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Interview with Denis Lenoir the Director of Photography for the Julianne Moore film Still Alice

Still Alice is a heartbreaking and honest portrait of a woman struggling to maintain her identity as she copes with a rare disease. I knew very little about this film when I saw it and recommend you do the same. It's not that this article will go to heavily into spoiler territory but I would hate to lessen the impact of this wonderful film. That much I can tell you, this is a wonderful film. Its playing in limited release right now and opens nation wide in January. If you have the opportunity to see it, do so.  If you have seen the film, I hope this piece will give you some greater insight into both its making and the people who made it.

Interview with Director of Photography Denis Lenoir

Chris Maynard
How are you today?

Denis Lenoir 
I'm great thank you.

Chris Maynard
Thank you so much for agreeing to do this. I was struck by the power and beauty of Still Alice and want to talk about that film but would it be ok if we talk about some of your earlier work, if that's ok.

Denis Lenior
Of Course. We can talk about anything you'd like.

Chris Maynard
I know your from France. Do you live in the States now?

Denis Lenoir
I've lived in the States for 17 or 18 years. My home is here in Los Angeles. I have a beautiful wife who is a TV writer and a very American/French daughter who is ten years old but I also have family in France.

Chris Maynard
You have a ten year old. That's amazing to go into fatherhood at... 55? How is that?

Denis Lenoir
Its great. I have other children from a previous marriage but I am actually a much better father now than I was with the other children. Because I'm way more passionate. I also have a better sense of values. When I was in my 30's I would have been far more willing to sacrifice my family life for my professional life. Now I have things in a much better sense of perspective.

I live here for now and I intend to work until I'm at least 75 but I think I can push it til I'm at least 85. I have a new model. I was offered a movie that I had to pass on because of availability but I was curious about the director and who he had worked with so I looked him up on IMDB.

Chris Maynard
Of course

Denis Lenoir 
I see that he had a credit from 2009 so I clicked on it and he had worked with Bill Butler and the name is familiar but I'm not sure exactly who it is so I  click on his page and see that he was born in 1921 and had a film credit from 2009. Which means means when he shot this feature film in 2009 he was 89 years old and that's amazing. That's my new model. He is my super hero. And I'm going to do better than him.

Chris Maynard
Well by looking at your IMDB page I can say that you are well on your way. You are a very busy man.

Denis Lenoir
Well I still have 30 years to go. So we'll see. It was about 15 years ago I started thinking I wanted to work until I was 75. I had noticed the length of the career is directly proportional to the fame of the person whose career it is. When I left France in '98 (If you think of it like tennis) I was ranking myself in the top ten DP's (in France) and the moment I landed in Los Angeles I was in the second hundred. Just by taking the plane. So, I decided the end of my career will be French. Because being more famous in France I will have a longer shelf life.

Chris Maynard
Interesting. So, when do you plan on heading to France to end your career?

Denis Lenoir
That's what I'm already doing. In this last year I shot two features in France and just the one here in the States and was Still Alice in New York.

Chris Maynard
That's a perfect transition for something I wanted to ask you about that film. Still Alice is a beautifully shot movie and I couldn't tell if it was shot on film or digitally.

Denis Lenoir
It was shot in digital, in 23 days.

Chris Maynard
Wow. That's really surprising, that it was shot that fast and it looks stunning so I assumed it would have taken much longer. There's one shot specifically that comes to mind when I think about the look of the film. Its the scene where Julianne Moore is jogging and we first become aware of her condition. The camera stays centered on her while she turns 360 degrees and keeps her in focus while the background is blurry. The shot is highly effective in communicating Moore's sense of confusion. How did you pull that off?

Denis Lenoir 
First I want to let you know that I should not be credited for that shot. In that I am not responsible for the conception of the shot. The directors conceived it. They hired me because they wanted to move the camera more than they had in their previous films and they were familiar with my work. Yes I did execute it but it is very important to give credit where credit is due. I think it is important in life and in general to give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. But to what you were asking, the shot was achieved with a steady cam and I operated the camera shot. And normally I don't operate in the States. I do in Europe but to be frank and simple, I think I am a better operator than a DP. I'm not suggesting that I'm a bad DP but that I am good one, I'm not amazing.

Chris Maynard

Denis Lenoir
What I should say is that I'm just a very good operator.

Chris Maynard
How much control do have over the look of a film when you are the DP?

Denis Lenoir
Its a little murky. It changes from film to film. But with this one the directors had a clear vision. The execution was up to me but they knew they wanted to have this shot where she was lost and the focus was on her and the background was out of focus while the camera spun so you would your sense of geography with her. My job is to how to achieve this with the right lens and how far to open the aperture.

But every Sunday I would spend a few hours with the directors,  to do the shot list of the week. So I would always come in with some ideas but I would never try to push an agenda. If I didn't like the way something looked I would voice my concern aloud but not loudly.

As a rule and because I am working... most of the time with directors who know what they want, I am making their movies. It needs to be as close as possible to what they already have in mind and they almost always have something in mind.

You can listen to our full conversation below as a part of the War Machine Vs War Horse podcast where we compare two other Julianne Moore films Safe and Blindness. Give it a listen. 


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