A jazz musician’s travels
Amsterdam, 2021-06-01 - Gerlinda Heywegen
An interview with Dutch Director of Photography Jean Counet
NSC (Netherlands Society of Cinematographers) initiates a series of interviews with DPs in which not only the work of the director of photography in question is discussed, but their view on film language as well.
There were five films on the shortlist for discussion with DP Jean Counet. Two feature films and three documentaries. Although Counet studied Directing at St Lukas, Brussels, he prefers to be a cameraman. But the conversation via Zoom kicked off with his own work, due to the March 2020 lockdown.
“Rosie is actually the reason I went to St Lukas, Brussels. I had already finished a year at St Joost, Breda, but wanted to spend a gap year in France. That is when I really got to know auteur cinema. One of my film teachers was a journalist. He took me to Cannes where he interviewed the big names: Michael Haneke, Otar Iosseliani. After that, it seemed better to go to Brussels. But the film that really sealed the deal was Rosie (Belgium, 1998) which was done by Richard (van Oosterhout, DP and chairman NSC, GH). An eye opener, an accessible film, so powerful!
The original plan, by the way, was to mainly “do” camera, but once in Brussels, I decided to go for Directing after all, because it seemed a better way of getting to know all aspects of filmmaking. At St Lukas that was possible, you got to do it all: Editing, Sound Design. And because there were no budgets from the school to work with, you helped each other out. That was a great way of learning a lot in a very short period of time. That is why, at the beginning of the pandemic, I was so happy to have attended that school. In March last year, I was wondering what was going to happen, whether I would still have a job. Together with sound engineer Rik Meier, I started walking through Amsterdam in order to film. That is how we made Meanwhile in Amsterdam. We did everything ourselves: camera, sound, montage. It was so good to know that, if necessary, we can manage everything ourselves. That you are not dependent on a fund or broadcasting company. Thanks to the education I had at St Lukas, I was sure about that – that I could do it.”
A previous interview with Richard van Oosterhout for the NSC website touched upon the New Deal – a manifesto he wrote that promotes a different work ethic on-set.
Counet: “The films I make, are basically à la New Deal. Documentaries in particular simply work that way. There, the DP is involved at an early stage in production, and in setting the budget.”
Counet mentions In de armen van Morpheus by Marc Schmidt (NL, 2020), a documentary on six “bad sleepers”. One of them cannot sleep; someone else sleeps all the time. Another one has the most awful dreams. “Originally, we were to recreate the character’s dreams in the studio. A fiction crew would do that part and the documentary crew the rest. But in the preparatory talks with our characters, it soon became clear their experiences and dreams were so strongly intertwined with their daily lives that there was no need whatsoever to recreate them. In Emily’s dreams, Surinam played a very significant role and somebody else even went to Iceland. We went along. We decided to replace almost all the studio sequences with location shoots. That is why most of the film was only shot by Marc and me. Marc took care of direction and sound; I handled the camera. And on some days, we were joined by a researcher. In the studio we also had a gaffer, camera assistant, production and production assistant. So, the film production fitted what was best for each shooting.”
If the Sun Explodes, Hanna van Niekerk
“We made If the Sun Explodes (Hanna van Niekerk, 2017) like that as well. On some days, we shot with a mini crew and on some with a larger one. I think the New Deal mainly applies to feature films that play safe because they have a large budget. If the Sun Explodes was a wild card film and Hanna was able to make it on a very tight budget (€ 80.000, GH). We have been working on her next feature for years now. Because now it has a posh budget. It needs to be rewritten time and again.
But let’s take it one step back first. After If the Sun Explodes, we made an NTR Kort (Zeep, a short film for Dutch public television 2017). It had a regular budget. But suddenly, there was a “regular” crew as well. Of half of them, I had no clue what their job was. That is when we noticed that if we let ourselves be wrangled into some kind of standard structure, it did not improve the film. I do find the film charming, though; we did not lose our grasp of it. But we did have far less freedom. The biggest challenge we face with Hanna’s new film, is finding a balance between shooting quite small and intuitively and shooting according to a standard procedure. Up till now, we have never used a monitor, but I’m afraid we won’t be able to get out of that one next time.” With that statement, Counet responds implicitly to the point made about the video village, the democratic viewing process on set.
“During Zeep people on set also complained about the fact that they couldn’t do that. Because there was no monitor, they had no idea what was going on. But,” says Counet, “Hanna sits underneath the camera tripod or stands behind me; she knew exactly what was being shot. You need no monitor for that. And that is exactly why we did not have it: to prevent the video village. More money equals an ever stiffer mould you have to fit into, and it also means that you have to fight that much harder to hold on to the way you want to work.
The documentaries I work on sometimes have considerable budgets, but still the production process allows much more freedom. It is also much faster. As a DP you determine the way things are going to be, together with the director. I am amazed, by the way, that directors can keep up their work at all. It can take years before a film has enough funding. And even then, they are totally underpaid. In a worst case they are left with a film with not much left to call their own.”
Heart for documentaries
“At one time, I wanted to become a fiction director, but things turned out very differently. Hanging around on set all day long staging everything for just one sentence, it’s not really my thing, whilst you get it all for free with a documentary, and it is much more beautiful too! My heart is totally devoted to documentaries. What I really like about Hanna (van Niekerk) is that we can work together in a documentary style. She also knows that the less I know, the better I shoot. For If the Sun Explodes we were set free in a very controlled manner. With lots of preparation time. For days on end, we discussed style, looked at photos and that was something she also did with the actors. There was a lot of rehearsal, but they also had a big say in the final dialogue.
The scene in the beginning of the film in which Wies Fest and Egbert-Jan Weeber look at each other in the mirror, half-naked, and play with each other was the first one we shot.” A scene that can so easily be embarrassing, if it is not right. If it lacks chemistry. “But with them, it was almost tangible.” The camera takes you in so closely which makes both the actors, viewers and the cameraman vulnerable. “I think I can make actors feel safe because I am genuine. I think things through really well before I start on a film. Whether I really want to make the film to begin with and want to come along on that journey, whether I can learn something from it, whether it moves me. I think actors can feel that I am genuinely interested.”
How to describe a Cloud, David Verbeek
From Van Niekerk to David Verbeek, to How to describe a Cloud. “I share his passion for Asian cinema. After R U There (2010) David wanted more freedom; to make films faster, together with his producer Wout Conijn. There was little budget and David had already left for Taiwan. When it seemed things were not going quite right, Wout and I quickly went there as well. On the plane, I read the screenplay for the first time. Shooting How to describe a Cloud was like living an adventure book. It was my first feature film that was released in cinemas. It was intense and everything was chaos. But there was one thing that was totally right, namely everything within the actual frame. All else was “sticky tape”. David is so strong visually. And he knows really well how to convey what he wants to see. For each new film, you seek a common language and we had found ours in no time. But we took our time to really find out how to best shoot our scenes. In 18-hour shooting days. And yes, we could have done it faster, but then It would not have been as good. Precisely because we had little money, no preparation whatsoever, a producer who could only arrange everything last-minute, we had to put a lot of time in the shooting itself. It was the only thing we had any control over. And it was dangerous too. For example one day: in order to shoot where we wanted to, we climbed across a fence at one point. It was so slippery that it is a miracle that nobody died in the process! It is not like you are safe because you are filming or that you will always make it. This was such an important sign that we had to stop.
By the way, we worked à la New Deal here as well: with flexible crew. Sometimes a mini crew, sometimes a much more extensive one because I had a decent light department. That cost next to nothing in Taiwan.”
On his website, Counet writes that he likes to work intuitively. A term that already was mentioned. But what does that mean in practice? For instance at one point in How to describe a Cloud the foreground is out of focus even with the main character at place. It gives the scene a unique quality, becomes almost reminiscent of a painting. Intuition, is what it is according to Counet. He just liked it. It happened. It worked. And also because he is a slow focus puller, as he likes to call it himself.
The intuitiveness does need some further explanation. Counet uses 10 Minutes Older (Latvia, 1978) as an example. Made by Herz Frank, a filmmaker of which he says on his website that he admires him a great deal. In that short film, various children watch a puppet show. Frank only shoots the children, close. Their wonder and joy can be seen really up close. Intuitive is what Counet calls it, although the circumstances, such as the puppet show, were defined beforehand. But within that, you have ample room to anticipate what happens. In this case, mainly the toddler’s faces. “I feel like Hollywood is some kind of classical concert entirely set in stone and in that comparison, I am a jazz saxophone player or trumpet player who reacts freely to what happens in front of the camera.”
Laughing: “I can still remember that we wanted to shoot a scene for How to describe a Cloud and how, initially, we went about it in a really pretentious way. The actress stands in de wind, we begin up close, she walks backward. We had come up with a construction that was way too complicated. In the end, it became a simple scene, but for a short time, we were just two kids trying to imitate the great masters. Showing our muscles too much. It almost became a kind of play in front of the camera in which we wanted to show off everything that we could do. Now we are slipping, that’s what we thought.”
We wanted to find alienation in reality, said director Marc Schmidt in spring 2020 when his film In de armen van Morpheus premiered. As was mentioned earlier, he shot some scenes in Iceland. According to Counet, the most beautiful place in the world. It was hard not to turn it into picture-postcard perfection; it was all just too beautiful there for the film. So, the most beautiful stuff, the panoramic views, all that just had to go. It had to be earth, the ground, soil. That is what the main character wants to fall asleep on, where she seeks rest. “You don’t want the country to become the main character, because her inner world had the leading role and that wasn’t pretty. That transposition is what it is all about,” says Counet.
How do you transpose that inner world to images, not only for Morpheus, but for any film? Counet: “Listening to the main characters, what their body language is like. You let the camerawork resonate with that.
In de Armen van Morpheus, Marc Schmidt
Working on Marc’s film was also fantastic because all characters already had a way of expressing themselves. Emily with paintings, others through music, drawings, texts, poetry. These were such specific starting points to which you can adapt your visual language. How do I move my camera, how do I shoot it? For example Eddie. A “quick” shot of him, under a lantern with his restless legs. Yeah, well, that is just impossible. That was like a prison for him. He got agitated, my camera got agitated. I try and feel what happens. To anticipate like a jazz musician to what is going on. In contrast, for the woman from Brussels who cannot sleep and roams around town at night, my camera work is really quite mellow. Just the three of us, her, Marc, and I wandered the entire night through town. You let yourself be led by the main character. It is a kind of road movie, so the camera had to move along with it. The choice of lens is also crucial; in Surinam, I filmed with a wide-angle lens, it made it all that little bit weirder, and it just rang true with Emily’s stories."
“Sometimes you enter a zone where it almost becomes playing with lives,” Counet quite suddenly says. “You are so close to the characters, albeit with a small crew. So personal and so vulnerable, like with A Strange Love Affair with Ego (Ester Gould, 2015) and De regels van Matthijs by Marc (Schmidt, filmed by Schmidt himself and additionally by Aage Hollander, GH). I wouldn’t call them films but instead: lifeworks. Something huge happened in the life of a director and that has to come out. If you are asked for such a project as DP, it is such an honour. For films like that no deals or work methods apply.”
In his e-mails after the Zoom interview, Counet once again emphasizes: “If anyone wants to see one film I shot, then I would send in A Strange Love Affair with Ego.” Gould made a documentary on narcissism with a quite personal reason. The film is a highly artistic search for what drives narcissists and mainly for who her own sister was. She committed suicide, probably because of her narcissistic disorder. Gould firmly places herself as audience and great admirer of her sister in this “story”.
A Strange Love Affair with Ego, Ester Gould
Together with Counet, she chose various styles, each character got their own design. Counet already explained during the Zoom interview what is so great about working with Gould: “Ester does not have anything happen to her, she has everything under control. We make a planning and even if things go differently, it never slips through her fingers. The film was emotionally charged, but we hardly noticed that during the shoot. The characters always liked it when we were around. Apparently, narcissists are really fun to film,” jests Counet. “And I am an ideal audience for people with narcissistic traits. Ester knew that I would totally adore the women I filmed. Playing, keeping things playful, looking for the beautiful shots and looking at what they did themselves, it works.”
But what about Ik ben er even niet? A film about people with absence seizures, who are literally not there for a minute? How do you shoot that and what do you shoot? “But that is fantastic,” according to Counet. “It is indeed filming the impossible. I actually really did not have time for the film, but after a wonderful conversation with Maartje (Nevejan, director, GH) I was won over. The childlike view, that was what she was after and she had asked me because of the scene with the children in A Strange Love Affair with Ego. If I would be able to capture it like that...”
In Ik ben er even niet the crew visits artist Anish Kapoor, known for his black-surface invisible art. A challenge in itself – how do you shoot that? “One thing was for sure, we were not allowed to. But in the end, he did give us permission to do so (as the first camera crew ever). We shot it all within an hour. But what I saw in real life, was not what I saw through my camera. Because it is the blackest of blacks and my camera turned it into “normal” black. During the grading we then used “illegal” black to scale it towards to the blackest black and that actually worked, quite to my surprise.”
“Whether I want to direct films myself? Last year, at the beginning of the lockdown, yes indeed. But aside from that, I do not feel the urge. The directors I work with take me on such fantastic journeys, I am very grateful for that. It is such an honour to shape their journeys. And I shoot the occasional commercial every now and then. Filming people who play at having a normal real life. Wonderful”, he laughs.
Interview: Gerlinda Heywegen
Translation: Sonja Barentsen