Roman Polanski’s new thriller, The Ninth Gate, opens in darkness to the scratchy sound of a pen scribbling on paper.As the picture fades in, we see an elderly man writing a note at an ornate desk, amid the elegant trappings of a stately, private library lined wall-to-wall with dusty tomes. With slow deliberation, the camera dollies back from the desk, pans left and tilts down, where it lingers curiously upon a footstool placed rather incongruously in the middle of the dimly lit room. After a pregnant pause, the camera tilts up toward the ceiling to reveal the sequence’s brilliantly morbid payoff: an ominous shot of a homemade noose dangling above the footstool. In an instant, the serene, book-filled sanctuary has been transformed into the lurid setting of an imminent suicide.
With nary a word of dialogue or even a single edit, Polanski has effortlessly piqued the audience’s curiosity about the forthcoming tale--and reminded us of the sheer pleasure of first-rate cinema. “That opening scene is pure Roman,” attests the film’s cinematographer, Darius Khondji, ASC, AFC. “He lined up the whole scene without any [narrative] interference or compromise. For me, that shot is very representative of Roman’s sensibility. His filmmaking is beautiful and classical, but at the same time, it’s twisted!”
Based on Arturo Perez-Reverte’s novel The Club Dumas, The Ninth Gate trails unscrupulous New York book appraiser Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) across Europe, after he is commissioned by wealthy collector Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) to track down and secure the two other existing copies of a mysterious, 17th-century text that can reputedly be used to conjure up Satan. While carrying out his mission, Corso encounters a succession of the inimitable eccentrics and deviants who inhabit many of Polanski’s films--from wealthy devil-worshippers to ill-tempered secretaries to an enigmatic French beauty (known only as The Girl, and played by Polanski’s real-life wife, Emmanuelle Seigner) who seems to anticipate Corso’s every move.
A sly cross between two of Polanski’s undisputed classics, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974), The Ninth Gate blends horror with an abundance of the director’s mordant wit. The film also explores one of Polanski’s perennial themes: the ubiquity of evil, and the disturbing ease with which one can fall prey to its temptations.
For the highly influential and much-sought-after Khondji, The Ninth Gate offered the chance to collaborate with one of the world’s most respected cinematic stylists and to tackle a film genre he has long held dear. “Roman is one of the true originals of cinema,” he states. “Also, I’ve always wanted to make a movie with a witchcraft or supernatural subtext--I love those kinds of stories. Roman is obviously one of the best directors in the world to work with in that genre.”
When reading a script, Khondji waits for what he has referred to in past interviews as “The Big Bang”--a strong first impression of a film that inspires his ideas about the cinematography. “When I read The Ninth Gate, my initial images of the story were mixed,” he describes. “It starts out as a dark, urban film in America and then travels to Europe, so there’s a balance of the two continents. I thought of it as a modern story, but at the same time as a very old, classical film about books. I saw Dean Corso as a character who could be in a Jean-Pierre Melville film--uncompromising, with ice-cold eyes. He’s also very cynical, like the main character of Melville’s Le Samourai. In interpreting the cinematography of a film, I always try to enter into the story through the eyes of the main character.”
While hunting for visual inspirations during preproduction, Polanski and Khondji found themselves hard-pressed to unearth many films set in the hermetic world of antiquarian book dealers, so the duo instead referenced similarly themed pictures. “Roman kept reminding me about Touch of Evil by Orson Welles,” Khondji says. “We watched that film together, and we both liked its sense of darkness; we decided that that feeling was one side of The Ninth Gate. I also watched all of Roman’s films again; when we started working on the film, some of his ideas for camera movement reminded me very much of Rosemary’s Baby. There was also a bit of The Name of the Rose in the story--a mystery amid the world of books. I thought that was a fascinating world in which to set a film.”
Khondji expounds at length when asked about the visual philosophies that distinguish Polanski from the other high-profile directors he’s worked with so far, among them Danny Boyle (The Beach, see AC Feb. ’00), Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, City of Lost Children, Alien: Resurrection; see coverage of the latter film in AC Nov. ’97), Alan Parker (Evita, see AC Jan. ’97), Bernardo Bertolucci (Stealing Beauty, see AC June ’96), David Fincher (Seven, see AC Oct. ’95) and Neil Jordan (In Dreams). “I feel that as both a cameraman and a person, I’m somehow different since working with Roman,” he says. “It’s not even very clear what I learned from working with him, but I find that I don’t line up shots the same way I used to! Roman has very acute, very sharp eyes in terms of things like camera angles. I never got the chance to work with Stanley Kubrick, but I often thought that collaborating with Roman must be similar, because he has that same kind of taste and approach. Roman has a very methodical, scrupulous way of filming things--every single detail in the frame is equally important to him.”
To illustrate his point, Khondji points to the cluttered coffee table in the West Hollywood hotel suite where he’s being interviewed. “To Roman, the position of every magazine on this table would be important,” he asserts. “You couldn’t just throw the magazines anywhere. There would be a reason why that particular magazine is over there in that particular place. Everything has not only a visual reason, but a narrative reason.”
The cinematographer also singles out gaffer Jean Claude Lebras, grip Bernard Bregier and first assistant director Michka Cheyko for doing “incredible” jobs and helping him a great deal on The Ninth Gate. Khondji adds, “Working with [production designer] Dean Tavoularis made me think that the words ‘genius’ and ‘humble’ can go well together.”
A subtle but extremely important factor in the primal grip Polanski’s thrillers exercise on audiences is the director’s insistence on visual consistency throughout a film. Rosemary’s Baby, shot entirely with 18mm and 25mm lenses, puts the audience right on top of Mia Farrow’s character from beginning to end, making her paranoia palpable. “When you prepare a film with Roman, he always talks about the distance between the camera and the actors,” Khondji adds. “This is very important to him. Even if you change lenses and go from a wide shot to a tight shot, he wants to keep the same distance between the camera lens and the actor.”
Polanski opted for a similar intimacy with the actors on The Ninth Gate. “Roman favored wide angles, but never to the point of becoming grotesque,” Khondji says. “Not that Roman is afraid of grotesque distortion--he sometimes will use it for a certain effect. But we used the 32 and 25mm lenses for almost the whole show, except for some close-ups that we shot with a 75.”
Khondji admits that attempting to change the mind of a director as confident as Polanski sometimes requires a Mephistophelian feat of persuasion. “It’s difficult to make him alter his ideas completely, because he has such a measured way of seeing things,” he explains. “Of course, he also gets inspiration during the day on location or on the set. When you work with him closely, you can tell that his methods always have a narrative [underpinning]; he doesn’t film things just for aesthetic purposes. You can sometimes get him to change shots a little bit, but never drastically, or else you’ll make him unhappy! Roman is also very inspirational when it comes to lighting, because he really feels the movie. He’s instinctive about the sets and the way a scene should be lit. We rarely had discussions about lighting--I just lit the movie the way I thought would be right, and I’d only talk to him if I had some doubt about some aspect of the story.”
The Ninth Gate was filmed entirely at European locations, like all of Polanski’s movies since The Tenant (1976). This created an interesting challenge during the filming of the picture’s first act, which takes place in New York but was actually shot in Paris.To achieve the proper Manhattan flavor, the filmmakers relied upon background slides provided by Tavoularis’s team. In one particularly convincing sequence, Corso is led to Balkan’s eerie, secret library, where a nocturnal New York skyline glistens behind a huge window. “That scene had an interesting mix of the very modern glass buildings in the background with the antique books of the past,” Khondji describes. “I loved that [dichotomy]. The books were almost like animals hidden in a nest. In the middle of the city at night, we see this man with his books; I really saw it as a scary thing, so we used a lot of underkeyed toplight provided entirely by Kino Flos. For the New York skyline behind the actors, Dean’s team provided a very good-quality slide from America [from which a TransLite was fashioned]. Most of our work was already accomplished by the high quality of the slide, but we also lit the TransLite very carefully and used a little net [diffusion]. In postproduction, some movement was also added to the lights.”
Corso and his partner, Bernie (James Russo), share a cluttered mid-Manhattan bookstore which, interestingly, is set below street level. Khondji lent the space a powerfully musty atmosphere, as if this haven of old literature was somehow disengaged from the modern world represented by the hustling pairs of legs darting past the store’s windows. “The look of the books was already pretty much taken care of through Dean Tavoularis’s sets,” Khondji says. “We used a mixture of Kino Flos around the bookstore. I used very, very little smoke and combined that with the Arriflex VariCon on-camera flashing device during the shooting.
[The French lab] Eclair has the European equivalent of Technicolor’s ENR printing process, which they call NEC [Noir en Colour] which translates to ‘Black-and-White in Color,’” the cinematographer adds. “It’s a beautifully subtle process with exactly the same principle as ENR, and we applied it throughout this film. We photographed the picture with the new Cooke S4 Series lenses, beautiful English lenses that have a slightly soft, sensual look — they’re very good with color and skin tone. They also have all of the modern lens qualities, such as anti-flare. The Ninth Gate was one of the first movies photographed entirely with these lenses. The look of the scenes is therefore due to the combination of these lenses with the NEC process.”
Polanski has always had a keen understanding of the precise moments in a story to introduce camera movement. In The Ninth Gate, the director adopts an appropriately jerky, handheld style when Corso returns to the bookstore at night and makes a horrifying discovery involving his partner. “Roman is not very fond of Steadicam,” Khondji says. “I think it’s overused in movies right now, although there are certain movies in which it is integral to the camerawork, like The Thin Red Line. John Toll’s cinematography on that film was fantastic, and the use of the Steadicam is vital to the story. But whatever the type of camera movement, I believe it has to come somehow from the director. Whether a director has a lot of experience or very little, the energy of the camera is always generated by his vision of the story. This is a very important idea that only came to me after years of experience.”
Khondji’s standard camera package handled all of his needs on the shoot. “I always use a main studio camera along with something lightweight,” he says. “On this film, the main studio camera was the Arri 535, combined with a Moviecam SL for handheld work. For the lightweight camera, I always use either an Aaton or the SL — they’re both great cameras.”
When Corso expands his book-sleuthing into the old worlds of Spain and Portugal, the film takes on a startlingly different feel from the busy urban look of the New York scenes. “In Spain, we wanted to feel the heat and the contrast of the sun,” Khondji explains. “I’ve always had different feelings toward those two countries — to me, Spain is more rich, gold and joyous, while Portugal is more cold, blue and dark, with a lack of light. We shot in Sintra, Portugal, which reminded me of Paris. It’s a very mysterious place on the outskirts of town, surrounded by eucalyptus trees and old castles.”
Khondji used no lighting augmentation at all for a striking, sun-bleached shot in which Corso searches for an antique bookstore down a narrow street in Toledo, Spain. “More and more, I just prefer to use the real daylight,” he comments. “I use the skylight as a toplight, then negative fill to create contrast. For me, this is much more effective than using artificial light.”
The cinematographer used Kodak stocks for the entire production, employing the 50 ASA EXR 5245 for daylight scenes, Vision 320T 5277 for nights and interiors and Vision 320T 5248 for overcast weather. “I always remember film stocks more than anything, because each film stock has a meaning for me,” Khondji says. “About 95 percent of what I shoot is on Kodak, since I know those stocks quite well. Even if they come out with a stock I don’t like, I can express my concerns with them, much like I do with Brian Newman, the head of Cooke lenses. They’re very warm with cameramen.”
When Corso finally locates the Spanish bookshop, he is bemused to discover that its owners are elderly twins--but the sharp-eyed viewer will notice something oddly symmetrical about the scene. “The owners are the same guy doubled,” Khondji reveals with a smile. “We used motion control to shoot the scene. I started experimenting with that technique on City of Lost Children to create clones, and we basically did the same thing with the Duboi effects house in Paris. Roman could have found twins, but I’ve learned to recognize when directors become obsessed. It’s always a positive thing, never negative. The obsession can take the form of lighting, set dressing, the way a certain actor does something. Roman noticed this Spanish production coordinator named Jose Lopez Rodero, and he began giving him strange looks. He’d walk around him and say, ‘Oh, you could do the scene.’ Jose told Roman he didn’t have a twin, adding that he surely would need one for the scene. But Roman liked his face. The more he looked at him, the more he believed this was the face he needed in his film! It was a joke at first--the guy didn’t even want to do it, and our producer was skeptical. But it went on and on until we ended up actually doing the scene with motion control!”
Polanski’s fondness for classic movie effects is manifested in a scene set on a train, in which Corso finally confronts The Girl, who has been shadowing him throughout Europe. Lights from outside the train wash over their faces as Corso’s reflection (created in post) flickers on a window. “Outside the set, we had a huge drum made, because I needed the effect of lights crossing outside a speeding train,” Khondji explains. “The drum was made out of slices of different mirrors. We put an HMI light on rollers, made it spin, then pointed it into the drum. It’s a very old technique, but Roman loves things like that. He’s very skillful and talented--he could do any job on the set, be it camera operator, cinematographer or designer. He reads Scientific American and is very good with technology. If he needed a very complicated lighting rig, he would find a way to do it himself. He’s very much into the new techniques, but he really loves the old tricks as well.”
Throughout the film, Khondji subtly augments the story’s satanic overtones in his lighting of Depp. The actor is nearly always lent a warm, slightly reddish glow, even in otherwise cool scenes. The actor is also groomed in appropriately devilish fashion, sporting both an earring and a goatee. “I always take quite a bit of time before the film just to learn how to photograph the star,” Khondji says. “I start with photographs, and then I watch films starring that particular actor, just to see how his face handles different ambiances and angles of light. I need to see how he takes low light, how he takes very bright light, what direct sunlight will do to his face, how much light his face will bounce back with reflective light. Eventually you see a direction to take with the actor. I also had to take into account that Johnny was playing a character with two sides. We present the Dean Corso character as very ambiguous. He definitely has a dark, cold side, but at the same time there’s a side of him we don’t know about, so it was a simple decision to half-light him throughout the movie with some CTO, CTS or other warm diffusion on the fixtures. For me, the most important thing is the direction of the beam of light to a face, a scene or a landscape.”
Focus puller Eric Bialas’s skills were put to the test for one of Polanski’s trademark subjective angles, when Corso is knocked unconscious from behind while examining a possible copy of Balkan’s text in the office of a Parisian baroness. Bialas maintained perfect focus on the words, even the letters, of the page as the camera swerved right into the book. “Eric is an amazing focus puller,” Khondji says. “We used a combination of a dolly and a Dutch head, on which we moved an Arriflex 535. It was purely Roman’s idea--as far as shots go, he knows exactly what he wants.”
Corso awakens to the bizarre sight of the murdered, wheelchair-bound baroness rolling helplessly toward her front office, which is inexplicably engulfed in flames. “Inside the front office, I used several China balls with 2Ks and 5Ks inside them, all fitted with full CTO,” Khondji recalls. “I put them all on dimmers, and when the actress rolled through the door, I blasted the set with the very red light from the China balls. I also had a physical effects person on the set who lit up flame bars for some added fire effects.”
Corso’s investigations eventually lead him to a nocturnal gathering of occult worshippers inside a huge castle in northeast Paris. With participants in black robes chanting strange incantations, the scene’s overall aura of decadence gave Khondji a strange sense of verisimilitude when he viewed Stanley Kubrick’s final film. “I was amazed when I saw Eyes Wide Shut,” he laughs. “The orgy scene in that film was very close to what we were doing! But Roman, of course, takes a lighter tone than Kubrick. He constantly plays on the grotesque, comedic aspect of witchcraft, as well as the scariness. The better his work, the more there is of this mixture of the serious and the funny. The castle was a very difficult location because there was almost no place to light — it was a huge space with a big balcony all around it. We ended up lighting the whole room with helium balloons, which gave off a slightly cool, under-keyed toplight. We used the balcony for straight, simple backlighting of the worshippers. All of the red effects in the scene came from several China lights.”
As Corso closes in on the truth, the look of the film becomes progressively more baroque. Thanks to an unexpected assist from Mother Nature, a simple transitional scene of Corso hitching a ride with a herd of sheep through the French countryside was transformed into cinematic gold. “It had been raining and we just happened to capture a fantastic rainbow,” he says. “It was nothing more than an accident. These days, I’m sure that many people are going to think it was a special effect!”
The film’s final, nocturnal confrontation between Corso and Balkan was staged at still another breathtaking castle in southwest France. “It was an incredibly haunted-looking place,” Khondji recalls. “We used a lot of the red China lights for the warm look of fire inside. For the exterior, we used a crane with two Dino lights. I used straight 3200K tungsten light with no blue filtration whatsoever. I like my night scenes to be very dark, with a silvery white quality of light. I don’t like blue at all for nights, although there are a lot of really good cameramen who still use it. Their night scenes are often very beautiful, but where is this blue streak of light coming from? Maybe it’s a question of the stylization of the night, but when I look out the window at night, I see lights, silhouettes of trees and pools of color--I don’t see any blue.”
Polanski’s high-wire balance of horror and humor reaches its apex in an amusingly over-the-top, outdoor tryst between Corso and The Girl as the castle is engulfed in flames in the background. With the camera a substantial distance away from the actors, Khondji was forced to cleverly camouflage his lighting. “We hid several China lights very well behind rocks to illuminate the actors with warm light,” he explains. “The rest was done with a crane and two Dino lights on the castle. I used these huge lights, but they’re hardly readable in the finished film. I just see nights as very dark. I feel that 90 percent of the night scenes I see in movies are overlit.”
Khondji’s less-is-more attitude about night scenes mirrors his current approach toward cinematography in general. “The older I get, the more I simplify and purify,” he states. “Every time I do something that is a bit too complicated, I’m unhappy. Usually I’m frustrated with myself when I put up too many lights.”