Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’ latest film, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, tells the intimate story of a working-class family in Northern Ireland in the 1960s. The film marks Haris’ eighth time working with the director. Their collaboration began with 2007’s Sleuth, after Kenneth saw Haris’ work on the Roger Michell film Enduring Love. Early on, Haris, who studied painting in college, found that the way they developed ideas was similar. “What Ken learned for character development and idea development [through his theatrical background] is almost akin to starting with a charcoal sketch and ending up with an oil painting. You gather your ideas and you slowly develop them and you share them. You have a really strong foundation for what the final outcome will be through testing, talking, research and rehearsals,” Haris says. And so, in each of their films, their process begins the same way. “We assume nothing at the beginning, take no preconceptions into the inception of a film, and that keeps the process as joyous as we possibly can, because it’s a process of discovery.”
Haris grew up in Cyprus, where the most prominent filmmaker, he says, was Michael Cacoyannis. “We don’t have a very big film culture in Cyprus,” he says. While he loved film, his passion in school became painting. He first tried, and fell in love with, filmmaking during his foundation course at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, when students were encouraged to try various disciplines before settling on a particular focus. “I felt really compelled to be a cinematographer, that that was an expression of painting in filmmaking,” he says. From there, he studied fine-art filmmaking, an experimental course inspired by the work of Len Lye, Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren and the like.
His focus took him to the American Film Institute, after which he interned with cinematographer Conrad Hall on A Civil Action. His first feature film as a cinematographer was fellow AFI alum Hamlet Sarkissian’s Camera Obscura; since then, Haris has gone on to shoot films like Mamma Mia!, Thor and Locke. Still, he draws on his more experimental education, aiming for something in between. “I think it makes you fluid in storytelling in a certain way, having a fine-art background—fluid in that you can create emotion through images, not just through words, movement and portraiture,” he says.
While Haris is excited by all kinds of genres—in a single year, he made Locke and Cinderella, two starkly different films that required different skill sets—he’s always drawn to stories about the human condition, something he and Kenneth share. “I have a long-lasting relationship with Ken so I would gladly work with him, regardless of the script, because I know that there’s a trust there of common goals and common aesthetics,” Haris says.
Belfast is arguably Kenneth’s most personal film. “After all these years, it felt like a friend opening up and saying, ‘This is how my life was formed. Maybe there’s a humble story here that we can tell,’” Haris recalls. From there, he says, his job as a cinematographer was primarily to listen. “If you listen carefully, the story reveals itself and opens itself up to you. In preparation for this film, we visited Belfast. Ken walked us through his childhood neighborhoods and began explaining how he developed these concepts and how these events unfolded in his eyes and in his memory.”
“I really felt that the best way to prepare for this film was to just listen carefully.” –Haris Zambarloukos
When Haris first read the script, he instantly thought it lent itself to black-and-white. Kenneth agreed. Haris says, “Our love for black-and-white comes from its ability to focus the audience on a certain immersive and lucid way of appreciating and taking in emotion.”
Which isn’t to say that color doesn’t serve a powerful purpose, too. “Color has an incredible clarity in its descriptiveness. You can tell if it’s a sunny day, if it’s autumn because leaves are red, if someone has blue eyes. This is a little hindered by black-and-white, but what is revealed in much brighter color, I believe, is emotion. It’s black-and-white’s ability to focus on what’s behind the eyes. It gives you more lucid and immersive insight into the performance and the human emotion portrayed.”
On Belfast, Haris and Kenneth also made a conscious decision to avoid film lighting wherever possible. Indoors, they made use of lamps and other household fixtures, and let the sun shine in through the windows. “We wanted the environments we created to speak for themselves and just listen a little bit more carefully to what they could offer.” He welcomed the hypnotic effect of clouds rolling through and let it play out. He framed shots widely, allowing “a wall or a window in the background to be a witness to the changes in the weather.” By paring down the film’s visuals, Haris says, the team was able to achieve a unique effect. In doing so, “there’s something transcendental and immersive that happens.”
Belfast arrives in theaters Nov. 12. All photos courtesy of Focus features.