The Cinematography Podcast Bonus Episode: Shabier Kirchner

In this bonus episode of The Cinematography Podcast, we interview Shabier Kirchner, the cinematographer of Past Lives. The film is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.

Past Lives, written and directed by Celine Song, is about childhood sweethearts reconnecting as adults after many years. When cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, who is from Antigua, was sent the script, it immediately resonated with him. “Past Lives was not just a standalone amazing script, but I found myself in the material. A lot of what I was going through, being an immigrant to the US, being from the Caribbean, reconnecting with a friend, falling in love, all of that stuff was happening while I was reading the material and it just felt like it was written for me.”

Shabier and director Celine Song had an amazing first conversation, and he wasn’t aware that she’d never made a film before. Fortunately, they had an extensive amount of time to prep the movie, and they chose to shoot on Kodak 35mm film. The film takes place in New York and Korea, and they knew they had to shoot it out of order, starting with all of the New York scenes which take place later in the story. Shabier and Song also spent time discussing how to use the language of the film to express what the characters were experiencing. Past Lives tells a story about how relationships change over time. Shabier chose to translate this into deliberate pacing with long tracking shots, keeping the lighting natural and simple. In the film, natural elements tell the passage of time as well, through rain, clouds and the changing light. Even the characters Nora and Hae Sung tell a story about time in their movements. “We were speaking about the final scene in the film, and I asked Celine a question of what direction should they walk? In a very Celine fashion, she (said) ‘Well, they should walk right to left because that is into the past. And she should drop him off in the past and then walk from left to right back into the future and up the stairs.’ That very small and simple moment in our conversation led and informed the entire language of the film in terms of how we move the camera from left to right.”

Shabier broke out as a cinematographer a few years ago on director Steve McQueen‘s five-part anthology series, Small Axe, winning a BAFTA for lighting and photography. The series tells both real and fictional stories about London’s West Indian community in the 1970’s and 80’s. McQueen chose to treat each episode as a series of small films, rather than a TV series. They would discuss and prep one, scout it, shoot it, break for a week, then begin prep for the next episode. Starting with Mangrove, the longest in the series, they shot in order as much as possible, with Lovers Rock next. Shabier says it was a nice release for the crew’s pent-up emotions on Mangrove, which dealt with anti-police protests and then the trial of nine Black men accused of starting a riot. They knew they could put joy and energy into Lovers Rock, a much simpler story about a house party, love and music. Shabier thinks McQueen structured the shoots for Small Axe in a way that was very smart, creating a serious mood when they needed to be serious, and lightening the mood as needed.

Past Lives is still in some theaters and available on VOD.

The Small Axe series is on Amazon Prime.

Find Shabier Kirchner

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