In Memory, an unexpected romance between a recovering alcoholic and a dementia sufferer is handled with both sensitivity and lightness of touch by Mexican auteur Michel Franco in a stripped-down approach that has been likened to that of the Dogme movement.
“Some people are afraid of what Dogme means but to us it just means you make own rules,” says the film’s cinematographer Yves Cape, AFC. “What inspires us in Dogme is the idea of devising your own rules and sticking with them.”
Franco has collaborated with Cape on feature dramas including Chronic, April’s Daughter,Sundown and New Order and sketched out the themes of the film to him several months before producing a script.
“With Michel the script evolves until the last moment and continues to change with the actors in rehearsals, the location and on the day of the shoot.”
On Memory, there was an initial plan to shoot the film in London before the script attracted the attention of Jessica Chastain, fresh from winning an Oscar for her role in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. With her commitment to the project, they revised the location to Brooklyn.
Working with RED camera suits the director’s workflow explains Cape.
“Michel likes to edit on the set (Franco is a credited editor alongside Óscar Figueroa). We will shoot the scene, take the card out, the DIT will process it and the material is fed directly to the editor who is there with his laptop. He will make a rough cut and as soon that’s ready Michel and I will review and decide whether he has what he wants or whether to continue.”
From the moment the card leaves the camera to when the media is in the computer is barely 10 minutes. “It has to be fast, and we haven’t found any better or faster workflow than RED since we shot Chronic this way together in 2015.”
Another reason the cinematographer says he is very attached to RED stems from his prior work with directors like Bruno Dumont (among others L’humanité, Hors Satan and Hadewijch) and for whom natural colours are important.
“Bruno and Michel want the camera to record naturalism and I don’t want lean on the grade to accentuate character. We like working from the truth and in particular for rendering skin tones.”
In case of Memory, it was important to the filmmakers to accurately photograph Chastain’s white skin and reddish hair.
“For skin tones RED is the only camera that works for me,” Cape says. “Ever since the release of RED DRAGON the cameras have been successively better and better at color reproduction.”
Memory was shot with the MONSTRO on a chronological schedule which Franco favors in order to allow room for the performances to evolve.
“Michel wants to give the actors and us freedom to explore. If we feel something needs to change, we revise the script, or drop a scene, or add another. If you shoot chronologically then everything from camera to make-up to performance changes organically.”
Cape adopted a no-fuss approach to lighting. “I like to start from a position of natural light. For example, in a room with windows I will use those lights. At this point, the picture won’t necessarily look nice because there will be no contrast or the light may be coming from several directions, but it is the starting point from which
you I can build.”
“RED gives me an intuitive way to work on set. I mainly use the ISO and the color temp to adjust the look of the image I wanted.”
Combining the MONSTRO with Leica’s Summilux-M primes provided the image neutrality Cape was looking for.
“The image has definition but it is not digitally too sharp, and the combination of the MONSTRO and the Summulux allows me to go into any situation. If we decide to shoot outside at night rather than inside, the RED allows me to do just that. Importantly, the lens doesn’t damage the image texture and there are no distortion or flares. In fact, I am looking for the opposite. I don’t want the audience to notice the camera work.
He says, “I like this combination of softness and contrast, and definition most of all for faces. Real truth is to be found in the skin tone of the human face.”
A similar philosophy of simplicity carries through to camera placement. Franco and Cape try to find the best camera position for the scene and from that position try to capture the entire scene.
“If the camera doesn’t move that is perfect. If it has to move or tilt up, we will do so but we do this rarely. I am always framing for a 10 percent safety inside the aspect ratio so that in postproduction I can ‘dolly’ up and down. That’s only possible with a sensor the size and fidelity of RED.”
He points out that a shot in a café used for the film’s U.S trailer has been resized to a close-up of actor Peter Sarsgaard, a shot which is not used in the film.
“We like to film performances in once scene rather than have the actor’s replay scenes alone to camera,” he says. “There is more truth this way.”
They attempted to film a climactic scene when long buried family tensions bubble to the surface in a single wide but after a few takes Franco realised it wasn’t quite working.
“But we noticed something vital about the moment when Jessica’s character, who is sitting on a sofa, suddenly stands up. It’s quite a violent movement, even though the confrontation is only verbal. We were able to see this in review of the rough cut and returned to get the shot we needed.”
Cape explains that his own methodology for understanding how to approach the story is aided by discussion around character and location. Typically, they scout locations together without a production designer.
“I find it really helpful to understand the psychology of the characters and to talk this through with Michel on location. By achieving this understanding of the sociological environment of each character, my work become after very easy and natural. It gives me all the directions for lighting and for framing. In Memory, our central character is a social worker so I need to know, for example, what a social worker in the U.S would earn and what it would cost to live and rent property in certain neighborhoods.”
Following this process, they found an ideal spot for the exterior of the character’s apartment upstairs from a tyre repair shop and on a busy highway.
“Inside the building was an art gallery, all white walls, but we worked out with the art director how to dress it while keeping to budget.”
They also advised Chastain to visit Target, the type of store her character would shop at, to buy joggers, T-shirts and other clothing for costume.
“This is how Michel works, by involving everyone we all aim to deliver a truth to his vision, the story and that of the characters.”
Memory is currently playing in theaters.