Camera in hand, Italian at heart

Behind the lens

As the cinematographer for Woody Allen’s latest film, To Rome With Love, Darius Khondji arrived on the set in the title city with double vision.

First, there was the dark side: the trauma of more than 50 years ago, when Khondji was three-and-a-half and, on a family visit to Rome from Tehran, sneaked out of the Excelsior Hotel on the Via Veneto in search of a toy store. He got lost. A policeman picked him up. Some nuns housed him in their convent near the Spanish Steps.

The policeman offered to adopt him. It took three days before his parents found him. Then, there was the sunny side: a love of all things Italian so big that Khondji prefers to speak Italian rather than French or English; he jokes that although he is the son of an Iranian father and a French mother, he was Italian in a previous life.

In an interview in the dimly-lit kitchen of his 18th century house near the Saint-Sulpice Church here, he couldn’t stop himself from slipping into Italian between sips of espresso from a gold-and-white China cup. With his dark eyes and wild hair, his big gestures and even bigger laugh, he boasts that he could pass for an Italian.

“If my parents hadn’t found me, I would have been raised as a real Roman boy,” he said. “I have lived most of my life in Paris, but I have a connection with Rome that I have with no other place. I’m attached by invisible strings. I’m half-haunted by the fact that I was lost there as a child. Il mio cuore e italiano (My heart is Italian.)”

Darkness hovers over all Khondji’s work, but his latest, and third, project with Allen, is also infused with light: rich, orange and mellow. The 56-year-old cinematographer used a collection of older lenses to give more saturation of colour to the two stories involving Italians, modern lenses with crisper definition when filming the two Americans-in-Rome stories.

Both he and Allen dislike bright sunlight, so they commissioned a company in Milan to make giant helium-filled mattresses that they hoisted 40 feet in the air to block out the harsh midday light. Sometimes they would throw on a layer of black netting or silk on the mattresses to filter out even more.“With Woody, the best parallel is music,” Darius said. “If you play in tune with him and get his rhythm, he will give you all the freedom to improvise as you tell his story.”

In an email message, Allen described Khondji as “one of the elite cameramen in the world, a very sensitive artist.” It is this blend of inventiveness and flexibility that makes Khondji so sought after. In early July, he was in Mykonos filming a new perfume ad for Dior. He has also been fine-tuning the colour in James Gray’s untitled new film set in 1920s New York. “He’s a technically superb craftsman with the soul of an artist,” Gray said in a telephone interview from New York. “He’s into new things that are technically wrong but achieve a certain emotional effect. Like letting half the frame go black, or letting an actor fall off into the darkness on purpose. I love the man.”

Khondji came by his love of film at an early age. He watched his first movies from his perch in a stroller. His father, a successful businessman who helped start Iran’s cotton industry, bought two large movie theatres in central Tehran that showed the latest French and Italian films. Khondji’s nanny preferred the movie theatre to the park. As a child growing up in a French suburb, he would take the train into central Paris to see horror films. At 12, he bought a plastic eight-millimeter camera with his allowance. His first work was a series of short Dracula films; he was director, cameraman and star.

“I appeared very rarely in the film,” he said. “It’s much better when you don’t show the monster.” A mediocre student in the rigid French educational system, he moved after his first year in college to New York, studying cinema at New York University with Haig Manoogian, Martin Scorsese’s professor, and Jonas Mekas, the experimental filmmaker.

He resisted all exhortations to focus on directing. Back in Paris, he studied editing and worked first as an assistant cameraman, then as a lighting director, on music videos and commercials. His first break as a cinematographer came with the 1991 film Delicatessen, collaborating with the directing team of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. A turning point came four years later on David Fincher’s Seven, with a technical breakthrough in which he created a delicate bleaching process that retained the silver in the prints and produced the blackest of blacks.

Much of his other work has explored darkness. In Michael Haneke’s film Amour, which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, he moved the camera slowly and faded into black to capture the sadness of an octogenarian couple facing their mortality. An exception to the darkness-is-better approach was his work in Stealing Beauty (1996), in which he bathed the characters and the Tuscan countryside in a warm golden light.

He transferred that sensibility to the three Woody Allen films, including the romantic comedies Anything Else in 2003 and Midnight in Paris in 2011. “I followed his vision of Paris,” he said. “He imagined it overcast and raining all the time. We went out in the street shooting, and it started raining, and we were chasing the rain. The rain you see in the movie is real rain.”

Despite numerous awards, Khondji has never won an Oscar and has been nominated only once — for Alan Parker’s 1996 musical Evita. “I’m not a prizewinner,” he said. “It doesn’t hurt me. Like Woody always says, ‘It’s not good to follow these things.’ When the director is really, really happy, that’s my prize.” The only time Khondji was flustered during the interview was when he was being photographed.

“Believe me, I don’t like being photographed,” he said. “I don’t like myself in pictures. Actually, I do sometimes. But when I have a light like this on me, I’m really nervous because it’s creating bad shadows on the face, no? Let’s not talk about the light on my face anymore.”

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