By now, the French cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd knows to expect a call when inspiration strikes Sofia Coppola. "She will call me and say, 'Are you available for this time?'" Four months later, Le Sourd found himself on set in Toronto, standing in for Memphis and Los Angeles of the 1960s and '70s, to shoot the filmmaker's eighth narrative feature, Priscilla.
Le Sourd is the DP behind the sumptuous, poetic visuals of Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster, for which he received an Oscar nomination in 2014, making him an ideal collaborator to capture Coppola's trademark aesthetics. He has now lensed three of her films, including 2017's The Beguiled and 2020's On the Rocks. (Of Coppola's past work, Le Sourd says that he wishes he could have shot "Marie Antoinette, Lost in Translation, Virgin Suicides, Somewhere — I think all of them are fantastic!")
Based on Priscilla Presley's 1985 memoir, the drama re-examines the romance between Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) and Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi), who met when she was 14 years old and he was already one of the most famous singers on the planet. Notably, Priscilla is Coppola's first film shot on digital. The choice was a practical one. "It's about money, how to be able to shoot this movie with the money we have," says Le Sourd, who himself had never shot a feature digitally before. But for the cinematographer, the style is a cherry on top of the substance.
"There is something very special about her writing, and the way she has a very natural and simple way of shooting scenes," Le Sourd muses. "She never overcomplicates it. She tries to make it simple."
A.frame: This is the third film you've shot for Sofia. What do you think it is about your relationship as director and cinematographer that works so well?
I think it is about trust, overall, and confidence between each other. We're not afraid to speak about the script. She's not afraid to speak about the light. That's very important when we start the preparations, and that's the key on set. If you have a doubt about performance, or lighting, or framing, or what the film needs, you can say it. And we lost a lot of money during the prep, so Sofia had to cut about 10 pages of the script. It sometimes became difficult for her to make a choice, and I tried to give her and her producer [Youree Henley] advice. I tried to say, 'Okay, Sofia, keep you vision.' I try to keep everything together.
Does she come to you with a sense of how she envisions the visual language of a film? Or is that something that you discover together?
It's a mix of everything. She's writing the script, so she envisions something. Sometimes she's very clear for what she wants to do, and she doesn't change much about it. But we talk about it. And the moment on set is very important for us, because it's where you put the actors together and [decide] how you use a space, and how to minimize and maximize your time, the number of shots you have to do, and the time you have. But it goes with her language. She doesn't think, 'Oh, I will need five cameras to shoot this scene.' She keeps it simple.
What did she envision for Priscilla? And then how did that evolve in your conversations?
The story is a period piece, and the '60s, '70s is already her language. So, her reference was [William] Eggleston, the photographer, but it was hard for me to try to translate visually, I will say. The imagery is very specific of this time, and completely different for what we've been doing. Of course, it was a choice between shooting on film or shooting on digital, and it's shot on digital, because it was a money reason. After, the visual language is step by step. One, it's about my research of this time. I tried to look all these elements you can find on the internet about color reference, Super 8 video, home videos of Elvis and Priscilla together, and I could easily say, 'Okay, let's try to make it '60s.'
But the only reference we have of this time is Kodachrome, and already, Kodachrome is an interpretation. So, I said, 'Perhaps I don't have to be stuck with this idea of making a period piece look like it looked during the '60s.' I tried to change the color space. You could go with pink colors, red colors, magenta colors, blue colors. I had that freedom. It was interesting to explore the color with the character, with the scene, so I was not stuck on the idea of duplicating one image of this time. When you think about it, the images of Elvis Presley and Priscilla together is just a frame of time, but it doesn't represent necessarily the reality of it. So, I tried to make an interpretation instead of saying, 'I want to duplicate this time exactly like it was. Let's do a photocopy.' I found that more interesting for the story.
Talk to me about your approach to light play in the movie, both in the more naturalistic moments but also in certain sequences where you really push the lighting to be more hyper-stylized.
In general, I like a naturalistic approach [to lighting] on all my movies. But I think the film opened a door to change the idea of it, with the scene with the drugs, or the scene at the end. Because, for example, the last scene in Las Vegas at the end, I found it was interesting to explore the idea of color and emotion with the color. That moment is where the love dies, so I tried to look to this idea of pulsing color to help the scene a little bit, emotionally. I don't know if that worked, but I tried to do something in that direction. During prep, you think about the light, but when you spend 10 days in the same bedroom, you try to explore something different. So you're not repeating yourself, and it could be boring also for the audience. You try to find light that can give you an emotion.
It seems like a silly question, but Jacob and Cailee have quite a height difference. [Elordi is six foot five and Spaeny is five feet one.] Did that affect how you shot the film? You don't want to shoot the entire thing in Dutch angles.
Yes, it was a question from the beginning from Sofia, for sure. But overall, we didn't so many wide shots on this film. It's very intimate, so you don't have to deal with wide shots where you see their different heights. So, we managed. We did some tricks — you know, apple boxes, bigger shoes, you don't see them walking in a wide — so it was a little bit more complicated, but we found the trick to make it happen.
The film is mainly concerned with Priscilla's experience behind closed doors. But you do shoot some iconic Elvis moments with Jacob. What was it like to recreate those performances and such?
It's always interesting to try to use the reference, but the fact is, we didn't have so much money to make the movie. So, you have to make a strong choice. When you say, 'Okay, we have to shoot Elvis at one point in concert,' do you want to duplicate what's been done before? There are already so many movies about him. But we knew we didn't have the money, so you have to make a strong decision. And Sofia is very good about it. So, she says, 'Okay, let's shoot it from the back.' And we had only 20 extras!
That's incredible. Sofia has been very open about the logistics and confines of a tight budget, but it seems like you were able to get creative to make it look like you had all the budget you wanted. 20 extras is nothing!
Yeah, 20 extras. That's correct. Thank you, but it was very challenging for her.
If you learn something new on every show, what did you learn on Priscilla?
You learn about your craft always. You learn how you want to explore something different. I would say that when I did my first movie with Sofia — it was The Beguiled — I discovered that Sofia didn't want to move the camera so much. She was not very comfortable with this idea of it. With this movie, we explore different way to shoot it: We shot 16mm, Super 8, Steadicam, handheld, dolly shots. So, she was more open to explore differents ways to shoot it.