The heat, concrete and mystery of 1940’s LA recreated in Barcelona with a stylish neon twist by cinematographer Xavi Gimenez, writes Adrian Pennington.
There have been numerous movie adaptations featuring Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled gumshoe Phillip Marlowe but none that use colour like a weapon.
That’s how director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) described the work of cinematographer Xavi Gimenez in helping make his new feature Marlowe stand out from the pack.
“Xavi and I, we’re not making something ‘real’ here,” Jordan elaborated. “We’re making something sort of hyper-real — so let’s use the intensity of the light, the colours and strips of neon that Xavi used very beautifully in the night scenes. It created a heightened version of a noir film. Here using colour almost felt like using a weapon.”
Behind The Scenes: Marlowe – Blade Runner references
Marlowe is an old school throwback to classic film noir such as The Big Sleep (1946) starring Humphrey Bogart while doffing its hat to 1974’s Chinatown (Danny Huston has a prominent role in Marlowe, recalling his father’s famous turn in Polanski’s movie) but it is Blade Runner, a sci-fi noir, which was Jordan’s principal stylistic reference.
This touchstone emanated from the production’s decision to shoot the entire movie in Barcelona, standing in for 1940s Los Angeles. It’s not the first Chandler movie to relocate. Michael Winner’s 1978 version of The Big Sleep swapped forties LA for 1970s London.
“If you go to LA there is nothing of that period left”, Jordan explained at the film’s premier in San Sebastian. “They destroy the past. We had to invent an imaginary city. That to me was the challenge of the film rather than trying to approximate a noir aesthetic.”
He continued: “To make it work you have to reinvent the idea of a noir movie. When I was speaking with Xavi and [production designer] John Beard the reference I chose was Blade Runner. Weird I know. Our Marlowe is set in the LA of the past not the future but in a strange way we are building a science fiction landscape to this movie.”
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Speaking to IBC365, Gimenez explained that the lighting scheme for Ridley Scott’s film was more “neurotic and electric” than he felt Marlowe needed. “I decided not to jump too far into this. Of course, Blade Runner was always floating around us as a reference but it was not the exact final concept.”
Behind The Scenes: Marlowe – Shades of jazz
The first scene of Marlowe establishes these ideas. It begins in proper noir territory, with Marlowe (Liam Neeson) handed a case by mysterious client (Diane Kruger) in his downtown office splintered by afternoon light streaming in behind window blinds. Gimenez explains that he chose to bath the movie in a bourbon-coloured almost-dusk.
“There is a little bit of hazy cigarette smoke [in the first scene] but not too much, the lines of light come through the blinds but it is not extreme high contrast. We wanted to integrate the stylistics of noir naturalistically, not have them shout out and detract from the story.”
The whole production has a sun-dappled, sinister feel that befits a California noir, with shadows, concrete and gardens filled with secrecy and inscrutability.
“I had two different concepts – one related to heat, the other related to black and white,” he shared. “We decided to create a constant colour as if it were our black and white. I decided to use this particular yellow because in my imagination yellow has a connection with jazz and jazz has a connection with the warring gangs of 1920s to 1940s.”
He continued: “With heat our idea was to create this feeling of ambient humidity. We achieved this by over exposing the day exteriors just a little more than normal. To light scenes we used filament bulbs to which we added a yellow tint.”
Behind The Scenes: Marlowe – Neon reflections
In addition, Gimenez shot a driving scene with Marlowe and scheming villain (Alan Cumming), in a LED volume where neon street signs are reflected on and viewed through the windows. As the film progresses, he dialled up the colour so that entire scenes are filtered in red or blue light as if from a John Wick or Nicholas Winding Refn thriller.
Not surprisingly, Gimenez has made a fair share of horror movies particularly at the beginning of his career including Intacto, before making his breakthrough with The Machinist. This is the 2004 psychological thriller for which Christian Bale famously shed 62 pounds of bodyweight. Set in California, the film was shot entirety in Barcelona including the Tibidabo amusement park and urban districts of El Prat de Llobregat (near the Fira exhibition centre) and Sant Adrià del Besòs.
It’s also a dark film, thematically and pictorially, which director Brad Anderson, likened to noir.
“Barcelona has an extreme dark side,” said Gimenez who was born and lives in the city. “At the beginning of the 20th century and during the late 1920s there was a lot of anarchism with guns and gangsters in the street.” He’s referring to the series of violent worker’s strikes in the city that culminated in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and the rise of Franco as dictator.
“I think Barcelona can perfectly match noir. For Marlowe we were looking for locations with palm trees, Venice beach and suitable architecture.”
An abandoned paper factory in the city doubled for several locations including the film’s recreation of a Hollywood studio.
Behind The Scenes: Marlowe – Becoming a DoP
Gimenez went to film school in Barcelona in the late 1980s to study sound. “I never thought I could be a DoP. At that time I didn’t even know about credits or that there was such a profession as director of photography.
“One time, I asked in the middle of class, who does that – who films the movies? Then I learned about the director of photography and began to get really obsessed about it.
“You know, cinematography is a drug,” he confided. “Many DoPs are absolutely in awe about light and how it is possible to manage and train it, how to try and understand it as a raw material with which to create emotions. I was shocked and impressed by the idea that it is possible to create emotions with light.”
Like all film school students, Gimenez studied every aspect of production including sound, direction, design and script. In his last year he focused on cinematography.
“My first idea to make documentaries but the producers were more interested in the cinematography of my docs than of the docs themselves. That’s when they started to call me and offer me work solely as a cameraman.”
He did his time as second assistant camera on movies including on Bigas Luna directed films Golden Balls, starring Javier Bardem, and The Tit and the Moon (1994) but his heart wasn’t in it. A friend gave him a book, ‘The Peter Principal’ by Laurence J Peter which talked about the straitjackets of conventional hierarchies and promotion.
“I realised I had to jump straight to being a DoP because following on from second to first assistant camera was impossible because head and soul doesn’t work in this manner. I live too much in abstraction for this. I had to be a DoP.”
He lensed the thriller Transsiberian for Anderson starring Woody Harrelson and shot episodes of Sky’s gothic horror series Penny Dreadful, exec produced by Sam Mendes.
Like many artists he never switches off. Gimenez regularly carries a digital stills camera around to take pictures of anything that catches his eye, to file away for future use.
“I have tried to explain to film students that when you become a DoP you have to be DP 24 hrs a day. You have to study every day to discover new forms of light or new concept of lighting that you might find in the street. To be a dancer you have to train every day. Likewise, being a DoP means learning and investigating every day and not just as a technical process. The difficult thing is capturing emotion, the connection between lighting and emotion.”
He seemed torn between working up close and personal with actors or being by the director further away between takes. “I love to work as camera operator but sometimes the movie is too big and doesn’t permit this. It’s most important to be side by side with the director to push a movie but at the same time I feel the actor doesn’t have quite the same reference to the frame of the camera if you are not with them. It is important as a cinematographer to understand the actor at work.”
His own heroes of cinema include Pasquale De Santis, an Italian cinematographer who shot Death In Venice and collaborated with Robert Bresson, Joseph Losey and Frederico Fellini; the Mexican DoP Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Birdman) and British legend Roger Deakins (Empire of Light), of whom he said: “I am not able to talk about him. The feeling of emotion of his lighting is amazing. I can only aspire to reach his level.”
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