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An Interview with Sam Levy

Sam Levy is an acclaimed cinematographer. He regularly collaborates with Noah Baumbach and has shot three of his feature films: While We’re Young, Mistress America and Frances Ha. His other credits include Wendy and Lucy, Maggie’s Plan, The Romantics and Ladybird. I spoke with Sam about studying under Leslie Thornton, Eric Rohmer and Harris Savides, his work on Wendy and Lucy, collaborating with Noah Baumbach, and reuniting with Greta Gerwig on Ladybird.

Did you always think you would go into cinematography? What was your first experience in this line?

I was a Comparative Literature major as an undergrad, and took some semiotics classes. My main emphasis in undergrad was French poetry –– Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud. I went to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, which is a big semiotics school. So big that it’s actually kind of hard to study film production there. Brown does not emphasize film production, which is a valid point of view. Those who are interested in film must first study semiotics and film theory, and then it’s up to you to pursue film production. There was one teacher, Leslie Thornton, who taught film production –– luckily I was able to get into her class where I got my hands on a 16mm camera.

I didn’t know I wanted to be a filmmaker when I got to university. It was while I was there that I became very interested in pursuing film.

Liberal arts education teaches you how to read, deconstruct and reconstitute a text. Having a literary background has been very helpful to me as a filmmaker.

I read that you have studied under Leslie Thornton, Eric Rohmer and Harris Savides. How much of an affect have they each had on your work? What did you learn and take away from them?

I studied formally under Leslie Thornton and Eric Rohmer. Harris is one of the greatest cinematographers who ever lived –– I was a protégé of his in a professional sense. I was his camera assistant and learned by working, not in the classroom. Leslie, Rohmer and Harris –– three very different sensibilities, all three doing very different things in film. There’s a connective tissue there in a creative sense. Getting to spend time with those three shaped the way I see the world and the way I see movies. I’ll start with Leslie, and then go in chronological order.

Leslie Thornton was the only film production teacher at Brown when I was there. She was an anomaly at my school because she was a working artist, not a theorist. She taught me how to load a Bolex and use a light meter. She could do everything that a filmmaker needs to do. She could write, shoot, record sound, edit –– she could even work an optical film printer. A master. She is one of the few people I’ve ever met who could make a great film completely by herself.

At the time I met Leslie we shot absolutely everything on film. She’s an important experimental filmmaker and came up in New York in the ‘70s, with artists like Kenneth Anger, Jonas Mekas, Robert Frank, The Kuchar Brothers. Leslie’s film PEGGY AND FRED IN HELL and the films of Maya Deren had a great influence on me at this formative time.

She had a very simple approach, both in her own work and also in teaching. The first thing she had us do was shoot outside in black and white. You didn’t touch an electric light or deal with color. I was fortunate to study with Leslie because she’s a visceral filmmaker and didn’t have too strong an interest in plot, but a lot of interest in keeping the viewer engaged and energized. Her focus was strictly on a dynamic progression of image and sound. Her approach was disciplined and stressed simplicity rather than flashy tricks. She was allergic to anything slick.

The next film teacher in my life was the director Eric Rohmer, whom I met while still at university. I went to Paris for a year to study French literature at the Sorbonne, part of my Comparative Literature major at Brown. By this time I was seriously interested in cinematography, but not yet sure if I was cut out to pursue it as a profession.

While I was studying at the Sorbonne I met a French student enrolled in a class with Rohmer at The University of Paris-Michelet. I snuck in one day, and then managed to get myself enrolled. I studied with him over the course of a year. His class was very specific –– a film theory class in which we didn’t produce any of our own work. He would screen movies, mostly his own, turn the sound off and talk.

His class was great, it had special emphasis on cinematography. He spent a lot of time talking about his DP Nestor Almendros, who’s a hero of mine. At the time I had just discovered Almendros’ book, Man with a Camera which I highly recommend. It’s out of print, but you can find it online. He would talk about Nestor and discuss their conversations about quality of the light, camera set-ups –– where they decided to put the camera and how they wanted to block. What I took away from that was a more specifically narrative approach than what I had with Leslie, who was completely an experimentalist. Rohmer was experimental in nature, but his movies are mostly feature length narrative films, with very specific dialogue. They had a concrete beginning, middle and end. Rohmer is firmly part of the nouvelle vague of French cinema –– filmmakers like Godard, Truffaut and Agnès Varda. Compared to the rest of the Nouvelle Vague, his films are more dialogue heavy. It’s interesting to talk about cinematography with a filmmaker so dialogue-driven. At the time I had cinephile friends who would say: ‘Why study cinematography with Rohmer? His images are so bland. The only thing you should be studying with him are his scripts.’

Even then I knew what they were saying is false because you can’t have a movie without cinematography, even if it’s subtle. The average person isn’t thinking about the photography of a movie, especially in dialogue heavy movies like his. There are concrete cinematic decisions being made. He was explaining all these decisions, and I was riveted. The fact that the average person had no sense of what he and Nestor created was mysterious and wonderful to me. These films are painstakingly created. His DP is one of the great cinematographers of all time –– Nestor shot Days of Heaven for which he won an Oscar, and he went on to work for all kinds of important directors. The cinematography of Almendros and Rohmer is subtle but also vibrant.

Jumping ahead, when I later met the director Noah Baumbach, I was pleased to discover that he is a Rohmer enthusiast, so much that he named his first son Rohmer. Noah is greatly inspired by these films, so I had an advantage; I intuitively understand the process of a Rohmer movie.

After I graduated college, I moved to New York City and started working as a camera assistant, working for other cinematographers, trying to learn the trade.

Along the way I met Harris Savides, a very important cinematographer. He shot movies for Gus Van Sant, David Fincher, Woody Allen, Noah Baumbach, Sofia Coppola… all kinds of amazing directors. We met on a music video that Gus Van Sant directed –– I was a camera assistant –– and then began regularly working for him. Under Harris I learned the real nuts and bolts of professional cinematography. Prior to meeting Harris my understanding of cinematography was largely academic. But now I was actually on set moving equipment around and doing the grueling work of a camera assistant. I was no longer in a classroom, I was out in the field seeing what one actually does when making a movie. What I learned from Harris is that there is nothing elegant about making a movie. All of the thoughtful analysis of film theory has very little to do with the day to day intense and crazy work that goes into making a movie.

When you’re preparing, especially discussing scenes with the director, you can indulge in dreamy conversations –– it’s an essential part of the process that gets infused into the work. But once you’re on set the clock is ticking, you find yourself a passenger on a moving train. Sometimes it’s a slow moving train, but that train is moving. At a certain point you have to stop work for the day and go home. Some directors can come back and take things again the next day, but most of the time you can’t. Most of the time you’ve really got to think on your feet. It’s not like being alone in a studio and painting, which is a whole other set of problems that an artist has. Because I had my background with Leslie and Rohmer –– I think that’s in part what attracted Harris to me as a collaborator. I could help carry his gear around and keep meticulous notes for him, but we could also talk about art, philosophy and cinema.

I had an insatiable desire to learn the trade at that point. I could help Harris learn a thing or two because my background was very different from his. He was an art student and I was a literature student. We would have these great conversations. The people you spend 16 or 17 hours a day with shooting, you need a common frame of reference to properly communicate. Collaborative filmmaking is all about successful group communication. You must be able to tolerate each other to do the work successfully.

When I look back now I see a common thread between these three people I got to study with: Leslie, Rohmer and Harris. They all were somewhat unusual, but had a place in the world of cinema. They didn’t just do things in a traditional way. They each had a tremendous work ethic in understanding and elevating the conventions of narrative filmmaking.

One of the opening scenes of Wendy and Lucy takes place at night. Wendy stumbles across a group of people gathered around a campfire. There is a great shot of Wendy as she walks closer toward the group. How difficult was it to light this scene, and what are some of the biggest challenges you faced shooting at night?

I’ll briefly introduce Wendy and Lucy before I address your question. We shot over the summer of 2007. I had a few movies under my belt as a cinematographer and many years of friendship with Harris who was a great mentor to me. I hadn’t yet completed my Malcolm Gladwell ten thousand hours as a cinematographer, but I was young and very hungry. I look at that movie now and think what an asset it was to not have those years yet. It somehow propelled my work on the movie.

Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy. Photo: Sam Levy

Most of that night scene plays fairly close up, but there’s at least one or two very wide shots of that area with the bonfire in frame. I had some experience shooting exterior scenes around a fire. My first thought was to use the practical fire only in lighting the scene ––there is actually a gas burner buried underneath the wood pile, you can’t see it. This is an old technique to keep fire consistent. The production designer on Wendy and Lucy was Ryan Smith, a lovely man who recently did True Detective and all kinds of interesting movies. I was very confident taking a naturalistic approach. I didn’t want to set up big lights everywhere. Also we were a small movie with a humble crew of three people. I had two camera assistants and a gaffer/grip swing. On our few night exterior scenes like the bonfire we would bring an additional electrician.

Photo: Sam Levy

I scouted the bonfire location like crazy and prepared with Ryan. At long last night fell and it was time to shoot. Kelly cast a bunch of gutter punk kids to hang around the fire. They immediately spread out, about twenty of them, very far from the fire. All my natural light plans quickly went out the window in this moment. I intuitively knew Kelly loved what the kids were doing, and not to reign them in. But that meant giving them some more light so we could see them. Thankfully we brought a bunch of tweenie lights, 650 watt tungsten fresnels –– we snuck them in and around the fire. We put them on a flicker box, which emulates the undulating light of fire. The tweenies gave some shape to the amber glow of the fire. We probably had about four of them, so not that many. You see the practical flame in the scene and that allows a certain darkness to exist on the periphery of the wide frame.

There’s no detail in the background, it’s completely dark. In daytime you could clearly see a vast expanse overlooking a river with mountains on the other side. But in our scene that stuff is just not visible. If I were to do this scene today I would have pushed to get a few big lights to sneak detail into the background. But back then I was naïve. We turned on a dime and lit a big scene quickly with 4 tiny lights –– this is what I mean by lack of experience sometimes being an asset. When the dailies came back a few days later, Kelly and I were ecstatic.

There’s an interesting shot-reverse-shot sequence where you see Michelle Williams walk up to the group, and then we cut to her at the fire where she talks to a girl with dreadlocks. A lot of the actors were on the edge of the light, visible, but underexposed. All along Kelly was pushing me to work “on the edge of the negative.” Meaning don’t be afraid to underexpose and never play it safe with lighting. We both wanted a naturalistic feel, but not just natural –– also beautiful and dynamic. The shot where Michelle Williams talks to the dreadlocked girl is incredibly grainy. It fell off the edge of the negative! There’s plenty of light on her, but it erupted the 16mm grain. Later when we were printing the film I analyzed that grainy shot like crazy. I went to the lab and made sure the grain was on the original negative, and not just a symptom of our release print. Now when I look at this grainy shot I love it. The grain is the essence of the 16mm emulsion, which was Kodak 7229, 500T. It was then my favorite color negative, sadly no longer made.

Kelly is great with film; she understands film is magnificent, but can also be unpredictable. It can do things you sometimes don’t totally understand. Film processing has so many variables –– the specific batch of film stock, the lab you’re using, the chemicals the lab’s using, how clean the baths are. We were using a boutique lab in San Francisco called Monaco that is no longer around –– I’m convinced that it was that particular bath at Monaco which created the grain structure the way it is. They were a genius lab in terms of printing and dailies. I miss old film labs.

Wendy and Lucy was very exciting for me at the time.

You often collaborate with Noah Baumbach. How did this collaboration come about, and what's the process like working with him?

I met Noah through Harris. He was Noah’s DP. He shot Margot at the Wedding and then Greenberg, and they had a very successful collaboration. They got along and Harris taught Noah a lot and took him under his wing.

Noah and Greta Gerwig wrote Frances Ha with the idea that they would shoot it over an entire year. Their concept was let’s do a movie and schedule it over four different seasons. The goal was to design a production light on its feet, not a sprawling and wasteful mess like the average narrative feature film.

It was partially shaped by Noah’s experience shooting his documentary De Palma, which I highly recommend. He and his friend shot with a DSLR camera and recorded sound completely by themselves. He was so happy that he pitched Harris to do Frances Ha exactly like that. With a Canon 5D, small, we can do this ourselves. Harris loved the idea, but couldn’t commit to an entire year of shooting. He suggested me to Noah saying this is a guy who owns a 5D, which at the time was a pretty new technology. DSLR’s were not as commonplace as they are now.

Harris and I together shot a test at Noah’s apartment. Just an exploratory venture with a Canon 5D and Greta. I came by and brought a bunch of different lenses. We shot all day, laughed and ate really good food. Almost as an afterthought Harris said to Noah, ‘By the way, Sam studied with Eric Rohmer.’ And then he kind of walked away, knowing how obsessed Noah is with Rohmer. Noah paused and asked me: “How did that happen?” He had hundreds of questions for me, it was great. I was very fortunate, Harris was always looking out for me.

Noah and I proceeded to meet a few times –– his sense of what Frances Ha could be was still loose, he was trying to figure out how to do it. We became friends and got along incredibly well. One of the things that attracted him to me was my confidence in using a Canon 5D. I owned one, and had been experimenting with it on music videos. I was a believer! It’s great in low light, has a big sensor with shallow depth of field, but actually records low-res video. The grainy 1080p video with a large sensor is completely unique to the 5D. In our first formal production meeting over coffee, Noah asked me if I thought we could make something beautiful with a 5D. I emphatically said yes, that we could in fact do something distinctive this way. The whole camera package can fit in my backpack. We can go anywhere at any time and doing anything.

So that was how I met Noah. We took it and ran for almost an entire year.

The film reminds me aesthetically of the French New Wave.

Rohmer is a big influence, but I can’t overstate the influence of Agnès Varda, who’s a huge influence –– specifically Cleo From 5 to 7, which I encourage everyone to see. It’s one of the best movies ever made in my opinion. Simple, elegant, fun, such great cinema.

There’s a great moment in Frances Ha, with Frances dancing through the streets of New York to Bowie’s, Modern Love. Can you tell me more about how this scene was shot?

It was shot very simply. People ask me about that all the time –– ‘Did you use a crane, did you use a Russian arm?’ None of that stuff. I was standing in the back of a moving pickup truck with my tripod all the way up as high as it could possibly go. Even though it was all the way up I could reach the pan handle. When you cut to that sequence the camera pans left and it finds Greta and that little flourish was intentional, but we discovered it on the day by accident. I was just panning the camera around, resetting the frame before we rolled. Noah saw it, and got excited and asked me to implement the move at the beginning of the shot, to start with an empty frame and then find her. Great idea!

Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha. Photo: Sam Levy

Something about the camera being very high up and panning to find her, it looks like you’re on some kind of a Russian arm or a moving crane. But it’s not. I’ve been on commercials that have real money, where they rent an expensive crane and ask me to recreate that shot. That’s the best.

An expensive toy can sometimes make your life easier. But on Frances Ha we were never going to have that. We didn’t even really have a dolly. We had this thing called an Indie Dolly which is a cheap plastic dolly with track that you mount under a tripod. Any dolly shot you see in Frances is me moving the camera around on the sticks and panning at the same time. It was actually very physical!

My crew was two people; a 1st AC and a 2nd AC. The focus puller was a brilliant man named David Feeney-Mosier, who is now a DP. The 2nd AC was Gregorio Franchetti, who is now a director. David and I set all the lights up ourselves. I carried two small lights in my little car. Most of the time we only used one. Every now and then we’d use two. I did all the hair and makeup myself believe it or not. My friend James Vincent, a renowned makeup artist, gave me a makeup kit and taught me a few simple tricks.

You also shot Lady Bird. How did you attack the script with Greta Gerwig. What’s the initial thought process? Do you draw up a rigid shot list, or do you prefer to shoot in the moment?

The first thing Greta and I did was read through the script together, page by page, scene by scene. For each scene we’d make a list of the shots. I’d also draw an overhead diagram and blocking concept. We did two passes. We went through the script early in the process, and then again when we were closer to shooting, four or five weeks out. We would go back once we found our locations and I could take photos and confirm what we’d written down.

When we did the first pass, we had no locations so it was a theoretical discussion where the primary purpose is to get on the same page with the director. Finding the visual language of the movie. Is there going to be a lot of camera movement? Is it going to be static? Do we want to be on a dolly? Do we want any kind of handheld?

In our first conversation we learned we wanted no Steadicam or handheld camera to speak of. We wanted movement, but only to follow an actor. No gratuitous movement. Greta would stand in for my scout photos and we could confirm these ideas.

Just before shooting, I had a meticulously prepared shot list that I would give to Jonas, our AD, to time out each day. Jonas would assign times to each shot, and together we’d determine how to best make our days. The great thing that the shot list and discussion prepares you for is how to be spontaneous in the moment. Half of the time the sequence of shots you imagined do not correspond to the first rehearsal. You quickly start to plot and plan. How many setups do we actually need here? Usually before you do anything you confirm this – three setups? Five? How about a wide and two close-ups. Sometimes it’s just one shot.

And I should also say that some directors don’t really like to shotlist ahead of time, and that is ok. Or perhaps they prefer storyboards. In many ways a shotlist or board is just a tool that allows a director and DP to spend a lot of time together getting to know each other and how they see the script.

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