This article featured in CW011, (September 2022) edition of Cinematography World
All images courtesy and copyright Netflix.
By Ron Prince
If, on watching Blonde, you were expecting a regular biopic about the life of actress Marilyn Monroe, you might well find yourself having mixed feelings. On the other hand, if you’re open to a more fictionalised account about Norma Jeane Baker and the troubles she faced during her meteoric rise to stardom as the legendary blond bombshell, the storytelling just might grab you in a completely different way.
But, whatever your take on director Andrew Dominik’s latest feature, you cannot fail to be struck by the imaginative, often wild and wonderfully impressionistic, cinematography by Canadian Chayse Irvin CSC. The film had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice Film Festival, where critics various described it as ‘incendiary’ and a ‘must-see’, whilst Irvin’s work has been branded as both deft and powerful.
In tune with the emotions in the script, the wonts of his director and remarkable performances in front of the camera, Irvin’s work is somewhat of a masterclass in consciously breaking conventions, being intuitive and daring, in order to bring something truly distinctive, absorbing, memorable and moving to the screen, across a running-time of nearly three hours. And it’s not beyond the realms of imagination to believe that the $22m Netflix production stands the chance of a decent run in the 2023 awards season.
Written and adapted by Dominik, from the 2000 biographical fiction novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates, Blonde sees Cuban actress Ana De Armas in the lead role, with Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale, Xavier Samuel and Julianne Nicholson amongst the supporting cast. Shot in both colour and B&W, and with shifting aspect ratios, the film explores Monroe’s life from childhood trauma and how that affected almost every interaction in her life until her untimely death aged just 36.
“I bring a lot of instinct to my work”
“Her mother was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and resided in a mental institution. She never knew her father. She had a string of love affairs and marriages with men who were much older than her during her inexorable rise to fame and becoming an emblem of the sexual revolution,” says Irvin. “I thought that was a great basis on which to construct the cinematic language of the film, because it’s really an intricate map of emotions and interpersonal relationships. Andrew picking me as the cinematographer was a considered step in that direction, because I bring a lot instinct to my work.”
Irvin, who now resides in Brooklyn, New York, won the Best Cinematography Debut award at the 2013 Camerimage Film Festival for director Andrea Pallaoro’s Medeas, and became more widely-known for his experimental collaborations with director/artist Kahlil Joseph on numerous works of art, before the pair worked together on Beyoncé Knowles’ companion film to her 2016 concept album Lemonade. He reteamed with Pallaoro for the well-regarded Hannah (2017) and Irvin’s star rose further with his acclaimed rendering of Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman (2018) in colour and B&W on 16mm and 35mm celluloid film.
“Andrew had seen some of the art installation work I had shot for Kahlil, and reached out to me a few weeks before the screen tests he was planning to shoot in LA with Ana,” says Irvin. “He and Kahlil were both apprentices to Terrence Malick, who brings a lot of intuition and spontaneity into his filmmaking, and I sensed it was my ability to work in the same way that prompted Andrew to get in touch with me.
“I think it’s maybe difficult for some cinematographers to work in unconstrained ways, because so much of the craft currently is about pre-conception, developing a certain structure, and then executing that structure.
“The work I’ve done with Kahlil is actually the antithesis to that. More often than not, I don’t know where or what we’re shooting. Kahlil sort of surprises me, and I basically receive, and react to, his requests in the moment of inspiration. It embeds something in the image. I think Andrew really connected with that, and you can certainly see that in the final movie. During production, I was aware of being in what, in jazz circles, we call ‘the pocket’ – deeply connected to the things that are happening around you and responding intuitively to them before magic the fizzles out.”
“You can bend, break or completely violate the rules”
Irvin says that in the six-month period between shooting the screen tests with Ana De Armas and the start of principle photography, not only did he pore over the script, but also immersed himself in a biography about Monroe and read Joyce Carol Oates’ novel multiple times.
“I love screenwriters deeply, but I sometimes struggle with the screenplay format, and I wanted to assimilate the core facts about Marilyn’s life as well as the fictional account on which Andrew’s script was based,” he says. “Andrew had created a bible, which was in-effect the film told in archival images, in colour and B&W, from Marilyn’s life, her films and the period, some of which we were going to have to stage and recreate faithfully.
“Within that, however, I wasn’t totally sure if we were going stick to the structure of the images in that bible, even when we were shooting. Some days the first question I would ask Andrew was whether he sensed a scene being colour or B&W. He would respond intuitively, in the moment, that the image might need to feel like a séance with Marilyn, or be something to haunt the audience.
“In essence, the visual storytelling was based around a staccato of different emotions and images that depicted to Marilyn’s psychological experience. But there were no hard-and-fast rules about the colour or the aspect ratio, and things were left intentionally uncertain and chaotic. It was part of my preparation to come to terms with what could and couldn’t be done, as resources were limited, and to be versatile enough to switch between colour/B&W, widescreen Anamorphic, 1.85:1 or 4:3 on the day.”
Irvin notes, “There are a lot of the rules that we adhere to in cinematography and filmmaking in general, but to me the only rule that really applies is creating a sense of harmony between the camera, sound and a character’s physical or psychological experience. You can bend, break or completely violate those rules to create that sense of harmony. It’s not done enough, and this film was sort place I could do that.”
Principal photography on Blonde commenced in August 2019, taking-in locations around Los Angeles, with set-builds on the stages and backlots at many Hollywood Studios, where scenes from movies such as Some Like It Hot (1959, dir. Billy Wilder, DP Charles Lang Jr ACS) and The Seven Year Itch (1955, Billy Wilder, DP Milton R Krasner ASC) were re-enacted, along with a segment from the song-and dance-routine of ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’ in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953, dir. Howard Hawks, DP Harry J Wild ASC).
“The challenge and creativity are actually the same thing”
After extensive testing, supported by Panavision, Woodland Hills, and the company’s lens guru Dan Sasaki in particular, Irvin selected Panavison PVintage lenses, which are based on Panavision Ultra Speed lenses designed in the 1970s, paired with the Sony Venice camera, for the movie’s colour sequences, and ARRI Alexa XT B&W for the B&W portions. He also added H-series sphericals, built with vintage glass and coatings, that have soft roll-off in the image and emphasise skin quality, to his optical mix.
“During testing, we did a Pepsi blind-challenge for Andrew between different lenses and large format cameras,” Irvin explains. “When we screen the tests Andrew developed a particular connection to the PVintage lenses as they had a certain fragility, where the image was sort of falling apart, and helped to evoked the period as well as the emotion. They are very forgiving on skin and skin pores when shooting large format, which meant I did not need to resort to softening the image using filters on the many close-ups in the film.
“On a practical level, the front diameter on the PVintage glass is consistent across the focal length range, so you can use the same matte box, and the smooth mechanical performance is really helpful for the focus pullers.
“The nature of those tests, in interior and exterior settings, natural and artificial light, was really informative as regards the camera choice. Things like the ISO settings and ability to ride the exposure via the internal NDs on the Sony Venice revealed that it was way faster at helping us to react to things as they were happening.
“As for the Alexa XT B&W, it captures rich, high-contrast B&W images very much like 35mm panchromatic film. It can also operate in an infrared mode, capturing non-visible IR light, rendering smooth skin and interesting details like black eye pupils. That said, the camera got damaged during prep, so for a week-and-a-half whilst it was being repaired, we used the Sony Venice with the same B&W LUT I had prepared. When it came back, we ended-up using the Alexa XT B&W for the vast majority of the B&W work.
“There’s one thing to note that, because it does not have a Bayer mask or optical low-pass filter (OLPF), the camera is doubly-sensitive to light, so the base rating of 800 is actually 1600 ISO, and that’s good knowledge to have in advance.”
Irvin worked with colourist Tom Poole, of Company3 in New York, to develop an initial set of LUTs, including a Technicolor emulation LUT for a sequence from The Seven Year Itch, but honed and finessed them further himself during pre-production.
“Although Tom did a initial great job on the LUTs, I wanted a deeper connection to the images, so I spent time adapting them myself, encouraging more of a creamy, Kodachrome period-look on the scenes we shot in colour, and Tri-X and Double-X looks on the B&W footage, where the curve delivered a violent texture and filmic grain to the deepest parts of the shadow.”
Irvin says that when he’s not shooting, he is always experimenting with cameras, lenses, lights and all manner other paraphernalia to find ways of creating interesting and innovative imagery in response to a particular moment or emotion.
“Aside from the official camera tests, during pre-production I decided to try out a few cinematic devices that I could keep in my back pocket and pull out when I felt things might start looking a little prosaic and ordinary, or to heighten the emotion in a scene,” he reveals.
“For example, I tested shooting characters reflecting-off mirrored polycarbonate and thought the results looked rather beautiful. So when Andrew was looking for something different for the scene in which Marilyn indulges in the ménage à trois, I had the grips bring several 4 x 8 eight sheets of the polycarbonate from the camera truck, put them on C-stands, and start bending them around to distort the reflections of the actors. That produced something surreal that took this moment of abandonment to an altogether different place.”
Amongst other tricks in Irvin’s creative back pocket, was an unusual and visually -striking flare that he harnessed several times, including a B&W sequence in which Marilyn breaks down and storms off-set during a take of one of her musical performances.
“I bought some fibre-optic cable on Amazon, and snipped it to a length that would fit across the Panavision lens mount,” he says. “When you put the lens back on, the hard source light hits the cable, which scatters the light around depending on the orientation. In this case it was vertical to create a horizontal flare. It looked like an Anamorphic flare, but different and rather violent.”
A further example of Irvin’s preparedness for creative spontaneity came with a scene towards the movie’s denouement, in which Marilyn stubbles around her house, naked and confused at night.
“Andrew wanted to heighten the feeling of Marilyn’s disorientation, as she descends in to drug and alcohol dependency. So I switched the Alexa XT B&W into infrared mode, and used a cheap, battery-powered, infrared CCTV light, purchased from Amazon, for illumination. The infrared wavelength penetrates a few millimeters into skin, and gives a milky look to portraits and the eyes appear black. Shooting handheld on this sequence in particular delivered a really haunting and ghostly-looking image, that presaged her ultimate fate.”
Whilst the film features a lot of static or near-stable close-up observational portraiture, Irvin motivated the camera in all manner of ways, including more freeform handheld according to his own visual sensibilities in the moment, and several long, scene-setting oners, ably shot by Steadicam operator Dana Morris.
Also in the mix were body mounts that were fitted to the actors themselves, using the Sony Venice Rialto extension kit to point the camera directly at the performer, such as in the scene when Joe DiMaggio storms upstairs in a fit of rage. For a the scene in which Marilyn is injected with a sedative and collapses to he floor, Irvin sported the body mount himself and in choreographed unison with De Armas, took the lead in helping her fall over.
Irvin says that recreating the camera movement for the re-enactment of ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’, “was one of the most daunting things I ever had to do. Although I tried to research it, I am not sure how they achieved that back then – maybe with a mobile base on a track, with the operator on a turret, and the camera on an arm. But it was certainly way before telescopic cranes were invented. I hired Bogdan Iofciulescu, a gifted Technocrane operator, who studied the original film and did a brilliant job of moving the camera and hitting every single mark exactly the way it was done in the original film. That said, we must have done close to 30 takes to get things exactly right in front of the camare, such as the choreography and expressions of the dancers.”
Irvin was thankful to have gaffer Cody Jacobs on the team. “He and I go a long way back. I was delighted that he agreed to do this film and he contributed immensely. Along with helping to bring a lovely chiaroscuro to the B&W photography with the lighting, we needed authenticity to our film recreations, because if it doesn’t look authentic to the time, it really kills the whole sequence.
“We were able to research the lighting for our ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’ sequence from behind-the-scenes photographs, in which we could see they were using an array of Tungsten fresnels, 5Ks and massive Zip lights around the stage. We could not source working versions of those lights, so we would typically rig vintage units with modern LEDs, such as ARRI Skypanels, and have those all under wireless control so we could precisely adjust the colour temperature and intensity of the lighting.
“In more practical locations, I often adhered to soft top-lighting, with arrays of 8×8 or 12×12 LiteTiles rigged overhead, as I didn’t want a forest of flags and stands on the floor to interfere with the spontaneity and freedom of the cast and the camera team. Also top-lighting does something theatrically that looks raw and real, and gives a scene some soul.
“I front-lit some of the Steadicam scenes, such as when Marilyn in on the red carpet at a film premiere, using a bespoke LED in a box, that was attached to the camera, with Depron for diffusion, to bring a flash photography aesthetic to the look.”
‘The final film is basically a faithful reflection of the dailies”
Irvin completed the DI with Tom Poole at Company3 in New York. “Andrew told me numerous times that he did not want to grade the film, he wanted the look from the camera on-set as the final on-screen. So during the first few weeks of production, I stopped by camera truck and spent time grading the dailies, rendering out DaVinci Resolve files for EFILM, who would then apply Live Grain or halations according to my instructions, and make sure we had the right extraction. At the beginning of the DI we did a bit of experimentation, but soon found things deviating from the original intention. So the final film is basically a faithful reflection of those dailies.”
Reflecting on his experience of shooting Blonde, Irvin says, “Andrew is the strongest-willed person I’ve ever met, and he’s a controversial filmmaker. He makes films with a lot of integrity in the way that he sees fit, and I bonded with his rebellious spirit. Making Blonde was one of the biggest challenges of my life. But that’s what you have to strive for as a creative person, because the challenge and creativity are actually the same thing.”