By Darek Kuźma
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s daring directorial debut, dealing with the profound complexity and moral ambiguity of motherhood, would not be the same without the skillset of French cinematographer Hélène Louvart AFC.
On the face of it, Leda (Olivia Colman) seems an accomplished comparative literature scholar, yet she used to be identified primarily as a mother of two cute and fairly possessive girls, as well as the wife of a successful man. When young Leda’s (Jessie Buckley) academic/professional work – completed in extra time in addition to changing diapers, feeding, hugging and indulging the children’s shenanigans – was finally recognised, it came with her peers’ concerns as to how it would impact her family. When Leda decided to leave her family and pursue a career, her own shame was heightened by societal pressure.
Leda is now middle-aged and has persisted in her ambitions, whilst learning to accept the good, the bad, and the ugly of being herself. But, all of a sudden, she is forced to confront her inner demons in the one place she thought she would be completely safe: during her holidays on an idyllic Greek island, amid other folks who have chosen the place as an asylum from the outside world, as well as an extended family of brash patriarchs and trophy mothers vacationing at the same beach resort. Initially furious, Leda is drawn to one of them, Nina (Dakota Johnson), a dazzling young mother who is clearly as lost as Leda herself used to be at her age.
Gyllenhaal based her script (which was awarded the gong for best screenplay at the 2021 Venice International Film Festival) on Elena Ferrante’s eponymous novel, and recognised that navigating her way through such an emotionally-charged cinematic exploration of a fiercely independent yet regretful woman would require the assistance of a DP who knew how to capture human nature in all of its fascinating and frightful glory.
Being a fan of Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy As Lazzaro (2018), Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020) and Karim Aïnouz’s Invisible Life (2019), Gyllenhaal’s first pick was Louvart, who was the cinematographer on each of those films, and who also shot two episodes of My Brilliant Friend, HBO’s quintessential screen version of Ferrante’s four-part set of Neapolitan Novels.
“I was really convinced by the emotional range of the screenplay for The Lost Daughter, and met briefly with Maggie in London, for just one hour or so, to check if we would be a good director/cinematographer match, and the connection was instant,” says Louvart.
“This story deserved the Mediterranean vibe”
The pair then spent the next several months on Skype discussing all scenes in detail, although they were not prepared for what was about to come.
“We were supposed to shoot the film in New Jersey, but then Covid came and forced us to alter our plans,” the DP reveals. “They considered making The Lost Daughter in Canada, but one day a new exciting opportunity arose. It turned out Greece would be feasible. And, in fact, it turned out to be the best thing that happened to us because this story deserved the Mediterranean vibe.
“When the film was greenlit to be shot at the island of Spetses, Maggie adapted the script to support the new scenery, but overall it was only a series of minor tweaks,” states Louvart.
The director and the DP arrived on the island pretty much at the same time, five weeks before principal photography began, but, as Louvart declares, “We were put under immediate quarantine and spent two weeks in hotel lockdown, discussing everything –locations, schedule, gear list, etc., – all over again on Skype. However, when we were finally able to meet in person – for the first time since that one hour talk in London – most of the prep work had been done.”
The visual idea behind The Lost Daughter was always to prioritise emotional honesty, using locations, lighting and camerawork to gradually reveal how the characters deal with their crushing moral dilemmas.
“Maggie wanted to be close to the actors, for the camera to be with them physically, to react with them, to breathe with them. So we framed mostly with 32mm, 40mm and 50mm lenses,” explains Louvart. “We also tried to avoid using tripod and long lenses, with the exception of the beach scenes, where we had 180mm and 300mm lengths to support the storytelling from Leda’s point-of-view. For the most part, I was close to the actors, just four to six feet away, reacting to the acting, which was awesome.”
Although the camerawork feels as though it was shot in a handheld style, Louvart used a bespoke Easy/hanging rig solution – involving ropes and sand bags to balance the weight of the camera, with the contraption often manoeuvered by the grip team – to have the desired level of control over the image.
“Maggie is generally not comfortable with Steadicam – she thinks it is too smooth, and thus artificial,” Louvart explains. “On this project the camera never leads, it only follows the actors in a dance of sorts. It moves a lot, but the movement is always linked to a character. It’s very personal, but we didn’t want a shaky, handheld feeling distracting the audience from the image. So the Easy/hanging rig was the ideal solution to preserve the intimacy of the visual storytelling, and at the same time blend with all our medium and wide shots that subtly drive the evolving bittersweet relationship between Leda and the other characters.”
Louvart and Gyllenhaal considered shooting on Super 16mm film, but the unpredictability of Covid convinced them to use the battle-proven combination of ARRI Alexa Mini and Cooke S4 Primes.
“This story deserved a certain softness – on faces, bodies, and light filling the spaces in-between,” says Louvart. “Shooting on Alexa Mini at 2.8K with Cooke S4s is such a nice option, as it gives wonderful skin tones and images that are not too sharp, especially with the addition of some Mitchell Diffusion filters.”
Whilst Leda’s Greek present is sunny and vibrant, the flashbacks to her younger days were designed to be messy. “These are memories, essential moments without a timeframe, often pure images that speak louder than words,” says Louvart.
“For this purpose I used a mix of LED sources – mostly ARRI SkyPanels and Carpet Lights, sometimes Aladdins. They give you great texture and a nice flexibility, as you can wirelessly adjust the colour and the intensity of the illumination. I also used different combinations of 1.8K 4K, 12K and 18K HMIs a few times to overexpose the windows and lose the landscape.”
Louvart used the same lighting package to create different moods for Leda’s increasingly troubled present.
As she explains, “Leda is filled with conflicting sensations and memories of past decisions, especially scenes in which we see the doll she has stolen from Nina’s daughter, and we wanted to make her beautiful apartment feel obscure and scary during the night, to create an uncomfortable feeling. So we lit and shot those scenes almost like a film noir.”
“Shooting on Alexa Mini with Cooke S4s is such a nice option, as it gives wonderful skin tones”
To shoot the previously mentioned beach scenes, Louvart relied on natural light, using butterfly grids to decrease the level of sunlight hitting the sand and the actors, and she maintained this approach on almost all day exteriors.
“We shot at the end of September and throughout October 2020, for exactly 28 shooting days, which is very good in Greece because the sun is not as harsh as it is in the summer, and there are also fewer tourists.”
Because the whole film was shot on Spetses, including young Leda’s apartment and the London hotel where she meets her future lover, the cinematographer was grateful for the Greek crew pre-lighting all scenes. “They went to each location one day ahead of us. It was crucial for maintaining the flow of the shoot.”
It certainly helped in shooting one of the most important scenes that takes place in a cinema where Leda is disturbed by a group of foul-mouthed boys.
“We used a few Astera tubes to put some green and red in a bar behind Leda, and had SkyPanels with different colours on the stage and on the balconies,” explains Louvart. “By increasing and decreasing their brightness we could thus simulate the effect of the cinema screening illuminating Leda’s face.
“It’s probably my favourite moment because it epitomises what the film is visually. Suddenly Leda loses control, stands up and shouts at the boys. I had to be focussed on the actress, to be in the moment and to react instantly to what was happening. Maggie was close to me and when Olivia stood up and acted her part, it was electrifying to both of us.”
As it turned out, the DI also proved somewhat challenging to Louvart and Gyllenhaal.
“Maggie couldn’t join me in Paris and I couldn’t join her in New York because borders were closed,” Louvart relates. “Fortunately, my colourist in Paris, Isabelle Julien, set up a remote connection with Goldcrest in NY in such a way that Maggie could watch the grading session live, without delay. An iPad served as a phone and we shared our feelings and thoughts throughout the process. It was unusual, but we didn’t have a choice. However it worked perfectly, and the final film works perfectly, too.”