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‘Buster Scruggs’ DP Bruno Delbonnel on Lensing Coen Brothers’ First Digital Film

Bruno Delbonnel, celebrated for his painterly work capturing the brooding WWII-era political intrigue “Darkest Hour” for Joe Wright, and for the wonder world he filmed in 2001’s “Amelie,” is known for breaking conventions. He uses the sun as backlight and works to employ deep shadows into the atmosphere of his subjects. Screening “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” competing at EnergaCamerimage, he says the Coen brothers’ first digitally shot film offered a host of lessons – but is no guarantee they will soon depart from their use of film.

You first worked with the Coen brothers in a collection of city stories, “Paris, je t’aime” in 2006 but not again until 2013 on “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Did they seek you out to help them express their unique, dark comic look?

No, it was just like they are shooting in Paris and they asked me to do it. Roger Deakins had mentioned my name. Then I didn’t hear from them for years.

“Buster Scruggs,” which is now premiering on Netflix, was originally conceived for television – so did this affect your approach to this Western anthology?

I knew it was a Netflix thing so when we discussed the aspect ratio, I said “We’re gonna go 1.85:1” and that’s it. It was not even 16:9. It was 1.85:1.

And you’ve said the Alexa camera is the best for your way of working – why is that?

Because I think all the color systems behind it is closer to what I’m used to with Kodak film negatives. So when I discovered it, it was obvious that this camera was right for me. And now I’m used to it.

You also say you’re not a fan of closeups – or at least you were wary of them shooting Gary Oldman with prosthetics playing Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour.” But the Coens require a lot of reaction shots in dialogue, don’t they?

I’m a big fan of wide lenses – I don’t like long lenses so for me a 32mm or 40mm is a long lens already. And on “Inside Llewyn Davis” we shot almost everything with a 27mm. And the same here on “Buster Scruggs” – 70% of it is with a 27mm. And it happens that that’s what Joel and Ethan like as well.

But there’s some exaggeration of features of the face if you get too close with this lens – a bit of cartoonish quality, no?

I don’t think so. You have to be very, very careful what you do with it. On Churchill in “The Darkest Hour” is was again a lot of 27mm. It’s a great lens.

It’s clear you worked closely with production designer Jess Gonchor to create the over-the-top Western towns and settings on “Buster Scruggs.” How do you plan the look together?

Yeah, I think it’s on all movies, I mean my best friend on the film crew is the production designer. I try to work a lot with them on every movie I do. And I was fortunate to work with among the best – Stuart Craig on “Harry Potter” and here with Jess Gonchor on “Buster Scruggs,” who did “Inside Llewyn Davis” as well. We worked very closely on the colors and the mood, even the size of the room. Like saying, “The room is too big – let’s scale it down because I know with the lens I can make it bigger.”

On the camera moves, it’s more of a discussion with Joel and Ethan but obviously if you plan to have a camera move, maybe you need to fly a wall so it’s something you have to discuss with the production designer. But that’s more on construction than the actual look of the set.

What were the main lessons for you and the Coens from the experience of shooting their first digital film?

I know there are things they like and things they dislike about it. But I know they said they couldn’t have done “Buster Scruggs” any other way because of weather reasons. So they liked it. But I don’t know if they’re having second thoughts about it. Maybe if they ask me to do another one with them we will discuss it.

I think what they had a problem with was not discovering the image when watching the dailies. Because what you see on set is what you’re gonna get. As opposed to a film neg, where you’ve waited for the daily and see it on screen. The feeling is different. So whether they get along with it or not in the future, I don’t know.

With so many digital effects in “Buster Scruggs,” you almost get the feeling they were deliberately making some look cartoonish rather than seamless, as in the opening shots of the singing cowboy ambling through the big wide West.

It’s strange because that’s from an actual still. It’s real. It’s the way it was. It’s kind of fabulous because I don’t know what happens. It’s just the way it looks.

Can digital effects be a trap sometimes rather than an aid to your shooting?

[On “Buster Scruggs”] it was CG because of the nature of things, for example the animals. You can’t have a stunt with a horse now. It’s almost impossible. You can’t have a horse flipping over. It’s illegal. But I think CG is always about the way you approach it.

If you say, “Okay, I need a big blue screen, a green screen or whatever,” and it becomes a massive thing to put together, then it’s a very heavy burden, in fact. But if you approach it in a different way as Joel and Ethan do, it was, “Can we not use a blue screen so we can shoot [the real sky]? Then we can use CG later?”

On “Buster Scruggs” bad weather plus the limited availability of stars like James Franco and Tom Waits forced you into tight time frames for lots of outdoor scenes – such that many could only have been done with digital and some effects, right? But the Coens use them as sparingly as possible?

They try to avoid those kinds of things. Because I think technology shouldn’t dictate the way you want to shoot. Because we can always find another idea. And that’s the beauty with Joel and Ethan Coen. It’s all about your imagination.

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