What gives Darius Khondji the ability to move fluidly between genres and collaborate with directors as distinctive as Woody Allen, David Fincher, Michael Haneke, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and now Bong Joon-Ho? If you ask him, it's one quality: the ability to listen. Delicatessen required Khondji to create a gritty, absurdist world; Midnight in Paris boasted a fantastical world, ever-expanding according to the outer limits of the imagination; and the stark visuals of Amour outlined a world collapsing in on itself in the final days of life. To create these varied aesthetics, Khondji listened to his directors describe scenes in their films. Embedded within these descriptions were the hidden keys to the film's cinematography, dictating everything from lighting setups to camera movement.
Khondji's newest film is Bong's Okja, a Netflix original that premieres on the streaming platform today. It spans the remote wilderness of South Korea, evoking Hayao Miyazaki, and then travels to the cold urbanism of Seoul and, finally, New York City. Okja, about a little girl trying to save her genetically-modified pet pig from becoming dinner, sees Khondji perform some dexterous visual feats, such as a car chase that ends in a crowded underground mall. Though Khondji is a diehard film enthusiast—prior to Okja, he'd shot only one feature film digitally—Netflix asked that Khondji relinquish the celluloid. So the cinematographer picked up the only digital camera he will touch: the Alexa 65.
No Film School spoke with Khondji prior to Okja's Netflix release to discuss the merits of that camera, what to look for in a location scout, the importance of developing a strong visual concept, and more.
No Film School: Okja surprised me! I loved it. It had so much soul and heart.
Darius Khondji: It's a fun movie, right, to watch? Yeah, a lot of heart. Exactly. That's why I really loved this project. When Bong Joon-Ho asked me to shoot the film and then later sent me the script, I was very moved by the story, just like you. It had all this heart, this feeling of real love and friendship. And it's actually a very modern story.
NFS: When you first met with Bong, what were some of the things you discussed?
Khondji: We talked about Manga. You know, I'm really not a Manga reader, but I liked that Bong referenced it. We talked about the characters, the story, and what was important in the film—the presence and the nature around the main character, Mija. Then, we wanted a strong contrast with the city scenes. He wanted to feel, visually, the moment they go in the city with all this coldness and aggressiveness.
At Cannes, were you at the press screening in the morning for Okja?
NFS: Yes, I was the first screening, where there was a technical glitch.
Khondji: When heard about that, I was so devastated because I had been testing [the DCP] in the screening room the night before until 2 AM. Everything was perfect. And then, in the morning, I hear about the technical problems. It played for two minutes and they stopped and they started again, right?
NFS: Yes, but I actually enjoyed watching the beginning twice.
Khondji: That's exactly what Bong said. He's always thinking about things positively. It's really a model for me for creative behavior, on set and in preparation and even during the promotion afterward. It's very rare to meet a model of a person like Bong.
NFS: You had originally wanted to shoot on film. Why didn't you, ultimately?
Khondji: The only thing Netflix told us is that we should shoot on digital. It was really important to them because of the 4K streaming. Otherwise, Netflix gave us absolute freedom. They've always been very supportive creatively.
Bong had never shot digital, and had I shot very little. I just shot [Michael Haneke's] Amour on digital and had one other experience. I shot an art installation called The Crowd in New York for Philippe Parreno. We used one of the very early Alexa 65 cameras when they came out—there were only five in the world, you know. It was just after the prototype stage and we shot with it and I really loved it. It was one of the first films to be shot entirely with the camera. It's a fantastic camera.
"Other than telling us we should shoot on digital, Netflix gave us absolute freedom."
NFS: What was it about the quality of the Alexa's imagery?
Khondji: It's still different than film. It's not like film, but I take a really special pleasure in shooting with it, mainly because of the format. With 6K and big pixels, it's not compressed at all. It's very nice and sharp. It's got a smoothness at the center. It has a very nice touch in the skin tones. It's a new step into a better world of making quality images. When you shoot in the dark, you just push the sensor and it still beautiful. It doesn't have any of the low-light harshness of other cameras. It's not jumpy—you know, that jumpy effect on the image. Shooting on the Alexa 65, I treat it almost like film. I expose it like film.
Film is still different, though. Film is the most beautiful. In the near future, I would love to shoot film more. If I do shoot digital, I would shoot Alexa 65 and not touch any other camera. Unless, of course, you need a very small camera for a project that you cannot film with a regular camera.
NFS: There is nothing like film, at least for now.
Khondji: Yeah, exactly. I like that you're a film lover.
NFS: A while ago, you published some excellent tips for cinematographers shooting on a low budget. One of them had to do with making the most of a location. When you scout a location, what are you looking for?
Khondji: When you do a practical location, you look mainly at where the energy is coming from according to the scene. You should imagine you're the actor. Where is the point of energy? Of course, energy means light energy. If there is daylight, it can be windows, or it can be a mix of artificial light and daylight. I love mixing artificial light and daylight.
Khondji: So you ask: where is the main energy of the visual of the lighting in the scene? It's very good to have a strong concept, or a strong idea of the lighting. For example, imagine a room can light another room. Characters are in a room and the room is actually in the dark. It is lit by another room, or just a very same daylight. It's the end of the day and it's a purple, cool light. There is one practical. You just imagine things like this according to the story you been told by the director or what you read in the script.
In Okja, there is a scene where Mija is driving in a car to the hotel and the company is trying to dress her in this ridiculous outfit for promotion. On one side of the hotel room, I lit it with cooler blue lighting from outside.
Light is sometimes like sound—it can come from the window, from back alley outside, and in the distance, you can hear a parade. I love when you hear sound in the distance. It's the same thing with light.
In this scene, daylight was coming at Mija, lighting her almost from a designated ray of light coming through the window. It's at the same time sad and the same time beautiful. Mija comes in and suddenly she sees Paul Dano's character behind the curtain. So this scene, for instance, when we did the location scout, I saw the window. Bong told me, "I would love this room to be in a more subdued light. Darker. So we don't see very well that there is a part of a shadow in the room, and the character comes out of the shadow." So I lit it with daylight and one practical.
NFS: What are the most important things to decide with the director when you're lighting?
Khondji: The characters. The vibe of the scene. When I talk to the director, I usually can understand the mood of the scene. If you listen very carefully to what words they are using, somewhere hidden in there is the key for the lighting and camerawork. This is even if the director doesn't know what he wants, exactly—which was not the case with Bong. Bong was incredibly well prepared. But some directors that don't work like that and decide everything on location. You should try to be very open and sensitive and not come too quickly with your ideas. Listen to what the director is saying when they describe the scene and you'll find the key to lighting it.