Thought some of you ardent photographers may just be interested in this ABC doco airing on 7 February at 10.00pm. It really does highlight the importance of photography in today's television. I hope you enjoy the film.
The First Interview
a short documentary (27 mins) – includes Making The First Interview
screens on ABC1 on Tuesday 7 February at 10pm
After 125 years, the world’s first media interview comes to life.
The world’s first media interview, shot in Paris in August 1886, finally comes to life as a film. The great photographer Nadar interviews the famous scientist and sceptic Chevreul on his 100th birthday. In their own words – originally recorded in shorthand – they discuss photography, colour theory, Moliere and Pasteur, the scientific method, the crazy ideas of balloonists, and – of course – how to live for 100 years. Here is a lively and interesting conversation between two legends of the nineteenth century: one born before the French revolution; the other destined to see the marvels of the aeroplane and the movies. Narrated by Agnès Varda.
Teachers & AV technical staff: please set your school’s recorder to record this program off air.
The First Interview in the curriculum
The media interview is a form that we now take for granted; here it is in prototype, from a world of balloons, crinolines, and horse-drawn carriages. Yet this old interview demonstrates the qualities that still keep us interested in the modern television interviews of Letterman, Oprah and Ellen: lively and curious characters, interesting subjects, and a blend of wit and serious comment. At the time Nadar was the most famous photographer in France; Chevreul was a very famous scientist whose name is inscribed on the Eiffel tower, a man who learnt to speak before the Revolution of 1789!
The First Interview takes as its raw material many images from Paris in 1886, and a text recorded in shorthand. The film mixes narration and clever use of the original images with a re-creation of the original interview, as if it had been filmed with synchronized sound in August 1886. The two men chat informally, and in their own words as recorded and published in a Paris magazine 125 years ago. Their forceful personalities come alive for both French and English speaking audiences, while remaining faithful to the original French language and its cultural references.
The ‘making of’ shows very clearly the complicated production process required to realise the idea – from the use of French voices with Australian actors; to the prosthetic, digital and sound effects which produce the illusion of two real people in a sound film from 1886.
The First Interview opens with the original glass plate negatives from Nadar’s studio, first showing Chevreul, then Nadar. This sets the scene for what is to follow in Agnès Varda’s narration: an account of the lives of these great figures of the nineteenth century, using photographs taken by Nadar and his son Paul.
First we learn about the career of Nadar: once an artist and a radical, a former bohemian with a love of both balloons and photography. We fly with Nadar and his camera in a balloon over Paris, ending with his friend Daumier’s drawing of Nadar ‘raising photography to the level of art’. Nadar is most famous for his psychologically acute portraits of celebrities who were often his friends – amongst them Daumier, Delacroix, Rossini, Dumas, Sarah Bernhardt, Victor Hugo alive and on his death-bed … and finally Chevreul.
Photography allows us to meet the gaze of a man born in 1786 – before the French revolution; a man who was famous in many fields of science, as well as for his scepticism. Nadar uses available technology – photography and stenography – to record the conversation with Chevreul. Both images and text were published in Le Journal illustré (Paris) a few days later.
Now the interview comes to life. At first it is out-of-focus and unsteady, but it soon stabilises into a sound film: an ‘impossible movie’ from the dawn of cinema. The sound is crackly and the photographic images are scratched and damaged … The conversation between Nadar and Chevreul is lively and covers many topics, from photography to colour theory, Moliere and Pasteur, the scientific method, the crazy ideas of balloonists, and – of course – how to live for 100 years. The interview ends on a humorous note: Chevreul proposes that those pesky balloonists show their skills by flying him home from his laboratory; they will save him from having to walk up two flights of stairs!
After the ‘movie’, the account of the two men’s lives resumes. Chevreul lived for several more years. He established gerontology (the study of human ageing) and saw the Eiffel Tower completed, just before he died in 1889. Nadar lived on into the twentieth century, and sent a telegram to congratulate Bleriot when the famous aviator crossed the English channel in 1909. Nadar died in 1910.
Making The First Interview
Immediately following The First Interview, the ‘making of’ shows the whole production process in Paris and Melbourne, particularly the complicated process of digital and prosthetic/make-up effects, built around the re-staged interview.
First we go to Paris, to the Archives at Fort de Saint-Cyr, we see the Nadar glass plate negatives as they emerge from their envelopes, and we meet the people who are responsible for them.
Paris is also the location for the voice recording. At her office in the aptly-named Rue Dageurre, we meet the French director Agnès Varda, who is our narrator. The two actors playing Nadar and Chevreul are recorded separately from each other. Their voices are edited into a fluent and lively interview – the original words are heard for the first time in 125 years.
Back in Australia, casting is done with a view to facial structure as well as acting ability – and facility in French. Once cast, the Australian actors are required to learn not just the script, but the vocal performances of the two French actors. These details, along with the physical performance, are worked through in rehearsal. Meanwhile Nik Dorning has begun his work by casting the actors’ heads in plaster. These become the base for his sculptural work which is eventually cast into many flexible prosthetic ‘add-ons’ and completed with hair, make-up and period costumes.
Everything comes together in the two-day shoot. Hours of make-up time are required to turn Tim Robertson and Nicholas Bell into Nadar and Chevreul; their clothes are fitted over layers of padding. The soft studio lighting replicates a shady Parisian courtyard on a summer day in 1886.
The long and detailed work of post-production is summarized in one special shot which shows the ‘before’ and the ‘after’. Nadar pulls down an imaginary ‘screen’. The two characters look on on amazement as a normal colour image is scratched and degraded, along with its soundtrack, until it becomes an ‘impossible movie’: a sound movie from 1886.