Many cinematographers wouldn’t want to be mistaken with someone else, but Christopher Blauvelt was exceedingly unbothered when I revealed May December initially suggested Ed Lachman. It’s an easy mistake to make––Blauvelt replaced Lachman, Todd Haynes’ usual cinematographer, when personal injury prevented the latter from shooting the new feature––unless you know his work well enough. Accordingly I remembered his involvement in the first exterior shots bearing the heavy grain that have made his collaborations with Kelly Reichardt so deeply felt, so elemental.
Blauvelt presented May December at this year’s EnergaCAMERIMAGE days before it opens in the United States and two weeks in advance of its Netflix debut. When we met at Toruń’s Hotel Copernicus my general list of questions got upended by conversational flow, resulting in an interview that covers much of the film’s making––including the next, revealing chapter in my quest to figure out Netflix Sheen––through slightly aslant means, and colored by his profoundly kind character.
The Film Stage: I had forgotten that you shot this film, and going in I sort of assumed it was an Ed Lachman production.
Christopher Blauvelt: Yeah, I was going to ask you that. You probably expected it was Ed, yeah.
And––not joking, not exaggerating––I remembered it was you in the first exterior shots. I thought, “This has that noise, grain that’s in so many of Kelly Reichardt’s films.”
So it suddenly clicked in my head: Christopher Blauvelt shot this.
Wow. Funny that I can be identified by, like, a texturized, grainy image.
Last year I saw Showing Up and was so taken with the… I don’t know what you would call it. Because it’s shot digitally, so…
Right. Well, we add real grain––like, real film grain. We imposed that; we add that into the image to add texture. And also: we’re all film-lovers, so our reference material all comes from Bergman’s Persona, Winter Light. Even, like, The Graduate was a reference for us––the comedic elements of our film. But yeah, it’s like: when the references come from film, you know, we sort of always lean into that.
It’s funny, because it doesn’t feel like a texture that is so totally in the collaborations with him and Ed Lachman. Those certainly have a filmic look––something like Dark Waters was shot digitally…
…but he kept putting things on it to make it look more like film.
Sure. But I mean, Carol––that’s, like, 16mm. And that’s, you know, like the films that we love; it looks so good.
I’d like to know how much that grain is something you were bringing to this film that shot digitally, on an Arri Alexa, and how much that’s coming from Haynes.
Well, that stuff, it was decided right in the prep. I mean: again, it comes from the inspiration material that Todd already had collected and showed us. Like, “What about this, Chris?” And then we were seeing in the environment, in the locations––it was near the water, the house. So there was, like, this marine layer––just on the windows, like it was this film. And we wanted to have that, make it feel very layered in texture. So that was the goal right away. So once I started testing lenses and cameras… I mean, we picked Kowa lenses that were made in the ‘30s and ‘40s, right? And the filtration I used was pretty heavy, because we were really after this sort of lower-contrast––texture-wise––filmic look, right? So that was decided right away.
About the lenses: I had seen the piece you two did for Vanity Fair where that was mentioned in passing. I was very curious about that, and I guess you’re alluding to where the choice came from. But in general, how it is shooting with lenses that old? Because that seems ancient as far as tech is concerned
Yeah! I mean, I think there’s a big interest in finding these older, beautiful glass that we used to use because the digital can be super-clinical. You know: high definition is not flattering if you shot everything clean and right to your sensor. You’re looking, now, at pores on skin and it doesn’t lean into a “cinematic look”–– like from the past––that we all are inspired by and love. So there’s people that have been rehousing these old lenses to match all of our gears and make them more user-friendly. I mean, some of those lenses––like if you look at the inside of the housing––you can see the real lens.
Because there’s this whole thing about––I was just talking to some techs last night––the Baltar lenses that were made in the ‘30s. You can’t crack them open because it’s toxic––like poisonous gas––because they’ve been encapsulated for so long, and the materials they use was, like, pine tar to make the gears work. And so what they do now is: they cover them. Like the rehousings are just built over the old lenses. So you can look at a lens that’s built to be this big, to be user-friendly with big marks and everything for the focus and aperture, and you look inside and the lens is, like, this big. [Spreads hands]
And it’s super-interesting. I don’t know. It’s just this funny part of our world now, where we have taken… everybody’s trying to find and dig in old crates of lenses to sort of counterbalance the high definition and smooth things out. So I’m using, on this movie, lenses that were made in the ‘40s, and I’m also adding this layer of filtration and back light to create flares and make it very filmic.
What are some of the learning curves there? Or if it’s there’s an extent to which a lens is a lens and you just––
No, it’s a good point to make. Because there’s a characteristic of each lens, right? Like, we tested Cooke Panchros; we tested Super Baltars, normal Baltars, Cooke S4s––which are the most contemporary ones I would use. But even still: I say that and it’s funny, because those lenses were made 35 years ago. [Laughs] But those, to me, are as sharp as I’ll get because I’m always trying to find a way to sort of disarm the eye for perfection of digital.
But it’s sort of like: once you get your tool kit, you learn about each lens and the dynamic of those lenses. There’s fall off and, you know, sometimes I have to punch in a little bit more because there’s a vignette that happens naturally. And so you have to sort of learn to understand and live with what your tools are at that point. But if I were to use a new set, you know, everything’s there. It’s much more in line with perfection. And you just can live with that. But in these older sets, your 50 millimeter might be a little bit cooler than the rest of the lenses. So my DIT, Sean Goller, he knows that. So when the 50 millimeter shows up on the camera, he’s already dialing back; he’s warming the image up a bit. So we’re very aware of what the tools are that we’ve picked. And that’s a part of the discipline of our testing.
You talk about this in such a granular, kind-of-autonomous way. And so I hope this doesn’t seem like a sophomore, softball question, but I do genuinely wonder if you had any conversations with (or intel on) the working processes that Haynes has with Lachman. They’ve been together for so long, and sometimes it can be hard for a director and DP to separate.
In the case of Lachman, that’s because he had a broken femur. And we actually did an interview with Haynes at Cannes, where he talked a bit about how it was only weeks before shooting. I wonder if you had any conversations with either of them about the process, and how much there was a means of replicating this style that they’ve forged over decades now.
Yeah, no––it’s actually a good question because no one’s asked me anything about that. And I’ll tell you, my answer is: the first phone call that I made after talking to Todd was to Ed. Because I didn’t know how much prep he might have done already. But he didn’t. He didn’t. He was on another film. So he told me he was holding a camera at a rental house in Atlanta, but he said, “By all means, make it your own.” And so I just sort of got the blessing from the legend. He just said, “Make it your own.” He’s like, “I’ve only talked to Todd a little bit about this film.” He didn’t start his prep yet, right? So it was sort of like free will now––like, do what you want to do. And I of course––like I just said––got the blessing from the master. He literally said, “You’re going to make this your own, kid.” And I’m just… the sword was laid over my shoulders and I was like, “My God.” And talk about, you know, another level of intimidation. I’m like “Oh, shit. I really have to provide now.” [Laughs]
The sense of him watching.
Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
You and Haynes have known each other for quite a while––going all the way back to when you were working with Gus Van Sant, he was friendly with you and knew your work. And I wonder how much there had been a hope that you two would work together at some point, and whether those discussions were kind of explicit, out in the open, or if it was almost like a subdued desire.
That’s funny. You’re asking really good questions, because this is something I don’t talk about. But it’s kind of fun to dig into my psyche in those moments. I think that my relationship with Todd has always been super-friendly and our love and respect and admiration for each other’s work has always been there because he’s produced all of Kelly’s films. He’s been a part of her films. So he’s said to me out-loud, “I really love what you did.” And of course, whenever I would see Todd it’s like, “I can’t believe the movie you just made. And you guys are, you know, heroes,” and whatever.
But I never, ever once thought to myself, “God, I want to get in there with Todd and shoot his next movie.” Because: Ed. Because Todd and Ed are still in my psyche, in my dreamscape. They live as Bergman and Sven Nykvist. Like, they are this legendary fantasy team. You know? So I just was happy to know them and… you know what I mean? So I’m not one of those plotting people that’s like, “I hope that I would get the chance.” It was never even in my mind. So this call, the call that came in, was kind of crazy too. I was in Chile; I was working with the gaffer who had been with Ed on El Conde.
So we were talking about Ed all day long, and the gaffer––they became really good friends. And of course Ed’s such a sweetheart and amazing filmmaker. And then I got a phone call––I was out on-location, out-of-service––and it was something Todd said. “Hey.” And he mentioned something about Ed. And my heart dropped. I was like “Oh, shit.” Like, I thought Ed was… you know, I had bad thoughts. So I didn’t really know what was going on. And I had to wait, like, two hours in a car ride to get back to my hotel to make the call, and then he broke it down to me. And it’s so crazy because he broke his femur in Chile, where I was, where I was right in a hotel.
And it was just this kind of weird coincidence that I had been talking about Ed with my crew all day and that happened. Back to your point: it was out of my realm. It wasn’t even in my thought process. But when the call came in, it was like, “Holy shit.” Like, I hung up the phone and I called my wife and I was like, “You’re never going to believe this. Ed got hurt and they both talked about it and they were like, ‘You’re going to be the guy.’” [It was] such an honor and crazy feelings going through my body and soul.
I remember when the news came out that you were going to be shooting it. I think a pretty common response was, “I hope Ed Lachman gets well soon and hope he’s back in action soon, but if anybody else should shoot it…”
It’s crazy to me. I still have imposter syndrome. I’m like, “What? Someone’s going to take this all away from me really quick. I don’t deserve it.” Right? So hearing that or thinking about it in that way is just, like––I don’t know how to even process that. You know, I know and I respect that I’ve done some notable work with Kelly and other people, and I’m just sitting here as a grateful human being that feels like I don’t deserve that honor. So it seems a bit like someone else, actually. [Laughs] To me.
Something that is kind of shared between Haynes and Reichardt––maybe outside of a stylistic or thematic concern––is what you were talking about: they’re both directors who are pretty open about what other films inspired what they’re doing now. The Vanity Fair piece you did for May December is a lot of that. And I’m curious: what are particular advantages that come from working with these cinephile, reference-heavy directors, and are there ways it infects and changes your own process?
I think it’s twofold. I think that because the references are so built-in in the beginning, it’s an amazing starting point. So I understand the nuances of what the directors are pulling from. Like, they give me that. Todd gave me the score. You know, there’s so many things that he’s specific about. “Look, this is something I’m really interested in doing and this is my reference.” But I have to say that, with all of that, there’s still a freedom with how we’re going to be informed by it and do something. So Kelly Reichardt, for example––there’s such a discipline to the shot-listing. Like, we debate over every line that I’m writing on the page; we fight sometimes about “No, we can’t do that because of this.” And it’s super-healthy and fun because we’re distilling it down for the right reasons.
We’re being very thoughtful about all of the layers involved: what we’re shooting, what we’re imposing on the image, and what it means to the viewer at that point. We’re really careful about all of those things. But Kelly will throw it away. She doesn’t ever want to see the shot list again. So it’s almost just like an exercise to make sure that we’re simpatico. And we have telepathy now about what it means, why we’re doing it. But when I have it in my back pocket, she hates when I pull it out. But I have it in my pocket because I have notes on there about dolly tracks or lighting or, you know, technical things. But also sometimes I’ll be like: “Kelly, I made a note that we should think about this.” And then she’ll be like “Yeah, cool.” And then we do it. So it does work. But I’m saying all this because: yes, there’s inspiration. Yes, there’s a focus. But it’s almost just because they’re trying to create a language to explain their vision for it.
But it always gets turned into something else. It’s always free. Like, from day one, now we’re open to the world. It’s almost like you’re doing all that work to be free. I don’t know if that makes sense.
You’re preparing yourself in so many layers and with so many references that now we can watch a blocking or watch an actor do something and say “Wow, now we’re going to do this.” And that happens constantly. And so, I don’t know––in a weird way, it’s like you do all that work for freedom.
What you’re saying makes me think about how, when I watch their films––no matter who their DPs are––it’s a thing where they feel manicured and strong, but not… hermetic. Because you see a film that makes every single shot feel so fussed-over that you kind of can’t breathe. Those films are not like that.
Yeah, I know. That’s interesting. Like, I think that you can overdo it. Control is a hard thing for people to lose; you want to be in control of it. But I’ve been lucky enough to work with Gus Van Sant who’s, like, no shot listed. He doesn’t even like a script. You can block in a room with Gus and he doesn’t like that the camera’s around. “Get it away.” He doesn’t want anyone to be sort of biased or imposed or be performing to some direction. Like, it’s that bad. And to me, it’s really hard to work for Gus. And I love Gus. Like, he’s a fucking legend, hero, spirit guide for me. And he gives me advice all the time. But it’s always like a riddle; he doesn’t even speak in normal terms. Like, you ask him a question and he’ll tell you a story. And later in the car, you’re driving and you’re like, “Now I get what you were trying to say.”
But I think that that’s one example of someone that’s not over-controlling things. He’s not over-imposing his inspiration or idea on it. But I think that with Kelly or Todd, they’re so smart and they’re so good at what they do. They’re just creating a plan. And the plan is always open for interpretation, but because there’s a plan, now you’re making thoughtful imagery or thoughtful compositions because we’ve thought about it––literally the word is just what it means. We’re being thoughtful about what we’re doing. But I don’t know. It’s like: there is a bit of freedom, but the plan is always there and they work in real time together. Because the actors are going to bring something else and Todd loves that. It’s like, “Yeah, let’s expand on that.” And now you’re doing something that’s not exactly what was planned. And that’s beautiful––because the plan should be there, because that’s our safeguard––but it’s also the openness to move around. That’s sort of the filmmakers I work with.
Now that there’s been a Netflix acquisition, have you been interfacing with them––say, a Dolby Vision grade of the film?
No. The only thing I’ve done with Netflix… and they’ve been beautiful, by the way. They’ve been so supportive of everything that we’ve done, and I didn’t know what to expect. You know, Netflix is this big corpo, giant-entity thing. And there’s a whole team of people that just take care of us and support us and all of the outputs that we’re planning to do––like the streaming. So we’ve had to retime the movie for the streaming part, and it’s been another process.
Yeah. Well, the grain that we put in the digital domain: it didn’t translate to the digital output. And so we had to go back, and Adrian Syree, our DI technician, he had to work on turning back the grain to work with streaming. Which is something that I hadn’t experienced yet. Most of the time it translates, but because it’s pretty heavy––we’ve texturized this film quite a bit. It didn’t translate with the digital, and so we had to sort of go back and do that. So they’ve been very good about supporting that––like paying for it, getting sure to make it right. And also, by the way, we’re doing a film-out.
At the American Cinematheque. And it’s been a real process. We made a digital film to look like film and now are going to film. It doesn’t always connect. So we had to sort of do a re-timing for that as well.
I don’t know how much you can talk about this on the record. Don’t let me step on anybody’s toes, but I do wonder about coming to a point of resolution. They want the grain reduced by this much, but you also put it in because you like it. So what is the happy middle?
Well, we did it together. Todd and I would watch footage, and the idea was “Wow, this isn’t working.” Or something was getting lost in the translation. So you also went back to Adrian, who was like, “I know what to do. Let me show you some examples.” And then we went through the course again. We had to find the right ratio.
So you also thought it looked a little odd?
Yeah, it was weird. It was like getting that, like, weird artifacty thing.
I had wanted to ask about the 35mm print. You’ve watched it?
Yeah, I watched it the day before I left. And it’s beautiful.
Oh, good. You’re happy with it.
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it took us some time to sort of make sure that it translated. We got it. We got it there.
I talked to Erik Messerschmidt, who shot The Killer, which is also in the Netflix rolodex this year. And he was rather unworried about compression or TV calibration. There’s a thing where, you know, Kubrick or David Lynch would send letters to projectionists saying “it should be this many lambert levels” and “you should play the volume this loud.” And streaming can be such an opening of the gates of the zoo and just seeing what happens. I’m curious if you have any, as the person who shot the movie, worries about someone watching this on their TV and, say, they have motion-smoothing on or they’re––
Oh, my God. It’s one of those nightmares that just lives in the world and you have to let it go. It would make me crazy. Yeah, I can’t even think about it. Because there’s no, like, baseline. It doesn’t exist. You can’t say, “Everyone’s going to see it like this.” All you can do is make it the best you can in the right domain. And that’s it. You have to let it out. It’s like, “Fly away, little bird. Good luck.” Because somebody is going to watch a movie on a phone someday, and if they tell me––I’m going to be pissed. Because they usually don’t tell me. But that’s the fact. And you have to just sort of be okay with it. You make it the best for your best environment. Like, we’re not going to design a movie for the lowest-common denominator. We’re just not. We’re going to make it for the best; we’re going to make it for a screening.
And from there you do your diligence to try to make it right for streaming and the offline stuff and the HD TVs. But there’s no way I can go to everybody’s house and dial it off that high-refresh mode. And if I think about it or I go to someone’s house or a party and it’s on––I can’t watch. I got to walk away. I can’t go to every theater and give a disclaimer in front of the audiences, as much as I’d like to. Yeah, you have to just let it go. It’s just a part of our world. And I think even before DCP, before the projector thing, it was the same––because projectors are different because your print is traveling now around the world, right? And it’s played in a different room. And it’s the sound. All of it is different. You can’t control it.
Harris [Savides] used to talk about that, and he would say, “I just have to walk away.” You know––this is it. I mean, it’s the best we can for this theater. I was in a theater in Montana and I’m like, “My God.” It was like, “What the fuck?” It was like that. It was an old man who had this projector that ran the bulb until it was dead. And it was like a vignette of darkness and it was kind of sweet, in a way, because it was this old film projector or whatever. But it’s like: that wasn’t the intent and you’re seeing it in a different way. But there’s nothing you can do about it. Even on set, by the way, we’re working in HD––even different monitors are different. It’s a sliding scale that’ll make you crazy. Like, I would literally lose my mind if I dwelled on that.
What’s your home set-up? A particular television, projector?
I have a projector. I have a pretty high-end, nice projector. And we just pull the screen down and it’s a different domain than that. I really do like the projection; the TVs are just too damn sharp, you know? And that’s kind of why we lean into grain. That’s why we lean into filtration and make things softer, too––sort of counterbalance that. But again: it’s like if someone’s watching it with that HD-perfection thing going on I’ll, like… throw up, right?
I think that this is a great movie of visages, faces––not just that they’re great faces, but that too. It feels like you get to see the three leads go through almost every possible emotion.
And it’s interesting because you have Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman, who we get in these intense close-ups––mirrors, monologues––while there’s Charles Melton, who I had never seen before. And you really get to know their faces in it. Moore and Portman are in makeup and skincare ads because they’re kind of the embodiment of a Western face.
Yeah. They’re like a brand. You know them so well.
I’m interested how you shoot them uniquely while also playing upon familiarity.
Yeah. That’s, again, a really interesting question because it’s something I didn’t really think about. I think my gaffer, Jesse Wine, was the first one to sort of mention something in this matter, where he was like, “They’re going to come with a team of people because they’re branded––like they work for whatever makeup line.” Maybelline? I don’t even know what it is. That’s how much I don’t pay attention to pop culture. But that did come up and he was like, “We have to make sure we’re prepared to kind of do what they’re asking.” And I was like, “My God, really? Like, is that going to happen?” But what happened was: their teams came and they were, like, awesome film people––they were cool. And so they were giving me advice. Like, there was one thing that happened with Susan, who’s one of Julianne’s team. She was like “Hey, just so you know: sometimes DPs, when they see her, she has a pale sort-of-freckly ginger look, and people want to lean into the warmth to enhance that,” and she’s like, “It doesn’t work.” So I was like, “That’s good advice.”
I don’t want to make her look bad. I just want to make her look like she’s living in reality. Like, that’s my goal. My goal is never to, you know… I’m super-accommodating. Like, I really respect the idea that… how women are treated in this business. It’s like, you get old and you’re done. Fuck that. I hate that. Like, I think Julianne is one of the most beautiful humans. Same with Natalie. You know, how lucky am I to shoot these faces? And Charles––like, come on. So I was learning from their team a bit about things not to do. Because if you light her with warm light, she turns into, like, an Oompa Loompa super-quick. So I don’t want to do that. So we were doing some tests in the very early stages and we figured out a whole ratio system. Like the night scenes in the bed: if you looked at that with your bare eyeballs, that set looked green. It was green light and that was me counterbalancing a magenta; that was what we had to do.
So there was a formula that we built in and it was so cool––because when Sean Goller, my color-timer, would time the green out, we found the perfect look for her face. That was healthy. It looked normal, it looked real, and she looked great. And so anyway: there was a little bit of a, sort of, technical attribute to that idea––that I had to respect faces and do this thing. But other than that––I just thought of them as their characters and I just wanted to make the movie. I don’t know. My personal brain doesn’t dig into the history of someone’s life anymore. I’m just like “Okay, we’re here to do this.” We spoke to this idea.
I saw Haynes was at the Criterion office around the time May December played in New York, and there’s a Netflix-Criterion output deal. So do you think the film’s getting a Criterion release?
Man, I hope so. I don’t know anything about the politics of it, but I love when they put my movies out. Because, you know, when I was a camera assistant for, like, 20 years with Harris Savides, in 2006 I told him that I wanted to quit working for him and start taking my gamble at shooting. And it was super-scary because it’s like: I had my job, I had my life, and I loved working for Harris. I still, to this day, think about what I’ve learned––you know, gained from that experience. And just even as a friend and, you know, his wife and his daughter, they’re my family––we talk all the time. And anyway, when I told him that he was like, “Take the chance and go for it.”
And he said, “Come up here.” He lived up near the park, like 108th and Broadway, and he’s like, “Come to my Cuban restaurant. We’ll have breakfast.” And it was super-sweet. I’m like, “He’s okay with this.” And not someone that’s like, “You can’t ever leave me.” And I mean, we were tight. We did everything together and I learned everything from him. And he’s like, “Will you come upstairs and see the wife and just say hi?” Whatever. Cool. I’m like “Yeah, of course.” And I go there and I see her, and she’s kind of acting strange, and I’m like, “What’s going on?” And then she looks, and Harris had bought me the entire Criterion Collection––at that time it was 700-something films––with a bow on top. And I cried. That was his… gesture. So to me it goes deeper than just… Criterion, the channel, is on constantly. Just the best.
That’s as good a gift as a car or a boat. Probably better.
What’s a takeaway lesson from Savides, who––ten years after his passing––is still this spectral figure in modern movies?
The takeaway––and again: I’m glad you asked these questions because it’s really important to me––if I could tell anybody anything about the takeaway from Harris Savides and his life is: simplicity, minimalism, and just a real care. Like a real, honest appreciation and care for your craft. You know, that’s what he was. And I mean, it was also like an explorer––like, he really did want to fuck everything up. We were flashing film, burning film, pissing on film, baking film. Like, we were doing everything to find things. And so that, with all of those elements, you can be a great filmmaker. I truly believe that.
I didn’t go to school. Like, I’m pretty uneducated; I went to juvenile hall. I was a fuck-up kid and learning what I learned––just a good work ethic––and then becoming someone that really cares about the craft, because I appreciate films: that’s what I got from Harris. I was realizing that this person was open to me. He was letting me, you know, in the world. So I love doing that for people. And… I don’t know. That’s maybe the best, sort of, commentary I could give on what I got, what I would learn from him.
If wayward, troubled youth had some make-work cinematography program, the world would probably be a better place.
Agreed! Jonah Hill and I did a thing in Chicago for Adidas and it was, like, “Filmmakers Day” or whatever. They brought all these inner-city kids to just check out different lifestyles. And we were the filmmaking one, and we did a whole thing. And one of the kids wanted to be the director and we had a costume designer and it was opening it up to like, “There’s other things that are super-cool and respectable.” The sound guy was giving the headphones to these kids and they were like “Whoa, dude. Amazing.” That is important to understand in life. My dad was a first assistant cameraman for 40-something years, and he raised a family. He’s a hero to me, and that’s a good lifestyle. And he didn’t need to be Elton John. He’s just cool.
May December is now in theaters and arrives on Netflix on December 1.