HomeMoviesAlejandro Iñárritu and Darius Khondji on “Bardo” cinematography
Alejandro Iñárritu and Darius Khondji on “Bardo” cinematography
February 24, 2023
Director Alejandro Iñárritu and cinematographer Darius Khondji tell IndieWire how they found an immersive cinematic language for Bardo.
How do you create a cinematic language for the unconscious? This was the challenge for director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Darius Khondji in the film Bardo, which emerged from Iñárritu’s dreams, memories and fantasies. “There is no story, no structure, no plot,” Iñárritu told IndieWire. “You only have a mental landscape of a character.” When he first worked with Khondji, when his regular collaborator Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki was booked on another project, Iñárritu discovered that he had the ideal partner to turn his most personal experiences into images. “It was an incredible privilege to find another brother at the end of my life.”
Khondji and Iñárritu’s initial conversations were less about filmmaking than about the essence of what filmmaking was meant to convey. “From the beginning, he wanted me to understand how personal the story was,” Khondji said. “He talked to me about the characters before he sent the script. After two conversations, I already understood the story and how he wanted to tell it with the camera. Then he sent me the script, and it was just amazing — maybe the greatest script I’ve ever read.”
The pivotal role played by Mexico in the script was especially exciting for Khondji, an Iranian-Frenchman who was recently nominated for an Oscar, as he was able to discover a new country alongside a filmmaker whose artistic identity was forged there. After Khondji agreed to shoot the film, he flew to Mexico and spent a long preparation period simply walking down the street with his director.
“Mexico was very exotic and new to me,” Khondji said. “The sensations of the city and the people were very exciting. Alejandro showed me around downtown Mexico City and we talked about things like shooting a scene at dusk that starts with daylight and then goes through a solar eclipse so the world is plunged into darkness. It was a more spiritual approach to preparation, although little by little we started to think about it in a more technical sense as well.”
As Iñárritu wanted the audience to be immersed in the experiences of his protagonist, the decision was made to shoot the film with wide-angle lenses on a large-format ALEXA 65, with the camera in constant motion. “We wanted Silvero to feel larger than life and we wanted to feel close to him,” said Khondji. “But we also wanted angles where you could always be aware of the world around him: his friends and family, the people living in the desert, the city and its buildings.” Khondji felt that the ALEXA 65 made the presence of the actors feel larger than a 35mm or a camera with a traditional digital sensor, and this, combined with lenses around 17mm, gave the desired effect.
Read more: How ‘Bardo’ captures the state of mind through sound
He also presented Khondji with great challenges regarding his lighting. “Technically it was crazy,” Iñárritu said. “You see everything and the camera moves 360 degrees, so how do you hide the lights so they don’t look harsh, but elegant and natural?” The film’s pivotal scene, set in Mexico City’s famed California Dancing Club, is a good example of this, as the camera pans around Silvero in a long, unbroken shot with a seemingly infinite depth of field. “It was very challenging,” Khondji said. “I kept thinking, there’s nowhere to hide the lights. The wide angle always sees everything.”
Read more: Alejandro González Iñárritu on what ‘Bardo’ has in common with David Bowie, Pink Floyd and Genesis
Khondji’s solution was to rely entirely on practice—thousands of lights that, like the characters and camera, were in constant motion, precisely timed to the dance and music. “Everything was indicated by the moving lights,” he said, noting that the lights would fade or disappear as the camera moved a degree, according to Iñárritu’s design. “Alejandro planned and planned everything before the shoot, which made it better for us. It was a very well-prepared film.” From Iñárritu’s point of view, the coordination of lighting, camera movement and music was essential. “We tried to mimic the way life is in constant motion,” he said. “Through movement, music and light changes, we convey different feelings and transform emotions.”
While Khondji’s artistry is evident in set pieces like the California Dancing Club sequence or huge crowd scenes set in the desert, he’s no less impressive in the subtler, more modest-scale scenes set in houses and apartments—in some ways, these moments on a smaller scale. the spaces made it even more challenging to hide lights and equipment. Complicating matters further is Khondji’s awareness of the technical demands placed on the actors as much as the crew, and he insists it’s his job to apply that and create an environment that facilitates their best work.
“Even if we’re shooting an apartment on stage, I want the actor to feel the atmosphere of the light coming in from the outside, the outside light of Mexico,” said Khondji. “And it’s not just about what’s in the frame. The world outside the frame is very important. It’s good if there are no flags or equipment in the actor’s view because I want them to feel the scene.” Khondji’s philosophy is that if the actors feel the truth of the scene and he captures it with his camera, the audience will too. “The world of cinema is not only technical. It’s about feeling the world around the actors, becoming it.” Khondji’s technical expertise and intuitive sense of capturing and conveying emotion left Iñárritu convinced that he had made the right choice. “Very few DPs can do what he did on this film,” said the director. “It takes a master like Darius Khondji.”