With his second feature The Cathedral, Ricky D’Ambrose takes a major step forward. He has not abandoned the clipped, elliptical style of his shorts and debut feature Notes on an Appearance, but tries them out on new material. The Cathedral describes a Long Island family struggling to remain middle-class, rather than the artists and academics of his shorts. D’Ambrose’s framing is precise and handsome, only moving the camera to zoom out, and he edits together disconnected shots and scenes. This material could’ve become overly familiar, but his script retains its grounding in a minimalist, elliptical European modernism, stripping away two-thirds of the elements that would occupy a more conventional movie.
Its historical context is sketched in the background—within the first minute, the film brings up AIDS and its denial—but characters use the news as audio B-roll, no matter how important it might be in retrospect, as people often do. One might assume that Jesse, who grows into a young man over the film’s runtime, is its main character, but The Cathedral is cautious about identifying with any single character or expressing emotion beyond a low-key, constant drone of sadness. (If anyone comes close to center stage, it’s family patriarch Richard, played by Brian D’Arcy James in the film’s most extroverted performance, but even he remains enigmatic.)
It’s exciting to see D’Ambrose stretch himself to work on a larger canvas without departing greatly from the voice he’s established so far. Just before its U.S. opening at Film at Lincoln Center and subsequent MUBI release, I spoke with him about the class issues raised by The Cathedral, his desire to make films based on experience rather than other films, his step up to a (low) six-figure budget, and the technical aspects of his work.
The Film Stage: Your shorts depicted the kind of people who’d write a letter to the New York Review of Books or get an obituary in the New York Times. In The Cathedral, you’ve moved to showing a family struggling to remain middle-class.
Ricky D’Ambrose: The fact that people have a certain status or they’re very squarely middle-class is just reflective of the people I grew up around. The movie about my family is something that’s been in my head since I was 16 or 17 and predates the other films. It never occurred to me that suddenly I would just shift focus and make a movie about living in the suburbs or something. I mean, it’s been very, very personal and close to me for so long that it seemed that at some point I would make this movie.
I didn’t think I’d be making it now. I thought I’d be making this movie later on. I mean, it would seem like something that someone further on would be making because it’s so reflective. Many of the people who are depicted in the film are alive, but nonetheless it’s a kind of prematurely mournful movie. My parents are both still alive, but there is still an awareness that as an only child, there are consequences to your parents’ death that someone with siblings may not have to think about.
How old were you when you wrote the first version of the script?
I wrote the script in 2020, starting in April. So I was a couple of years younger than I am now. As I was saying earlier, it never occurred to me to sit down and write this script until I would have another few features under my belt. Also, it was a much more ambitious film originally. The script that I had in my head was a much more expensive movie, a longer movie, a film with more characters, more locations. I didn’t think I would be able to shoot it in the scale that it was inevitably shot under. But when I got news of the Venice Biennale College Workshop’s deadline, that became it. I was kind of pushed by Graham Swon, the film’s producer, to apply to the workshop with this film idea in mind, which is why I wrote it so late and why I wrote it when I did two years ago.
How did shooting during the pandemic impact production?
The two grants we got were from Venice, which were about $200,000. Unfortunately, it couldn’t be used in its entirety for the shoot because about 10 to 15% of that money had to be spent on COVID testing. The COVID testing, the frequency of the testing, the number of people who had to be tested were things that were mandated by the Screen Actors Guild. And we were dealing with several union actors and therefore had to stick to the rules. Surprisingly it did not slow down the shoot, but it did force us to set up another infrastructure for making sure that people were getting tested. And that did require taking a break, stopping shooting on certain days so that people did get swabbed, and waiting on results. Thankfully no one tested positive during the shoot. You know, miraculously, if someone did test positive, we would have had to shut down. And I don’t know if there would have been a way to finish the film on time if that had happened.
But it was mainly a financial burden for a movie this small. 10% off of that budget is not insubstantial. I would have loved to have been able to have some of that money to spend on a few extra days of shooting or to pay members of the cast and crew for additional work. I mean, all kinds of things that could’ve been spent on. But, you know, inevitably that’s just the nature of the world we’re living in, where those requirements were in place at the time.
How much direction do you typically give actors? Did that change with The Cathedral, compared to your earlier films?
Usually very little direction, whether I’m working mainly with non-professional actors, as I did Notes on an Appearance—apart from Keith Poulson and Tallie Medel—or with performers who were formally trained, as was the case on The Cathedral. But the relative experience of most of The Cathedral‘s cast meant that I found myself trusting the actors’ instincts and creative decisions in a way I hadn’t before. At a certain point you recognize that the actor is prepared. This, I think, was something new for me.
When you first began making shorts, there’s a very distinct style—still images, voice-over, and fake clips from newspapers. Have you made any earlier shorts in a different style?
Different than the shorts that have been released? No. But when I was in high school I was making films with my friends. Granted, these are like juvenilia. When I was shooting movies on VHS as a teenager I made a version of The Catcher in the Rye, a 60-minute film based on it. And even then, looking back on them, the style was already there. I was making fake newspaper clippings and showing them in the film. It always seemed like something that, just by instinct, I was drawn to. They seem pretty continuous with a lot of the stuff.
And even when I was shooting two years in film school, there’s not much of a change between some of the earlier stuff and then the shorts that I actually would share with people, like The Stranger. Very few people have seen it. It’s a half-hour-long film made in 2010, but there’s a very similar way of structuring the film, way of framing rooms, way of presenting information with newspaper clippings and that film.
How do you accomplish the fake clips in various styles? Is it just a matter of getting the font right?
It’s a matter of being very patient with Photoshop. The way I’ve done it in the past is finding newspaper clippings that have a layout that I think would accommodate the look to the frame size. It also depends on the aspect ratio of films—then scanning the clips, bringing them into a program like Photoshop, making sure that the character-spacing matches, adding layers of my own text over it, and matching the layouts so that it looks like a functioning New York Times, Newsweek, New York Review of Books, or New Yorker article.
It’s a tedious thing to do, and in my previous films there was never a production designer to handle it for me, so I would have to do it myself. But I think it was probably the best way to faithfully replicate a lot of that stuff, to do it in that very painstaking way. Once I designed the newspaper articles, they weren’t simply dropped into Final Cut, which is the program I used to edit. They were printed on newsprint and taped to a wall, and then they would be recorded with the camera.
Your visual style seems very European, like Straub-Huillet or Chantal Akerman. But I wasn’t surprised to hear that you had adapted The Catcher in the Rye. There’s also a certain dimension to your films that connects to—please don’t take this as an insult —Woody Allen or Wes Anderson. Do you see those two strains of your work?
Well, the Wes Anderson thing is not something I haven’t been told before. I think it’s not something that I have planned, but if someone is to say “I can see Wes Anderson in certain things in your films,” if I were to look at them with that information, I would say, “Oh, yes, I can see what you mean.” But Wes Anderson and Woody Allen don’t have any special relevance to me as a filmmaker. They did when I was maybe 15 and when I was watching movies seriously, going to the library and renting lots of things, but I’m not sure if I’ve learned anything from them.
There’s certainly nothing that I consciously try to copy with any filmmaker in my consciousness while I’m planning a film—planning shots or thinking about any number of stylistic choices. I think there are filmmakers who are important to me and formative to me, but I’ve failed in some way if the films that I make are mainly confections of other films and their influences. So I know you’re not proposing that, but there is always the fear of having something that is taken or experienced mainly as secondhand “Akerman” or “Bresson” or something.
Given how unconventional the editing of your films is, how long does that part of the process usually take?
Usually very quickly. The Cathedral was edited in about a week-and-a-half. We shot it in May 2021 for just under three weeks. I had to turn in a rough cut to Venice as a condition of receiving the grant—I think it was early the first week of June, so we finished shooting at the end of May and I had the remaining time to put together a rough cut. And the differences between the rough cuts and the film you saw are very minor there. There was a character who disappeared from the film between those two cuts. But it doesn’t affect the shape of the film or the film that you saw in any substantive way.
When I’m shooting I’m asking the cinematographer to send me stills of each camera set up so that during the shoot I can start doing what I call a “paper edit” of the film. And I am editing the film using the stills of each camera setup—I’m seeing how the images are juxtaposed, seeing how they relate or don’t relate, or what kinds of affinities or contrasts there are. It’s a way of me orchestrating the thing while I’m finishing up shooting. By the time I’m sitting down and editing the film, there was already a reference guide. I try to get my edit in final cut to conform to this paper—hence why editing always been pretty seamless for me.
Your framing is very precise, particularly with the number of close-ups you use. How much time on the set do you storyboard? Or do you spend a lot of time on the set moving the camera back and forth slightly to try to get just the right framing?
With this film, I knew I was going to be shooting in a place I was very familiar with, which was my father’s apartment. The Damrosch apartment is the home I grew up in. Writing the film with the spaces in mind, the spaces I spent a lot of time in as a kid lent itself to framing things very easily when it came time to shoot, because already I was visualizing it while I was writing it and had the ability to shoot in a place that I grew up in.
Really, that is the main location in the script. Most of the film takes place in that apartment, which meant I didn’t have very much problem-solving to do. This is the case for Notes on an Appearance as well. I was shooting in my own apartment and friends‘ apartments, and those scenes were written with those spaces in mind. The way I’ve worked with my DP has been that, usually, I frame the shots using my phone to take photographs, to give an approximation of what the lens should see. I’ll look at it, light it, and frame it based on reference. That’s also a function of the fact that we had such limited time. You couldn’t really spend a lot of time doing guesswork.
Is there a significance to the name Damrosch?
No, I didn’t want the film to be about very ethnic people. I didn’t want to make a movie about outwardly Italian-American people. To me, Damrosch is kind of an anodyne name. I mean, I’m not sure how easily it can be placed. And I didn’t want to give them my own family name, D’Ambrose, but the DNA is retained between those two names. And in keeping with the spirit of having the film be autobiographical, I knew that was important, but it was also important to not make a movie that could very easily be treated as a caricature of a group of people living in the Tri-State area with Long Island and New Jersey accents. There’s the entire history of representations of people like that that lends itself to satire and that people will inevitably bring with them to any movie that has characters with Italian-American-sounding last names. So hence the name Damrosch.
There are minor things that, if you’re aware of what they are, they’re markers of the kind of Italian-American rituals there. When the boy is christened, there’s a shot of Richard and Lydia with Jesse. Lily is holding him and the priest is congratulating them, and they’re exchanging hugs and kisses with the godparents. They’re doing both sides of the cheek—even the man, which is what you’re taught to do in an Italian-American household like I grew up in. So there are those little things that add color to the people’s backgrounds. But in general, no.
Do you have plans for your next project?
I have a plan. I mean, I know what I want my next film to be. I don’t know whether I can write a script before the end of the year, as I pledged to myself; I don’t know. It takes a very long time for me to write. It doesn’t come very easily. This is the first time I’ve been in a position where my idea for the next film isn’t something that’s been with me for a decade or more.
Notes on an Appearance was a film I have wanted to make since 2010. It was shot in 2017, and as I was saying earlier, at the start of our discussion, I had wanted to make The Cathedral since I was 16. My first two features are things that have been kicking around in my head and they’ve been therefore very personal and close to me. To now move on to a third feature that hasn’t been in a storehouse for that long is a new thing. It’s a new kind of anxiety-inducing experience, really. But not every film can be borne out of such a long gestation period, as I’m learning. And it will be interesting and challenging for me, as a writer, to try to do something that isn’t as close to me as these past two films have been.