In 2019, Pablo Larraín directed Spencer, a biopic about Princess Diana, with Kristen Stewart in the lead role. On the movie set, the filmmaker picked up his Leicas time and again, to get a different perspective of what was going on in front of the film camera. Directing movies and taking photographs are his passions. Following Jackie, the film he shot in 2016, Larrain was once again able to combine the special features of the two forms of media while working on the Spencer project. In this interview, Larrain speaks about the difference he sees between photography and filming, how he deals with light in each of the different hemispheres, and what he appreciates about his leading actress, Kristen Stewart.
Your film Spencer premiered at the 78th Venice International Film Festival on September 3, 2021. Now you’ve just returned from the Oscars, where Kristen Stewart landed an Academy Award nomination for best actress. What did the nomination mean to you?
It’s been a great honor and great news all round. It’s always great to be nominated for best actress, particularly with a movie like this; it’s a movie centered around characters. Awards in general – not only the Oscars – make a movie more accessible to the people: its popularity rises.
How did you start out in the world of images?
I started as a still life photographer; that was my access to the image. Later I started working with movie cameras and film.
How do you come to combine these two professions?
I need to have my photo camera close to me. It makes me feel closer to the characters. I see things closer when I look through a lens.
What is different about a photo camera?
It’s a very private point of view, because nobody is looking at it, it’s hardly recognized. It’s very light and you can carry it around. You can go into places you can’t go with a film camera. It’s not in motion, it’s still. It’s like you’re stealing a piece of time. You capture something that never comes back, something unique.
What is the difference from the actors’ perspective?
When the movie maker is taking pictures instead of filming, the actors find it very private, it’s like you are a part of an intimate community that is part of the film. The actors do things they won’t be doing for a film camera. Every now and then, sometimes every day, I felt it was time for stills. I used the camera before takes and in between takes. The camera is always right by my side, either a Leica Q or a Leica SL.
Is this a common practice on set?
I think it’s quite unusual for directors to have a camera on hand.
Do the actors understand why you have the urge to take photographs?
I speak to them beforehand, so they know. I think they like it. I’ve never seen an actor being unpleasant in front of a camera. I guess it’s okay for them. You have to have a feeling for the right moment.
What is your main focus when taking photographs?
I want to capture the character and want to leave a trace of what the character does. My intention is to capture the movie in every single picture; the picture is a concentrate. Every picture holds a certain moment of the movie. I personally get to understand the character better through the process of doing stills. You could be standing in front of a person, an actor, and you realize there is a different emotion. There will always be an actor dressed in costume as long there is a movie camera. The photo camera I think defines the image, it makes the person in the costume complete.
Do you feel a connection to other art forms?
I love music, but can’t play an instrument. I love painting but can’t paint. But there are similarities between painting and taking photographs: it’s all about composition, lighting, color, texture and, last but not least, volume and emotion. There is a deeper dimension.
Speaking of light, how do you work with it?
It’s the most essential ingredient of photography. I like the winter sun in Germany. It produces a very soft light, very pictorial because the sun is very low. It brings a nice contrast to the image. The light is often filtered by fog and this too gives a very soft touch to the images. Also I needed to adjust myself: I come from the south. The light in the northern hemisphere is different to the light in the southern hemisphere. The sun rises and goes down opposite to what I’m used to in Chile. I had to get used to it, the sun is moving backwards to what I’m used to.
From your point of view, what else is different?
Trees are different and nature in general is different: the colors. You have to understand this and embrace it. Photography becomes an exercise where you have to get used to the new environment.
What features did you like about Kristen Stewart, whom the film revolved around?
She is a very versatile actress; she was very much on duty. Every day with her was a new experience, she is a beautiful actress in many different ways. Every day held a new situation. We were often in a new location, and there were new costumes. That would help create new images. Kristen was often in a new emotional state that the script required. You would have to perceive this and be able to capture that emotion, because you can’t create it. It’s all about feelings, especially in this film. If you aren’t able to capture them, the whole thing doesn’t work.
Pablo Larraín was born in Santiago de Chile in 1976. In 2003, he and his brother, Juan de Dios Larrain, co-founded the production company Fábula, through which he develops his cinematic and advertising projects and supports the work of emerging international directors. He has directed eight feature films and co-directed one television series, including the Academy Award-nominated films No (2012), Jackie (2016) and Spencer (2021). Spencer was his second English-language film, a Princess Diana biopic starring Kristen Stewart in the title role. The film premiered at the 78th Venice Film Festival and received critical acclaim, with Stewart’s performance being lauded by critics and receiving Best Actress nominations for the Golden Globe, Critics Choice and Academy Award, apart from receiving several other accolades from regional critics groups. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram page.