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Cinematographer Darius Khondji Leans Into Garish, Gritty ’80s Aesthetics For ‘Uncut Gems’

Matt Grobar

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On the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, cinematographer Darius Khondji found himself pulled into an ’80s sensibility—a world he was not initially inclined to embrace. A tense Diamond District thriller centered on overly ambitious jeweler Howard Ratner, the mobile, high-contrast film was inspired by postmodern architecture, the work of Robert Altman, and the gaudy taste of the young and wealthy in New York.

Shooting on “very, very long” zoom lenses, Khondji says that half of the choices made were “against my so-called principles of photography”—that is, against his natural inclination toward the “glamorous and exciting” visuals of the 1970s. Leaning into the creative energy of his collaborators however, the DP was surprised by how much he loved the final film. “This one is very special. It’s just so electric,” says the DP, known for his work on films including Evita, Funny Games and Se7en. “It’s the first movie that I can watch, many times, after I’ve photographed it.”

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DEADLINE: You first worked with the Safdie brothers on Marcy Me, a 2017 music video for Jay-Z. How did this collaboration come about?

DARIUS KHONDJI: I think I met them through my daughter. She’s a very good, close friend of them, and she helped them early on, financing a movie, a few movies ago. There was an A24 party or something like this, she introduced me to them, we talked a little bit, and then later on they asked me if I would photograph a music video with them, for Jay-Z. I said, “Yeah, great.”

Believe it or not, it was a low budget for the Jay-Z music video. It was part of a series of videos that was a low budget, very, very fast shoot, very quick, very crazy, very hectic, very run-and-gun. I had never shot anything like that. After that, they said, “We have a movie we want to do. Would you be interested in doing it?” and I said “Yeah, okay.”

We just get along really well, and they promised me it would never be as crazy as that [initial shoot], when we worked together again. I never complained or anything; they just felt they should say, “It was really crazy, thank you for doing this.” You know, they were very, very sweet, and very nice, and we immediately loved each other, working together. It was just a very tender, exciting and fun relationship. They’re just very lovable, and full of imagination. They’re full of energy, but the energy is very creative, [and] they are never stopped by anything. It’s like the flow of a river; it doesn’t stop, and it was just very exciting. And the movie was like that.

Shooting Uncut Gems was not as crazy as the music video, but some of the energy of it was there—and the way they work together, the way they complement [one another], everything was there. It was just very inspiring to work with them. I just love them, you know? It’s a different experience than any other I’ve experienced in my life, and I didn’t expect anything like that. It’s unlike any other film I’ve worked on, in terms of the experience of the film, and also the result of the film. It’s very interesting—I see the film almost as if I hadn’t shot it. I don’t remember having experienced that. Maybe Se7en was like that, an experience where I can watch the film and not have memories of it. The film is so firm, it’s so complete in its body, it’s like somebody else had done it. It went over us, you know what I mean? And I wonder if it’s not the same for [the Safdies], too.

DEADLINE: Tell us a bit about your early conversations with the Safdies, and how you arrived at the film’s visual style.

KHONDJI: All along, the Safdies were sending me references, and we started exchanging references of photographers. I like the photographers more from the ’70s. Their references were very interesting, but very different than what I imagined. Then, I started realizing that we were getting more into the late ’80s world, and it was very interesting for me because I’ve never touched this material, this texture of the ’80s, in any project before.

I lived through the ’80s, I was young through the ’80s, but I don’t [typically] like the look of ’80s movies. I didn’t like the look, the feeling of the ’80s. But they needed to be true to the story and who they are, and the story is really them, you know what I mean? It’s really their world, the people they have known and people they have been around. So, for the photography, for the mood of it, for the camera, for the energy, for the rhythm, they needed this world of imagery.

So, they really brought me, almost by force, into their world. Jokingly, they’d be talking a lot about postmodernism in architecture. They kept sending me emails [with] endless images of Michael Graves’ architecture, and I really found it profoundly ugly. But then, before we shot, I finally got it. In the middle of a very good preparation together, I started getting that it was not going to be pretty, in any sense of the [word].

It’s gritty, but in the ’80s sense of it—gritty, with a lot of light and contrast. I started being a cinematographer in the ’80s, so they went back to this period of time where we were after very strong, ink blacks, very long lenses, very contrast-y images, very harsh contours. They asked for this because they loved that period of time; they loved these movies. Of course, they loved the ’70s, the late ’70s; we looked at a lot of Robert Altman movies, we looked at The Long Goodbye. [With] the ’80s, this postmodernist architecture, [it was] this kind of bad taste, but they didn’t embrace bad taste thinking, “Oh, it’s bad taste. We’re going to do bad taste.” They really embraced it, and it became a nice thing.

[For my part], I embraced it, and I let them shoot. I gave them freedom; I didn’t want to stop them. They wanted to shoot film; I love film, so that was an easy win. They wanted to shoot 16[mm] at the beginning, [but then] we talked about 35, about the beauty of the image, the close-up in 35. Then, we started talking about anamorphics. They looked at anamorphic, we shot some tests, and they just fell madly in love with it, and the presence of the actors in anamorphic. Because that’s what’s really seduced really great directors with anamorphic, is the presence of the actor. It’s not the long format, or the scope, or the grandness. It’s the presence of the actors that’s incredible in anamorphic. It’s actually putting a magnifier on the actors, and they wanted to put a magnifier on this character [of Howard Ratner].

DEADLINE: Like the films of Robert Altman, Uncut Gems is incredibly dynamic, with constant camera movement and overlapping dialogue. Could you further explain your approach to camera movement on this film?

KHONDJI: We talked a lot about the zoom, and I’ve done films recently [with zooms]—my last five, six pictures—but very few, very timid, very shyly. We’d just zoom very gracefully, with good taste; we did some zoom to bring tension in the frame. But they really wanted to do the zoom that they used to do in the ’70s or ’80s. This film ended up a bit like the mid-’80s; after that, cinema was [shot] more [with] prime lenses. But from the end of the ’60s to the early ’80s, the zoom was used extensively.

So, they really wanted to use the zoom as a form of language, and use the zoom and the tracking shot, and the long lens together. They were very seduced by the idea of following shots, following the actor all the time, endlessly, with the long lens. It would need to squeeze in on an actor in motion, walking, and it became a language I loved. It was completely unlike anything I’ve done. I would never have thought I would photograph one day a movie like this. But it ended up being my favorite work, probably.

DEADLINE: Different kinds of reflective surfaces feature heavily in the film, to the extent that they become a kind of visual motif. What inspired the decision to shoot so frequently through glass?

KHONDJI: For us, the glass, the metal, the reflection, all this was like a prison. The city is like a prison. When you see a character that’s been composed through reflection and through glass, for us, it [suggested] different facets [in the] personality of this character. It was part of the language.

DEADLINE: How did you approach shooting the film’s black light party sequence? The images of LaKeith Stanfield in his glowing orange hoodie are pretty mesmerizing.

KHONDJI: The blue light came from Josh [Safdie]. We talked about it when we were prepping. I’d just barely filmed with black light, but then we did some tests, and when the stylist came with this incredible jacket, I found that this jacket was so [visually] strong, it was disturbing. Then, [the jacket became] like a light, and I used it to light [portions of] the club scene. We put him close to Howard all the time, to light him; my only light on Howard was actually the jacket. It used it on accident, but I thought it was an incredible thing in the party, this orange light.

DEADLINE: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced on Uncut Gems?

KHONDJI: There was a challenge every day; everything was a challenge. One of the challenges was shooting always with long lenses. It was really, really different. I am not used to shooting with long lenses; I shoot with wide-angle lenses. I love framing with more like a 40 mil or 35 or 50. Then, here, the normal lens for us was like a 75 anamorphic.

A lens that they loved using was the 350mm anamorphic. We used very big zooms, so the challenge was actually doing these long, solo tracking shots with long lenses, because it’s not something you do. You never do long tracking shots with long lenses. So, for us, it was a big challenge.

DEADLINE: What’s next for you?

KHONDJI: You know, I’ve only done one TV show before, with Nicolas Winding Refn, and I’m doing this TV show now with a director that I love, called Pablo Larraín. It’s for Apple, and it’s very exciting.

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