John Crowley's Brooklyn (2015) is an old-fashioned romance that glows through Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen's performances, Nick Hornby's screenplay, and John Crowley's direction. But much of the literal glow, as well as the figurative, is due to the work of cinematographer Yves Bélanger, best known for his work with director Jean-Marc Vallée on Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and Wild (2014).
Bélanger became involved in Brooklyn through producer Bruna Papandrea, who also produced Wild. He subsequently Skyped with director John Crowley whom Bélanger describes as "nice, polite, very prepared and precise." This, combined with the fact that "his casting was incredible," was more than enough reason for Bélanger to join Brooklyn.
SP: What was most challenging about creating the world of 1950s Brooklyn, mostly in Montreal?
YB: The most challenging thing was to do it in a limited time with limited money. Because, otherwise we knew exactly what we were doing and we had the best people in Canada: location manager, production designer, costumes, etc.
For my part, because the budget was limited and the schedule so short, I had to know exactly what the camera would see and had to avoid certain lighting or framing certain parts of Montreal that were not period correct.
SP: Could you discuss the emotional quality of naturalistic handheld cinematography that you used in Wild and Dallas Buyers Club compared to the mix of handheld/stationary you used in Brooklyn?
YB: In the case of Vallée's movies, the handheld is almost a dogma...for Brooklyn, we used the handheld for emotional reasons and practical reasons (we always go faster when the camera is handheld and it helps the actors because the camera becomes [a] participant [in] the scene).
SP: It seems nowadays that there are two kinds of period films: ones that choose to shoot a glowing, painterly view of the period that they depict and others that attempt a more naturalistic, grittier aesthetic. What are your thoughts on these different styles?
YB: I like the second one better, and that is the one we chose for the movie. Our images are sometimes glowing or painterly because of the nature of the subject (the '50s with these beautiful costumes, cars, wallpapers, make-up, and hair dressing. Ireland and its wonderful light).
SP: John Crowley said that he didn't feel like he was making a period film. What did you and your team do to make the film feel like something living and breathing in the present?
YB: Natural lighting. Invisible handheld that permits the actors to feel free.
SP: Were you influenced by other films of immigrant tales, or did you decide to forgo watching or consciously referencing them?
YB: We did not watch movies for references, but I realized toward the end of the shoot (in New York) that I was influenced by Gordon Willis from The Godfather (1972). It is a romantic version of Gordon Willis lighting. And, he died the last day of the shoot when we were shooting under the bridge that he shot for Manhattan (1979)!
SP: You used individual lanterns to light Ronan's eyes in the close-ups. How did you decide to use this technique?
YB: I decided for that movie not to light each shot but each set, which means that I was creating a general mood for each decor, and John and the actors could move everywhere. But, I wanted Saoirse to always "glow", and I wanted to be sure that we always see her eyes because she was giving us so many different emotions. So, I had these Chinese lanterns on a boom pole that would follow her everywhere.
SP: What was the most valuable takeaway for you as a cinematographer from shooting Brooklyn?
YB: That you have to use all the technical tools that exist since the beginning of cinema to tell a specific story. In the case of Brooklyn, I discovered that I could mix the handheld techniques that I developed with Jean-Marc Vallée with classical realistic lighting from the '70s.