French cinematographer reflects on the years spent shooting an epic

Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd has been nominated for an Oscar for his work on Wong Kar-wai's latest film, but feels the director has been overlooked, writes Rachel Mok

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 February, 2014, 10:18am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 February, 2014, 10:18am

When French cameraman Philippe Le Sourd won a Golden Horse award for his work on Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster in Taipei last November, his acceptance speech noted that the film had taken director Wong Kar-wai a long time to make.

This was also behind his disappointment when the martial arts drama failed to make the shortlist of five nominees for the Academy Awards' best foreign language picture.

My vision of my life and work is different. I learned to enjoy the present and not make plans
Philippe le sourd 

"I was very sad, because Wong Kar-wai has spent five to six years of his life working very hard on the movie. His journey was very long compared to mine," says the cinematographer, who signed up to work with the infamously improvisational Hong Kong filmmaker for a six-month documentary project in 2009, and ended up spending three years shooting The Grandmaster.

"I was also very sad because we are all very proud of the film," he says.

Although the visually stylish film did not make the cut in the best foreign language film category, two members of its crew were singled out for recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Long-time Wong Kar-wai collaborator William Chang Suk-ping - described by Le Sourd as "the right arm of Kar-wai" - was nominated in the best achievement in costume design category, and the 50-year-old Le Sourd received his first Oscar nomination for best cinematography.

The cinematographer was born in Paris but now lives in New York with his family. He was back in the French capital when his wife called him with the news of his Oscar nomination.

He couldn't believe it then and still can't, he says. "The Oscars are like a dream, and I am still wondering if it's true. It will stay with me forever."

The cinematographer says he wanted to share this dream-come-true with The Grandmaster's director. "Without his vision for the cinematography and his high standards, I would not have achieved this," Le Sourd says. "It's a beautiful film and a beautiful project."

A graduate of the film school at New Sorbonne University (or Paris III as most people call it), Le Sourd worked as a photographer's assistant before becoming cinematographer Darius Khondji's assistant cameraman on films such as Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children.

After rising to become a director of photography, he worked on commercials with directors such as David Lynch and Sofia Coppola, as well as on feature films.

"Commercials are a great opportunity to meet all these visionary directors, and get a link to their feature film projects," he says.

In recent years, Le Sourd has been director of photography for Hollywood films such as Ridley Scott's A Good Year and Gabriele Muccino's Seven Pounds.

He worked with Wong on a couple of commercials, before moving to the project that eventually became The Grandmaster.

To help prepare for his work on Wong's film about storied wing chun master Ip Man, Le Sourd watched feature films and documentaries about the martial artist. He also visited museums with the filmmaker, and travelled to northeastern China to immerse himself in the world in which Zhang Ziyi's character, Gong Er, features prominently.

There was also the challenge of immersing himself in Wong's world, one in which a film project can have a three-year shooting schedule, and involve filming in harsh weather in remote locations, such as China's snowy northeast.

Language presented an obstacle too while he was working in China, Le Sourd says.

Then he had to contend with Wong's notorious penchant for shooting without a script, preferring to improvise as they went along. The cinematographer says he kept a journal that recorded the colours and lights he used in every scene - just in case he had to reshoot the same scene two years later.

"It took a long time for me to understand what Kar-wai was looking for. You never know what's behind his sunglasses," Le Sourd says.

The Frenchman thinks that working on The Grandmaster has influenced his world view. "The film reveals me in a certain way.

"Sometimes in life you have to pass through a long process to understand things. Today, my vision of my life and work is different. I learned to enjoy the present, to see beauty everywhere, and not to plan too much. I now know the value of patience!"

Working with the Shanghai-born auteur involved making discoveries every day, and that continued until the end. "I had an idea of the story, but the final cut was really a surprise." .

Le Sourd says Wong had initially contacted him to work on a martial arts documentary. "I was also very surprised to see the idea of a documentary appearing again in the final cut."

There was another surprise, too: he had shot so many scenes, he was amazed they had been edited down to around two hours.

The Grandmaster is the first film Le Sourd has worked on which has three versions, ranging in length from 108 minutes to 130 minutes.

But Le Sourd can see the logic of that. "The three edits [for various international regions] are different, and reflect the interests of different cultures around the world. I found it interesting that a director would edit films differently to reach his viewers."

Le Sourd says fellow Oscar nominee William Chang kept him inspired for the duration of the shoot.

"William is a talented person. He embraces the vision of the film in four departments: art direction, wardrobes, make-up and editing, and this makes him a very complete person.

"He's always thinking about light, textures, reflections and colours. He brings so many inspiring ideas to the set. It's really impressive to work with such a sensitive person."

Does Le Sourd think he will win that best cinematography Oscar next month? All he will say is that the nomination has increased his passion for filmmaking. For now, he is focusing on working on commercials rather than full-length features - mainly because they are short.

"I enjoy film the most, but after working with Kar-wai, commercials have their appeal. They are short, and you know what time you will go home each night," he says with a grin.

"Working on a commercial is like a vacation by comparison."