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Luc Montpellier CSC • Women Talking

Jan 5, 2024

(Published in Cinematography World – Issue 014 March 2023)


By Darek Kuźma

DP Luc Montpellier CSC’s elegant and evocative cinematography helped to take the emotional and verbal brilliance of Sarah Polley’s Women Talking to the next level.

Whilst Polley and Montpellier’s previous feature films – Away from Her (2006) and Take This Waltz (2011) – asked substantial questions about the fallibility of human relationships and the myriad ways we forge our identities based on the strength or instability of our bonds with our partners, they were nowhere near as emotionally-complex as those in Women Talking.

(left) Cinematographer Luc Montpellier on the set of Sarah Polley’s film
An Orion Pictures Release
Photo credit: Michael Gibson
© 2022 Orion Releasing LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The story takes place in 2010 in an isolated Mennonite colony, where the women realise that the terror they have been facing for years – waking up with legs bruised and sheets stained with blood – is not the work of demons, but several men who have been drugging and raping them and their daughters. As the monsters are finally caught, the community’s female representatives gather in a hayloft to discuss if they should stay and forgive, or leave and thus resign from the kingdom of heaven.

“Sarah is an artist and activist who tackles subjects that are trying to change the way we think, and she does it in a very honest way, showing the good and the bad. I’d do any film with her,” says Montpellier.

His chief task was to bring a cinematic experience to Polley’s dialogue-heavy screenplay, based on Miriam Toews’s 2018 novel of the same name, inspired by analogous events in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia. You see, the Oscar-nominated film really is about women talking (with one trusted man present in the loft to take minutes, because they have never been taught to read or write). Because the colony’s men have gone into town to bail out the assailants, the women have two days to arrive at a decision: stay in the name of their faith and imperil everything they ever loved, or go against everything they ever believed in and – having never seen the outside world – travel into the unknown. 

One of the most vital decisions was to infuse the story with a heavily-desaturated colour palette that Montpellier equates to that of a faded postcard.

“Sarah wanted the images to feel epic and gothic, to stylistically mirror the repressive world the characters live in and bring the audience closer to the women’s dilemma,” he explains.

“We initially toyed with the idea of shooting B&W but we felt this might give the film a period look that would make people emotionally disconnect. Yes, the colony is frozen in time, they don’t use technology, but it exists in modern world. This kind of patriarchy and ideas of the roles of men and women still exist.

“I had to be in a position to remain in magic hour for days”

“During tests we found that when you suck all the colour away, it can be disheartening, but it also makes you truly look and listen to what’s important. The film is uncomfortable to spur the discussion.”

The colour palette was established early in prep so that every other department – from costumes to production design – would take it into account. Montpellier collaborated with his long-term colourist Mark Kueper at Toronto’s Picture Shop on the appropriate LUT. 

“We made it based on our instinct and feelings, just like with every visual element in this film,” he notes.

Working their way into understanding everyday life in the Mennonite colony, they often referenced the work of Canadian photographer Larry Towell.

“He got unprecedented access to Mennonite colonies and his B&A and colour images were a big touchstone for us. His photography is full of emotion without really complicated framing.”

Despite the fact that the bulk of the film takes place in the hayloft, the camera has a tendency to wander off, peek outside and reveal the colony’s gorgeous open fields and vistas, while the filmmakers often give us glimpses of the children playing in the sun. This was purposefully designed not only to give the audience room to breathe but also to emphasise the beauty and serenity of this life that makes the decision to leave additionally painful.

“We didn’t want the film to feel like a stage play, and we spent lots of time dissecting every line, discussing every shot, camera move and change of axis,” says Montpellier. “I decided to shoot using the large format Panavision DXL2 camera with Red Monstro sensor. To support Sarah’s idea of an epic scope, I equipped it with Panavision UltraVista Anamorphic lenses. I was curious about filling the sensor with as much information as possible and de-squeeze it into a 70mm-like image to enhance the immersion, and to make you feel every pore in the skin, every blade of grass, every detail.” 

In addition to Ultravistas (35, 40, 50, 65, 75, 100, 150mm) he also shot with a modified 42-425mm Panavision Anamorphic Zoom.

Initially, Montpellier was adamant about shooting Women Talking in 2.40:1 aspect ratio but the camera and lenses package made him re-think this.

“De-squeezing the UltraVistas on the Red Monstro in tests gave images in 2.76:1 aspect ratio, with 91% of the sensor area used. The picture was still sharp, soft around the edges and had this beautiful quality that only Panavision legacy Anamorphic lenses have,” he reminisces. 

“Sarah and I, we both fell in love with the 2.76:1 and it worked really well with the concept of depicting the women as a collective. We could have six or seven close-ups in the same frame, giving amazing intimacy to the discussion inside, whilst also juxtaposing these images with the celebration of life that goes on outside. We didn’t want to be judgemental. In the novel, the characters barely leave the loft, but we wanted the viewers to experience their lives as closely as possible.”

Perhaps the most striking decision was to shoot most of the film in a studio.

“With this amount of dialogue, the film taking place over 48 hours, and our cast going to really dark places, I needed to have full control over the environment. In a way, I needed to freeze time as Sarah’s script was very precise that scenes, sometimes over ten pages long, were done at sunrise, sunset, dusk, etc. So I had to be in a position to remain in magic hour for days,” he reveals. 

“We built a full-scale, two-level replica of a barn we found during our location scouts. Based on that, production designer Peter Cosco designed the whole colony, different structures and roads, to be surrounded with 270-degrees bluescreen, so that we could give the audience a sense of the place. This isn’t a big VFX film, but it needed a lot of keying, so I consider it to be my victory that no one notices that.”

Principal photography took place from July to September 2021, with the studio work being done in a former convention centre in Toronto, which had closed down because of Covid.

“It was not a proper soundstage, but it had a 60-foot ceiling. This was helpful as we needed to elevate the set so as to be able to drift our camera outside of the window in order to remind the audience what the women are fighting for. We had a 3D model in which I could test lenses and measure distances, and we ended-up with bluescreen almost 30-feet below the frame line,” he notes.

The original plan was to start their 39-shooting days with location work and then move to the studio, but the weather proved capricious.

“Shooting 2.76:1 worked really well with the concept of depicting the women as a collective”

“I had been given all of the background plates to know exactly what should be happening with the light outside of the hayloft, but because of the rain we had to go back and forth and I had to look in my crystal ball to match some things.”

To light the loft and the space outside Montpellier and his team used some of the most reliable sources around.

“We talked about LED walls but they were beyond our budget. My gaffer Scott Phillips and key grip Rick Emerson made a series of softboxes, each with four ARRI SkyPanel S60s, that surrounded the set together with 20K Fresnels on tracks. So, I could literally create any time of day I wanted at any time and control exactly where the sun was going to be for every scene. Because they were colour-shiftable LEDs, I was also able to angle everything to push more softlight through a barn door and raise or lower the sky. Peter Cosco also built hatches in the roof that could be opened-up, so that I could lower a Chimera overhead as another source, and I was able to move swiftly and do quick resets. It was seldom I had any lighting instruments on the floor.”

Another thing Montpellier had to keep in mind was emphasising the growing tension of the passing time.

“The women know that the men can return any minute, thus light needed to constantly shift throughout the film. Having such a little amount of colour in the image helped to move this idea forward, to show the coolness of the magic hour shifting into night shades whilst the decision has still not been made.” 

Apart from the occasional glimpse into what happens outside, the filmmakers also offer the audience a number of subtly interwoven flashbacks of the women waking-up in terror at dawn.

“We never wanted to show these horrible acts, but seeing the women’s reaction to them through an overhead shot has a lot more emotional impact. No optical tricks, just sheer visual honesty. The only thing I did was to shoot some of them with a 45-degree shutter to make it more visceral, often filled with melancholy.”

“The film is tough to watch but it makes us think about how we interact as human beings, how the patriarchy affects everyone, how even the innocent men are complicit in this atrocious thing.

“It was the hardest project I’ve ever worked on emotionally and physically. Each night, after wrapping-up on-set, Sarah and I had long discussions about the next day’s work. I was very appreciative of what we were doing, and I wasn’t the only one. You could feel the motivation in and around the set, people really wanted to work on Women Talking,” says Montpellier.

“A film director once told me that he likes to work with me because I have a bit of Fellini in me, meaning I’m a visual storyteller who brings something extra to the work I believe in. On this film, I felt we all had a bit of Fellini in us, creating something that will hopefully last and change some minds.”

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