Originally published on Film4 / Medium.
Throughout her decades-spanning career (and counting), French cinematographer Hélène Louvart has worked on more than 50 features, including critical gems such as Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020), Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro (2018) and María Alche’s A Family Submerged (2018).
With the imminent release of her latest film Rocks, which was made with the support of Film4, we invited the cinematographer for a conversation on Zoom to discuss shooting one of this year’s most vital films…
Could you describe your path to becoming a cinematographer?
After I finished school I went straight to film school (National School Superieure Louis Lumière) because I was interested in working in film, even though my family background was totally different. I didn’t know in what capacity, but gradually I felt like the best choice for me was to be around the camera and the light. It’s a way to be close to the director and also involved in the storytelling. I started to work as a DoP on short films and documentaries all around the world and then step-by-step I made my way into feature films. Since the beginning I’ve always worked as a DoP, I was never an assistant. I just did it without thinking too much.
Given that Rocks was heavily improvised and devised with the collaboration of the actors, what did you know about the story when you came on board and what interested you in telling it?
It was a big challenge! The first time I met Sarah (Gavron, the director) she spoke about the story in terms of atmosphere, feeling, sensation, but she didn’t know exactly how she would shoot it. It was still up in the air.
She said that we had to be very, very flexible and to be able to change in an invisible way to give the girls freedom. We approached it scene by scene, and so I knew what Sarah was aiming for, but we were open to change or surprise or something happening in front of the camera that we had to adapt to. It was a challenge, but everyone was working towards the same goal.
And how did you prepare specifically for that challenge?
We wanted a precise and calm set and for the girls to feel natural, which meant everything was very prepared, all the equipment lists and where the lights had to be.
It’s interesting that you use the word calm, because the main characters are teenage girls, who can bring quite a chaotic energy to set, as well as perhaps being self-conscious, did that alter your approach at all?
Yes, in the classroom with all the girls there was a lot of energy and chatter but it was very important to Sarah not to disturb them or burden them with technical stuff. We tried to remain invisible. Of course they could see us and we weren’t trying to hide ourselves, but it was about letting them take up the space.
In more intimate moments Sarah decided to only have one camera, and make sure there weren’t too many people around, so the girls could be more focused. We had the camera directed straight at their eye-line which I think helped get their attention. We weren’t afraid to be totally in front of them. It was about striking a balance between letting them have fun, but when we had to be up close and frontal, we did it.
And what was shooting in London like? Were there any particular challenges? And how as a non-Londoner did you familiarise yourself with the space?
Many years ago I shot a documentary in London (Little India directed by Renuka George), so I knew the city, not very well, but almost. And working with an English crew wasn’t all that different. Everyone was very polite and serious. It wasn’t a big or messy set.
I’m interested in whether there were any similarities between your experience on Rocks and Never Rarely Sometimes Always, given they both deal with the struggles of a young woman and are told in very authentic ways?
For me they were total opposites. For Never Rarely Sometimes Always, the crew was smaller and we were very focused on the two (or three) characters and we followed the script in a very precise way, with Eliza Hittman (the director) with only one camera, in Super 16mm. For Rocks, there were many girls, there was a lot of energy, we let them do what they wanted and we were around with two or three cameras, two boom operators, to try and catch these moments.
Would you say you have an aesthetic that’s individual to you? and if so, how would your characterise it?
I try not to have a style. It’s very important to try and do something different with each project. Ultimately it’s the director’s film and each director is different and my job is to try and understand what the director wants. Everyone has their own conception of how to tell a story, how to try and see it, why we are moving or still or doing a tracking shot. Of course I give my opinion, but my job is to try and lead them where they want to go and not to have my own style, because then you can only have one point of view.
Given you’ve had an extensive career, what keeps you motivated and interested in cinematography?
First, the story and the meaning behind the story. And second, the director. All the projects I’ve worked on have been about those two things. When you start a film, you don’t know if it’s a good choice or not, or if it will be a good film or not. Nobody knows! Otherwise it would be too easy doing… Also, it matters to me that the director is sincere with WHY he (or she) wants to do this film.
And does that come down to trusting your instinct?
Yeah. I try to feel it. Some people might fake it, but I think you can feel, when reading the script, if there is something deep in there. It cannot just be another movie, it has to be something else.
I think Rocks falls into that category. Is there anything you’re particularly proud of having achieved with this film?
Definitely I think it’s the moment that Bukky Bakray’s character has a fight with her best friend (Kosar Ali). Bukky was initially quite shy to raise her voice. It’s not easy to start fighting! And with Sarah, we were very close to Bukky with the camera, so it was very intense. And Kosar went out of herself for the scene, and then we panned back to Bukky and then we followed Kosar in the corridor and then we had to be steady and invisible, for her not to see us and not to lose the moment… it was really emotional.
Hélène, thank you so much!
Uniquely crafted by a majority all-female creative team in collaboration with mostly first-time actors, Rocks was written by Theresa Ikoko (winner of the Alfred Fagon award in 2015 for her play Girls) and Claire Wilson (Little Drummer Girl, Gangs of London, The Power), and directed by Sarah Gavron (Suffragette, Brick Lane) and associate director Anu Henriques. Produced by Faye Ward (Wild Rose, Stan & Ollie) and Ameenah Ayub Allen (Ali & Ava, The Selfish Giant), with casting by Lucy Pardee and associate Jessica Straker. The lead cast features Bukky Bakray, Kosar Ali, Shaneigha-Monik Greyson, Ruby Stokes, Tawheda Begum, Anastasia Dymitrow, Afi Okaidja and D’angelou Osei Kissiedu.