D.p. Darius Khondji lights nostalgia on Woody Allen pic

For reasons best known to film-marketing gurus, Sony Pictures Classics kept the central premise of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” under wraps until the pic’s first screening.

They must have done something right. “Midnight” grossed more than $96,000 per screen in its six-venue L.A. and New York debut over the weekend.

At first, the film was billed rather prosaically as a romantic comedy about a young engaged couple (played by Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams) whose trip to Paris forces them to face flaws in their relationship.

But on the screen, it leaps to life as a dazzling period movie and journeys back to Paris of the 1920s, populated by iconic artists (Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso); one sequence travels even further back to the Belle Epoque in a comic meditation on the nature of nostalgia.

To create the Paris of the past, Allen enlisted a host of artists, including d.p. Darius Khondji, with whom he had worked on New York-set “Anything Else” in 2003.

At that time, the idea for “Midnight” was already on Allen’s mind. “After we finished that shoot, Woody told me he’d love to do a film in France, and that it might be a period film,” Khondji said.

The two reunited when “Midnight” finally came to fruition seven years later. But as they scouted locations, Khondji came to realize that Allen wasn’t interested in creating the cliche, period Paris of the roaring ’20s. Instead, he wanted to take present-day Paris as a departure point and dim its lights, to make the city’s nighttime darker and grittier, as it surely was before modern illumination took hold.

“Woody said, ‘I need to turn down the lights so Paris won’t be too bright. I want a Paris of the past in which you can subliminally see a ghost image of the Paris of today,’?” Khondji said. “He was right. I’ve worked with great directors and this is one of the most surprising things one of them ever told me.”

Khondji worked with production designer Anne Seibel and costume designer Sonia Grande to create the look Allen had in mind. For the interiors, they combined warm glows with rich colors. To establish a contrast between today and the ’20s, the d.p. shot scenes set in the past with the same Cooke lenses that were in use at the time (“their glass is older and softer,” he said), eschewed wide-angle shots and kept the 35mm Arri cameras stationary. “I thought they should be as they were at the time,” he said. “More static, less movement.”

By contrast, in contemporary scenes “the camera could move, we could have a wider angle, everything was brighter, more garish, even a little bit irritating. Most of the people you see in modern times are less interesting, less romantic, so we just filmed them like reportage.”

Allen avoids soundstages. All the contemporary exteriors were shot outside, mostly on overcast days; interiors were filmed at the actual settings.

The biggest challenge, Khondji said, was going back and forth between the periods: “I found myself emotionally having to travel through time. Sometimes it was hard to keep up.”

Bookings and Signings

Paradigm hired agent Michael Kirschner, signed editor Jeff Seibenick (“Eastbound and Down”) and d.p.’s Morgan Susser (“Hesher”) and James Bagdonas (“Modern Family”).

Agency has booked editors Alan Heim on Marc Turtletaub’s “Gods Behaving Badly,” Eddie Hamilton on Erik Van Looy’s “Loft,” Don Brochu on Lifetime movie “Bling Ring” and Hunter Via for a return gig on AMC’s “The Walking Dead”; d.p.’s Julio Macat on Leslie Grief’s “Sleeping Around,” Alan Caso on CBS’ “Hawaii Five-O,” Paul Maibaum for a return on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy,” Rohn Schmidt on “Walking Dead” and John Lindley on FX pilot “Powers”; production designers Tom Southwell on Charles Matthau’s “Freaky Deaky” and Greg Melton for a return on “Walking Dead.”

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