Bruno Delbonnel, ASC, AFC, gives voice to the Coen brothers’ chilly new folk saga, Inside Llewyn Davis

“When Joel sent me the script [for Inside Llewyn Davis] and said he and Ethan wanted a ‘slushy, New York look,’” Paris-based cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, ASC, AFC, recounts over lunch on a recent Hollywood visit, “I immediately thought of the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, because I’m a huge fan. When we talked again on the phone, they said, ‘Yes, that is exactly what we were thinking as the visual inspiration.’”

Bob Dylan’s second album, which contains “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” is a classic, and with Inside Llewyn Davis, Delbonnel, a three-time Oscar nominee, has lifted his game to a new level – even though the location-heavy live-performance movie would be a different kind of challenge.

“As a DP,” Delbonnel muses, “I’m known for lighting up big, empty, black spaces” on critically acclaimed stage-bound projects like Amélie, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and most recently, Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows. But the project was also a departure for the industry’s most admired siblings, who have worked with only three other cinematographers in their 30-year career: Barry Sonnenfeld, ASC, Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC, and the last 11 films with Roger Deakins, ASC.

“I thought the script was like a folk song, and then I asked myself, what is an American folk song?” Delbonnel continues about approaching Inside Llewyn Davis, which traces the downward trajectory of a struggling New York City singer/songwriter (beautifully played by Oscar Isaac) circa 1961. “An American folk song is usually sad and depressing with very little hope,” he smiles mischievously. “So my challenge was how to define this sadness visually within this wet and slushy world the Coens wanted. To me sadness means no sunlight – no strong beams of light entering the apartments or clubs. My approach was always to have the light falling off into darkness.”

Fans of the Coens (see Exposure, page 32) know the dark (and often hilarious) corners of human misbehavior drive their offbeat narratives. Critics ping them for stories and characters that feel hermetically sealed in a literary imagination. But the musical players of Inside Llewyn Davis are recognizable and fingertip-close. That’s due in no small part to the naturalistic lighting by Delbonnel, and the period-perfect art direction by production designer Jess Gonchor, who says it was the closest he’s ever worked with a cinematographer.

“The art direction and photography have to be in step or the movie isn’t going to work,” Gonchor explains of the collaboration. “The Gaslight, a subterranean club in the Village, where there are many live performance scenes, is a great example. Once I designed the set [inside a warehouse in Queens], Bruno and I studied the best way to go about it. There are no windows, so the light all had to be motivated by practical and stage lights.”

Delbonnel lit the stage with not much more than a large soft box, par cans and a couple of follow spots, noting that he “needed fill light on the performers’ faces,” and used 2,000 tiny (15-watt) bare bulbs “like a string of Christmas lights.” Gonchor created a “period-correct, old-fashioned” lighting system that would hang over the stage (in frame).

“Bruno and I walked that set every day, figuring out where each practical could be placed, with him taking pictures to reference camera angles. It began as just a concrete shell and became my favorite set in the movie, because the lighting and design perfectly match what the brothers wanted: a cold, thinly populated folk club, where the local hacks of the day could all get up from the audience to perform, and then sit back down.”

Delbonnel and Gonchor were in similar lockstep for the Greenwich Village “crash pad” of the folk singing couple Jim and Jean (luminously played by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan, respectively). The downtown apartment had specific requirements that included a fire escape and large window (from which the cat Davis is taking care of runs away), and a courtyard where he then gives chase to the cat.

Compared to another Coen brothers film depicting the same time period, A Serious Man, Gonchor observes: “Even though that was also the early 60s, it was Jewish upper-middle-class characters in the suburban Midwest, and a rich, colorful summertime look. Inside Llewyn Davis is cold, pre-war apartment buildings and musicians who can’t afford to paint the walls. They’re finding furniture on the street and improvising the look and feel of their lives, and the period design reflects that.”

Lighting the small, cramped location paralleled the quest of Inside Llewyn Davis’ characters. “Photographers and art directors have a similar goal in that the more depth you have in the frame, the more visually pleasing it becomes,” Gonchor continues. “The couch Llewyn sleeps on is pushed up against the wall and the window – the only place Bruno had to motivate light. Our discussions were: how I can help him control light? Is the window solid? Can I use sheers or treatments so we don’t see neutral density or diffusion outside? We ended up replacing the glass with something that was period correct, and Bruno did a magnificent job lighting under very difficult circumstances.”

“The interior lighting for this film was very simple, and themed around large single sources coming in through windows,” Delbonnel adds, “which was fine as long as I could use the depth of the set and let things fall off to black. Jim and Jean’s apartment was a bit tricky because it was so small, with just the one window [the only source for light], and I couldn’t hide anything. The light is flat and soft, and changing out the glass [the Coens said the window seal was not period] for something handmade allowed for some variation and distortion in the single light source.”

Lighting that underscores, as well as propels, the narrative also shines through in the movie’s emotional peak, at least from the standpoint of the main character’s personal odyssey toward some kind of stuttered redemption. After watching Llewyn Davis stagger from one setback to another – impregnating his friend’s wife (Jean), losing the cat belonging to his uptown friends, Mitch and Lillian Gorfein, in whose couch and red wine he soaks, and embarking on a disastrous road trip with a jazz musician/heroin addict (played by a blowsy John Goodman) and his sullen driver (Garrett Hedlund) – Davis finds himself at the “Gate of Horn,” a Chicago nightclub that’s his last shot at success.

He meets with the club’s owner, Bud Grossman (a hard-nosed F. Murray Abraham), hours before the empty space comes to life. The two men sit facing each other in chairs on the floor, as a large sunbeam flows through an open doorway, the only real light in the room. Deep shadows throughout emphasize their coarse roles – Oscar the desperate supplicant and Bud the powerful benefactor.

“Neither Jess nor I was keen about shooting [at the NYC’s Gramercy Theater] because it was just a big black hole,” Delbonnel laughs. “Jess built fixtures for the walls to create some depth, which, of course, meant we needed some light scattered about the room. The theater was very old and required $30,000 to create a safe overhead rigging system, which the Coens did not have in their budget.”

Not unlike Llewyn’s audition, Delbonnel had to defendv the added expense to the brothers. “They said, ‘Bruno, can you explain your plan to help us justify this money we really don’t have?’” he adds with a smile. “I said it’s the only time in the movie that there is a strong beam of light, and that represents some kind of hope. I have the two 20Ks outside, but I need to create some depth on the walls. Your storyboards show 360 degrees with only one day, so an overhead rig inside is the most realistic plan.”

According to Delbonnel, the Coens’ response was: “Okay, we understand, but we still don’t have the money! What about giving you a dead spot in the room [instead of 360 degrees] where you can light from?”

“They gave me a corner and saved the $30,000,” the DP adds. “The scene is a turning point and had to be emotional and moody but not obvious, like his standing on stage with a spotlight. This beam from outside shoots across Oscar’s knees and guitar; he’s still in the shade, but there’s hope the light may brighten up his life. I gave Murray Abraham this touch of rim light, like some unmoving God just staring him down.”

Gonchor says his production design embraced the real location, despite its obvious challenges. “We’ve all seen places like this at that time of day. A door’s propped open for cleaning, and the chairs are stacked on the tables. It had to look more upscale than the Gaslight, because it represented the big-time to Oscar.

“I needed to strip-clean the walls of all the visual noise – exit signs, et cetera – to bring it back to what it would be in 1961, which is a fairly simple room,” he adds. “To help with this massive hard source coming in through the door, we had to paint the floors dark. Everything in this movie [regarding the lighting] was a choice [practical versus offscreen], so the collaboration with Bruno was absolutely key to the film.”

Not every moment hits the deep visual bass notes as those at the “Gate of Horn.” In the scene in which Davis stops with Goodman and Hedlund at a highway diner in the middle of the night, Delbonnel had suggested to the Coens that they break the darkness by referencing a classic Kubrick frame – low, wide and overflowing with bright, flat light.

“We shot at a cafeteria at Pace University in Westchester County [NY], which was built in the sixties and was basically this box on stilts in the woods, with glass on all four sides,” Gonchor laughs. “Bruno hung a giant black curtain to partition the space, with one side open that was glass [where period exteriors would be added in CGI]. We did a lot of reverse angles and cheats to make it look bigger. The thousands of globe fixtures in the frame stretched the room out from a period standpoint, but they didn’t light the scene.”

The light actually came from a large Kino Flo and silk fluorescent system Delbonnel installed above the globes, which then had to be art-directed to negate being reflected in the window. “It was such an unexpected and interesting scene,” Gonchor says. “Rest stops built over highways were popular in the Midwest at the time, so this was a great partnership [of camera and art] to create that feeling in a completely different space.”

The rain-soaked alley outside the Gaslight is another striking location, and it bookends the film. A psychically beaten-down Davis heckles a performer inside, and then gets a true ass-whooping from the woman’s husband. (The couple is visiting from Arkansas.)

“I was ready to light [actor Stephen Payne],” Delbonnel recalls, “and then I heard this incredible voice and suggested we keep him in silhouette the whole time. [His face appears for roughly 12 frames in the finished version.] The Coens said, ‘Yeah, go for it.’ We had enough elements to light the whole alley, but I decided to just light the wall [against which the actor leans, smoking]. The reflections on the wet ground help, but there’s not even any backlight on [Payne] at all. It’s menacing and unpredictable.”

Those two words, menacing and unpredictable, are at the opposite end of the spectrum of Delbonnel’s workflow with the brothers. He says he cannot recall a more creatively nourishing experience. “They storyboarded everything and then would just ask me how long it would take to light each scene, without ever asking for changes,” the DP marvels.

“The trust went so far that they went to L.A. to sound-mix and left me alone for 10 days to grade the movie. I said, ‘You’re not going to be in the DI?’ and they said, ‘No, it’s your light, you know what to do.’

“We watched the movie when they got back, and they had about one hour’s worth of notes [lightening the close-ups in the Gate of Horn scene], and that was it. I said, ‘Wow! Now, I understand why Roger [Deakins] loves to work with you guys so much.’”

During prep, the brothers gave Delbonnel a very simple shot-list, which he then pored over every morning for a week before offering suggestions – track versus pan, wide versus close, etc. They then created a storyboard that was religiously followed, which also surprised Delbonnel. “They see the movie in their heads, and do fourteen to fifteen set-ups per day, going back and forth with the schedule to avoid having to compromise anything. Within this careful structure they give you a lot of freedom.”

The brothers say Delbonnel and Deakins share the same devotion to “story first,” and were particularly impressed with Delbonnel’s facility in post. “Bruno loves to play around with the image in the computer,” Joel Coen observes. “He did color [de-saturation] tests and added this blooming [in the DI].”

“We actually considered shooting digital [all of their movies have been on film] because of the tests Roger did [with the Alexa on Skyfall]. But Bruno said it wasn’t right for this movie, and we completely agreed,” Ethan Coen adds. So they shot on film – 35 mm, 1.85.

The “playing around” the brothers describe included “destroying the image” from a color standpoint in the grade. [Inside Llewyn Davis was Delbonnel’s fifth movie with colorist Peter Doyle, now at Technicolor.]

“The movie has a lot of magenta and cyan, which you can’t really get from a lab process, or at least not as controlled,” Delbonnel states. “The blooming and diffusion we added gave the feel of uncoated lenses. But I actually shot with the super sharp Cooke S4’s, with nothing over the lens at all. Uncoated lenses are uncontrollable – flares, et cetera – and I needed to control the light and clarity [during shooting] at all times.”

Delbonnel, who recently finished shooting his first film on digital, Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, says he will always choose to [capture] on film “when they let me,” using the strengths of digital technology in post, as much as the budget will allow.

“The crazy thing now is that digital cameras see more than my own eyes do,” he concludes, “and that’s disruptive because [cinematographers] must rely heavily on technology  – the calibration of a monitor, a vectorscope, et cetera – to light a story, rather than experience and intuition.”

CREW LIST > Inside Llewyn Davis

Director of Photography: Bruno Delbonnel, ASC, AFC
Assistants: Bobby Mancuso, Scott Tinsley
Loader: Nicole Cosgrove
Steadicam Operator: Maceo Bishop
Still Photographer: Alison Rosa
Publicicst: Larry Kaplan

By David Geffner / Photos by Alison Rosa