To the protagonist of Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, her hometown of Sacramento is the “Midwest of California”– dull, provincial and devoid of culture. To cinematographer Sam Levy, however, its sun-soaked, small-town-meets-capital-city charm felt magical and otherworldly, like “it was its own planet.” Enraptured by the city when he first visited it to shoot Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, he dreamed of one day making a whole movie in Sacramento. When Gerwig pitched Lady Bird to him, he set about realizing that dream in his own particular way: with exhaustively diagrammed shot-lists, reference viewings of John Huston’s NorCal-set Fat City, xeroxed copies of artwork by Lise Sarfati and Wayne Thiebaud, and a resolutely Steadicam-free set.
Over a phone interview, Levy chatted with me about transitioning from experimental to indie cinema, creating an “analog-video” aesthetic and bringing Gerwig’s Sacramento to understated yet resplendent life.
Girish: You studied under Leslie Thornton at Brown University and then with Éric Rohmer in Paris. Can you talk about your transition from a more avant-garde training in film to working in American independent cinema?
Levy: My introduction to film was at Brown, under Leslie, who is an illustrious avant-garde filmmaker and artist. Her classes were definitely geared towards experimental work. That was good for me, because I’m visually oriented, and I was immediately attracted to the photographic element of filmmaking. Although I didn’t initially know I wanted to be a cinematographer, it was the part that I enjoyed the most. I’d say my work was in the style of Maya Deren when I was studying under Leslie. Like Maya Deren’s shorts, none of my shorts had any dialogue… it was real visual storytelling. Leslie really taught us to emphasize a dynamic progression of images. Her own work is not particularly narrative, so I got very comfortable studying with her and making films that weren’t narrative, necessarily, but had a sort of narrative to them.
Then the transition outward… you know, there’s actually a lot of similarity between experimental filmmaking and music videos and commercials, which is how I got my start. My first ever job was as an intern at a commercial production company. Interestingly, even though you might be making a film for a big corporation, commercials are very experimental. It’s not like you’re making an avant-garde film, but the progression of images in a 30-second commercial or a three-minute music video often doesn’t have any particular narrative to it. You’re just trying to convey something about the product being sold. The nuts and bolts of what we did in Leslie’s class were very similar to what I saw working at a commercial production company. It has a kind of improvisational feeling, like what I imagine playing jazz might be like.
Narrative feature filmmaking, however, was a significant departure. It’s very precise and exacting, and unlike an experimental short or commercial, you need to focus on the arc of something that’s 90 minutes to two hours long — making something that long takes a very different kind of approach and preparation. I was very lucky: I worked as an assistant to the great DP Harris Savides and got to see a bit of that process. As you mentioned, I also studied with Éric Rohmer [at the University of Paris-Michelet] when I did a junior year abroad. Rohmer’s class was important to my transition to feature films. In the work I made with Leslie, there was always some kind of narrative, but it was fairly non-linear. Rohmer’s stories were more linear.
Girish: I was thinking about the overlap between Rohmer’s aesthetic and [that of] Noah Baumbach. They both have a languid, ruminative aesthetic, with people walking and talking…
Levy: Yeah, I would agree. It’s very much a cinema of dialogue. When I started working for Noah Baumbach, we talked a lot about Rohmer. We watched My Night at Maud’s, La Collectionneuse. We looked at how, in these Rohmer movies where there’s a lot of dialogue, the cinematography is staged very dynamically, in that there aren’t a lot of cuts or close-ups. That was an interesting thing for Noah and I to talk about, since his movies have a similar amount of dialogue to Rohmer’s movies. Greta and I didn’t talk about Rohmer as much on Lady Bird. We looked at Fat City, the John Huston movie, which has great scenes of Northern California. We looked at The 400 Blows by [François]Truffaut for all the great classroom scenes. We looked atCléo from 5 to 7, the Agnès Varda movie, which is just amazing. We also looked at Paper Moon, the Peter Bogdanovich movie, which has a lot of dialogue and not too much coverage, not too many close-ups or edits.
Girish: Coming to your relationship with Greta — you worked with her on three different films before Lady Bird. Have your processes and styles of filmmaking evolved together along the way?
Levy: The first time I met Greta was at the very beginning of preparing for Frances Ha. Greta was always around when we shot any kind of test, or did a location scout. I remember the first day we met and hung out with Noah, I had just seen this strange video on YouTube — it had this guy who made a rocket that took him into outer space and then he jumped out of it with a parachute and filmed the entire thing. In the experimental film scene, a lot of people were watching this video. I remember just asking the room in passing, “Has anyone seen this video of this guy jumping from his capsule?” And everyone just tuned out. Greta was the only one who said “Yes, I’ve seen that! It’s really amazing.” And I thought to myself: “She gets it.” We have a similar taste.
We made Frances Ha over the course of that year and then moved right onto Mistress America. I learned a lot from being around Greta. I learned a lot about acting, about writing — she’s just an amazing writer, which is what a lot of people emphasize about her. Another thing that really connected us was Sacramento, which was a place I’d never been to before we made Frances Ha. When we were shooting part of that film in Sacramento, we had a day off, and I just walked around the city. And I was just really taken with Sacramento, its unique, odd combination of a capital city and a small town. Something about it being a small town in Northern California really captured my imagination. A lot of that probably has to do with having grown up in New England and living in New York — anything Californian has a voluptuousness to me. When I was wandering around on my day off, I thought to myself that it would be amazing to shoot a whole movie there. Greta now tells me that I said that to her at the time, and it gave her a lot of confidence. So, when she brought up Lady Bird and said it was Sacramento story, I couldn’t believe it! By the time we sat down to really talk about it, we were totally aligned.
Girish: When you initially read the script for Lady Bird, what were your first visual instincts? What references or images immediately came to mind?
Levy: It’s such an impeccably written script. One of the things I love about it is that it has very concise stage direction. Unlike most of the scripts I read, it never refers to the camera, like “Cut To” or “Close Up.” It doesn’t need it — just a great story. Reading it and knowing it was in Sacramento, I just remembered my day wandering around the city and — almost as in a dream — I started applying the things I’d seen to different parts of the script. I just started to dream. And I thought that it’s important that the photography is great, but it should also stay out of the way of this incredible script.
Before Greta and I first sat down, she sent me a couple of photos by Lise Sarfati, a photographer I really love — and, you know, evidence of Greta and I being on the same page: She sent me a few of these and said “Have you heard of this photographer?” And I wrote her back immediately, “I’ve got four of her books at home.” Lise Sarfati took all these great portraits of young women in convenience stores, on street corners at dusk. They’re very pretty but also very simple. They’re very evocative. So that was our first reference, Lise Sarfati. And then Greta introduced me to these two Sacramento based painters, Wayne Thiebaud and Gregory Kondos. She described them as having very “dense, masculine pastels,” which is a phrase I love. It’s a very Greta kind of thing to say. Those images were very grounding in moving me away from my dreamspace of remembering what Sacramento was like on that day I wandered around.
And then from there, we just sat down and started going through the entire script and breaking each scene down into a shot list. A lot of the nuance of preparing Lady Bird visually was finding places where the camera could move and the way that each scene could transition into the next in a dynamic way. Even before we had any locations, I would do these blocking diagrams to anticipate where the characters would be moving around the room and where the camera might be in relation to them. We did a full pass of the entire movie like that, with all of these diagrams and reference images, even before a single location scout.
Girish: It’s interesting to hear you talk about all the effort you put into blueprinting and blocking the scenes, because I noticed that while Lady Bird is edited with a brisk rhythm, the cinematography is somewhat classical — instead of showy camera movements, you have beautiful tableaux and blocking within the image itself.
Levy: One thing Greta talked about was creating a proscenium in some of the frames. A lot of that comes from the fact that within the movie, there’s a musical that’s being put on by the kids. So, there is an actual proscenium within the movie. And wherever possible, we would look at how we could provide a proscenium for the Lady Bird viewer, too. You see it right up front in the second shot of the movie. Lady Bird and her mom are sitting on the hotel bed, with their backs towards the camera and they’re looking out of the window. It’s a very proscenium kind of shot. Greta got very excited when we framed it up, because she said, “It’s like they’re sitting down, and they’re about to watch the movie with us.” One of the things I love about working with Greta is that she’s not afraid to embrace a certain level of theatricality. Meaning, what you see in front of the camera is very precisely blocked out. And since most of the actors have theater backgrounds, they loved that.
Also, we would try to do scenes in as few shots as possible and in wide, to just watch these guys moving throughout the space. And we decided that we really just wanted the camera to be responding to the movements of the actors. Which is, I’d say, kind of a classical approach to camera movement. There’s also no steadicam in the film; everything is on a dolly. We decided that if there’s movement, it has to be done with a dolly. and if can’t be done with a dolly, the camera isn’t going to move. And there’s only one handheld shot in the film, which we did grudgingly. When Lady Bird and her best friend discover their boyfriends making out, there’s a handheld shot that takes them from the girls bathroom through the hallway into the boys bathroom. That was something we couldn’t do with a dolly, and we refused to hire a steadicam even for that day. We just wanted that rule in place, something to anchor us.
Girish: Back to Sacramento: Lady Bird has this begrudging love for her hometown that’s encapsulated beautifully by that one line in the film about love and attention being the same thing. I thought the cinematography reflected this sentiment, too — the city’s sort of in the background and feels very familiar, but also magical, especially in the film’s final scenes.
Levy: A lot of it does come from my own connection with the city as an outsider. Greta said early on that this movie was a love letter to Sacramento, and that she really appreciated how lovingly I had filmed the city in Frances Ha. I’m from New England, so there’s a lot of things about Sacramento that I just find fascinating and luscious. Like the fact that they have outdoor lockers in their high schools, because it’s California and the weather’s nice all year. As someone who grew up outside Boston, where it’s snowing in the winter, you’d never see that. Outdoor lockers, that’s the most evocative thing to me as a New Englander. So, I think my outsider’s gaze informs Sacramento in the background of these characters’ lives. I’ve never lived in California, I’ve just stayed there working on movies and stuff, and part of why Lady Bird looks the way it does is because when I was there, I was just in love with the city, and I would sometimes have a dreamlike fantasy of what it would be like if I did live there. I think that shows up on screen.
Girish: I’m also curious about how you visualized the period the film is set it. We don’t yet have an established filmic vocabulary for the early 2000s the way we do for the 1980s and 1990s. How did you and the production designers come up with a visual language that evoked the 2000s?
Levy: A really important epiphany came before I even started working with Chris Jones, the production designer. Greta and I were looking at a lot of different art books with photos and paintings. I took some of the Lise Sarfati photos, the Greg Kondos paintings and also some of my own photos from location scouts, and I made color xeroxes and put them up on the wall. Greta came back from a casting session one day, and I’d decorated our office with all these photos, so we could see them up on our wall like a mood board. She was staring at them, and she said, “We’ve been looking at these for months now, what’s different? Something’s different.” I said, “Oh, they’re xeroxes, I xeroxed them, so they’re distressed, and lost a generation of quality.” She got really excited, she said she loved how they looked. So, then I said, you know, we could xerox them again and distress them even more. We had a color copier in the office, and we could hand-make these images. As we were doing this, we thought, this is so great, because in 2002, you would totally go to Kinko’s and make color copies. You’d go there all the time, to print things and xerox things and make zines and decorate your room. And so, we had a thematically evocative template for what we wanted the photography to look like, or feel like. Those were the things I gave Chris Jones to look at. And he said, “Well if you’re going to distress things in that way, then I need to be mindful of that. Things shouldn’t be too pale, lest they disappear too much.” So, a lot of the film’s aesthetic became this kind of “ideology of Kinko’s.”
Girish: How did you approximate that xerox look with a digital camera?
Levy: We shot with the ARRI Alexa, which has a noise floor, meaning the sensor emits a video grain or video noise. That was really attractive to me, and I wanted to figure out how to best tease out the native grain of the Alexa. The first step was picking the right lenses. I worked with Panavision to pick older lenses that flared a little more than modern lenses. The other step was exposure: using under-exposure, exposing the image a little darker than we wanted it to be, and then bringing it back up, that teased out the Alexa’s native noise floor. We also wanted to introduce the paper texture of the xerox into the image, so we shot and color timed the movie with this tactile sense of paper. We would apply different tonalities of paper to different scenes. When Lady Bird is with the cool kids, the paper tone is a little bluer, cooler. When she’s with the theater kids, who aren’t as cool, it’s a little butterscotchy yellow-gold. So there’s a color arc to the story, and it has to do with the distressed quality of the xerox and the ideology of Kinko’s in the early 2000s.
Girish: That reminds me of something you said in an interview about While We’re Young — you said that an important part of your process was to “remove what feels electronic in the image” and achieve a photochemical look. In both While We’re Young and Lady Bird, was this choice motivated by the themes of the films, or is this a general artistic preference of yours?
Levy: In general, I never want things to look too synthetic or electronic. At the same time, I’m very comfortable working in the digital space. Even before I studied with Leslie, the first things I ever made with friends were VHS shorts. And I’ve always shot video. It does come down to what’s appropriate for the project I’m working on. You know, 2002 is when we were starting to just get into the so-called digital revolution in cinema and in society. It was pre-smartphone, but probably about four or five years into the first consumer digital cameras. So, for me, it was okay to be working in a digital space in Lady Bird, but the color copier thing was a good methodology because we took this object, scanned it, printed something back out and scanned it again. In a sense, when you watch Lady Bird in the theater, or eventually on streaming or blu-ray, it’s a scanned version of this distressed artifact. I guess I wanted it to feel like… say, analog video? Like VHS, I guess. At the same time, as I said when I first I read it, I wanted nothing to get in the way of the script. There’s a phrase that Greta and I came up with to describe what we wanted this movie to look like — “plain and luscious.” We didn’t want it to just be luscious, dripping with contrast and overly saturated color. And we didn’t want it to be totally mundane, either. We wanted to modulate between plain and luscious. I think digital is a good methodology for that.
Girish: You’ve worked with a number of great women directors: Kelly Reichardt, Rebecca Miller and now Greta. I’m curious if you have noticed a difference in the way male and female directors operate on set or approach filmmaking?
Levy: I really don’t think there is [a difference], at the end of the day. I think the people are either good or bad or somewhere in between. I can only speak from my own experience. Let’s see, I’ve shot nine feature films with seven different directors. I’ve worked with four women — Greta, Rebecca Miller, Kelly Reichardt and Galt Niederhoffer — and three men. So, I have worked with more women than men, which I think most people cannot say. When I shot Maggie’s Plan, I remember Ethan Hawke saying he’d never worked with a woman director before. He’s been around a while, so I was surprised to hear that. I really don’t think there is a difference, though. Either people can direct or they can’t. I think men get more chances to mess up than women. And at the end of the day, when you go on a movie set, there’s way more men than women. In the crew, in post-production, in executive positions. Interestingly, I think the director role is more diverse than what you see on actual sets, particularly in support crew positions. It’s changing now, but there’s a lot of progress to be made in that department.
First published in Vague Visages on Dec 20, 2017