Interview with director of of photography Denis Lenoir on 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
How are you today?
I'm great thank you.
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.
Of Course. We can talk about anything you'd like.
I know your from France. Do you live in the States now?
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.
You have a ten year old. That's amazing to go into fatherhood at... 55? How is that?
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.
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.
Well by looking at your IMDB page I can say that you are well on your way. You are a very busy man.
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.
Interesting. So, when do you plan on heading to France to end your career?
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.
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.
It was shot in digital, in 23 days.
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?
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.
What I should say is that I'm just a very good operator.
How much control do have over the look of a film when you are the DP?
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.
Writers-Directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland made Sundance history in 2006
when Quinceañera won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize. It went on to win
numerous other prizes, including the Humanitas screenwriting Award, and the John Cassavettes
Spirit Award in 2007.Their film The Last of Robin Hood, starring Kevin Kline, Susan Sarandon and Dakota Fanning, premiered at Toronto International Film Festival in 2013 and came out theatrically in the US in September 2014. In between, the duo exec-produced Pedro (2008), a biopic of AIDS activist Pedro Zamora, for MTV. The movie premiered at Toronto and Berlin Film Festivals, and was introduced on television by President Bill Clinton. Other feature films include The Fluffer (2001) and Grief (1994) which won top prizes at both the San Francisco Frameline Festival and Outfest.
Richard Glatzer trained as an academic, getting a PhD in English from the University of
Virginia. Wash Westmoreland is originally from Leeds, England and studied Politics at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne
Director Wash Westmoreland on Still Alice
Richard and I received a phone call in December 2011 from the Brit-Australian producing duo,
Lex Lutzus and James Brown, asking us to take a look at a novel for adaptation. It was one of
those out-of-the-blue opportunities that filmmakers live for, but when we heard the subject of the
book, it gave us pause. The outline they pitched -- a brilliant woman in the prime of life receives
a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s Disease -- suggested a film about illness and sadness and
loss. It just felt too close to home.
Earlier in the year, Richard had visited a neurologist in Los Angeles as a result of a slight
slurring of his speech. The doctor had taken one look in his mouth, at his strangely undulating
tongue, and said, “I think it’s ALS.” We’d spent a lot of time in the following months dealing
with the repercussions of this, both medically and emotionally. Reading the first few chapters of
the book, certain similarities resonated eerily with our own experience: the neurologist Alice
initially visits asks the same questions Richard had heard at his early examinations when there
were suspicions of a stroke; and the growing sense of dread as the diagnosis approached, the
sense being cut down when life was at its fullest, was all too familiar. Did we really want to take
on this movie right now..?
Alzheimer’s and ALS are of course very different diseases. Further down the line when we met
Elizabeth Gelfand Stearns, the producing partner of Maria Shriver, she put it neatly: “They are
almost the exact opposite of each other -- Alzheimer’s attacks the cognition, initially leaving the
body unscathed, whereas with ALS the intellect stays intact and the body...” she tailed off not
wanting to cause embarrassment. The diseases however also have similarities: they are both
terminal, incurable, and have the effect of isolating the patient from the world at large. Most
crucially, both diseases eat away at the sense of identity and make it vitally important to hang on
We started getting sucked into the book. It’s a compelling story, made emotionally accessible by
Lisa Genova’s forthright, honest writing. As we continued reading we realized the movie that
could be made from it should have the same crisp and direct tone. The novel looks in detail at the
quotidian impact of memory loss on Alice’s professional life, her daily routines, her social
life….and then there are the family dynamics...
“Have you ever seen Tokyo Story?” Richard typed into his iPad speech-to-text app on our first
meeting with Kristen Stewart. “No, I haven’t,” she said, “but I will.” Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece
had been a longtime favorite of mine and of Richard’s. I had first seen it when I was a student at
Fukuoka University in Japan, and Richard had included a crucial reference to it in his first
feature film Grief in 1993. The movie resists sentimentality and gains tremendous emotional
power through restraint. It has a universal insight into the way families behave in the face of illness or old age with its Lear-like template for a three-child family that was echoed beautifully
in Lisa’s book.
We became enamored of its central character. There was something undeniably inspiring in
Alice — in her tenacity, her willfulness, the way she would never take it lying down. Whatever
the disease brought, she was determined to handle it in the most practical way possible. I don’t
know exactly in what chapter it happened, but the literary Alice we imagined from the page
started to lose her dark curly hair as it turned a fiery red. “Who do you think could do this?” I
asked Richard. “Julianne Moore,” he typed.
The more we thought about it, the more perfect the casting. Julianne could not only project the
scintillating intelligence and complexity of a linguistics professor but also the vulnerability and
simplicity of the later stages. She’d be able to master every beat of the character’s deterioration.
She is quite simply one of the finest actors on the planet. We had met with her a few years before
on another project, pitched hard to get her to do it and eagerly waited for weeks and weeks as she
deliberated and finally passed. This time it was different. We sent a message to her about the
project and she read the book even before the script arrived. A day or so later, we were on Skype. Within seconds she said, “I’m in.”
As we read the final chapters of the book, we started considering the look of the film. Our key
concept was the subjectivity of Alice’s experience — that the audience should understand her
point of view and be privy to her internal life in a way other characters in the story weren’t. It
would require a deeply personal camera and editing style — responding to her mental state, her
moods, her perception — breathing with her. We had the great fortune to work with two
Frenchmen on this project -- the internationally renowned cinematographer, Denis Lenoir; and
Nicolas Chaudeurge, the editor of one of our favorite recent movies, Fish Tank. They both
shared our vision of how the movie should look and feel and were able to support Julianne’s
performance at every turn. Similarly, the production design, the costumes, the hair and make-up -
- all had to be tied to the precise stage Alice was at in her struggle against the disease.
Under the auspices of Killer Films, the unstoppable Pamela Koffler and Christine Vachon, and
with financing from Marie Savare de Laitre at BSM, the production started moving forward --
pre-production coinciding with the worst New York winter for 20 years. I came out East to
oversee this phase while Richard remained in sunny Los Angeles. When I left, he had only just
resigned himself to no longer driving, but he arrived, a week before pre-production, with his
hands and arms barely working. He could no longer feed or dress himself and could type only at
certain angles with one finger.
Undaunted by this, he was on set every day, directing the movie, despite incredible physical
difficulties. This silently infused the whole production with a sense of deeper purpose. In essence, this was what the movie was about. Right there. Everyone felt that something special
was going on and bore the long hard hours with grace.
The ending of the novel is as powerful as it is unexpected. It caught Richard off guard. He was
stunned by it — emotionally wrecked. I was a few chapters behind but I just looked in his eyes
and saw what was there. “I guess we’re doing the movie,” I said.