Julian Ungano is tucked away at a corner table in the Hotel Martinez’s lobby restaurant. It’s afternoon and the 39-year-old is here to wrap up a dizzying schedule of filming for some of the Cannes Film Festival’s brightest stars.
Ungano has teamed up The Hollywood Reporter to deliver a Cannes photo diary, to be updated during the May 17-28 festival, featuring portraits of Marion Cotillard, Alicia Vikander, Ethan Hawke, Harris Dickinson, Lee Jung-jae, Rebecca Hall, Joseph Kosinski and Isabelle Huppert.
While Cannes is always hectic, for someone like Ungano, who’s worked as an award-winning filmmaker, photographer, creative director and visual storyteller, the job is almost always creatively rejuvenating. It was also revealing in Unango’s hands as he penned journal entries detailing the stories behind the images (Beer and talks with Ethan Hawke! Less than 1 minute to photograph Marion Cotillard!).
“There’s something really cool and special about shooting this type of content,” says the Vermont-born, New York-raised, and currently Los Angeles-based cinematographer. “And often the pictures are out in the world within a few hours.”
What was your vision for this series of portraits?
The reason I wanted to do it as a diary and not just a portfolio of celebrity portraits was that I wanted to tell a coherent story and not just a bunch of celebrity pictures. My story weaves them together. As soon as you photograph a series of subjects, you begin to realize that we are all in the same cycle in some way. Most people came [to Cannes] for 24 to 48 hours max. You will find a few people here and there throughout the festival because they have several projects here.
The narrative that is palpable through all the footage is that everyone is exhausted and everyone is jet lagged. It’s very hectic and you run here and there to catch everyone and it can be difficult to do so due to the timing. The night before last I had 45 seconds with someone. I’ve never done this before, but I’ve gotten used to working very quickly. It’s very chaotic, it’s very hectic, but it’s also really fun.
Just having 45 seconds is enough to blink. What was the longest time you had with someone?
Last year I had a day.
What about this year?
Between half an hour and 45 minutes.
How do you try to catch someone when you’re so short on time?
You have to really feel the space. Some people aren’t thrilled about ever being photographed, whether it’s in this scenario or on set for a campaign. I find it a lot easier to work with actors because if all else fails you can suggest a character for them to play. It’s a language they understand much more easily. When you say to an actor, “Be yourself,” it can be challenging. You can easily understand the direction and concept when you say, “We’re in this place, we’re playing this role, and this is the vibe.” It’s almost as if each session is a little acting exercise. The most important [directive] is that you want everyone to be comfortable and confident that they look good. I’m never out here to make anyone look stupid. You think that would be really obvious, but there are many different press outlets and so many different photographers just out hunting celebrities and it can be a challenge to know if someone is legit or not.
So time is a challenge and rapport is a challenge. What are your other challenges here in Cannes?
Aside from the fact that it’s hectic and you’re in a different country, you’re never really 100% sure what the scenario will be like when you arrive to shoot someone. You walk into a hotel room and you never know if it is facing the sea or another building. What does the background look like? How are you going to create something when the variables are constantly changing. Those are probably the biggest challenges for me, apart from the technical aspect. Also, my mum was born about 10 miles from here in France and that always makes the trip a bit emotional for me in a weird way.
What was the biggest surprise this year?
I wouldn’t say anything else surprised me. Except that I ended up on the red carpet Top Gun: Maverick Premiere. I shot Lewis Pullman and the film’s director, Joe Kosinski, which was incredible. Joe gave me a ticket and I was allowed to ride – that was amazing. I grew up watching top gun and I’ve seen this movie a thousand times. It was amazing because you work most of the time and you can’t do any of the fun stuff.
That was the biggest moment of the first week when the fighter jets and Tom Cruise surprisingly received a Palme d’Or. What did you think of the film?
It was fantastic. It was iconic as hell. I always have a debate with my brother about who is the biggest movie star. My argument always revolves around the movies you pause and watch when flipping through channels via cable. It doesn’t matter if you sit and watch it or let it play in the background, nine times out of ten it’s a Tom Cruise movie, no matter what it is Jerry Maguire, Mission: Impossible, Top Gun, Rainman or any of those movies.
It was just so cool to be here and experience that because I have so many childhood memories of being here in Cannes with my mum. No one thought I would make it or be a functioning member of society in real life. And now to be here in the same place where I used to go when I was a kid, photographing movie stars and having that experience is just crazy.
If you could go back and say something to the little guy, what would you say?
Don’t listen to any of these people. keep doing what you are doing Everything will work out fine.
Back to the diary. Was there someone you photographed that you were thrilled to meet?
Yes! Secure. I was excited to meet Omar Sy. I’ve been a fan of his before lupine came out. I saw him in The Untouchablesthe movie they remade in America with Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston, [The Upside]. I have a mutual friend of Omar and after seeing his work and too lupine, I just feel like I got a good vibe from him and I’ve become a fan. When I found out we were going to shoot him, I got really excited. And he delivered. He was so funny and great and just a game.
Certain people understand how to elevate it beyond a photo shoot against a wall or something. He got it right away. I was also very excited to be shooting Alicia Vikander. She was pretty funny, and she came up with her own ideas, which is refreshing because, as we’ve discussed before, one of the things that makes it difficult here is that you’re shooting 90 percent of the time in a hotel room and you don’t have time to do anything do other.
I also directed Ethan Hawke and I’ve seen his films since I was 10 years old. He was great and I’m really happy with these photos. We sat in the lobby of the Majestic Hotel, drank a beer, chatted and took some photos. That was excellent.
What’s next for you?
Hopefully a little bit at home. My wife is having a baby at the end of the summer, so I’m really looking forward to it. Maybe in June I’ll go to Madrid for a job or to the Venice Film Festival. We will see. That’s the fun part of the job because you get to go places you wouldn’t normally go and it’s always a great adventure.
See Julian Ungano’s photo diary in Cannes The Hollywood Reporter here.