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Capturing the lyrical essence of young love in Chestnut with DOP Matt Clegg

By Oliver Webb

Image courtesy of Kriston Jae Bethel

Jac Cron’s feature debut Chestnut explores the turbulent relationship between recent graduate, Annie (Natalia Dyer) and Tyler (Rachel Keller) and Danny (Danny Ramirez) during summer in Philadelphia. DOP Matt Clegg talks us through capturing the film using the Alexa Mini and Cooke Speed Panchros.  




Where did you train as a cinematographer?  


Clegg: I went to Florida State University Film School. It’s a tiny program with a huge footprint on the industry. We had some amazing DPs visit to run our cine classes as well as an experienced gaffer running the cine classes who showed us what lighting could be. My gratitude will always go out to Johnny Jensen ASC who was so instrumental in my approach to cinematography.



How did you first get involved with Chestnut?


Clegg: Some director friends of mine from a previous movie I shot sent my name to Jac as she was looking for cinematographers for her film. We had really nice first chat and the rest was history.



What were your initial conversations with director Jac Cron about the look of the film?


Clegg: We discussed approach and emotion. Films we both love were fundamental to the conversation. Lynne Ramsay’s films, Blue is the Warmest Colour, and I brought up the Dardennes quite a bit, especially Rosetta.


Rachel Keller and Natalia Dyer in Chestnut. Image courtesy of Utopia

Did you look at any other creative references?  


Clegg: For me, keeping scale in mind when discussing references is always important. It doesn’t do much good to bring up a slew of references from movies with five or ten times our budget. On a small movie looking for films that accomplished amazing things on tight budgets. Morvern Callar was a big one that comes to mind. Like Crazy also made a big impression in the exploration of early love affairs. 



Which camera and lenses did you select, and why?  


Clegg: We opted for the Alexa Mini and a set of Cooke Speed Panchros. I’ve shot the vast majority of the films I’ve worked on with the Alexa Mini and I’m quite comfortable taking it into any situation and knowing the sensor’s limits. For this film particularly with the majority of locations of dimly lit bars and apartments, knowing the extent of underexposure I could get away with was crucial. The speed panchros are lenses I’ve used a lot as well. The 40mm is such a romantic lens and the vintage softness of these lenses felt right for this story of young love.

Behind the scenes of Chestnut. Image courtesy of Kriston Jae Bethel


What was the most challenging shot / sequence to complete? 


Clegg: There’s a first date scene at an open mic club that we ambitiously endeavoured to shoot more or less continuously from the street, through the entrance hallway, to the bar for a lengthy conversation. That lighting set up was a huge undertaking for our tiny lighting crew (two people!) and required a good deal of planning. I’m happy with the end result but it was definitely a stretch and we were adjusting lights right up to when Jac called action.



What was your approach to handheld camera movement?


Clegg: I think I only have one approach to handheld work no matter the film and that involves following the lyricism of the action and dialogue. I try to pay attention to the rhythm of actors’ micro expressions, eye movements and the energetic exchange of the actor and let that guide the camera like a thread. It doesn’t always work out, but Jac and I decided we wanted a very organic and present camera that moved with the characters at all times, so I would day 85% of the shots were handheld. 

Rachel Keller, Danny Ramirez and Natalia Dyer in Chestnut. Image courtesy of Utopia

What was your approach to lighting? Which lights did you use?


Clegg: My biggest ethos was that the lighting should be invisible. We had a very tight 18 day schedule and a very small lighting crew as I mentioned before. My gaffer Neil Macrini and key grip Jeff Bell were true champions and handled the workload like nothing. Considering schedule, we needed to keep it lightweight and very flexible. In most of our scenes we would install LiteMats on pipes in the ceiling to accentuate the practical lighting or sometimes we would block the scene to the practicals and use Astera tubes with foam diffusion to provide fill.



Did you create any LUTs with a colourist? And how did you apply these during the shoot?


Clegg: Our colorist Nat Jencks provided some film adjacent LUTs and during prep we selected one that provided the right contrast and warmth. We used the LUT to monitor through camera and carried it all the way into color where some adjustments were made but nothing too major was ultimately done.



Did you encounter any issues with the locations?


Clegg: The most exciting moment was stealing a shot at the Philadelphia Train Station. There was a lot of nerves going into that shot because our tiny shoot couldn’t secure or afford the permit and we ended deciding to steal the sequence where Annie goes to try and escape her old life. We created a plan; I look the camera in discreetly under my arm and through the doors we filmed the whole short scene in a single handheld take. In the end no one paid us any mind and I wish we had stayed longer and got some more angles, but we left before anyone could notice what we were up to. 



How long was the duration of the shoot?


Clegg: 18.5 days. On 6 day weeks! It was truly a sprint.

Natalia Dyer and Rachel Keller in Chestnut. Image courtesy of Utopia

What did you enjoy most about working on the film?


Clegg: I love photographing features because inevitably with each project you create a miniature family among the crew. I had never really shot anything in Philly and ended up loving our local crew especially my lighting squad. The life-long friends made in new cities will always be worth the struggle of scrappy independent filmmaking.



Chestnut is currently showing in theatres throughout the US and will be released digitally 2nd July.

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