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DARIUS THE GREAT: In The Shadows of Cinematography with Darius Khondji




©Photo of Darius Khondji by Catherine Faux & photocompositionDK

"Filmmaking is The Orchestration of Emotions Through Light"

-Director Ridley Scott


He is one of the great names in his profession and yet virtually unknown to the audience at large for he works in the shadows of the film directors and the actors on a movie set. His job is Cinematography, which basically consists of defining what the movie will ultimately look like onscreen: The lights, the type of film and lens to be used up to overseeing the photography are all part of his job. Darius Khondji has remarkably imposed his unique style in both French and Hollywood Films for the past two decades becoming one of the most envied and demanded talents in an already highly competitive industry. Just to name a few of his achievements: Marc Caro and Jean Pierre Jeunet's Delicatessen and City of Lost Children , David Fincher's Se7en, Alan Parker's Evita should be enough to introduce him but would certainly not be complete without Roman Polanski's Ninth Gate, Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty, Danny Boyle's The Beach, Sydney Pollack's The Interpreter and once again back to his collaboration with Jean Pierre Jeunet with Alien: Resurrection (deemed by many critics as the Only good follow-up to Ridley Scott's original classic).


France has always been in the forefront of motion pictures history and creativity ever since the genesis of filmmaking. The Lumieres brothers equally claim the paternity of the invention of Cinema with Thomas Edison and George Mélies was the first to mesmerize moviegoers with great Special Effects. The French New Wave of the early 1960's spearheaded by François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Goddard has influenced generations of moviemakers to this day in filming on location and in the streets rather than in pre-fabricated Hollywood Studio's. If by the early 80's French Cinema seemed to have lost some of its global influence it was due to the overgrowing gap between technological breakthrough's due to Hollywood's new Golden Boy's like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg who were entirely redefining and reinventing what films were to look like often to the dislike of critic's of the prestigious Les Cahiers du Cinéma. At the same time a new generation of French talents fascinated by Hollywood productions was blooming and waiting for their hour while making small budget but visually attractive films. Amongst them was Luc Besson the director of the 5th Element and Leon aka The Professional  who was to transform the French cinema industry thanks to the digital revolution of the 1990's that allowed European and Asian film industries to get back in the global race dominated till then by Hollywood productions. Soon the innovative approach of Besson was to launch the career's of an entire new generation of film professionals in nearly every field from directors like Jean Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro, Jan Kounen, Mathieu Kassovitz or Special Effects Wizards like Pitof , and Cinematographers like Thierry Arbogast and Darius Khondji who were to be known as the Frenchy's of Hollywood in the years that followed because they were to partly work for Hollywood Studio's while developing their own more personal projects back home and often cooperating with one another. This was particularly true for the successful collaboration between Darius Khondji and Jean Pierre Jeunet who truly gained fame with two landmark movies Delicatessen and City of Lost Children where their creative bond drew the attention of Hollywood Studio's and led them to international fame for their groundbreaking work on Alien: Resurrection that revived Ridley Scott's classic Franchise.



Darius Khondji's passion for movies grew at his Father's Movie Theater in
Tehran and continued to thrive at the Cinémateque in Paris ©
photocompositionDK, Big Photo of Darius Khondji by Catherine Faux


A closer look at Darius Khondji's cosmopolitan background certainly explains the facility with which he was to jump from French Art Films to Blockbuster Hollywood Productions for which he has now become a reliable household name and much acclaimed talent.  Born to a French mother and Iranian Father In Tehran, Iran on the 21st of October 1955, Khondji was immersed into the realm of motion pictures at a very young age. His father owned two movie theaters in Tehran and he got to see many Hollywood classic films at an early age. Particularly fascinated by Horror films he was to have his first cinematic shock while growing up in France. The movie in question was Merian C. Cooper's 1933 classic King Kong. Under legal age for seeing such a movie he was kicked out of the local French movie theater and could not to see the film entirely. This frustration led him to fantasize and develop a taste for Motion pictures particularly those related to Horror films like Dracula or Frankenstein and even start making his first Super 8 and 16 mm films at the age of 11. Additionally he was initiated to Art by his elder Sister Christine a painter who would take him to Art Exhibitions and to the French Cinémateque. His elder brother was also to show him his first short films and teach him the rudimentary mechanics of moviemaking. The film texture was one of the aspects that seemed to fascinate him very early on. The first film he saw at the Cinémateque in Technicolor was Johnny Guitar starring Joan Crawford. Later he was impressed by the only film directed by Charles Laughton The Night of the Hunter starring Robert Mitchum in the title role of an Assassin disguised as a Priest which for a Hollywood film actually displayed some very interesting visual Black and White contrasts and subtle use of light as in some early German Expressionist films.


Magic in the Making: Darius Khondji at Work ©Darius Khondji &

To his own admission, Khondji was not a very good student at school, spending more time at the Cinemateque or the local movie theater. He did not have the necessary level in Math's and Physic's to enter cinema school in France, so he left for the US and enrolled instead at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). In 1978 he went for the first time to New York and was absolutely fascinated by this cosmopolitan city. After graduating at ICP (International Center of Photography) where he learned most of his craft he soon enrolled at the NYU and developed his film culture and background. He was still shy about the technical aspects of filmmaking but took a genuine interest in such classics as Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, or Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist as well as films by Jacques Tourneur and Fritz Lang and was more and more drawn by their work on light in shaping an image. The turning point where he understood the importance of light in movies was with André Téchiné Barroco for which Bruno Nuytten was cinematographer.


It was while doing advertisements that he really got to learn and apply film techniques like film processing and the choice of the negatives and digital film. It was during such work assignments that he was to team up with Caro and Jeunet.


Khondji is known to love Scope and believes that it is a format that allows you to equally make Great Epics and intimate stories. The 1:33 is another favorite format because it was used since the first silent version films up to some French New Wave films of the 1960's. It was also a format used in Dreyer's Jeanne D'Arc aka Joan of Arc one of the most enigmatic and powerful historical depictions on film from the Silent Era. Paradoxically Khondji loves working in both formats that are very opposite in size. He also prefers shooting in 35 mm rather than in digital which he seriously used on a documentary feature film about Zidane the football player and was in competition at Cannes last year. The film did not really get good reviews at the time nor did it do well at the Box Office. Also he believes in the use of light on film which is often overlooked by directors who work only with the digital format.


Khondji helped define the vision of some of the Greatest
Contemporary Filmmakers © & photocompositionDK


An ever perfectionist Darius Khondji has often shared his thoughts in the French press on his filmography. He has developed personal relationships with the directors and actors he has worked with over the years. I have collected and translated some of his comments below from various sources as well as the importance of these films in his career:


Delicatessen (1991): Delicatessen represents a turning point in Khondji's professional life and was shot in anamorphic scope, a format he was familiar with since using it but in Black and White on a film called Trésor des îles chiennes, but which he wanted to use this time in color. He considers this film as a highlight in his career because it was the first time he got to work with Caro and Jeunet. It was an ambitious project that demanded great planning. The Casting in the film is remarkable and It also allowed him to achieve a dream that of : creating  with the directors a kind of art workshop where they would have full artistic control of the film from beginning to the final cut. It was a joint collaboration that would be repeated on other films like in The City of Lost Children.


The City of Lost Children aka La cité des enfants perdus (1994): This film was by far the most difficult to make in the beginning of his career. The film was four times more expensive to make and the Sets were enormous. After the film's release and success Khondji caught the eye of Hollywood Producers and received many propositions often in the field of sci-fi fantasy in the lines of Batman, Superman et Harry Potter which he simply refused to work on until he got the script of Se7en.


Seven (1995): This is probably Khondji's most famous Hollywood work that truly imposed him as a Master in Cinematography. He met director David Fincher while working with him on an Advertisement for Nike in France. Their collaboration led to working on Se7en. Khondji accepted the task despite initial complications due to union rights in the US who would not accept a " Frenchy " for the job, but Fincher managed to impose Khondji on the Studio and hired him. The experience on this film was to Khondji's admission both exhilarating and painful for both because Fincher had personal problems at the time and the film was in many ways an exteriorizing that pain. The result was a fantastic thriller that remains a milestone both for its cinematography and amazing editing despite a rather predictable ending. It was also to propel Brad Pitt and Kevin Spacey to Stardom.


Beauté volée aka Stealing Beauty (1995): Shot in Tuscany in the Summer it was to one of the major films to introduce Liv Tyler to world viewers. It was directed by Bernardo Bertollucci who had not had any major success since his Oscar Awarding film The Last Emperor a decade earlier.

The Camera needs to Love its subject, so does the Cameraman.
Khondji works closely with actors and directors alike and has befriended
many, such as Sigourney Weaver, Morgan Freeman, Zinedine Zidane,
Sydney Pollack or Madonna.
©imdb & photocompositionDK

Evita (1996): Khondji considers this movie as one of his favorite both professionally and for the good atmosphere on set while shooting it. Madonna was totally investing herself in the role created by Andrew Lloyd Webber as a classic musical. Director Alan Parker was also passionate about the subject. Khondji was not very comfortable with the idea of shooting a musical and initially refused Parker's proposal but after meeting him in London he was totally seduced and convinced that he could do it. Khondji had already worked on a video clip with Madonna so she had agreed with having him on board but both Alan Parker and him were a little worried about working with her given her strong and tough personality. Happily however the entire crew got along very well and Khondji developed a very friendly professional relationship with Madonna and was a great support to her when she received strong critics from Peronist Supporters in Argentina who did not accept the fact that their Saint be played by a Pop Star like Madonna. Ultimately the film was an International Box office and critical Success which remains Madonna's best onscreen performance to date.


Alien Resurrection aka Alien, la résurrection (1997): This is Jean-Pierre Jeunet 's first major international hit and Hollywood experience. It was made before his Oscar Nominated film Amelie and was a great sequel to the Alien trilogy. It also confirmed the creative and efficient cooperation between Jeunet and Khondji.


In Dreams (1999) : This film was shot while Robert Downey Jr. was in Prison for his drug problems. He was released on bail so as to be on set to shoot the movie. Khondji's is known to work closely with the actors and developing a working relationship in a way that puts them in trust and comfort. He was particularly impressed by Downey's acting and psychology and was also seduced by Niel Jordan's performance. In Dreams is one of his favorite works even if he agrees that it does have flaws. Several different endings were shot including one without Khondji. It contains great scenes but is artistically imperfect.


Ninth Gate aka La neuvieme porte (1999) : Khondji loved working with Roman Polanski. The former kid fascinated by Dracula and Horror movies must have found common ground with the Polish director of China Town and Rosemary's Baby. He also relished working with Johnny Depp who he considers as one of today's finest actors. If the Ninth Gate is not Polanski's most accomplished movie nor Depp's best performance, Khondji doesn't reject this experience. He was flattered when during a private screening at Martin Scorsese's NY Flat they both chose to watch a movie from his wide collection. Khondji chose 2001: A Space Odyssey while Scorsese ( also a great movie buff and critic) picked the Ninth Gate. A proof if needed that the movie was not entirely a failure ...


The Beach (2000): This was a much talked about film while it was being shot. The crew was not entirely welcome to shoot in Thailand because an ecologist group claimed that they were polluting the ocean which was not true. So the Hollywood production became a center of attention and interruption by various demonstrators and interest groups. Khondji laughs at this experience in retrospective  comparing it to an Apocalypse Now in reference to Francis Ford Coppola's long and controversial shoot that nearly put an end to the Great Hollywood Directors career. The film featuring Leonardo Di Caprio and directed by Danny Boyle was not a Hit but Khondji is fond of his collaboration with Danny Boyle and would love to work with him again.


Panic room (2002): This was Khondji's third collaboration with David Fincher both of whom had greatly benefited from Se7en in terms of critical and professional recognition. Panic Room, was nevertheless, going to prove a disastrous one for both and end their friendship due to pressures during the shoot. Digitally Shot in a Studio, the entire set was virtual. Fincher had suggested him to work on Fight Club but he was not available at the time. When they started shooting Panic Room, Fincher was totally obsessed. According to Khondji, Fincher had great ideas on paper and the planning was well organized but when they started to shoot with Nicole Kidman, she happened to be at a turning point in her life (divorce with Tom Cruise) and after 8 weeks of shooting she quit ! People at Sony Pictures were furious and decided to replace her by a Pin Up Girl Starlet but Fincher managed to impose Jodie Foster. Khondji supported this choice and the Studio inclined. However they had already been extremely delayed since Kidman's departure and had lots of reshoots to do. Fincher managed to obtain three extra weeks but that infuriated the People at Sony who decided to sue him for slowing down production. Fincher according to Khondji, Fincher very much like Kubrick is a perfectionist and still needed more time to be absolutely satisfied with the work. Some of the best Hollywood Technicians were working on the film at the time but nearly all were disappointed not to find the same genius who had made Se7en less than a decade ago. Things took a dramatic turn since the Studio needed a scapegoat and since they could not fire the producer who happened also to be Fincher's wife, they turned their complaints towards Khondji who was fired halfway through the shoot. It was a humiliating situation and bitter moment in his career that put an end to their old friendship. Khondji blamed this on Fincher's obsessed approach in shooting the scenes: Often 25 to 30 takes for each scene were not enough and he would do up to 60 takes to satisfy the director. After being replaced by another cinematographer, the problems continued and People at Sony recontacted Khondji's agent to excuse themselves for having misjudged him but it was too late. Since then Khondji and Fincher have been at Odds which is a pity given that Se7en was a milestone in both of their careers and their teamwork was to redefine much of the stylistic cinematography of the past decade in Hollywood. Films are Often Fun to watch, making them is not always so ... 


Anything else (2003) : Woody Allen had already contacted Khondji on a previous film project through his agent but Khondji but had failed to let Khondji know about it. So it was a happy surprise that the director of Manhattan and Zelig contacted him once again for Anything Else, and it was a very short shoot. It was fun and Woody Allen was to contact him systematically for his other projects but unfortunately Khondji was tied up each time. He often eats with Allen when he is in NY and is impressed by Allen's commitment to his Art and does not consider Box Office Success as a prerequisite to making a movie and never does sneak previews to change his editing as most directors do.


Wimbledon (2004):  Khondji made this film totally by accident. He does not reject this work nevertheless but what motivated him was his admiration for director Richard Loncraine work on Richard III.  He also wanted to work on a comedy and found the casting good but he was dissatisfied by the result. He would like to work on a Comedy again and admires Wes Anderson and is a huge fan of The Royal Tenenbaums .


The Interpreter (2005): Working with Sydney Pollack one of the leading directors of of the 1970's and of the Pre-Watergate political thriller  3 Days of the Condor was a Dream Come True for Khondji. Khondji says about his own working instincts " For me a director's ability to excite me on a project is certainly what determines my decision to work with them and if they have the right material to work with. The choice of the cast comes after. In the case of Stealing Beauty for instance, I accepted to work with Bertollucci without even reading the scenario, and Pollack had the same power of persuasion that made me accept his proposition immediately even if I was not certain he was going to take me on board. ". After a meeting in London during the shooting of another film Wimbledon, and both were convinced of wanting to work with each other. He particularly enjoyed working with both Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. He confessed in an interview in the French media "I have always been lucky to light actors who trusted me entirely, but in the case of Nicole Kidman, I noticed that she was totally immersed in her role and I did not want to disturb her concentration, but she told me that she knew about my work and that with Tom ( Cruise) they had admired his work greatly. I understand Stars who is afraid of technicians and cameramen but with Kidman we knew from the start where we were heading. Lighting actors is not just a question of looking for their good or bad looks but to understand where the story is leading and what needs to be captured onscreen given a situation. Nicole has this very Hitchcock style Look  one can see in Tippi Hedren in Marnie. I wished to find the same texture and contrast that between an Innocent look and devilish unpredictable one."  Normally they were to recreate the set in a Studio, which is often the case but finally the film was shot on location at the United Nations offices in NY, every weekend for four months. The Challenge for a cinematographer is often more difficult but Khondji was even more enthusiastic about the perspective. He loved the idea of shooting in the afternoon sun and in natural light. Also the offices and grand hall of the UN were particularly photogenic and Khondji decided to use hyper sensitive film and scope with little artificial light. He discovered that he could truly capture the atmosphere of this prestigious location that also has an onscreen chemistry. Darius Khondji regards his working experience on Pollack's the Interpreter as one of his finest in the lines of what he achieved on Delicatessen, Seven and Stealing Beauty all of which were different and magical in their own way. For the anecdote another Iranian also had a Big start in his career with the Interpreter in a Supporting role. His name is Maz Jobrani who is currently touring the US with his much acclaimed show the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour. 


Zidane, un portrait du 21e siecle (2006): Halfway between a sports documentary and an conceptual art installation, "Zidane" consists in a full-length soccer game (Real Madrid vs. Villareal, April 23, 2005) entirely filmed from the perspective of soccer superstar Zinedine Zidane. It premiered at Cannes but was ignored in the Theaters due to the controversy over  Zidane's unfortunate Head But during the German World Cup.


Upcoming Project: Kar Wai Wong's much expected remake of an
Orson Welles Classic will be using Khondji's cinematographic talents.
©imdb & photocompositionDK


The Lady From Shanghai (2008): LATEST FILM IN PRE-PRODUCTION to be directed by Kar Wai Wong and Starring Nicole Kidman is said to be a remake if not a tribute to Orson Welles' Classic movie of the same name starring Rita Hayworth. It would be the 2nd Collaboration with Kar Wai Wong after the much noticed movie at Cannes My BlueBerry Nights featuring singer Norah Jones ( In her first movie) and Jude Law.


Darius Khondji has truly earned his fame as one of the greatest and creative Cinematographers of our times. His ground breaking exploration of the medium has turned him into one of the most demanded people in his profession and that of a man genuinely dedicated to his craft. The young boy from Tehran who dreamed of being King Kong or Dracula, happily may have failed to become one of these favorite onscreen monsters but has certainly fulfilled his childhood ambition of being part of an Industry of Dreams and Nightmares and equally earn the respect and admiration of his colleagues in Hollywood and Beyond.


What Else ? ©imdb


Authors Notes:


Official Website of The French Cinemateque  


Recommended Viewing:


A History of Cinemascope through the eyes of Great Hollywood filmmakers: Part I and Part II


Recommended Readings:


On French-Iranians in Cinema:

Iranian Pioneers in French New Wave Cinema by Darius KADIVAR

A Class Apart:Fereydoun Hoveyda (1924-2006) by Darius KADIVAR

Philippe Khorsand: A Discreet Iranian Sidekick by Darius KADIVAR
Being Princess Shams: Mathilda May portrays Late Shah's Sister by Darius KADIVAR

Satrapi's Persepolis wins "Prix du Jury" at Cannes by Darius KADIVAR

MAGIC IN THE MAKING: Satrapi's Cinephilic Choice for Persepolis Cast by Darius KADIVAR

Anicée (ALVINA) Shahmanesh: France's Sex Icon of the 1970's by Darius KADIVAR

Legendary Film Critic Jean-Claude Carriere and Wife Nahal Tajadod Chants Djalal-e-Din Mohammad Molavi Rumi by Darius KADIVAR
Enduring Friendship: Alain Delon and Shahbanou Farah by Darius KADIVAR

An Independent Eye: Producer/Distributor Hengameh Panahi by Darius KADIVAR

Youssef Ishaghpour's Rosebud by Darius KADIVAR
Kiarostami Reveals Name of Film With Juliette Binoche by Darius KADIVAR

Observing the Maestro: Binoche paints Kiarostami for Les Chahiers by Darius KADIVAR

Centre Pompidou Hosts Kiarostami-Eric Exhibition by Darius KADIVAR
Winds of War:French-Soviet Production Teheran'43 by Darius KADIVAR
Teheran Mon Amour: Music Score of Motion Picture Teheran'43 by Darius KADIVAR

French-Iranian director Robert Hossein to revive Epic Tale of Ben Hur in 2006 by Darius KADIVAR


On US-Iranians in Hollywood:

Persia? Ancient Persia's virtual absence in Hollywood By Darius KADIVAR

Khayyam with Popcorn : Persian poet in the eyes of Hollywood by Darius KADIVAR

Zardeh Kuh to King Kong : A Great Filmmakers Early Start by Darius KADIVAR
Champagne Safari :Rita Hayworth Love Story With The Persian Prince by Darius KADIVAR
Sultan of My Heart:
Monika Jalili and Noorsaaz's remembrance of things past... by Darius KADIVAR
Persian Golden Boys in Hollywood
by Darius KADIVAR
Lessons from the Keeper: An Interview with Kayvan Mashayekh
by Darius KADIVAR
Alexander Is Back: Oliver Stone's Upcoming Epic on Macedonian Conqueror
by Darius KADIVAR
Persepolis to Represent France at Hollywood Oscars 2008! By Darius KADIVAR
SHOCKWAVE: Shohreh Aghdashloo's devilish portrayal of Dina Araz in 24 Hits France by Darius KADIVAR
GETTING BIBLICAL: Shohreh Aghdashloo's New Epic Drama
by Darius KADIVAR
Close Up on Shohreh Aghdashloo
by Darius KADIVAR & Parisa DEFAIE
He is Awake: Close Up on Cyrus Kar by Darius KADIVAR
Asgar for an Oscar by Darius KADIVAR
Saw III: Bahar Soomekh's Halloween Nightmare by Darius KADIVAR
SYRIANA:Breaking Iranian Stereotypes in Hollywood by Darius KADIVAR
George Clooney's Great Escape by Darius KADIVAR
Ramin's Hollywood Music Scores by Darius KADIVAR
Nailing the Script: Screenwriter Cyrus Nowrasteh by Darius KADIVAR
Pasdar Fever Hits France after Hollywood by Darius KADIVAR
The Persian Empire Strikes Back by Darius KADIVAR
XERXES: A Screenplay by Ren. A Hakim by Darius KADIVAR
An Immortal Stuntsman: An interview with Darren Shahlavi by Darius KADIVAR

Persian Pirates of the Caribbean by Darius KADIVAR

On British-Iranians in Cinema:
KILLSHOT: Hossein Amini and Quentin Tarantino's New Pulp Movie by Darius KADIVAR
Tony Nourmand's Golden Eye by Darius KADIVAR
In the Arena with Omid Djalili by Darius KADIVAR

On Italian-Iranians in Cinema:
Desert of the Tartars: Valerio Zurlini's Epic Nightmare Shot in Bam by Darius KADIVAR
Maya Sansa Persian Italian Actress by Darius KADIVAR
Fardin's Western Spaghetti by Darius KADIVAR
Iranian film director Parvin Ansary in Italian Cinema interviewed by Brian Appleton


About the Author:
Darius KADIVAR is a Freelance Journalist, Film Historian, and Media Consultant.


© Copyright 2007 (All Rights Reserved)