Luc Montpellier Creates Magic Behind the Scenes in “Women Talking”
Award-winning Cinematographer, Luc Montpellier, talks about his latest work, the highly acclaimed film, Women Talking, which marks his third collaboration with director Sarah Polley and stars Frances McDormand, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Rooney Mara and Ben Whishaw.
Montpellier hails from Canada, and his impressive litany of work has been seen over the last twenty years and includes such movies as Take This Waltz, Away From Her, Ruba Nadda’s Sabah, and Cairo Time. In 2000, he won a Best Cinematography in a Dramatic Short at the Canadian Society of Cinematographers for Soul Cages. They also nominated him for Paolo Barzman’s Emotional Arithmetic, and he won the Haskell Wexler award for Asghar Massombagi’s 2001 Khaled. In 2003, he won a Gemini Award for Best Photography in a Dramatic Program or Series for the TV film Hemingway vs. Callaghan. Montpellier is also noted for his work on It Was You for which he earned a Canadian Screen Award for Best Cinematography, in 2014.
Some of his TV credits include Damian, Incorporated, Tales from the Loop, Tiny Pretty Things and he was nominated for Best TV Series cinematography at the 2018 Canadian Society of Cinematographers Awards for Counterpart, starring JK Simmons.
I caught up with him on the phone after the Toronto International Film Festival where the film had its world premiere and ahead of its US release on December 2.
Women Talking received such a great response at TIFF. Can you talk about your working relationship with Sarah Polley, how has it evolved and is it different working with a director who’s also an actor?
Yeah, I’ve pretty much shot all of Sarah’s narrative features. And I actually met her way back on one of her early short films I Shout Love (in 2001). With every project, there’s more and more challenging stories that she wants to tell. That’s been an amazing thing to be part of, to see somebody develop their full language over their career. And for me being part of that is quite a special feeling, to be able to witness that. And just her process as an actor, I have learned a tremendous amount in my own work and how I approach cinematography in a film and being a director of photography where the kind of conversations that she has with her creative keys are very much really deeply rooted in trying to dig deep into every choice that we are going to make in the film, whether it’s lighting, production design, camera movement. It’s all based very much on how maybe an actor would do research for a role.
Did she ask you to watch any specific films in preparation for Women Talking?
It’s interesting. We had the fortune on this film to have an extended prep period because we were supposed to film this just before the pandemic hit. And we were actually scouting locations in 2019 or 2020. So, what happened was we were able to watch films together which were the films of PT Anderson and a lot of Terrence Malick films. And to me, there’s a confidence behind those filmmakers that I feel that we were attempting to be inspired by. Our biggest influence though on the film was Larry Towell. She handed me two books by him, which was a photographer that had unprecedented access to Mennonite colonies. They’re amazing photographs of him because they accepted him into their society. They don’t like being photographed and scrutinized that way but, in these books, there are amazingly emotional images of people in their everyday lives. That was a huge inspiration for us.
Directors of photography are very much the unsung heroes in the success of a film. People always talk about the director, and of course the actors and the script, but your role is not often acknowledged. How do you feel about that?
For me, the biggest joy I get on a film is the collaboration with the director, especially if the director has written the script. And in this case, Sarah’s adaptation. And for me, it’s okay not to always get recognized. I love this idea of being part of the magic, not to use a cliche, but part of the magic behind the scenes and to disappear in a way. To me, the biggest success in a film is if I come in and, with the director, design visuals and light the scenes in a way that completely draws you into the story. And then you don’t think about the photography. Even for things that are quite monumental, like in Women Talking, we never shied away from the camera. But hopefully, you get used to that world, and then I disappear.
What happens when you don’t get along with the director? That must be incredibly difficult to work under those conditions.
It is. I do a tremendous amount of work before I take a project to basically see if a director and I are a good match. It’s not like I just read the script and have one conversation with the director, and then that’s it. Sarah and I, early before we knew each other, had tons of discussions and meetings, and lunches and talks just to see personality-wise, sensibility-wise if we were similar. So, I have to admit, I have not had a bad experience with a director because I just really believe in making sure that I’m the right fit for a film. Not just that a director may want me based on my work, but there’s this whole other layer of personality that needs to be there. Let me just put it this way, I’m at my best when I feel there’s a trusting, safe environment on a set and with a creative team. And if I don’t feel that with a director, I don’t think I’m doing service to them by doing their film.
Do most DPs ultimately want to be a director or not necessarily?
You know what? I think everyone is different. For me, I so enjoy, as I said before, the kind of invisible magic that goes into cinematography to make an audience member feel a certain way, but in a very subconscious way. I’m very happy where I am. And wanting to be the best cinematographer I can be and learning every year that I do this. So far, it’s been an amazing ride.
You’ve also won several awards. How did that impact your career?
Interesting. Awards are an interesting thing. Especially in the creative world, I find always picking one better project out of other ones is a very subjective thing. So, I think it brings recognition. It’s a talking point for people to be able to look at your work. It puts you out there in that way but it’s always great as a human being to be recognized for work that you do. The work that directors, anyone that’s working in film in a key position, and even beyond sometimes, you’re going to be scrutinized by the public. You accept that as a part of what you do. You’re making a piece of work for the masses, hopefully. And hopefully, as many people see it. So, for me, that to me is the ultimate award.