Even a casual perusal of the history of New York as featured on film would reveal how it’s provided grist for numerous filmmakers enamored by its larger-than-life qualities. For the A24 production On the Rocks, which recently debuted on Apple TV+, writer/director Sofia Coppola’s own appreciation for that locale comes through in nearly every frame.
With a directorial career now entering its third decade, Coppola has often drawn on her impressive pool of past talented collaborators. On the Rocks features her reteaming with production designer Anne Ross, editor Sarah Flack and director of photography Philippe Le Sourd, all veterans of her 2017 Focus Features remake of The Beguiled. Le Sourd’s feature cinematography credits begin with Melody for a Hustler and include A Good Year, Seven Pounds, and his Oscar-nominated work on The Grandmaster. The cinematographer, who also functions as A-camera operator, spoke with us about his work on Coppola’s latest project, and how the enormous range of lighting conditions in New York provided the perfect opportunity to capture its essence.
Musicbed: After collaborating with Sofia Coppola on La Traviata and The Beguiled, what were your thoughts about On the Rocks when you first became involved?
Philippe Le Sourd: Clearly, the material reflected Sofia’s memories of her father Francis and of living in New York. Sofia wanted to shoot in Soho and Tribeca, as well as the West Village. But she had never directed a movie with New York as the setting. She wanted to present the city in a fresh yet elegant way.
And the decision to shoot on film?
After reading the script, I received an email from Sofia. She thought it needed to be shot on film and had already convinced the producer, so that was settled early on. With so many night scenes, I did perform some tests using the Sony Venice [digital] camera, but we stayed with film throughout, shooting on Arricam [LT] in 1.85 with the Panavision [ultra speed] MK II lenses.
How much of the interiors were shot on location vs. stage work?
You aren’t allowed to shoot for more than three days at any one location in New York. So even if you find a fantastic location and want to shoot there for a week, the mayor won’t allow it. So we used a couple of different locations for the main apartment. Also, certain tax advantages are to be had if you include ten shooting days on a New York stage. So some elements, like the bathroom and elevator, were done as sets.
On night interiors, can issues of rigging and reflections compromise views showing the city outside the windows?
When you scout a location properly, a solution usually presents itself. To maintain the continuity of light, and if you want to control the contrast of a scene, you have to figure out with electricians what lights to use and what time of day would work best to shoot. We play with those reflections and balance their value against the light levels outside. But you must remain open to what you see with your own eyes; sometimes a location surprises you.
You mentioned testing the Venice – which can pretty much see in the dark – for night scenes. How much did you have to compensate when shooting film in such low-light conditions?
My tests showed me how the quality of light in New York has changed from what it was ten years ago, with the switch [from sodium vapor] to LED. It makes things much brighter. During prep, I tried pushing, pulling and flashing the film. I found my best results came from pulling 5219 [Kodak Vision 500T], and rating it at 250 instead of 500.
We found more detail in the shadow and found the beauty of eye light played much differently, retaining more softness. Pulling also revealed to us shades of gray all along the dark streets. When walking through New York, you have this enormous range of lighting conditions, ranging from the brightness of Time Square to the deep darkness when looking down a long alley. So in the driving scenes, you’d see these differences when turning at every corner. Pushing would have given me more contrast, and the highlights would have been too strong for this film comedy.
To maintain a proper sense of nostalgia for the city meant keeping the visuals to the right emotional tone. That is what I sought throughout, along with letting the actors and what they brought to the scene influence me.
When Jones’ character and her father observe her husband leaving a night club with a female co-worker, the reveal is shot and staged very naturally.
Sofia is very good about matters of that kind, not wanting anything too pointed. So it becomes a matter of how best to capture the event rather than using tricks for effect, which could make things feel too staged. The choice of lenses throughout also reflects a sense of honesty. Most of the time I used 40mm; I think 75mm was maximum. Sofia likes to keep a natural distance between the camera and the actor. That lets her keep a feel of being inside the scene rather than outside it, and avoiding any perspective that distances or distracts. Also, I wanted to feel the city throughout. I tried to be very subtle with placing my lights to illuminate the actors. So in that way it didn’t seem like these were actors in a movie that just happened to be in New York. This was a New York movie that these characters were living in.
That comes across during the pursuit, which is a little more character-driven and less action-y than most car chases.
We had just one night – from 9pm to 4am – and only a couple of city blocks available to us. I used a Biscuit rig and three cameras to shoot the chase. That let us capture a real sense of energy when Bill goes roaring off in pursuit, something that wouldn’t have registered the same with a process trailer.
How did you participate during post?
I was shooting in Paris while film got finished back in New York. We decided early to do a 4K DI, since scanning at that level would let us create just the right touches for the final look.
Do you view the DI as a continuation of your efforts on-set, or more as the opportunity to do further experimentation?
It’s largely just a matter of tweaking what I shot. And the level of tweaking is something you can anticipate and plan for as early as prep. For example: the color of the light changes during the day. So, rather than try to control that shift – you can accept it and continue, knowing that a correction can be made in DI. And having that tool helps in other ways sometimes, like when you have a sky change from sunny to cloudy or rainy. I rely on DI and my colorist to be able to mask that.
Regardless of format, the challenges of capturing a city through natural light, and the skill to emulate and embellish that look as needed, remain as much an artistic challenge as a technical one.
Le Sourd concluded by citing the importance of realizing the uniqueness of each locale. “Century 2, and Raoul’s, and all these other memorable New York nightspots presented me with visual opportunities and a sense of life that could never be duplicated on stage without tremendous expense. So it falls to us to capture, but without imposing ourselves.”
Read more about Sofia Coppola’s creative process, and how she lets music define her films.