How ‘Theory’ DP Benoît Delhomme told Hawking’s story with color and light

I've had my eye on Benoît Delhomme's work since he brought an effortless grace to Anthony Minghella's “Breaking and Enterting” in 2006. He's made his way along a unique track in the industry and 2014 is a real coming out between Anton Corbijn's John le Carré adaptation “A Most Wanted Man” and James Marsh's Stephen Hawking biopic “The Theory of Everything.”

Both films will be quite visible next week as the former hits DVD/Blu-ray and the latter arrives in theaters after debuting at the Toronto Film Festival in September. Both are incredibly rich displays that have very distinctive visual identities and prove Delhomme to be an exciting talent in the cinematography realm.

Read through our back and forth below as we talk about shooting Hamburg as a character, achieving bold effects with light and color symbolism and shooting both projects on digital.

“A Most Wanted Man” hits home video Nov. 4. “The Theory of Everything” opens in theaters Nov. 7.


HitFix: I thought “The Theory of Everything” looked beautiful. It's a very different kind of biopic, covering familiar terrain but with elegant strokes – score, editing, photography, etc. What were the seeds of how James Marsh wanted to capture this story visually?

Benoît Delhomme: We didn't really have a specific thing as a reference, but I talked to him about films by Douglas Sirk, about using strong colors and symbolic colors. We also talked about films by Krzysztof Kieslowski, films like “Blue,” “White,” “Red,” and making the film in this kind of style. James said it was OK if I wanted to push the effect a bit more than you would usually do. We wanted the film to be organic but sometimes I thought the light and the colors could be stronger than what you would see in real life. I was quite happy, with James coming from a documentary background, that he was going with my ideas to push the emotion with my lighting.

Talk a little bit more about that. What specifically were you trying to do with how you lit the film?

I wanted the power of the natural light, of the windows. One of my ideas was Stephen is thinking about the universe, he's thinking about the world, the planets – his brain is always trying to think about how all this works, how the world is working. I wanted to see the power of the light everywhere in the film. I thought it was a way to express that Stephen needs the universe around him. Many times I have strong light on him, maybe strong sunlight on his face, because that's the energy he needs. With colors, for instance, when Jane is fighting him and he's watching TV alone in a small room, there is the sun going through the red curtains giving a red glow to the scene. It's something I didn't discuss with James before, but I thought because of the nature of the scene, that she didn't know what the problem was with Stephen, in a way it's like he's hiding himself in this big chair – I wanted to give this affect as if he was inside a body, inside the womb, in a way.


I'm doing a lot of things like this by instinct. You have to do things without trying to analyze why you're doing it on a film set. It's how you make a film richer. Because when you try to analyze too much, everybody might say, “Oh, that's too risky.” You have to have something bolder than people would expect. I tried with many things to be bolder than what people were expecting of me: stronger sunlight, flaring the lens a lot, always with this idea that the film goes from the huge scale of the universe, in a way, to the very small scale of this couple. Strong light was a way for me to bring the universe into a very simple scene. It's a simple idea that you feel more than you see.

Part of myself, as a DP, I'm trying to make a film with the director but I'm also trying to light it, too. My work is a combination of this, and I think the lighting is something where you're more alone with it. These are your ideas and you do it on your own. All the framing and choice of angles is something you share with the director and with the actors, but there's something about the lighting where it is more about yourself. It's interesting that it's two different things.

What were the pros and cons of shooting this particular story digitally?

We never really talked about shooting on film. Sometimes now you don't even have the choice. It came, from the start, from the producers' point of view, and I never tried to say, “Oh, what about shooting on film?” I put more energy in choosing the lenses and trying to make this period film look like a period film. I thought I could do the '70s, the '80s with the Alexa and I thought I knew it enough to get the quality of film. The lighting is more important and the ideas are more important than which machine is going to record your images. I feel it's not such a problem for me now. I like that James came with the idea to shoot a home movie for the film. It was something I didn't expect because it wasn't in the script. Very late in pre-production he said, “What about buying a Super 8 camera and maybe we could do some scenes between the actors and tell the story with no words,” and I said, “Fantastic.” We didn't use Super 8 because it was too slow to process for us, but I shot this home movie with Super 16. And I'm happy we got that into the film. We had to add grain to make it look more like a home movie. But I'm not missing film on this one. I thought I was able to make a period film with digital. I know people are still debating about it but I'm not sure the debate should still go on.

You got a vibrant but very different look out of the Alexa on “A Most Wanted Man,” Anton Corbijn's film from the summer.

For him it was a new thing to shoot on digital and I told him, “Listen, I know I can make a film look like film on digital.” When you work with great actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman or Eddie Redmayne, my main goal as a DP is to put them in a very safe place where they feel they are protected, they feel they can go anywhere, do what they want. More than expressing myself with light, it's about just putting the actors in the best possible place.

He's obviously a celebrated photographer in his own right. I imagine he was very hands-on, then?

Anton said, “I am a photographer but when I make a film I don't want to do my photographic work. I want something else. I want to work with actors and be more involved with the actors than in the filmmaking itself.” So Anton gave me a lot of freedom, in fact. I thought he would be very, very specific on everything, but he enjoys different things when he's making a film. He said to me, “I don't want big light. I want to do a lot of practicals and handheld.” I don't always believe in preparation where you lock things down too much. So I'm lucky to work with directors who trust me and my sensitivity.

And on that one, the environment and the setting of Hamburg had to be hugely influential on the look of the film.

I always do my best work when I go to a place I have never been before. In a way it's very interesting to discover a city on a film. My idea of Hamburg was Wim Wenders' movie “The American Friend,” which was the Hamburg of the '80s, which doesn't exist anymore. So I arrived there thinking about “The American Friend” and I go to discuss with Anton and I said, “My God, there's nothing left! What are we going to do?” But the city was a character, and the mood of Hamburg, I didn't try to change it. I used what I saw. I was trying to adapt my style to Anton's style, too, but it was a portrait of a city, I would say. You don't do that all the time. I remember when I was a young DP and I worked in Vietnam and Saigon, the city was stronger than the film. There's nothing better than shooting in a new city.

Well congratulations on both of these. They are two very striking examples of photography this year that look like nothing else.

Oh, thank you so much. Thank you.

And good luck with the “Theory of Everything” release.

Thank you.