A remake of the 1973 film of the same name, Papillon tells the epic story of Henri “Papillon” Charrière, a safecracker who, after wrongly convicted of murder, must escape the infamous French prison colony of Devil’s Island. The film tells a thrilling, brutal story of survival as the characters fight both the elements and the encroaching effects of isolation-induced insanity. Cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski shares his process in shooting the film, and how he dealt with the elements to find the emotional human core at the center of the story.
Hagen Bogdanski: In descending order, I’d say the three things that really drew me into the project were the script, the script and the script. Papillon is a great adventure movie and a classic tale of friendship between two people surviving against the elements. In a way, it’s also eternally relevant, because even though it’s set almost eighty years ago, it’s still, at its core, a story about people fighting an uncaring justice system.
I first met the producer back in Hollywood. I then had two Skype meetings with the Michael Noer, the director, before I met him in person, four weeks later, on location in Serbia. Those Skype meetings gave me a great sense of how the director wanted to approach the film. Then we met in-person and pretty much talked for two days straight. He explained why he was so driven to make the project, and asked me what made me passionate about it. By the end of this process, I felt we were really ready to set out on the voyage of filming Papillon.
PH: What did pre-production look like? Did you approach this project differently than others you've previously worked on?
Hagen Bogdanski: The most amazing part about pre-production was that the production design team wanted to build the prison in an incredibly remote location in Monte Negro, in an area no one had ever shot before. Most of the time and budget of pre-production was dedicated to this effort; we even had to build a road to lead up to the prison set. I worked with him on the sketches to make sure we opened up this new prison to as much natural lighting as we needed. Last time I checked, this fake prison, which is roughly two times the size of a baseball field, is still there. So, I think that was an incredible undertaking.
PH: What makes period pieces different than other films? How does that change your approach?
Hagen Bogdanski: I love period films; making them always feels like time traveling. A lot of my time went into researching as much of the novel and the context surrounding its events as possible. From there, we looked up original photography that captured both the prison and the real-life Papillon. Then we also looked at costumes and at the area of Paris where the main characters start the film living in. The goal was to give us as strong a sense of the aesthetics of the time as possible.
I’d say that the biggest challenge of shooting a period film is making sure that the scene still has a lot of emotion in it so that we can still understand what’s happening from our modern perspective. Things shouldn’t feel stiff and alienating, even though we’re looking at set pieces based around the costumes, customs and attitudes of a long time ago. Everything should just feel as real as possible.
PH: Were there any special techniques you used?
Hagen Bogdanski: We shot with 2 Cameras all the time; I’d say 90% of the film was ultimately shot on handheld and 10% on Steadicam. This was originally the director’s idea; he comes from a documentary background, so he thought that this would be a really good way to modernize the story. We decided together that hand-held cameras would best capture a sense of spontaneity, making the action look more bombastic and chaotic. It’s a similar philosophy to what makes the action scenes in the Jason Bourne movies so remarkable.
We would also try to evoke this spontaneity between the actors by cutting down on rehearsals as much as possible so that the actors were conveying the action in a way that felt fresh and intuitive to them — meanwhile, the camera crew would be reacting to their actions as they happened.
PH: What equipment did you look to for the project? How did this choice enhance the production process?
Hagen Bogdanski: ARRI Alexa Mini cameras and small lenses were the perfect weapons to enhance this semi-documentary production process. They might not be the smallest cameras on the market, but they’re some of the most reliable. I love the look they produce because it looks very cinematic and comes very close to resembling film, while still allowing us to get as intimately and bombastically close to the action as we needed to be.
PH: What challenges, if any, did you face while shooting?
Hagen Bogdanski: Weather was the most challenging factor. I guess this is just inevitable when you’re shooting an adventure movie in a south European Country. Most of the days, on top of this mountain or out at sea in Malta, the weather would be constantly shifting between sun, rain and fog. We just had to deal with it as it happened, and do everything we could to work with the elements without breaking continuity.
PH: How did you become interested in filmmaking?
Hagen Bogdanski: I started out as a child actor and, while on set, would always be most fascinated by the people behind the camera. I wasn’t accepted into film school, so instead, I studied photography and got to know as many directors as I could and tried to find people who had the same spirit of filmmaking. Eventually, I worked with enough filmmakers that some projects I shot made it to the European festival circuit. Throughout this time, the two biggest influences on me were Robbie Müller and Michele Ballhaus. As I’ve grown, I’ve also really loved the work of Emmanuel Lubezki and Roger Deacon.
PH: Are there any other projects that you’re excited about in the upcoming months?Hagen Bogdanski: I’m very excited right now because for the current season of Berlin Station, I’ve moved up from working as a DP to directing several episodes. It honestly feels like I’m living the dream. Berlin Station is really fascinating for me because it’s a modern spy story set in Berlin, the city that I grew up in. I’m specifically directing an episode that is introducing new characters as the story branches into Budapest to explore themes of guilt and redemption. As soon as I wrap on directing, I’ll then return to being a DP for the rest of the season.