The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of The Lost Leonardo.
You’ve done a lot of music documentaries but I believe this is your first film based in the art world. How did you get involved?
Andreas Koefoed: A producer friend of mine got in touch and told me about this incredible story. He was in touch with this British art critic—Ben Lewis—that was writing a book about the whole affair. That was where it started. I felt like it was a really fantastic story on so many levels. The painting is discovered in 2005 for almost nothing and then twelve years later it becomes the most expensive painting ever sold, maybe even the most expensive object ever sold. That was mind-boggling. But then on top of that story, you add the whole authenticity story and that made it even more intriguing. I figured out that half of the world’s Leonardo scholars would say it is a da Vinci, and the other half would not. I felt there was potential for it to be almost like a farce, but about something that is very serious and also about human longings and the cynicism in the financial and political world of the art scene. There are so many layers to the story. So the challenge was how to fit this all into one narrative.
I felt there was potential for it to be almost like a farce
The structure is really fascinating because you introduce the journey of this painting through currency and tracking. That holds the film from the beginning as a way in for the audience.
AK: It took a long time to find the right structure and also the right way of telling the story. We knew pretty quickly that we wanted to tell it through the firsthand sources. We got in touch with the two art dealers who found it, the restorer, some of the experts, the curator at the National Gallery. But then at some point we didn’t have access to the firsthand sources like the oligarch—Rybolovlev—and especially Mohammed Bin Salman. So there we had to change the point of view a bit and go through some of the journalists and the people who had observed the story from the outside, or had dug into it as investigators. At some point we figured out that we had to deal with three different worlds that are in different ways secretive. In the first act, it was the art world, so we’d dig into the world of art dealers, restorers, experts and so on. The second world, which is the second act of the film, is the financial world. Simply by following the painting’s journey, we would automatically reach and then spend the time in the financial world and be able to look at the financial aspects of the story… the way extremely wealthy people are speculating in buying art, and how a lot of the world’s most fantastic art is locked away in freeports and lost for humanity in a way. And then in the third act, it’s the secret part of the political world where you go into that geopolitical game between nations where suddenly a painting can have big significance. In a way, the story fell really naturally into three acts. In a way it all made sense but it took us a long time to find each little story in the bigger story, and how much play should we give those stories without losing the main thread of the story—which was the painting and its increasing value. It was a difficult balance because we got interested in, for example, Bouvier’s story in the second act, or Modestini’s story in the first act. Every time we spent a little too much time with them, trying to understand their backstory or their world, then the film would kind of lose its narrative spine because we’d almost forget about the painting. So we found that every two minutes we had to go back to the painting, to the narrative spine of the story. We had five writers and researchers but it took us a long time to arrive at the final narrative structure.
How did you shoot the painting and the restoration process?
AK: It was a challenge that we weren’t there while it was actually being restored. We never got the chance to film the actual painting, so we needed to get really hi-res photos from the process and then in some cases, print and use them for re-enactments. And we were lucky that the restorer, Dianne Modestini, was willing to let us film her while she was restoring other paintings and we could use that as visualizations of her restoration process with this painting. It would have been really difficult to find an actress to do re-enactments and then jump in and out of interviews with Modestini. In a way, by just filming her in her studio working on paintings, we were able to use that as a re-enactment. Then of course we had the painting in the different stages, so we were able to show how it looked it the clean state, and how she restored it. It’s really a remarkable difference between the clean state and the finished version. Some people say that she went too far, but as I’ve understood the restoration practice, it is a fully recognized approach to restoring a painting to bring it back to how you think it originally looked, back to life so to speak. Based on the painting that is still there, you imagine how it looked originally, and that is completely recognized within the art world. But some people would say it would have been better to make it an archeological restoration, where you keep it in the clean state, but you fill out some small gaps and holes and make sure the panel is alright and so on. But there’s nothing wrong with choosing one method or the other.
Can you talk a bit about the color correction and the overall look of the film?
AK: In general, the film has a dark and blueish tone, which underlines the mystery aspect. After the first round of color correction, we had to really make the look of the film a bit more subtle, especially when it had to do with the painting because we couldn’t manipulate the colors of the painting. It had to look real and as close to the original as possible. But of course, I’ve only seen the original in a reproduction.
We tried to use the painting in different ways in the film, by letting the characters in the film being interviewed with this direct eye effect, because Christ in the painting also looks straight into your eyes. So with the different shots we tried to give the feeling of Renaissance paintings with the light and so on, by keeping the background dark and letting the person stand forward and be touched by the light. We tried to live up to da Vinci in the visual style, but of course that was impossible. It’s a documentary and we can’t control that much. But it was an inspiration. Storytelling-wise, he has this sfumato technique where he doesn’t paint clear outlines, he builds the shapes up with layers and layers, like thirty or forty layers, and then the shapes start to emerge. In a way, that resembles the story in that there are so many layers you can try to scrape off but you will never really reach any core or any truth because it’s opaque in a way. Another aspect from Leonardo’s art that we tried to reproduce in the film is that his characters are all in a movement, and they all show an intention, and you get a glimpse into their psychology. I wanted to do the same with the characters in the story. They present themselves in one way, and at the same time you get a feeling of how they are on the inside. That was a fun way of trying to implement da Vinci’s thoughts into the film, despite the questions about whether or not the painting is actually by him.