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‘Lady Bird’ Cinematographer Sam Levy on Greta Gerwig, Frank Ocean, and Éric Rohmer

Written by on November 1, 2017 

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After working under Harris Savides for many years, in the past decade, Sam Levy has emerged to bring a distinct visual style to the face of American independent film. With his collaborations with Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy), Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha, While We’re Young, Mistress America), and more, there’s a energetic dexterity and understated beauty to his images that is among the finest of his contemporaries.

His latest work finds him re-teaming with frequent collaborator Greta Gerwig, but this time for her directorial debut, Lady Bird. I spoke with Levy about his part in capturing a film of enormous amiability and vitality, as well as his early days studying under Éric Rohmer, working with Spike Jonze on a secretive Frank Ocean project, and his favorite film of the last year.

The Film Stage: You’ve worked with Greta Gerwig on a handful of films. How early on did she start talking with you about Lady Bird?

Sam Levy: Greta first mentioned Lady Bird to me at the premiere party in New York for Mistress America, which we both worked on with Noah Baumbach. So it was a gala event and we were relaxing and having a great time at this lovely premiere and that’s when she first mentioned it. I knew that it had existed, but I didn’t know how real it was or not. She brought it up in this great way. She said, “I have this project. Don’t feel like you have to do it, but if it’s okay, I’d like to send it to you. You don’t even have to read it.” I said, “Of course I want to read it! Of course I want to do it! Yeah, I’ll read it. I’m sure it’s amazing.” And we just went from there. That was probably about a year-and-a-half before we started shooting.

One of the things that struck me most about the cinematography is that it has a very lived-in feel to it, almost like you’re watching a memory. How did you come up with that approach?

Well, I’m glad you said it looks like a memory. That’s exactly what Greta said she wanted it to look like. She said, “I want this to look like a memory.” So my job was to figure out what that means and then how to do it. As soon as she said it, I understood on a visceral level what she meant, but then how to execute it… So, we started looking at photographs from the era. The movie is set in the early 2000s and we looked at different photographs and we looked at paintings from this amazing Sacramento-based artist named Wayne Thiebaud and just started a visual conversation. We very quickly found that we were on the same page and we liked the same things. I would say a great eureka moment was we were in the production office and I took some photos we’d both been looking at and I wanted to put them up on our wall, so I color-Xerox’ed a bunch of them. We had this really inexpensive color copier in the office, so they were these crude facsimiles of these great photos and paintings.

We tacked them up on the wall and we really loved the quality that these photocopies had. And it spurred on this great intellectual conversation between Greta and I about how, in the early 2000s, it was still very much the era of people going to Kinko’s and making color copies–just making copies of all kinds– but it was a big heyday for zines, which still exist now, but it was just before everything became hyper-digital. Kids and adults would color copy things, put them on their wall, use them to decorate, and just use them in different ways, so it was very evocative for us to look at these color copies. On top of that, we loved how the image looked and felt, so I wanted to capture something about this facsimile of an image–a generation removed from a sort of high-quality image.

So I begin testing with the ALEXA, the digital camera we were using, to try and get at this quality. We came up with a technique to utilize the native grain that the ALEXA has. All video cameras have grain or noise to them, from VHS cameras to Hi8 cameras from the early 2000s to the high-end digital cameras we have now. They all have some kind of noise or grain to them, so I wanted to tease out that grain that they have. So we came up with a technique to do that, to create this generation removed quality of the early 2000s, but still have it be rich.

There’s a style to the cinematography, but it never feels overstylized. There’s a sense you’re moving through Lady Bird’s world with her with your camera movements. Can you talk about that decision?

Yes. I’m glad you picked up on that. It was very deliberate to have the movement respond to Lady Bird. So if she’s moving, we’ll move with her, to respond to her movement, and not have movement just for the sake of movement when the characters aren’t moving. There’s a shot when her and the Jenna character [played by Odeya Rush] are at The Deuce, which is this parking lot where the cool kids hang out and they get out of the car and they walk over to Timothée Chalamet and the camera just follows them and it’s one of the longer tracking shots in the movie. Because Greta brought the project up a year-and-a-half before we started, we’d take a day like every weekend to hang out and start shot listing and start talking about the kind of movement, the kind of blocking that we wanted, the cinematography we wanted to have. Everything comes out of that. How the characters move and how the camera moves in response to their blocking. We decided we didn’t want to use a Steadicam. We didn’t want to use a handheld camera. We wanted to be on a dolly. We wanted to always use dolly track and if that wasn’t possible, we would figure out a new blocking. Luckily, we spent so much time shot listing and discussing beforehand that we worked out the methodology and we could just execute it. There’s always certain surprises when you get on set, but we had our playbook with rules.

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The location of this, in Sacramento, gives such a foundation for your cinematography. It feels like it’s always glistening, perhaps in the magic hour. Can you talk about how important the location was to aid your cinematography?

The location was… I wouldn’t say everything, but it’s total paramount. For example, Lady Bird’s house. So much happens at her house. It’s so central to the story and her character, her mom, dad, brother, sister. It was a practical location. We didn’t shoot anything on a stage and we didn’t build anything. So much of the filmmaking came from location scouting and finding places that had great bones, that had great light, that had enough space, but weren’t too big related to the socioeconomics of this family, who don’t have a lot of money. Once we did find the house, which took a long time, it was important for me to spend a lot of time there, to look at what the light did at the house, and I made a lot of tests, which was very important to the process. To look at the light, to spend time there, to do light studies, then to actually take the ALEXA there and to try out some different lenses I was considering to get that photocopy feeling that I referenced, and just to spend as much time there as possible, so when we were actually shooting with the actors we could just plug in and get to a zone and move.

Saoirse Ronan is incredible and she has been in the last decade or so since she’s been working, but you also worked with a number of up-and-comers, including Timothée Chalamet, Lucas Hedges, and Beanie Feldstein. What was your experience on set seeing their performances come to life?

It was amazing and astounding to work with all of these different actors. Every single one was completely brilliant. Saoirse, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Stephen Henderson, who plays Father Leviatch, who is just brilliant, Lois Smith, who plays the school principal, the head nun, Beanie Feldstein, who is just genius, Lucas Hedges, Timothee, Marielle Scott, who plays the adopted daughter, Shelley, and Jordan Rodrigues. Every single one of those actors is brilliant and Greta was so masterful at communicating with the actors, but not just talking to the actors, synthesizing everything they had, and it was all her words. She was in complete control of the dialogue and the arc. She was her own dramaturge while we were shooting, in addition to having written all of this great dialogue. She just created a wonderful environment on the set. What was great as her collaborator — and we had worked together a number of times, so we had a great shorthand — was that I could be instrumental in the blocking conversation.

So while she was sometimes, say talking to Beanie about something, I could give a note to Saoirse, like “Hey, instead of turning to your left, why don’t you turn to your right and then move over here. Let’s try that.” Of course, I try always to give blocking notes to Greta, because it’s her set, but sometimes if it was simpler for me to speak directly with the actors, that’s pretty much all I would say. I would just talk about blocking, and all of these actors have theater backgrounds and I had some great talks with Laurie and with Tracy about their theater experiences and blocking for the theater and how actors make tweaks to the blocking, which isn’t so much the case with film because all we’re doing at the end of the day is capturing the blocking that’s in front of the camera. But in some scenes I was able to have a lot of input about what their blocking should be, many times in service of the story and in service of keeping the filmmaking approach simple and in connection with what we were talking about before, with camera movement. We’re always trying to streamline things as much as we could. Not to make things but to make them easy, but to make them dynamic and interesting and engaging and to have a spark, but in synthesis with the performances and the story and all with the greater goal of keeping the viewer so engaged that they never feel like they are on the outside of the movie. I don’t know if it worked or not, but that was the goal.

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