of NBC Universal