“Sorry: last minute change. You can’t do it here. We’re not having her walk down the stairs. You’ll have to do it on the floor above.” The PR attaché and agent weren’t quite apologetic enough, to my mind. My assistant and I had spent an hour setting up lighting and preparing for the portrait at the spot that had been agreed the day before. But there was no time to discuss the matter. My subject, Academy Award-winning actress Natalie Portman, was 30 seconds away, and we had to move – fast.
Cannes Film Festival portraits
The Cannes Film Festival is a key event for me as South of France photographer. Making editorial portraits there is special – and this year was no exception. Cinema legends pour into this small Riviera town and hotels are packed with film industry achievers. Beyond walls of fans, wanabees and influencers desperate to get a glimpse of their idols, accredited photographers and journalists are among those who work inside these hotels, amid the strange mix of high security and seat-of-your-pants informality that typifies the Cannes universe. Foyers and suites are transformed into busy boarding lounges for the rich and famous – and privileged hangers-on. Stars are shuttled by their entourages between interviews, photoshoots, parties, meetings – at which they are always late – and red carpet appearances – at which they are not. Unfortunately, my 20 minute slot with Natalie was to fall between a day’s accumulated lateness – and the call of the red carpet for her new movie.
I’d gone to check out Chopard’s suite at the Hotel Martinez the day before the shoot. ‘Suite’ is perhaps a misnomer: the hotel’s entire top floor had been taken over by the luxury jewellery brand. Chopard is a major sponsor of the festival, and it was at their invitation that my client, Telegraph Luxury magazine, had commissioned Natalie’s portrait. My photographer brief – a set of environmental portraits, indoors, in a luxurious setting – was optimistic, given the conditions. The various lounge and meeting spaces were cluttered with celebs and their security people, and Chopard had thought to paper many of the walls with a pink, pop design, that I undiplomatically referred to as tacky to Chopard’s UK head of PR. It had initially been suggested that I photograph Natalie in her room, but it would ‘depend on her mood’; a gamble that seemed ill-advised in the circumstances. We agreed that I’d shoot in the stairwell, a few steps down, where a high ceiling, curved cornices, a chandelier and giant palm tree provided an appropriately luxurious backdrop.
The 11th hour location change sprung on me, was not only unwelcome in that I had to abandon my prepared set-up (there was no time to bring the lights upstairs) and re-think the portrait within seconds. The 6th floor landing was also nothing like the 5th floor one: the chandelier was replaced by utilitarian and fire escape lights; the ceiling was low; and a jolly blue carpet replaced the elegant grey marble below. To say the situation was suboptimal would be an understatement.
Just as my assistant Nitin and I reached the landing, a little crowd swished out of the corridor, with a small, rather stony-faced Natalie in the middle. I’d grabbed a fast, prime lens, to hide as much of the background as possible with a shallow depth of field, and Nitin manouevred a panel reflector into place. I shook Natalie by the hand, ushered her to the window and picked up my camera. From the first, test frame (after which I gently gave her directions, and asked for a hairdresser’s intervention), until the last, when agents & PR alongside barked at me in unison to “STOP!“, I had, according to my camera’s clock, taken exactly 1 minute 40 seconds. It doesn’t get tighter than that.
Daryl McCormack and Naomi Ackie
The following day, I was back, this time to photograph up & coming actors Daryl McCormack and Naomi Ackie. They were the 2023 recipients of the Chopard Trophy, which is awarded anually to rising stars in the movie business. Again, the planned portrait spot was changed last minute (Natalie Portman was giving an interview in the salon to which we’d been assigned). This time, though, I had 30 minutes to replan – unreasonable by normal standards, but significantly better than the day before. As it was raining, and space was an issue, Chopard’s people had only one room to offer – the ‘Blue Room’. When passing it earlier in the week, I’d been told that this precious sale room for high-end jewellery was categorically off-limits. But things had moved on since then, apparently.
As we quickly set up, Nitin and I found ourselves surrounded by glass cases containing multi-million euro necklaces and watches, with only security cameras for company. The environmental portraits asked for by the magazine weren’t possible among the cases and the branded wall art, so we carefully moved what furniture we could, and I threw the curtain across the window as a backdrop. A double portrait, especially 3/4 or full length, takes more space (and time) than a single one, and the Blue Room was better adapted to a tranquil, one-to-one meeting between a smooth, poised sales director and their smooth, poised customer, than two actors and their people, a photographer, a photographer’s assistant and flash lights. But I jammed myself up against a display box, asked anyone non-essential to stay outside and had, thankfully, 20 minutes for the portraits.
Daryl and Naomi seemed to be happier about the Cannes experience than their Chopard ‘godmother’ (Natalie Portman had awarded them their trophies) had looked the day before. Naomi had asked me to snap her in her enormous Valentino dress the previous night, backstage at the award ceremony, so we kind of knew each other already, and photographing the pair was not difficult. I certainly challenge any woman over 40 who has seen his latest film ‘Good Luck to You, Leo Grande‘ not to find Daryl ‘one to watch’ and, although the two have not starred in a film together, there was enough chemistry in the room to make it a fun portrait session. When Daryl left the room, Naomi switched into girlish mode: “Isn’t he gorgeous?!” she giggled. I couldn’t disagree.
Chopard trophy party
Giving up the Blue Room for my portraits had been the cause of some tight-lipped chagrin for the Chopard sales boss. Had he overheard our irreverent conversation, I suspect his mood would not have improved. Parties at the Cannes Film Festival might look like nonchalant fun among celebs, but they play a key part in the business machine of luxury fashion houses, who bedeck stars to attract valuable press attention to their valuable products. “It was hysterical last night [at the Chopard trophy awards]”, chuckled Naomi. “Chopard had lent me earrings, and their odd little jewellery security guy kept popping up, literally everywhere I was!” Daryl chimed in, “I know! I went out in the direction of the toilet at one point and he suddenly appeared as if from a puff of smoke, asking me where I was going” [Daryl’s watch was on loan]. The Chopard PR person, meanwhile, whispered to me that “the watches must be prominent in all the portraits“, but as an editorial photographer, not on an advertising commission, I can sometimes be hard of hearing.
I’d had my own interaction with a Chopard security employee the night before, too. I’d been granted a level of cocktail event access that many photographers coveted, but, perversely, wasn’t allowed into the press call area (the crowd of photographers at the entrance, who noisily yelled instructions to stars, who had to pose for them in front of a Chopard-branded blue wall). I only needed to capture one arrival -that of Natalie with Daryl and Naomi-, and made this reasonable request to Chopard’s PR person, who made it clear to the security man in charge of that particular rope.
However, there was apparently something about me that irritated him, or otherwise compelled him to ignore instructions and seemingly abandon his other responsibilities to make sure that I didn’t breach the barrier. Various stars arrived, and I didn’t move from the sidelines – to illustrate my point. Then I decided to use Carla Bruni-Sarkozy’s arrival as a test. As she entered the area, I made a move to go in and take a picture. I didn’t get more than a few centimetres before his bulk was blocking my path. So by the time the trio arrived, I was prepared. I looked the other way, watching my targets draw close to the wall out of the corner of my eye, then, at the very last instant, catapulted myself under the rope and headed for the centre of the press pack. Mr Security was in quick pursuit and strong-armed me out before I’d got there – but not before I made a decent shot of the trio, from the side at least:
I didn’t have much energy left for another altercation though, so when later, on the cocktail terrace, another man mountain -Natalie Portman’s personal bodyguard, pushed his large hand in my face and said “No photos, she doesn’t want them tonight“, I lowered my camera and moved away. But Natalie had overheard, and stepped past him. “It’s fine“, she said, and gave me a wink. My earlier, speedy portrait of her had perhaps earned a little complicity between two working women.
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