NEW CINEMATOGRAPHERS

Jean-Yves Escoffier / New Cinematographers / 2004

The following originally appeared in the book New Cinematographers by Alex Ballinger (Laurence King Publishing, 2004). It was written by Jean Yves Escoffier, cinematographer for Gummo.

The year Kids was screened at Sundance, my agent was at the festival and while waiting late one night at a bus stop, got chatting to a young kid, who turned out to be Harmony Korine. As she thought that he had done such a good job writing the Kids screenplay, she suggested that he should write more. He answered, "No, I don't want to write anymore for anybody, I want to direct, but I have a problem. I only want to shoot with one person and I can't find him." And she said, "Who's that?" He replied, "Jean-Yves Escoffier." She said, "Well, you've found him, I'm his agent."

On the first day of production we were filming the mock shooting of Rabbit Boy (Jacob Sewell) by the two young kids. Thanks to the lightweight Aaton 35 mm, we were able to just go with the kids. Then for some reason my assistant didn't know how to load the camera's magazine and so we had to use the bulkier Arriflex 535, which starts to feel very heavy after shooting hand-held for ten minutes. Four hours into the film, we got a call from the studio saying, "What are you doing? You can't have kids swearing." We were already in trouble, but that's how these kids are, that's how they speak! And you never see these types in Hollywood movies, because US conservative, artistic politics forbids it.

Most of the trailer sequences were lit with practicals, Kini-Flos and with very little equipment and sometimes I might have a few HMIs outside through windows, if necessary. Often I would have practicals on during the middle of the day because it was quite dark inside the trailers and I loved the combination of colours, which gave me depth and felt honest and right. I found it helped to do very little with the lights and I used tungsten or daylight film. The combination of colours is already there, so you can take either film stock, you just have to deal with the proper filtration. Throughout Gummo, I used Kodak 5292 I believe, the equivalent of Kodak 500T 5279 of the time. I like it because it has one texture and it works for me with low levels of light.

Gummo's crew was small and consisted of myself, a camera assistant, two electricians, a grip, sound crew and production people and at times I was ashamed of some of their behaviour. I don't think that a crew member should dictate where a director should or should not shoot. If they don't want to, they are not obliged to work on a film. However, if you decide to work on a film about really poor white people in the US, you respect them. If you have to shoot in one of their houses and there is a bad smell and the place is infested with bugs, you respect them. You don't offend these people by showing up in atomic gear with a white hood, white gloves, mask and boots. When crew members consulted me about this, I said, "Stay where you are. I don't want you there. I won't allow you to go in that house, I will go myself." One day we were scouting a woman's house, she was in her mid- to late twenties with four kids. She had three phones, five or six TVs, all constantly playing, and her place was filthy. God knows why, but her kitchen she would save every uneaten piece of fried bacon and tape it to the kitchen and bathroom walls, so we used that feature in the bathroom of Solomon (Jacob Reynolds), we didn't invent it.

Gummo's screenplay was a montage of over 200 different episodes, one card per scene, which Harmony would then stick onto the wall and combine them together, also allowing for improvisation. The opening scene of Tummler (Nick Sutton) and Solomon cycling down the hill was shot from a camera car and just happened. Who knows how to get scenes like this? If you have enough stubbornness and honesty, you have a chance, sometimes, to grab a little piece of this and that's the only thing that motivates me personally, it's beyond technique, it's beyond anything. There is something that is related to a certain kind of spirit in this craft. It's either there or not in some projects, you either help or you fight it.

We shot the two shaven-headed brothers doing weight lifting exercises and the only direction Harmony gave them was, "Okay, now after all of that, I just need a moment with the two of you in the kitchen, you just have to do nothing." I had ten minutes of film, we had no idea what would happen and I was so scared, we took everybody out, except the boom guy. I started shooting - one minute - two minutes, it's very difficult for people to do nothing, so one of them goes, "Oh, I like your shoes, what's up with your shoes?" and his brother replies, "Nothing, I just bought them," "Yeah you did right, why don't you give them to me?" "No, I don't give you my shoes." Poum! "Why don't you give me your shoes?" "Don't hit me!" Poum! Poum! Poum! My initial fears were that someone would stop or they would hurt themselves. The fight was real, they were strong, and they bled. After so much pain, they stopped and they came back to the scene, the conversation returned to normal, "So, so, you don't give me your shoes? "No," "So what are we eating tonight?" in this kind of situation, cinematography is about doing nothing, to establish the feeling that something might happen, to be ready for it and organise everything around you, so nobody can mess things up, because on a normal shoot, people will jump. So why did I ask everybody to go out? I don't know myself. There was another sequence which is one of my most amazing cinematographic memories, but it didn't make the final cut. The shot was very similar, these same two guys, after pumping iron, do nothing, looking down for quite some time and they look at the lights for a long period, then spit on the lens and look down. The time they took before raising their eyes way scary, the look more scary, the spit made them like ghosts and little by little, gravity worked on the saliva, made their images sharper and sharper as they were still staring at the lens and then they looked down.

The arm- and chair-wrestling scene was scripted. However, we did not know who would be allowed in the room. These guys were not permitted to be drunk on set, but they drink and are high all the time. I don't know what happened, but they were not sober when they came in the room and there was a bad atmosphere. One woman had AIDS and the other one hated her because she was terrified of her illness. Another man was just out of jail, who was so violent and mad, whereas the other ones were adorable. At the time I had no idea of this so I replaced the lights in the kitchen with domestic fixtures so that I could see them. I said to the crew, "I want nobody in the room, you are only allowed to put a boom on my camera, I don't even want anybody to focus, I want to be alone in that room." Because it was a kitchen, I wanted to be able to react through 360° and Harmony had a wireless tap, so he could see the action. After one set-up, where pieces of chair flew close by, I said, "Can we do another one?" And I set up a different camera position. Then we did one more take to give us plenty of cutting material. I like the pause in the scene where the characters don't know what's happening next, there is a tension and that's when you have to do nothing. The camera operator should never be afraid. The last thing to is cut, even if the pause outlasts the mag. It's amazing how much tension you can accumulate with no technical interuption.

Harmony had to fight so hard for his film and eventually it became apparent that the studio was working with the Writing Commission behind his back, because they hated the film. The first time he was to the Commission, they asked him to make changes, he made all of them. They then asked for more changes and he said, "But what? I did everything you wanted." "Well," they said, "That's not enough." The next time, he said, "But I did twice everything you wanted," and they said, "Yet the combination of what you did is so nihilistic." He said, "I have no frontal nudity, I have no violence and I removed everything you wanted, this is censorship, so now I sue you!" He called one of the executives and left a message on his answering machine saying, "You are fighting against my movie behind my back, if I don't my rating next time, I will slash your throat, and I mean it!" They took the tape to their lawyers and the next time he had his rating. I think the American people should be ashamed of their negative response to Gummo. Many criticisms can be levelled at Harmony Korine such as he's a troublemaker, but from what I know, today, he's a true artist, which is a rarity. I thought Gummo, in its own way, was a part of an American film miracle and he was condemned for it.