An Interview with DP Catherine Lutes
By Oliver Webb
Catherine Lutes (CSC) is a cinematographer known for Black Mirror, Anne with an E and Disappearance at Clifton Hill. I spoke with Catherine about her DP heroes, shooting the Joan is Awful episode of Black Mirror, and the upcoming film, Close to You.
Where did you train as a cinematographer?
Catherine Lutes: I went to film school in Vancouver at UBC where I studied more overall filmmaking, as well as film theory and history in general. Then working on film sets, working in the lighting department, and then just shooting projects was where I trained to become a cinematographer. It’s one of those things that is tough to study or practice - you kind of have to learn by actually doing it.
Who are your DP heroes?
Catherine Lutes: I would say that it changes all the time depending on what I am watching, or what project I am doing and what approaches I am interested in at the moment. I think it’s quite cool you interviewed Barbara Alvarez on this site - Headless Woman is a favourite film of mine. I love Robbie Ryan, the work of Harris Savides and currently I love seeing what Claire Mathon has been doing. I am always intrigued by cinematographers that have a style but also totally transcend one look and can venture into various vibes and genres.
How did you first get involved with Black Mirror?
Catherine Lutes: The director of our episode Ally Pankiw brought me on board. As each episode is treated as its own little film the directors are highly involved in selecting their teams with Charlie and productions approval, and Ally and I had worked together in Canada and the US on some commercial and music videos and had been wanting the opportunity to work together on something more long format.
What were your initial conversations with director Ally Pankiw about the look of Joan is Awful?
Catherine Lutes: Well probably one of the first things was getting the language locked down for how to discuss the various "levels" of Joan is Awful - as you can imagine it was often a bit of a mindfuck (sorry if swearing is a no go!). Once you started breaking down shooting the central Joan (Annie Murphy) vs TV Joan (Salma Hayak Pinault) vs Source Joan (Kayla Lorette) and then adding in the evolution in our shooting style as central Joan starts to take control of her situation, it was a fair amount to keep straight. We talked a lot about rules for each level, and as well when to kind of break those rules. The beginning of the episode we wanted almost no camera movement and for Joan to be a bit off centered whereas when her life is portrayed in the tv world the camera always had movement and Salma was often centered or in extreme angles really commanding the frame. Once Joan starts making choices in her life we wanted the style to evolve as well, having her become more in control, more central in frame etc. It was such an interesting episode to talk about because you want to create these worlds and then also have some moments where a viewer could look back and see tropes hidden within, that break what we think is the "reality" we have created - so many meta levels to play within!
What creative references did you look at?
Catherine Lutes: We looked at a bit of everything, and didn’t have one great reference at all, especially as the episode kind of shifts genres. It was fun to be able to look at something like Promising Young Woman or A Bigger Splash, but also like big scale Hollywood blockbusters. For our central Joan we wanted more of a naturalistic yet stylized world as Joan is actually (spoilers) in her own tv show. So, things like Atlanta or End of The Fucking World or The Farewell were starting points for framing and composition whereas shows like Killing Eve and The Queens Gambit became discussion points for the TV Joan.
Could you provide details about your selection cameras and lenses? What did it enable you to accomplish aesthetically?
Catherine Lutes: We shot with Alexa mini LF in order to shoot 4k for delivery requirements. The lensing was very fun as I was able to get some beautiful vintage Canon SK glass from One Stop rentals which we used for our central Joan world and was cropped 2:1 aspect ratio. The lenses gave our central world a sort of softness which I am often drawn to. Whenever we shot the TV Joan we were shooting on Xelmus Apollo Anamorphic lenses which we only had I think 2 or 3 focal lengths and shot mostly all on one lens if I remember correctly. That allowed us to be a bit more over the top stylistically and kind of signalling that prestige look we know as viewers when we see the 2:39 aspect ratio and black bars. We liked the idea that when we finally see our Source Joan that was also done with the Canon glass but then cropped at more of a 16:9 frame to give us a more grounded feeling of "reality", it was also some of the only handheld in the show.
What was your approach to lighting?
Catherine Lutes: With the lighting I had created some rules for myself, I’m not sure I totally stuck to them, but I like to make some guidelines off the top and know when I decide to break them. In central Joan world we were mostly using soft light, whereas when we shot the TV world, I would often add something harder into the mix. Also allowing the TV world to have the anamorphic flares or anything that felt kind of closer to an airquotes cinematic look. As the story evolves and our central Joan begins to take control of her own life we would allow more elements like the harder lighting or more camera movement into the mix, and once Joan and Salma have joined forces we have shifted into more of a mix of our 2 worlds.
What was the biggest challenge on the production? How did you overcome that?
Catherine Lutes: One of the biggest challenges for me personally was probably the sequence in the Quomputer room. It was just a lot of coverage, plus VFX work and dialogue we had to achieve with a lot of actors on not a lot of schedule. I think Ally and I just did our best to schedule and plan for it, as well as the actors had a small rehearsal which I was included in which helps tremendously in order to just get a sense of the blocking.
You also shot the upcoming film Close to You. Could you tell me more about the project?
Catherine Lutes: Close to You was a special project that was a super unique way of working. Dominic Savage (the director) likes to work with the actors in a very improvisational way, creating the space and environment and then letting them explore from there. From a cinematographer’s perspective it’s an exercise in letting go of perfection and just falling into storytelling. Essentially we used no lighting, I would pick up the camera and try to react and stay in the story and shoot as it unfolded, sometimes shooting for up to 45 minutes handheld. It is quite beautiful to have this stripped down relationship with the actors where you are such a part of the dance, there were moments with Elliot Page and the other performers, particularly Hilary Baack where I would find myself nearly in tears or like I am very much a part of the intimacy that is unfolding and it feels very raw.
What are you currently watching/reading?
Catherine Lutes: I just read a wild book by Ottessa Moshfegh that was a super dark messed up fun thing to read called Lapvona. Now I am actually just finishing up Elliot Page's book called Pageboy which is really great, especially after sharing this beautiful filmmaking experience with him.
I am watching some Safdie Bros films as there is a retrospective at TIFF, as well as some films in Hip Hop collection on Criterion. I just watched two really great films (Sick of Myself and Sibyll) in the last few days, and then sprinkling in season 2 of The Bear as well as some summer cottage classics like Jaws, Waynes’s World, Friday the 13th part 2, and one of my all-time favourite docs that I seem to watch on VHS every summer called Unzipped.