A Conversation with ‘Papillon’ Cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski

Bogdanski blazes a new ‘Papillon’ trail and gives some insight on the work of a cinematographer.
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By  · Published on August 23rd, 2018

Bogdanski blazes a new ‘Papillon’ trail and gives some insight on the work of a cinematographer.

Hagen Bogdanski is a German Cinematographer known for his work on The Lives of Others (2006), The Young Victoria (2009), and The Beaver (2011) among other films and TV shows. I got the opportunity to chat with him about his most recent work on the remake of the 1973 Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman film Papillon, starring Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek.

How influential was Franklin J. Schaffner’s original Papillon adaptation on your team?

The original Papillon—even if it’s a good story—feels, for me, very dated in many aspects. So, we looked at two scenes basically, and then we said, “Oh no, let’s not look at it any further. Let’s just do our own movie and forget about it.

So what drew you to the project in the first place?

The script.

What do you look for in a script?

I look for emotion and inspiration. If it’s a good story that catches me, I’m willing to go into Montenegro, into the jungle. If I cannot get hooked to the story, then I am not willing to work for six months or longer. The script is the most important thing.

Is that where y’all filmed? Montenegro?

We shot primarily in Montenegro and Malta. The film takes place in French Guinea, but you can’t shoot there anymore. And the real prison is a museum now. So, for those reasons and budget reasons, we went down under to East Europe to Serbia, Montenegro, and Malta.

How long were y’all out there shooting?

The shoot was 50 days, and with prep and post, it was roughly four-and-a-half months total.

What was the environment like shooting out there? 

We were quite lucky getting to work in nature, on the water in the Mediterranean Sea—not the Atlantic, of course. We found an island on the Mediterranean that looked like a prison island. We filmed water scenes with huge machinery of the coast of Malta. Nature was a big aspect of Papillon. I mean, they’re surrounded by the jungle in the film, and the prison was in the jungle, so getting to shoot out there was important.

It looked like y’all used a lot of handhelds and Steadicams. Was it a pretty improvisational shoot?

Exactly. The director has a background in documentaries, so we mostly shot the rehearsals. Nearly all of it was Steadicam and handheld. Very improvisational.

How was it working with Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek?

Very cool. Both are great actors. I adore both of them. Charlie is real into method acting. He lost amazing amounts of weight for it. Rami is basically the opposite. He’s just doing it. He’s a more relaxed L.A. guy.

Going through your filmography, we’ve got The Young Victoria, Hotel Lux, W.E., The Physician, Fog in August, and now Papillon. Is this a coincidence or do you have a thing for period pieces?

I have a love for it. Filmmaking is like entering a time machine. It’s fun to time travel back, to do research about how people lived, how they made their homes, whether they lit it with candles or not. I just like it.

Do you work closely with production and art designers on set?

Oh, yes. That’s one of my favorite things to do. I work as close as possible with art directors and production designers I want to hear what they think. They do more research than I do, so I try to sneak into their research and work with them on it. We talk about everything, colors, all of it.”

Is that typical for a cinematographer?

It should be typical. I don’t know what other guys are doing, but for me, it’s a very close collaboration between production design and cinematography always, always.

You don’t know what the others are doing? Is there not a cinematography community?

Unfortunately not. I think this comes by nature. You never work with other cinematographers. You rarely see them. There’s no real community for that reason. You are basically alone when you are shooting a film. The community does not exist.

Papillon is a historical film, but it’s also imbued with highly political content. How do you approach political films from the cinematographic angle? Is cinematography even political to you?

No. No, it isn’t. It’s not political. It’s all about telling stories. If it’s political somehow, that’s just the nature of the script.

What are you working on right now?

I’m prepping my first shoot as a director.

What for?

It’s part of a Netflix show called Berlin Station. It’s a contemporary spy show based in Berlin and Budapest. The first and second season are on Epix in the States and on Netflix in Europe. The third season—this is going to be the third season—will come out in November on epic in the States and the same time in Europe on Netlflix.

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Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, and an arts enthusiast who earned his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him @lou_kicks.