Mesrine: Filming The Life Of A French Gangster
Music Box Films
Jacques Mesrine may not be a big name in America, but it’s well known in France. A gangster who rose the criminal ladder in 1970s Paris, he worked the media to full advantage and became a beloved household name while simultaneously being declared Public Enemy Number One by the French court system. After learning that director Jean-François Richet was set to direct a two part movie version of Mesrine’s rise and fall in France, cinematographer Bob Gantz jumped at the opportunity to shoot both films.
"French movies open very slowly in the states," said Gantz. "You always want a movie to do well, but for me it’s really important to be part of a good project. All it took was a phone call from Jean-Francois, and I was ready to be involved."
Gantz worked with Richet on "Assault on Precinct 13," an action drama shot in Detroit. Their experience collaborating on action sequences came in handy for the "Mesrine" series: "Part 1: Killer Instinct" and "Part 2: Public Enemy Number 1." Gantz jumped into the production with roughly ten weeks of prep before going on location. The comradery between the two men allowed for easier communication in prepping complicated shots.
"The opening had so many different shots from different perspectives, and was later reintroduced in the second movie from the point of view from the police," said Gantz. "The second movie is filled with action. You have to know every shot, storyboard it, and ensure you have every piece of equipment needed. When you have a car flying off a bridge, you just never know. We wanted to be prepared for what it’s supposed to do and what it might do."
Complicated shot lists were not limited to action sequences. Majority of the story-telling was set on location, resulting in minimal pre-set visits that provide advanced problem-solving. Gantz had to overcome the challenges of shooting in low-light alleys and a small, airless cave. One of the biggest shooting challenges, however, came from a mirror-filled room where Mesrine torments and beats a prostitute.
"Mesrine was a man so obsessed with himself, the mirrors were a conscious choice," said Gantz. "However, it’s very difficult to work with mirrors and not see equipment. We placed the mirrors on gimbals so they could be moved slightly to catch different angles."
The cultural differences also provided a few complications. Union rules specify a production must operate on a Monday through Friday work schedule. There must be a full agreement between all crew members if any day goes beyond 15 hours. Shooting shall not exceed more than seven hours on Fridays. Although Gantz was not a fluent French speaker, he found it easier to overcome the language barrier on set.
"All the basic equipment goes by the same name in French as in English," said Gantz. "There were a lot of English speakers on set. When needed, our First AD helped out as a translator."
Because Mesrine had gained a lot of weight in his "media darling" years, the second film was shot first, providing one month hiatus where actor Vincent Cassel worked on losing the weight he gained to portray the leaner Mesrine seen in the first film. To further illustrate the different time periods in Mesrine’s life, Gantz employed two distinct color palettes: the second film is filled with brown, earthy tones, where the first film is filled with bright color.
"The goal was to evoke the look of those eras," said Gantz. "The second film had more of a 70s look, inspired by ‘French Connection’, mostly all brown tones with much more hand-held camera. For the first, we used lots of colored lights to duplicate feel of the 60s."
Choice of camera also had a huge impact on the look. The two parts were shot on film using Panavision, Panaflex and Arri cameras. To enhance the color Gantz used a wider ratio, mostly 28 to 16, with 552-18 Kodak film. The opening sequence was shot on 16mm that was pushed two stops to allow the scene to be very bright.
While the film had a limited release in the states, it was extremely popular in Europe, and Gantz’s work was recognized with a Cesar nomination for Best Cinematography. Although Gantz is happy with the experience he had working on "Mesrine," his current focus is television.
"Film wasn’t happening for a while," said Gantz. "I really like to do movies, but there was just more work on TV. TV can be a lot more fun and a lot more challenging. If I get offered a really good script, I’d consider it."
To learn more about "Mesrine: Part 1: Killer Instinct" and "Mesrine: Part 2 Public Enemy Number 1" please visit: