Acclaimed cinematographer César Charlone began his long collaborative career with celebrated Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles on 2002’s City of God. The film brought Charlone an Academy Award nomination for his lensing. Their productive partnership continues into this year’s Netflix film The Two Popes, which drops on the streaming service today. With an intricate and dialogue-heavy script by Anthony McCarten, Popes illustrates multiple imagined conversations between Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and his eventual successor Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce).
Recently awarded with the Camerimage Silver Frog award for his work on The Two Popes, Charlone approached the film with an eye toward capturing every aspect of the intense discourse between the two celebrated actors. He employed two cameras during the conversational sequences trained on each actor’s face letting no reaction or subtle twitch of eye pass.
“We have to see these guys 100 percent. We have to be right in front of them with two cameras so that we don’t miss any reactions, miss anything,” Charlone explained. “It’s about them. It’s about their faces. It’s about the little gestures they do while listening. We constructed all of the cinematography about this feeling of respecting them and letting them do their thing.”
Aside from capturing all of the subtlety of the excellent performances, Charlone also strived to keep the film flowing in a visually compelling fashion that also felt authentic and realistic. That meant shooting in a near documentary style, giving freedom to the actors to move throughout each scene in a naturalistic way. It also lended a sense of imperfection, reduced formality, as an added layer of authenticity. It also provided opportunity to balance between the two styles of the actors: Pryce favors improvisation while Hopkins prefers closer adherence to the written word.
Documenting the excellent performances provided only one of the many challenges of lensing the film. Charlone developed two color palates for the film to distinguish between present day sequences and flashbacks to Bergoglio / Pope Francis’s earlier life. The modern day sequences were inspired by Michelangelo’s famed frescos in the Sistine Chapel as painstakingly reproduced by the production design team. The flashback sequences featured an entirely different visual appeal, trending toward darker, near black and white looks.
“The palate we were working with was very colorful, pastel, very secondary colors that Michelangelo and the other fresco Renaissance painters would produce,” Charlone recalled. “The Buenos Aires flashbacks were the opposite of that. They were harder, more saturated to separate the two periods.”
Aside from providing the inspiration for the modern day color palate, the Sistine Chapel sequences provided a unique challenge. These sequences, despite very realistically appearing set within the actual location, were filmed on a soundstage in a painstakingly recreated set. Charlone’s cinematography helped keep that illusion and ensured that it was never broken.
To maintain the feel of the Sistine Chapel, he worked in close collaboration with the production design and post-production teams. The production design team and art directors ensured Charlone’s camera could close up on the gorgeously reproduced frescos and paintings. The post-production teams appended to his filmed sequences the higher level dome work not actually available on set.
“It’s a mixture of the team: the art direction, the production design, the cinematography, and the post-production,” Charlone said. “That all came from the research we did. We visited the Sistine Chapel many times to watch how the sun would move and affect the light in the room. I wanted it to be real. I could have fallen to the temptation of putting more dramatic lighting, but in effect, that’s not real.”
The Two Popes premieres on Netflix Friday, December 20.