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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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I also wanted to jump around in your career, because it’s pretty fascinating. Can you talk about your early days studying under Éric Rohmer?

I studied with Rohmer at The University of Paris-Michelet, also called Paris 1. I spent a year in Paris as a comparative literature student, in exchange from Brown University. While I was there I learned that Rohmer had an open class in in the Paris university system and I managed to get myself enrolled. It was this incredible class, which was a cinematography class. It was called Cinematography with Éric Rohmer — all in French. Over a semester, each class he would show a different film with no sound. Most of the films he showed were his own. He showed Pauline at the Beach, Claire’s Knee, Les Enfants du ParadisChildren of Paradise, the Marcel Carné movie — and what was great was particularly when he would show his own movies was he would talk about the cinematography. He talked about Néstor Almendros. He talked about [Paul] Gauguin. He talked about color, composition, light. It was very much a non-technical discussion. He would tell anecdotes about how he would show Néstor Gauguin paintings and Néstor didn’t find that helpful because there’s no discernible light source in Gauguin. Néstor actually writes about that in his book, which is kind of amazing.

At the time what was great is that I’m a French speaker, I’m fluent, but he spoke his own French cinema language which a lot people in the class — even native French people — it was a bit like watching one of his films. You’re watching and trying to understand what’s happening. That’s definitely what the class was like. I really didn’t know what I had when I took that class. I had seen him films and thought he was amazing. What was funny, at the time, I had all these cinephile friends who were Parisian. They would say, “What are you doing taking Cinematography with Rohmer? You should be taking a screenplay class with him. His cinematography has no merit.” I was like, “You guys, just the fact that Néstor shoots for him, alone what was worth the discussion. You don’t know what you are talking about! And any movie that exists has cinematography and it’s worth the discussion.” And I was just like, “You guys are wrong. This cinematography happens to be great.”

Yeah, I think you won that argument.

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What was great is that it benefited me later. I met Noah Baumbach through Harris Savides, who I did work for. I worked for Harris for many years when I was an AC, and then he introduced me to Noah. Noah’s son, his name is Rohmer, after Éric Rohmer. Harris was trying to get me involved with Noah to shoot Frances Ha and at just the right moment, he said, “Oh, Sam studied with Rohmer” and then he kind of walked away and left us alone. Noah said, “Wait. How did that happen?” and I kind of told him the whole story, what I just told you.

Yeah, any time any of Rohmer’s films screen in NYC, I have to go see them.

Yeah, they are incredible. I think La collectionneuse is probably my favorite.

Ah, I just watched that.

If you ever get the chance, Néstor Almendros wrote this incredible book called A Man With Camera. It’s out of print, but you can totally find it on Amazon. In it, he goes through every film he made, so all the Rohmer movies, all of the Truffaut movies, Days of Heaven, Kramer vs. Kramer… and he says La collectionneuse is the best one. It was the first one and it was the best one. When I look at it, I know what he means. I don’t necessarily agree. I don’t think you can necessarily rate all of those movies in that way, but I watch it and what he was saying was, everything I sought to do later is encapsulated in that one movie. We had great freedom because even though we had so little money there was only a few of us and we could do what we wanted.

Yeah, Rohmer is one of those rare directors where everytime I watch a new one, I’m like, “Alright this has to be the best one,” because that initial experience of his movies is so great.

Yeah.

Jumping ahead, you probably can’t talk about it, but your Frank Ocean project with Spike Jonze. Blonde was my favorite album last year. I loved it.

Me too. Well, I can talk about as much as I know. I was hired by Spike Jonze to go on tour with him and Frank and do the live show video. So, Spike and I both operated on stage with Frank. We each had four different cameras. One was an ALEXA. One was an Ikonoskop, this Swedish camera that is no longer made. One was a MiniDV camera which Spike used to shoot his skate videos with and I used to shoot experimental art films with. And then one was an infrared camera. For each song, we would each have different cameras that get fed to this master board that get transmitted to the stadium IMAG screens. There was this brilliant guy mixing everything together. So that already happened, like the tour happened, the live video happened. Then I think Frank and Spike are using all the footage to make something else. Honestly, I don’t really know much about what they are doing. They are going to do something with it. I’m waiting to find out myself.

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Awesome. Well, I can’t wait to see it. Going back to Baumbach, have you seen The Meyerowitz Stories yet?

Yes.

I was just curious, after working with Baumbach for a few films, what you thought about Robbie Ryan’s cinematography.

Robbie is totally brilliant. I’m a huge fan of his. I’ve seen most of his films. I’m still trying to get at some of them, but he’s one of the great cinematographers working today, in my opinion.

On a larger sense, is there any other cinematography this year that you’ve been taken aback by?

Yeah, my favorite movie of the last year is definitely Toni Erdmann, the German movie, shot by Patrick Orth. It’s not the most luscious or beautiful film that you would see. It doesn’t look like Blade Runner. Did you happen to see that movie?

Yes.

I mean, I was just nuts about that movie. It is so subtle and plain-looking and I loved the movie. I loved everything about that movie. I found myself thinking, “Okay, this looks very ordinary.” And I could be wrong — I haven’t talked to Maren Ade or the DP — but I think, based on what I’m seeing, I think these filmmakers know how to make something pretty and they decided not to go that route. I thought about it for weeks after I saw it. I wondered if I would have had that level of restraint had I been the DP who shot that movie. It’s funny. We already wrapped Lady Bird. We did a little bit of color timing, Greta and I, and Alex Bickel, our colorist. Greta and I met up and gathered our thoughts as we went to do another big push of color timing and I happened to say, “Did you see Toni Erdmann?” and she grabbed my arm and was like, “Yes! I thought it was amazing.” And she played back everything I just told you: “Yeah, I wondered if I would have that kind of restraint.” She’s like, “Me too! I don’t think we did.” Greta and I had a lot of discussions that Lady Bird should be plain and luscious. Those were the two words we came up with. It should be subtle, but not boring. It shouldn’t look ugly, but it shouldn’t look ostentatious or gaudy or like that. Toni Erdmann is in the zone where this is very plain, ordinary. So, anyways, it made a big impression. I guess it’s going to be remade.

Yeah, you guys should definitely put your hat in the ring for that. [Both laugh.]

Lady Bird opens on Friday, November 3.

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