Last week, we were saddened to learn of the passing of Raoul Coutard. Our technical director, Lee Kline, shared some memories of working with the great cinematographer.
The first time I met Raoul Coutard was in June of 2002. I was in Paris to remaster a few films for Criterion, and one of them was Godard’s Contempt. We had gotten in touch with Coutard and asked him to come in and help us with the color, which he did. He showed up and got right to work. I was awestruck that one of the world’s greatest cinematographers was working with us on what I considered to be one of his masterpieces.
It was not the easiest session for me because I spoke virtually no French and had to rely on people interpreting for me. Coutard worked with the colorist on the color grading: desaturating here, adding a little more contrast there, and bringing Contempt into the digital age with grace and ease. He was fast, assured, and to the point. Because of the language barrier (or so I thought—more on that later!) we didn’t converse very much, but I got to hear translations of many great stories from the set. I could pretty much understand what he had done from the changes happening on the screen.
A few years later, we asked Coutard to come back in for a few more films. One was Band of Outsiders, and the other one was Costa-Gavras’s Z. We met at Eclair Laboratory, which was in a terrible neighborhood outside of Paris. He didn’t want to go there, and we didn’t want to go there. But Costa-Gavras wanted to go there. We met, and for some reason that I can’t remember, Costa-Gavras couldn’t make it and we had to work on Z without him. I was with my colleague, who spoke French, and I was telling her that I thought there was something wrong with the color blue that was on the screen, trying to make my case so she could translate to Coutard. He then slowly turned to me and said, “What don’t you like about it?” I was in shock that he never told me he could speak English! Everything then changed, and although his English was limited, I could finally speak directly to him.
I asked Coutard which director was his favorite to work with. He said, “They were all good, but Godard was the only true genius.” He told me how much he loved shooting Jules and Jim and Alphaville. After one of the sessions, we took a taxi back to central Paris, and I asked him if we could all take a photo together, and he said, “Yes.” We got the Eclair sign in the background and someone took the shot. He asked to see the picture on my camera, so I showed it to him. He studied the photo for a moment and looked up at me and said, “Who’s that old man?” We had a good laugh.