Interview with Manuel Alberto Claro

by Rob White

from Film Quarterly Summer 2012, Vol. 65, No. 4
(above image: Melancholia. Photo: Christian Geisnaes, Courtesy of Zentropa Productions.)

Cinematographer for Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, Manuel Alberto Claro was born in Santiago, Chile in 1970. His family moved to Denmark in 1974, after the Pinochet coup. Having graduated from the European Design Institute, Milan, he worked in his twenties as a photographer’s assistant in Copenhagen and New York. At age 27, he changed tack and studied cinematography at the Danish National Film School. His second feature in his new professional capacity, Reconstruction (Christoffer Boe, 2003), gained the Caméra d’Or at Cannes, and Claro’s career has gone from strength to strength. Melancholia won the award for best film at the 2011 European Film Awards, with Claro taking the cinematography prize. He is due to collaborate again with von Trier on the director’s next project, The Nymphomaniac.

“My aim is to make images that are in love with the story and not with themselves,” Claro told Idol Magazine, adding that his professional role model is Harris Savides, whose credits include Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach, 2007) and Last Days (Gus Van Sant, 2005): “If you can create poetic images, full of texture and emotional presence, out of something trivial, then you are good,” said Claro.

Melancholia has its own wedding and last day, and neither event ends in celebration. The marriage between Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) goes off the rails before it can even be consummated (Justine prefers a roll in the golf-bunker sand with one of Michael’s colleagues), and Melancholia is bookended by slow-motion collisions between the eponymous renegade planet and Earth. Yet von Trier’s anti-disaster film is neither tragic nor miserable. “When I left the theater and exited out into Cannes, I felt light, rejuvenated and unconscionably happy,” wrote the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman after a festival screening. My own reaction was rather similar. Despite its chaotic nuptials and global wipeout, Melancholia does not induce melancholia, at least if Freud’s description of the state in “Mourning and Melancholia” is to be taken as gospel: “profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love.”

Melancholia. Photo: Christian Geisnaes, Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Von Trier’s wry DVD commentary (in conversation with University of Copenhagen professor Peter Schepelern, included on the U.K. edition published by Artificial Eye) often zeroes in on transient pleasures, such as the improvised moment when Udo Kier, in the role of the thin-skinned Wedding Planner, lumbers after a flaming paper lantern as if out of empathy for the object’s own flimsy epidermis. The director also rues small infelicities that most viewers would never notice, such as CGI complexion-smoothing (“skin fixes”) that he now considers unsatisfactory. Since he also admits to so-called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, perhaps his focus on minutiae should be classed as pathological persnicketiness—but that would be to prefer armchair psychoanalysis to the beautiful variegation of Melancholia, to which Claro’s cinematography contributes so much.

It is an eccentric, rogue film that never obeys the usual rules of stylistic and emotional consistency. Paradoxes and incongruities abound from the start: the miniature drama of Justine opening her eyes against a background of avian rainfall is juxtaposed with a cosmic conflagration rendered as one liquescent heavenly body plunging into another. And if von Trier’s film embraces sci-fi, Wagner, uncanny tableaux, homages to Bergman and Tarkovsky, Dogme-style handheld jitteriness, there is also a long take of summer quiet as Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) dozes which is reminiscent, as Schepelern suggests during the commentary, of Rohmer’s bittersweet idylls. To dwell on such a detail, and to go further and think it more notable than the ensuing celestial firestorm, might after all involve a kind of melancholy, though one quite unfit for Freudianism.

The interview occurred on March 15, 2012. Thanks to Alberto Toscano for help in arranging it.

Rob White: How would you characterize your cinematography?

Manuel Alberto Claro: I’m always attentive to the actual locations. I try to create the best possible space for the actors and then of course be visually expressive within that. What results sometimes is technically bad but emotionally good moments. I really like the process of shooting, of getting somewhere. I constantly adjust—I don’t have a specific plan before shooting a scene. I think it’s a process that is similar to what actors do actually. It becomes an organic process once you’re working, and this was definitely the case with Melancholia where the idea was that the camera reacts to the actors as if it had no clue what’s going to happen: so the reaction is always a little late, a little off. Maybe you miss lines, you don’t get all the dialogue. Lars likes that. He doesn’t think we need to see everything, hear every line being said, and that’s a little different than most directors.

Did you operate the camera yourself?

In the first week, Lars operated for the first take of each scene, and then I would take over, but after a week he stopped operating. (The camera used was an Arri Alexa.) I think there are two or three cuts in the finished film that are operated by him, but usually everything would be wrong in the first take. Lars doesn’t give directions at first, either to the actors or the crew. He just says “action” and then watches what happens. Apart from the script, nobody knows where they’re going at the beginning. After the first take, everyone makes suggestions and then everyone adjusts. Often the result is an amazing transformation in the next take, especially when the setups are simple.

In terms of the style of the handheld camerawork, I certainly had Lars’s earlier work in mind. Normally I would operate much more calmly, stay with the image for longer, pan and zoom much less, but it’s not like you can imitate someone else’s style. Lars wants you to try to forget professional knowledge and instead work as instinctively as possible. You have to try to be within the scene, react to what you see, always try to do new things. Every time I would repeat something he would respond immediately and ask me to avoid refining something that had been done in a previous take. “I don’t like that,” he would say. “I can feel that you’re thinking.” In that sense you have to get into a documentary mode, but in fact if I was doing documentary I would still operate more calmly! I wouldn’t pan away so quickly, for example, if only because in normal film language that makes it more difficult to edit. But Lars precisely likes the difficulty that ensues—the fact that you lose some sense of space, in particular, so you can’t master the scene.

How did you visually differentiate the two halves of the film? The second half is lighter and perhaps even, despite the coming apocalypse, happier.

We used very yellow lights for the wedding. The idea was to create an environment that was somehow too happy—happy to the point that it becomes disturbing. The yellowness of the lighting is too much; it starts to seem nauseating. Then in the second part, the lighting is much more neutral. I would almost call it Protestant. Since the first part mostly has night scenes (apart from the limo drive at the beginning), there’s a contrast with the daytime, sunlit, exterior sequences of the second part. You see the park, the woods. Then also in the first part there are so many actors, so there’s always something going on: a lot of people talking, a lot of background activity. It feels energetic. The second half is more of a chamber piece in terms of there being just a few characters and the light is much more naturalistic and cold.

Melancholia. Photo: Christian Geisnaes, Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Was Last Year in Marienbad a reference?

Yes, absolutely, but it only became a reference because of the location we chose, especially the rows of trees. Once Lars saw the location, the connection was easily made and we realized we could pay this homage to Last Year in Marienbad. The mansion itself, Tjolöholm, is in Sweden, half an hour south of Gothenburg. It’s an amazing house built by James Fredrik Dickson, who was an immensely wealthy Scottish importer of Siberian wood—a tycoon’s dream palace that actually he never got to live in because he died during a drinking binge before the building was finished.

What about the Dogme influence and the similarity to Festen?

Of course the comparison is right there with the gathering of a dysfunctional family plus speeches. The only conversation I remember about Festen was simply concerning the fact that a wedding or any family reunion is innately good cinematic material because there’s a lot of built-in stories and conflicts.

But we did have some Dogme-style rules: for example, we had a rule that even though we shot a lot of scenes on a sound stage we didn’t allow ourselves to move any furniture once we’d started filming. This limited the availability of camera angles because normally shooting on a stage allows a lot of freedom in positioning the camera—walls can be just removed and so on. Also we only lit the scenes with household lamps, but in the case of this rule it wasn’t completely possible to stick to it.


Although an unsteady documentary style predominates, there are also a number of high overhead shots. On the one hand the camera is right in the middle of the action, almost an actor itself. On the other hand there are these very distant, separate, impersonal shots—including the shots that frame planets.

I think this is a very interesting moment in Lars’s work when he seems to be mixing the more formal style of his 1980s work with the techniques of the Dogme period, taking the best from both. In Melancholia, the camera is very close and responsive when it’s right for the psychological moment, when stuff is happening between people. But then there are a lot of these more elevated moments where you’re watching a planet or a landscape. When we were shooting he called these “Wagner moments”—which would end up having music under them. So at some moments it’s very much documentary-style, at others it’s more elevated and grandiose. But I think what makes it a great film is precisely that it has both very intimate scenes—with the sense of being right in the middle of things—and then also these much more expansive or remote shots. By the way, the Wagner was played on set a lot (and we listened to it before shooting too), and it worked quite differently for different people, with some being moved and others finding its epic, tragic dimension annoying.

What’s it like to film the end of the world?

It’s not that interesting! It’s of course mostly done on computer in postproduction. The scene where I most had a sense of the larger-than-life was the scene on the terrace in front of the house when they see the planet rise up over the horizon. When we shot the view of where the planet is supposed to be, we had these emergency flares that we shot into the sky in order to create moving shadows on the trees. And for the shots of the characters looking at the planet, we had a lamp on a crane so that shadows would move slowly over the actors’ faces. During this scene it was like I could sense the planet there, but otherwise the cosmic shots were for me very technical.

Can you say more about the slowed-down opening sequence?

We saw the opening images very much as intricate paintings: different parts of each image might have slightly different perspectives, for example, which adds a sense of artifice and unreality—as in Renaissance painting. The whole opening sequence is stitched together from many, many shots. In fact each image contains many shots. We storyboarded the sequence on the basis of lines written by Lars such as “Justine is standing and insects are coming up from the ground.” Then we had to find places that corresponded to the drawings. But it was difficult: we would find the right kind of hill, but the background didn’t work so we would have to add a different background in, and so on. Some of the shots of the actors are done on greenscreen as well, adding a further element.

Lars also wanted the sequence to be as slow as possible, so the images are almost stills that have just a trace of movement. That was the idea, and the Phantom camera made it possible. With this camera, you can set the frame rate up to thousands of frames per second (as opposed to the usual twenty-four or twenty-five frames per second), so what’s captured is slowed down tremendously and as a result it becomes possible to see things that would be invisible at a normal speed. (I believe this camera is mainly used in car-crash tests, by the way. It’s a scientific instrument for splitting seconds.) The Phantom was previously used in Antichrist—in the opening sequence and elsewhere when we are in the woman’s internal world (for example when we see her walking across the little bridge near the end of the film). These extremely slowed-down images have the quality of anxiety sometimes, and I think it’s the case that sometimes the world seems like this to Lars himself.

But perhaps the comparison with painting downplays the sense in which the aesthetic of Melancholia is something new, digital, closer to videogames or fashion photography. Indeed the Bruegel painting in the opening sequence burns, as if to make way for a new art that might even mock, or anyway reinvent, painting.

Lars regarded the opening images as previsions that Justine can see because of who she is. The first ten minutes are her viewpoint. And the Bruegel painting is first of all a reference to Tarkovsky’s Solaris. Lars is a big fan of Tarkovsky and in general we talked about both Solaris and Mirror. Tarkovsky creates images from emotional ideas, as Lars did in the opening sequence of Melancholia. Lars also refers to his use of paintings and music, but mainly it was how Tarkovsky approaches the creation of images that inspired us. We also talked about the last scene of Antonioni’s La notte because of the closing scene that takes place on a golf course.

In general we wanted in this sequence to have the expressive and emotional freedom that painting has, but we never discussed it as a comment on painting. Of course the sequence is digital and, like you, I also felt that this was in some way a new kind of cinema that emerges from technology that offers all these new options.

Rob White’s book about Todd Haynes is forthcoming in the Contemporary Film Directors series (University of Illinois Press).