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