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  • Writer's pictureoliverjlwebb

An Interview with Greta Zozula

Greta Zozula is a cinematographer known for The Half of It, Light from Light, Call Jane, and Fairyland. I spoke with Greta about her DP inspirations, shooting The Half of It, her initial conversations with Andrew Durham about the look of Fairyland, and the most challenging shot to capture.

Where did you train as a cinematographer?

I went to the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. That’s where I technically started studying cinematography. For their programme, you pick a concentration. What I liked is that they were more of a hands on school and concentrated on real set scenarios so that we had a better understanding of how sets worked. This was helpful in getting started and becoming a technician. I worked my way up through the camera dept, was a union focus puller for a few years and then an operator. My progression was a pretty classic one. There were some DPs that I worked with early on that were influential and who taught me how to navigate and find what I wanted to do. I didn’t really know if I wanted to be a DP when I first started working in the industry, it wasn’t until I was a few years into being an AC and rediscovering that I gained the confidence to pursue it. You go to film school very ambitious, wanting to work on sets and be a part of movies, but then you start working and it all becomes real and very intimidating. Then you are finding your way back at a certain point. Through that process, I found that cinematography was not a career that I wanted to pursue but it was my passion and it was my art. It became something I had to do.

Who are your DP inspirations?

There’s definitely lots of cinematographers I respect now. I think I tended to respect directors and filmmakers before I discovered DPs and was influenced by films based on the cinematographer. It started with being really influenced by a range of filmmakers. One that always comes back is Kieslowski. That was more about intentionality. I’ve always been drawn by films that are so focused on every element and you can tell that everything was very intentional. It’s just as impactful as a craft as it is emotionally. Another film that I deeply love for similar reasons is Paris, Texas. It’s a film that I think is perfectly executed and it isn’t flashy and the camera moves are simple, but deceivingly complicated. It’s beautiful and the colour palette is incredibly thoughtful, full of intentionality and executed to create an emotional shift at the perfect moment. It’s using visuals to evoke without drawing attention to how it’s doing it. That thoughtfulness of storytelling and really respecting the craft. Discovering Robby Müller later in my career and really respecting him as a cinematographer. Cinematographers like him remind me of the responsibility of this craft and when it’s done correctly how effective its impact can be. It’s ever-evolving too. It tended to be indie films. I learned this about myself much later too. For me, it was so eye-opening and there were certain films I fell in love with, that I didn’t realize how tiny they were in the grand scheme of filmmaking. That sort of informed my move to New York as well. Filmmakers like Sofia Coppola, Noah Baumbach, Lisa Cholodenko and Spike Lee greatly influenced me as a filmmaker. They are true filmmakers in my eyes, making real films about real people. To me that is true storytelling. This full-on collaborative spirit of filmmaking and that’s what I still love, is that filmmaking and those stories.

Paris, Texas (Wenders, 1984). Photo: 20th Century Fox

I don’t think Robbie Mueller is spoken about enough…

There are so many like that too. I think he’s absolutely brilliant and I always come back to Paris, Texas when I’m revising approach to anything. That movie was not a very big movie and it was made with very few people. Movies are still made that way and it’s impressive to me because those films are incredible because of the artists who collaborated on them. Claire Denis and Agnes Godard for example were part of the crew and I love to think about those earlier days before they were making their own film together. It’s no mistake that a great film like that resulted in a lot of creative directors and cinematographers.

How did you first get involved with The Half of It ?

I got the script through my agents, so a pretty standard way. I didn’t know Alice beforehand. I met her in New York, but there was no prior relationship. It was a very standard interview process and we met a couple of times and then she decided that she wanted to collaborate with me. I read the script and I loved the story. That process is always such an interesting one. You read something and it either hits you really hard, or it doesn’t. It’s harder to feel something very specific and it hit the right things. I already knew it was going to go through Netflix and I sort of knew their formula for YA films, so for me it was really when I met Alice and learned about her vision, what she wanted to do with it and why she was making the film. I was really excited about the idea of working with her. She’s so smart and such a good writer. It was a pleasure just to get to talk to her, but to actually get to work with her was really special.

Were there any creative references you looked at beforehand?

I would say mostly colour palette, maybe some compositional light, or some wides that we got at night that were influenced by Hopper. We didn’t have a traditional look-book for the film where we really did a deep dive. Hopper was the closest we got to doing that. Alice had some images already; I think even before we started. That tied into some of the costume and production design as well. Nothing really stood out that informed something specific.

The hot springs sequence is so beautifully captured. Could you discuss your approach to shooting this scene?

That was probably one of the hardest scenes that we shot. That was half built. I say half-built because we didn’t build it on a stage. We built it in the woods. It was a pool that was integrated into the wooded area. We shot in upstate New York, not the Pacific Northwest. It was a little challenging to figure out how to bring in some native greenery that would be out there, but didn’t feel totally weird and foreign to put in these woods that were definitely different. The art team did a really good job of that and the art director constructed these giant rocks and put that whole thing together. It was a slightly different language to how we were approaching the rest of the film. We wanted it to have a slightly more organic, almost handheld feel. The rest of the film doesn’t have handheld in it. That approach was to be more intimate with them and to really make it about the connection between the two of them. That’s what we talked about mostly.

Still from The Half of It. Photo: Netflix

That was heavily influenced by Wings of Desire, which is funny as I was just talking about Paris, Texas. There’s a shot during the movie that is an homage to a shot in Wings of Desire, towards the beginning of the film when Ellie is watching the TV and starting to write to Aster. It’s bringing that moment back to that scene and Ellie is looking at Aster in a very similar way, as to the character in Wings of Desire. That was a very important reference and that image ties into it.

Were there many challenges with the locations?

We shot all over the place. We went up to the Adirondacks for the train station and that largely fit the evergreens. There wasn’t a lot of cheating with that location. There were a couple of interior locations that we shot in Brooklyn. The church was in Brooklyn, for example. It was just being careful in location scouting and finding exactly what we needed to show the scope and our environment and being slightly more practical with our interiors. Our biking exteriors were all in the Catskills and Harriman Park in New York. It took a while in scouting to find all of those places, but once we found them the actual construction and filming of them wasn’t necessarily more challenging, it just took a while to find them.

The Half of It. Photo: Netflix

What were your initial conversations with Andrew Durham about the look of Fairyland?

We talked about shooting on film from the beginning. There was a lot of back and forth on what that transition would be. Some of it was budget restrictions, but despite that it was a creative decision to change the look. Whether that would have been going from 16mm to 35mm, there was still a need to do that. What we landed on to sort of check all the boxes and feel good about the transition creatively, was to go Super 16 in the beginning and transition to digital, but do it in such a way that there is still a visual progression. We did that through lighting and design and ultimately at the end it was through colour. There were a lot of references for that, but that was a really fun challenge, but once we decided what that visual ark was, constructing it and realizing it within our other constraints. That is how we started the conversation.

It’s a memoir, a father-daughter story told through Alysia’s point of view. The idea behind shooting the beginning in 16 when Alysia’s between five and eight years old, ultimately by the time you get to the end of the film that should feel like a memory. Even though the film starts that way it is linear storytelling, you already get a sense that you are watching something from the past, even though you are introduced to this character in the present.

Nessa Dougherty as younger Alysia in Fairyland. Photo: American Zoetrope

Could you provide details about your selection of cameras and lenses?

For Super 16, it was Arriflex 416 and then for digital it was Alexa Mini. Lenses were Super Speeds and Ultra 16mm Primes. We didn’t change the lenses very much. The only thing we really changed was the format. We added filtration for digital. We’d change compositional perspective and lens size as Alysia got older, but we didn’t want to change the type of lenses entirely. We wanted to keep one consistent continuity as to keep the “eyes” of the film the same throughout. The idea being, the eyes perspective changes but not the eyes themselves.

Behind the scenes of Fairyland. Photo courtesy of Greta Zozula

What was the most challenging shot to capture?

There’s a scene where Steve and Alysia first get to San Francisco and the first house apartment they live in is this big house with a bunch of different roommates. They take a tour through the house. It’s sort of this introductory scene in a lot of ways, introducing San Francisco and these characters that are going to be a important part of the film. We were setting up this world and visual language. We filmed that handheld. It was complicated because it was a big set up and for this film specifically it was big in scope for us. A tiny movie with a lot of moving parts and ultimately, one of our biggest set ups.

Scoot McNairy as Steve Abbott in Fairyland. Photo: American Zoetrope

For the first part of it, as we had an eight-year-old we really had to structure the days because she is in half the film and was pretty much there every day. There wasn’t really a way to have her for half the schedule because of her hour restrictions. The only way to get all of her scenes was to spread it out over the whole schedule, which resulted in having to split up the schedule every single day between younger Alysia and older Alysia. That also meant splitting every single day between the 70s and the 80s and splitting every day with the format that we were shooting. That ended up being what was the challenging part of this film. It was keeping all of that straight. For Scoot particularly it was more challenging because he had had to go through constant changes everyday, but obviously for Andrew to keep a grasp on tonal changes and those things. And for lighting and camera, we had a different look for every section. A lot to keep straight. It’s a great testament to just how incredible the crew was on this. An incredibly ambitious feat that was executed really well. I’m incredibly proud of this film.

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