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Chloé Cambournac: Questioning Reality

Chloé Cambournac is a production designer based in Paris, France. Her recent work includes the film "Someone, Somewhere" by Cedric Klapisch, "Papicha" by Mounia Meddour and "Roads" by Sebastian Schipper. Chloé is a committed member of the Association for Cinema Production Designers, Artscenico, as well as the Production Designers Collective.

Explain to us your situation.

I found myself a few weeks ago agreeing to work on a very sympathetic French TV show - a parody mocking a famous Reality-TV show. I was happy with the project actually, as it was TV making fun of itself. It amused me: to analyze and hijack the usual codes of filming such a show, and turning it into a parody.

Except then ...

Except then shooting started...

And everything came together very fast: new sets to be delivered every day, no time to discuss or to start all over again: the high-speed train had left the station...

Even though the dailies looked great, the directors were getting angry: they wanted more, always more elements, on set.

Then I understood: they didn’t want to shoot a parody at all (close-up instead of wide- shots and so on, which is what our budget allowed for). Exit, the distance from the initial reality-TV show! Out, the challenge! It wasn’t a parody anymore: it WAS the Reality-TV show. We “simply” had to paste and copy it... It was a huge misunderstanding...

One early morning, as we were delivering a set, the directors’ dissatisfaction exploded.

What was your reaction?

I remained silent. Not blaming anyone. Neither the unit department, who gave us 5 days prep instead of 10 days that we required. Nor against director’s assistants for the non-precise call sheets which put us in a delicate situation every day. Nor the line producer, who knew how under-staffed, overwhelmed, and exhausted we were...

Most of the time, in those moments of tension, great tiredness, the very moment when you have to keep it together and hold it tight, whoever talks first ... loses.

I didn’t want to throw anyone under the bus. I knew that we, collectively, got overwhelmed by the situation.

We, production designers, all know that each film is different, and demands a very specific analysis, and a unique and sometimes fragile architecture. Making films is such a choral, and requires a delicate process to enable the means to be adjusted to the artistic intentions, to respect the nature of films, and its technical requirements.

Because there is no standard film, just singular films. Because a cooperative attitude is better than a sum of egos. Because film is ... chaos. No film is without its little chaos.

How did you choose to process in such a chaotic situation?

As I was trying to find a solution, I was faced with two options: Bring my problems to the production, asking for more people and more money, which probably would have led them to say no and to reproach us for finding ourselves in that situation.

Or try to figure out how to make them SEE THE POINT by themselves, and then offer us the needed support.

I suddenly remembered my son, when he was 2 years old, always asking for more cheese (French cheese ... things never change!). And I remembered me, too, refusing to give him what he wanted. “It is enough”, I thought, “Some more”, he asked. And this idea, all of a sudden: if I give him a little slice, as thin as a sheet of paper, he would be satisfied, and so will I.

A way out, with heads up.

I decided to go to the line producer and talk to him. Funnily enough, all technical departments did the same. Hard week for him, I guess.

First I exposed the situation to him, my feeling that there was a misunderstanding between what was decided in prep (the parody) and what was really shot (the reality TV show). Then I gave him my analysis: the directors had to acknowledge the situation, and take responsibility for it. If they wanted to continue with their changed vision, it would require a different approach.

Once the producer and directors understood that we, the art department, weren’t in line with the evolved concept of the shoot, they first tried to blame us for the situation. However, they could clearly see that all other departments, from camera to sound, were also overwhelmed with work.

Finally, the line producer said quietly “we have to enhance the art dept budget”. Finally, the assistants whispered “it’s true that the art dept keeps alerting us about the issues they are facing in dressing sets properly”. And finally, directors greenlit additional budget.

Next morning, we got a 25% raise of our budget, plus 3 more people joining the staff.

In retrospect, my analysis finally helped the producer understand why the shoot was so different than what we had all prepped, and it helped him to get the situation under control a few days later.

At the end of the day we got the support we needed, and we didn’t put the blame on anyone. We “saved” some heads from rolling. I stood up to the directors in my own way, avoiding an angry response. Because anger blinds me, and makes me say things I regret afterwards. It doesn’t offer release...

What was the price to pay?

Instead of calling the directors’ behavior into question, I decided to preserve the crew’s cohesion on set. The shoot has to go on... I know the directors and producer are grateful to me for my approach, but season 2 will probably happen without me and my crew.

Karma? Professional choices? Better ask yourself what to focus on...

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