DP Sam Levy on Mayday
Karen Cinorre’s directorial feature debut, Mayday is a beautifully choregraphed fantasy-action tale of an alternate universe where an everlasting war rages. After a harrowing experience, hotel worker Ana (portrayed by Grace Van Patten) is transported to an unknown remote island. There, she meets a group of women living in a submarine. The group send radio transmissions to nearby soldiers luring them to their deaths. Unable to adjust to her new dream-like world where women seek vengeance on men, Ana is faced with a decision that will ultimately change her life forever.
Stunningly shot by DP Sam Levy, Mayday is released in the UK on November 1st.
What were your initial conversations with Karen about the look of Mayday? What did she want to achieve?
I developed this project with my life partner Karen, as a cinematographer and also as a co-producer. The first time she ever showed me anything about Mayday was an outline. Being a cinematographer, I developed it with her from the get-go and we were able to develop this film with an eye towards the aesthetic. The aesthetic, more than anything I work on was intermingled into the entire development of the project and the writing of the actual script and producing it. With that in mind we really didn’t want it to look like anything else, certainly nothing else being made currently. We didn’t really talk about other movies, even old movies, or even photographers. The kind of things that I usually talk about with other directors.
We talked more about live performance art that we’d seen, dance in particular. There is a Belgian dance company called Rosas, an Israeli company called Batsheva and a Mark Morris company here in New York City. We see a lot of dance together. We talked a lot about dance and movement and bodies moving through space. Our chief concern was movement and bodies in motion. It was interesting to take a different art form that bears resemblance to film and to integrate it into what we were talking about, without copying any of the fore-mentioned dance companies, but to just consider bodies in motion and how that informs an aesthetic.
Did you work with a colourist on set?
On the set I worked with a DIT (digital imaging technician), a very talented young filmmaker named Sean Goller. He did Ladybird with me and we worked together a lot over the last few years. Sean and I both designed a sort of bespoke digital lab in the hotel we were staying at in Croatia. We would finish shooting for the day, go back to this room and we’d put up everything we’d shot for the day and then time the dailies and compress them. Sean would transcode and compress footage so that they were files the editor could use. The editor Nick Ramirez, (who also worked on Ladybird) was in an adjacent hotel room, so we could create the dailies and just walk them to the next room and hand them to the editor.
I did ultimately work with a DI colourist named Marcy Robinson out of Goldcrest Post Lab in New York. While we were actually shooting, Sean and I made the dailies ourselves. We’d then watch dailies from the previous day with the editor and the director on a gigantic monitor that we had set up and calibrated in the editors room. That was how we tracked everything. We created a colouring eco-system while we were shooting that I had complete control over. I had more control than I usually do. It made for some longer work days, but creatively it was more satisfying.
What was your approach to lighting the film?
I worked with a very talented gaffer named Jerry Mundy who also did Ladybird with me. Both Jerry and Sean were the two Americans I brought over to Croatia with me. I work very closely with Jerry. His entire team were all Croatian electricians, who I love. There was a significant amount of big night exterior work that we did. It tends to be one of the trickier things to light, on any movie really because you are shooting at night and lighting at night where there is no available light. We were shooting on the beach and in forests, places where there is no civilization and no streetlamps, or cars passing by. None of the things that can help you out and give you a little bit of information, especially deep in the background. For the night exteriors, I did a lot of testing. I tested in shooting day for night (shooting in the daytime, under-exposing and printing it dark to make it look like night) which is kind of an old-fashioned classical technique. I wasn’t happy with any of the results for this project, it just didn’t feel right.
We were not a particularly big movie and so we had to be smart. A lot of the film takes place inside of a submarine, which was a set-up that we built with our talented production designer Ivan Veljaca, who is Croatian. We tried to build practical lights into the set to be able to move quickly. Here and there we would use modern lights and LED tubes, which we could just snap onto the ceiling or to the walls. There is a big sequence that takes place in a hotel kitchen that is at the beginning and end of the movie. We had some florescent lights built into the ceiling so we could use those lights for some of the sequence. There are some theatrical moments where Grace Van Patten’s character is wandering through the kitchen and it’s supposed to look very blue. For that sequence we had to turn everything off and build our own theatrical light. It is a very ambitious movie in pretty much every sense, but especially visually. There is a lot of lighting to tend to in this movie in different areas of the story. At the same time, we had to be responsible to make sure we could do the story required in a way that was affordable for this movie. That was the challenge of Mayday in terms of lighting.
Was it shot during the pandemic?
No, this movie was completed just before Christmas 2019, so a few months before the pandemic shutdown the entire globe. We were very fortunate with our timing. When we finished shooting, Karen and I came back to New York, where we live. She was editing for about a week or two when everything stopped on that fateful day in March. We anticipated that would happen about a week before it did, so we transitioned the post-production to be completely remote, using a programme called Evercast which is like Zoom for editing. Post-production was completed in the pandemic. Principal photography was pre-pandemic.
Could you provide details about the camera and lenses you used? Why did you select this equipment, and what did it enable you to accomplish aesthetically?
We photographed this movie digitally using the Alexa Mini. One of the big reasons we used that camera was to use a very specific set of anamorphic lenses. We used cooke anamorphic lenses with a custom flair coding from a great camera rental house in LA called CamTec. The owner is a friend named Kavon Elhami. Kavon, his associate Kelly Samuels and I all picked these lenses together for this movie. They also built a special infrared camera for me, for a very particular sequence of Mayday. He also built a really interesting accessory for me, which I call the CamTec rifle scope. It is an accessory we put onto the Alexa. We attached a lens on the end of it and it creates the impression that you are looking through binoculars. It is a very interesting effect. Another great collaboration with my friends at CamTec.
I’d been experimenting with these anamorphic lenses for a few years. Anamorphic lenses generally capture in widescreen and have a very particular way of rendering faces in backgrounds in a way that the transition from something that is in focus to out of focus is very pronounced and expressionistic. It felt very fitting for this story, which is a surrealist action movie about these women that are really trying to hold on to life and defy gravity in their actions. They also render highlights in a very particular way that kind of glows these highlights, which is reminiscent of old ektachrome 16mm film. The way it highlights on these ektachrome film tend to just roll off into this really glowing highlight. These lenses have that effect and it’s combined really in a specific way with Arriflex’s colour science in the way the lenses and Arri colour science would render faces on top of whatever. The way I was processing the image with Sean Goller and Marcy Robinson it all blended together in way that felt really fitting for this story.
What was the most challenging shot to complete? And how did you overcome that?
The trickier shots on Mayday involved characters riding motorcycles. It was very important we photograph the actors riding these big dirt bikes because of the nature of the story and the fact that they are in this other worldly realm. It was important that they not wear helmets. Helmets just didn’t fit. We could only shoot stunt people from behind with wigs, but we needed frontal shots of these women riding the motorcycle. We made a special kind of trailer for these motorcycles and it actually worked really well, a process trailer. It took us a few days of testing to figure out how to shoot them on the motorcycles and just be able to have viewers suspend their knowledge that they are probably not riding them. That was the trickiest thing. The day we figured it out was a great day. I asked Karen if we could have them riding bicycles, but she said no. Karen wanted the women to be doing all the things that guys do in every action movie: riding bikes, shooting guns, running through explosions, all of those kind of action genre things. There was no choice and we had to figure it out.
How important is the trust process when it comes to making a film?
Making a feature film is such a massive undertaking for anyone who is directly involved. It is a big commitment. It’s really only possible if you are capable of trusting each other. When it comes down to it, it really is a director’s medium. In the case of Mayday where the director is also the writer, Karen really is steering this enormous ship. I have to trust her. Usually we are very aligned, but on the rare occasion where we are not, I trust her enough to defer to her very quickly and keep the ball rolling. There are so many decisions that have to be made. That’s not just with the director, that really goes for any of the collaborative partners: producers, costume design team, production design team, etc.
You were also a producer on the film. Could you tell me a bit more about this and what this involved?
First and foremost, I helped develop this project. At the beginning it was just Karen, myself and her outline. We worked together on many short films and music videos and I shot most of the films Karen has made since getting out of school. I really believe in her as a filmmaker, as a writer and director. I think the most important contribution I made as a producer was encouraging her to go forth and write and do this as a feature. That’s where it started. From there I helped to put it into place and find financing and helped to find some of the other key collaborators. I had more duties than I usually do just as cinematographer, in terms of just communicating with the investor and the other producers and strategizing for film festivals. As an independent film we were lucky to get into Sundance, into dramatic competition which is not easy to do. It was even harder in the 2021 Festival because there are fewer movies showing because of the pandemic. I don’t mean to imply I solely produced the movie. I was one of four producers, but I had an active hand in the development of the movie and being with it every step of the way until it premieres.