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Texture of Emotion

Philippe Le Sourd, ASC, AFC reteams with Sofia Coppola to craft the intimate biopic Priscilla.

Based on Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir Elvis and Me, the feature Priscilla reunited writer-director Sofia Coppola with cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, ASC, AFC. Their prior collaborations included the features The Beguiled and On the Rocks, both of which were photographed on 35mm negative. Priscilla, though, marked Le Sourd’s first foray into digital acquisition, and he worked closely with Panavision Toronto in selecting his camera and lens package, ultimately opting to pair an Alexa 35 camera with Panavision Super Speed and Ultra Speed optics. Here, the cinematographer shares his perspective on the creative approach behind the movie’s visual language.

Panavision: How would you describe the look of Priscilla?

Philippe Le Sourd, ASC, AFC: This movie is a tapestry of emotions, so you try to convey the feelings of each character. It's about how you frame it, the power of negative space, and lighting directions. For me, the essence lies in ensuring the audience deeply connects with the characters. I like to convey on each scene and each moment the essence of the emotion of the film.

Were there any particular visual references that you looked at for inspiration?

Le Sourd: In my quest to capture the essence of the Elvis and Priscilla era, I realized the abundance of references available — from books to the internet and YouTube. However, instead of replicating existing images, often tinged with Kodachrome interpretations, I opted for a more innovative approach. Rather than producing a mere photocopy, I sought to create a fresh interpretation of that time.

During this process, I stumbled upon a captivating black-and-white photograph from Saul Leiter featuring a woman seated on a bed, cloaked in complete silhouette. Instantly, I knew I had found the cinematic inspiration I was seeking - a departure from the conventional Elvis and Priscilla imagery.

In addition to this evocative photograph, we delved into the world of movies that held a special place in my heart and cinematic education. Having studied Italian cinema at university, my early passion was ignited by Antonioni's masterpiece, L'Avventura. The film's framing, composition, and mise-en-scène profoundly influenced my perspective as a cinematographer. The portrayal of loneliness, emptiness, and the adventurous spirit resonated with me.

Our cinematic journey also drew inspiration from another Antonioni gem, L'Eclisse, which brought us immense joy. These films became not just references but guiding lights in shaping the visual narrative of our project.

What brought you to Panavision for this project?

Le Sourd: Panavision is a gold mine. You search for something, and you know that something antique or super modern could be there. You can't be wrong to go to Panavision. The people, the quality, the craft, the knowledge that comes from 70 years. I knew I need these craftspeople behind me.

What optical characteristics did you see in the Ultra Speed and Super Speed lenses that made them the right match for this story?

Le Sourd: This was my first movie shot on digital, so I did a lot of tests to compare formats. Even the size of the camera adds a layer to the set ambience. When you bring a piece of equipment on set, it tells a story to the actor and to the director.

I’ve used the Super Speed and Ultra Speed lenses on film before, and perhaps it was an unconscious decision, but they turned out to be the perfect fit for this particular story. Reflecting on it, I believe it came down to the texture they provided. There was a unique quality, a certain depth that resonated with the emotional essence of the narrative, and ultimately, that aspect held greater significance for me.

Working with digital afforded me the freedom to manipulate colors and experiment more on set. Typically, I lean towards a naturalistic approach in my work, but with Priscilla, I found it was interesting to explore the idea of color and the emotional impact of color.

How does this project differ from others in your career?

Le Sourd: Every project is different, but I think there’s a continuity of the work in certain ways, a continuity of research. You never stop looking for something. Every day brings something different and challenging. Even a scene like Priscilla and Elvis’ first kiss inside a car was a challenge. I needed to find something special that brought the emotion of two lovers inside a cage. So for me, it’s always a challenge. I never stop thinking, ‘Was that different?’

Images courtesy of A24.

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