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‘Nymphomaniac’: How Cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro Brought Lars von Trier’s Vision to Life

From the time word got out that notorious Danish director Lars von Trier was making a “porn” film with well known actors, speculation was rife about how graphic the mysterious Nymphomaniac project would be.

Sophie Kennedy Clark and Stacy Martin in

Nymphomaniac: Volume I.

Photo by Christian Geisnaes/Magnolia Pictures.

Nymphomaniac is being released in two parts (Volume I and II) and in two versions: a four-hour international version and a 5.5-hour director’s cut. The version being released in the United States this month (running theatrically in some markets and on pay-per view) is the international version. Volume I of the director’s cut premiered at the 2014 Berlinale in February. The rest of the director’s cut will be released later this year.

Since Nymphomaniac premiered here in March, criticism has broken between those who admire it as a dark, sometimes funny, outrageous character study and those who strongly dislike it for its shocking content—some complaining about there being too much, others too little. Reaction in Europe has, not surprisingly, been generally been more enthusiastic.

“The sex scenes are such a small part of the film,” cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro (von Trier’s Melancholia), responds. While it certainly contains more graphic sexual content than most films, the story, as he and von Trier discussed it, is about someone plagued by a destructive addiction. The expectations were a bit misleading, he adds, acknowledging that von Trier and his production company, Zentropa Entertainments, certainly had a hand in creating those expectations in the first place. “A lot of it is a PR thing to talk about it as a porn movie. If people go in expecting something completely shocking and erotic, they’re likely to be disappointed.

Uma Thurman in

Nymphomaniac: Volume I.

Photo by Christian Geisnaes/Magnolia Pictures.

Regardless, von Trier has managed—with actors such as Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Uma Thurman and Shia LaBeouf—to explore a lot of ideas in his character study of Joe (Gainsbourg) and the story of her sexual addiction as relayed to a strange man, Seligman (Skarsgård), who takes her to his apartment after finding her half dead in a nearby alley.

The cinematographer describes the overarching look von Trier was after as a “punk marathon,” elaborating, “We wanted it to look ugly, bold in its expression, low-fi overall. Then we made specific decisions for each chapter. Nymphomaniac cuts back and forth between extended sequences of Joe and Seligman conversing in the latter’s apartment—her about her sexual history generally, finding digressions about subjects from fly fishing to mathematics—and a series of chapters illustrating her narrative.

Claro, an early adopter of the ARRI Alexa on Melancholia, shot Nymphomaniac with the ARRI Alexa Plus—the newer version of the Alexa, with additional features including an internal follow focus motor, but with the same sensor that had so impressed him during preproduction of Melancholia. (The cinematographer shot a handful of flashbacks and cutaways with a Canon EOS 5D Mk II, and he even used an iPhone to shoot some segments that take place in the past.)

He recorded everything in ProRes 4444 to SxS cards. The final was cropped to 2.35:1 (with some additional cropping in post to other aspect ratios within the basic widescreen frame).

Photo courtesy of Zentropa.

He shot with ARRI Alura zooms and applied a Tiffen 1/8 Pro-Mist (white) filter throughout to take the “digital” look off the image. The cinematographer admits that ideally he would have achieved the effect more organically, with vintage lenses, but adds that he was pleased with the look of the new lenses combined with the tiny bit of filtration, which also helped cut down on what he finds to be the excessive sharpness of the Alexa’s sensor.

For the apartment itself, they wanted a warmish, inviting feel, and then each chapter has its own unique treatment. There’s a black-and-white chapter, for example, and chapters with noticeable grain, some with softer tonalities, and some with harsh, contrasty looks.

The earlier portions where Young Joe (Stacy Martin) first experiments with her sexual power—challenging a friend to see who can seduce the most men during a train trip—are still warm in color, with softer blacks. “These are still good memories for Joe,” Claro explains.

By the time we get to the chapter about Mrs. H (Thurman), the jealous wife of one of Joe’s many lovers, the scene is cropped to 16:9. The constantly searching camera work here is reminiscent of some of von Trier’s earlier films (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark). Grain was added later at Zentropa’s post facilities using Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve.

L-r: Shia LaBeouf, Lars von Trier, Manuel Alberto Claro, Stacy Martin. Photo by Christian Geisnaes.

The segments that take place in the alley and Seligman’s apartment were shot on a soundstage in Cologne, Germany. “Lars wanted the whole framing story to have this kind of theatrical feel,” Claro explains. “The way they were painted and the way I lit them was done deliberately in a kind of heavy-handed way. Especially the alley, which, if we’d been going for a realistic feel, would have been considerably darker. The room where Joe recounts her story was lit entirely with practicals. We could move some practical lamps around but that was pretty much all we did.”

Though he had the option, Claro explains that he didn’t want to move walls or ceilings unless absolutely necessary. “We could remove a wall and ceiling, but I’d say 90 percent was shot with all the walls and ceilings there,” he says. “I like that the room partly dictates how you can shoot a scene. I like that you have a wall that limits where you can put the camera.”

He admits that he and von Trier eventually did call on some of those studio advantages in order to find new angles to cover the two-person scene that unfolds within a very small space. “When you see parts one and two, you spend maybe two hours in that room—the length of a normal feature film,” the cinematographer says. “We really needed to find ways to vary the angles, so we did move the ceiling or a wall from time to time.”

Photo by Christian Geisnaes.

Coverage in the room was essentially single-camera and simple. “Mostly we did a two-shot and then two singles. I might zoom or pan a little bit if I knew where we could use it,” but the scenes are devoid of the swish-pans and jump cuts common to most of von Trier’s work, including Melancholia. “You want this room to feel like a good place to come back to,” Claro elaborates. “The chapters we cut to could be a little crazy and energetic, but this was a more solid, stable place.”

Exteriors were shot in an amalgam of cities, including Cologne, Copenhagen and primarily Ghent, Belgium. “For some reason Ghent felt more perfect for the movie,” the cinematographer says. “The streets and buildings. It just worked.”

Obviously the film is about Joe’s relationship to sex, and von Trier had no desire to shy away from graphic imagery. The actors themselves did nude scenes, and the director called on a combination of porn doubles and some visual effects work beyond that. “All the actors knew there would be sex scenes,” Claro recalls, “and I think the actors, like the audience, probably imagined that it would be more than it was. I don’t think anybody felt forced to do anything they were uncomfortable with. Sometimes we’d close the set and shut off the monitors, but the atmosphere in general was very relaxed.”

The actor/cinematographer relationship is the same regardless of how much clothing the actor is wearing, Claro notes. “You make a contract with the actors that you won’t shoot them in certain ways, and you want to do what you can to make actors comfortable,” he says. “It’s part of the everyday life on the set for a cinematographer. It’s not even about what you say—it’s just about having eye contact and letting them know you’re there for them and that they can come to you if they need anything.”

Though the Alexa (which he rated at EI 800 throughout) is sensitive enough that they could have dimmed the lights still further, the filmmakers didn’t see a value in it. “We shot in what you could call ‘normal bedroom light.’ If you think of a traditional sex scene in a movie, you would probably light it more expressively to make it look more sexy. But we weren’t shooting traditional sex scenes and we never lit them that way. We were looking for realism and the sex wasn’t supposed to be ‘sexy.’”