Julian Ungano is tucked away at a corner table inside the Hotel Martinez’s lobby restaurant. It’s mid-afternoon and the 39-year-old is here to recap a dizzying schedule shooting some of the Cannes Film Festival’s brightest stars.
Ungano partnered with The Hollywood Reporter to deliver a Cannes photo diary, updated throughout the festival from May 17-28, featuring portraits of Marion Cotillard, Alicia Vikander, Ethan Hawke, Harris Dickinson, Lee Jung-jae, Rebecca Hall, Joseph Kosinski and Isabelle Huppert.
While Cannes is forever hectic, for someone like Ungano, who has worked as an award-winning filmmaker, photographer, creative director and visual storyteller, the assignment is almost always creatively rejuvenating. In Unango’s hands, it was also revelatory as he wrote up diary entries that detailed the stories behind the images (Beers and conversation with Ethan Hawke! Less than 1 minute to photograph Marion Cotillard!).
“There’s something really cool and very special about shooting this type of content,” says the lensman, who was born in Vermont, raised in New York and currently settled in Los Angeles. “And oftentimes, within a couple of hours, the images are out in the world.”
What was your vision for this set 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 story that was cohesive and not just a bunch of celebrity pictures. My narrative weaves them together. Once you shoot a bunch of subjects, you start to realize that we’re all on the same cycle, in a way. Most people have come [to Cannes] for 24 to 48 hours max. You’ll find a couple of people here and there that are here for the whole time festival because they have multiple projects here.
The narrative that becomes palpable through all the shots is that everyone is exhausted and everyone is jet-lagged. It’s very hectic and you’re running here and there to capture everyone, and it can be hard to do because of the timing. The night before last, I had 45 seconds with someone. I’ve never done that but I’ve gotten used to working very quickly. It is very chaotic, it is very hectic, but it’s also really fun.
Having only 45 seconds is enough to blink. What’s the longest time you’ve 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 tap into capturing who someone is when you have such little time?
You have to really feel out the room. Some people are not thrilled about having their picture taken ever, whether in this scenario or on a set for a campaign. I find actors a lot easier to work with because if all else fails, you can suggest a character for them to play. That is a language they understand a lot easier. When you say to an actor, “Be yourself,” that can be challenging. They can easily grasp direction and concept if you say, “We are here in this place, playing this part and this is the vibe.” It’s almost like each session is a little acting exercise. The main [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 would be really obvious, but there are many different press outlets and so many different photographers that are just celebrity hunting 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?
Outside the obvious that it’s hectic and you’re in a different country, you’re never really 100 percent sure what the scenario is going to be when you arrive to shoot someone. You’re walking into a hotel room and you never know if it faces the ocean or another building. What does the background look like? How are you going to create something when the variables are always changing. Those are probably the biggest challenges for me, other than the technical aspect. Also, my mom was born in France about 10 miles away from here and that always makes the trip a little bit emotional for me in some weird way.
What has been the biggest surprise this year?
I wouldn’t say anything has surprised me yet. Well, other than the fact that I ended up on the red carpet at the Top Gun: Maverick premiere. I shot Lewis Pullman and the film’s director, Joe Kosinski, which was amazing. Joe gave me a ticket and I got to go with them — that was insane. I grew up watching Top Gun and I’ve seen that movie a thousand times. It was amazing because most of the time, you’re working and you don’t get to do any of the fun stuff.
That was the biggest moment of the first week with the fighter jets and Tom Cruise receiving a surprise Palme d’Or. What did you think of the film?
It was awesome. It was fucking iconic. I always have a debate with my brother about who is the biggest movie star. My argument is always about the movies you stop and watch when you’re flipping through the channels on cable. It doesn’t matter if you sit and watch it or keep it on in the background, nine times out of 10, it’s a Tom Cruise movie, whether it be 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 mom when I was a total idiot. Nobody thought I was going to make it or be a real-life functioning member of society. And now, to be here at the same place I came to as a kid, shooting movie stars and having this experience, it’s just crazy.
If you could go back and tell that little guy something, what would you say?
Don’t listen to any of those people. Keep doing what you’re doing. It’s all going to work out fine.
Back to the diary. Has there been anyone that you have photographed that you were stoked to meet?
Yeah, for sure. I was psyched to meet Omar Sy. I became a fan of his before Lupin came out. I saw him in The Intouchables, the movie that they remade in America with Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston, [The Upside]. I have a mutual friend of Omar’s and after seeing his work and also Lupin, I just feel like I got a good vibe from him and I became a fan. As soon as I found out we would be shooting him, I got really excited. And he delivered. He was so fun and awesome and just game.
Certain people understand how to elevate it beyond a photoshoot against a wall or something. He got it right away. I was also very excited to shoot Alicia Vikander. She was quite fun and she brought her own ideas which are refreshing because, as we talked about, one of the things that makes it difficult here is that 90 percent of the time, you’re shooting in a hotel room and there’s no time to do anything else.
I also shot Ethan Hawke, and I’ve been watching his movies since I was 10 years old. He was awesome and I’m really happy with those photos. We sat in the lobby of the Majestic hotel, had a beer and conversation, and took some pictures. That was amazing.
What’s next for you?
Hopefully home for a little bit. My wife is having a baby at the end of this summer so I’m super excited about that. I may go to Madrid for a job in June or to the Venice Film Festival. We’ll see. That’s the fun part of the job because you get to go places you wouldn’t normally go and it’s always an amazing adventure.
See Julian Ungano’s Cannes photo diary for The Hollywood Reporter here.