Darius Khondji on Ditching His Comfort Zone to Shoot ‘Uncut Gems’

We chat with the cinematographer about accomplishing the grit of ‘Uncut Gems’ and how it pushed him unlike any other movie.
Uncut Gems Screenshot
By  · Published on January 14th, 2020

Contentment is death. The moment you feel like you’ve got it all figured out is the moment you need to burn your entire process to the ground and start over. Chasing the new is essential to not just artistic growth, but human growth as well. Never settle, always be reaching.

Darius Khondji has shot it all. He first came to attention through his partnerships with Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet on Delicatessen and City of the Lost Children. From there, he partnered with David Fincher on Seven, Bernardo Bertolucci on Stealing Beauty, and Alan Parker on Evita. Name a beloved auteur, and he’s slung film for them. Neil Jordan, Roman Polanski, Danny Boyle, Wong Kar-Wai, Michael Haneke, James Gray, Bong Joon-ho, etc. The list is as inspired as it is absurd.

Nab Khondji as your director of photography, kick back, and never worry about the visuals. He’s got you covered. Then again, with such an attitude, the cinematographer would never agree to your gig. Khondji is on the hunt for the new. He’s looking for filmmakers to push him in ways he’s never experienced before, and Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie did just that with Uncut Gems.

Filmed predominantly on 35mm with a few sequences secured on digital, Uncut Gems pushed Khondji unlike any other project he’s worked on during his nearly 40-year career. “I was not in my comfort zone,” says the cinematographer, “but that’s where I have the most pleasure. I was surprised all of the time!”

Khondji and the Safdie Brothers formed their trust while collaborating on Jay-Z‘s Mercy Me music video. However, that shoot lasted only a couple of nights and was honestly not indicative of the intense, demanding energy required to capture the film that lived in the brothers’ mind. “It’s a train always moving forward,” says Khondji. “You cannot be sitting on the side sulking. You have to be part of the group.”

Khondji’s tastes gravitate toward the cinema of the seventies, but the Safdies were looking for the grit of the eighties. Khondji tried to blend his preferences with theirs, but he also knew when to let go and let them steer the ship. “My methodology was just to let them shoot,” he says. “Let them do what they want, the way they want to do it.”

Through their confidence and bravado, Khondji discovered belief even when all of his instincts told him to run in the opposite direction. “We use extreme long lenses, and tracking shots with very long lenses,” he explains. “Which is something I would never recommend any filmmaker do. It’s the most crazy thing to do. Or we would go Steadicam with 250mm or 360mm! It’s completely not what you have in the book of cinematography. But it works! It works great because they wanted it. They believed in it.”

“Once we shot some tests,” he adds, “and looked at how the anamorphic captured faces in the city, we fell in love with the format. But the brothers didn’t go for the traditional use of anamorphic. It’s not classic where they hang the frame really well, like some great tableau and all that. No! They literally brutalized the anamorphic and brought it to another level.”

Some time was necessary for Khondji to fall into the Safdies’ counter-intuitive approach. The groove had to form over the initial days of production. “At first, you need some arm-twisting,” he admits. “I’m sure I was asking at some point, ‘Let’s put this big zoom with a 475mm.’ They would never do it, but they would always deny you in a nice way. They’re not despotic.”

Game recognizes game. “They’re just great filmmakers,” he quickly adds. “You never want to say no to them, because good filmmakers are so rare on this planet. I am lucky to have worked with a few.” Remember — Fincher, Bertolucci, Bong Joon-ho. “When you’re in the presence of two incredible young filmmakers like them, you just want to be with them. You don’t want to be in a sperate space.”

So, when was the moment where the Safdie process clicked, and Khondji fell in line, and the arm-twisting was no longer mandatory? “Adam [Sandler] was a big drive into the movie,” he answers. “When you shoot a movie, you always look for a key to get into the movie. Sometimes it can be the main actor.”

Sandler was also working outside of his comfort zone. While not completely foreign to drama, the actor has spent most of his career flexing the comedic muscles that come naturally to him. “Adam is a humanist,” says Khondji. “I mean, he’s a big actor and a big star, but he came to the film completely down to Earth.” Witnessing how the actor centered himself on set inspired the cinematographer and helped him align with the vibe that the Safdies were striving to achieve. “He would enter holding a boombox, and the music would fill up the space. It was generous.”

Having completed the mission of Uncut Gems, Khondji is not sure he wants to work any other way going forward. “It was just totally different than any other movie I have worked on,” he says. “It’s really hard to adapt to another film set after this one.”

Normally, after completing a job, Khondji does not enjoy revisiting his work. Uncut Gems is a different matter. “It’s a look that I love,” he beams. “I went to see it in a theater with a fully packed audience, and it was amazing. I just loved it. I love the film. I don’t dissociate my work as a cinematographer from the rest of the film. I feel it just blends with the rest.”

For the first time, Khondji’s final product works on him like it would on any other audience member. Uncut Gems is simply a movie he adores. One that he helped bring into being, his 33rd overall.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)