Camerimage Interview: Sam Levy
With the breakout success of Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, Sam Levy’s status as a topflight cinematographer of the indie world is cemented. His delicate touch enhanced the you-are-there Pacific Northwest naturalism of Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008), and his ability to paint more “luscious” images (this is a favorite word, as you’ll see) helped create the anxiously attuned worlds of three Noah Baumbach pictures (including the French New Wavy black-and-white of 2012’s Frances Ha) and the bright Manhattan romantic comedy of Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan (2015). Although he apprenticed with mighty DPs Harris Savides and Darius Khondji, Levy’s own work is lighter and friskier than his mentors’ influential photography—tellingly, he describes his primary concern as the choreography within a scene, rather than the frame around it.
Film Comment’s interview took place at the Camerimage Film Festival in Bydgoszcz, Poland, in November 2017, in a tiny music-rehearsal room at the Opera Nova, the building that serves as the HQ for the fest. Levy is a tall man and easily fills the room, but his imposing height is instantly disarmed by his engaging manner. Some pre-interview chatter led to Levy’s memories of being the son of a classical musician and recognizing these kinds of rooms from childhood.
It sounds like you were born to go into the arts somehow.
My father was a violinist with the Boston Symphony. He played there for over 40 years. He hated the idea of me going into the arts. As an immigrant, as an Israeli-American, he had a very specific idea about the kind of American son I should be: I should be a doctor or a lawyer or something respectable. He had had to struggle to get a stable job in the arts. When I became interested in film, he couldn’t envision it. But because he was in the Boston Symphony and the Boston Pops, he played music for John Williams, who was the conductor of the Boston Pops, and he played on many soundtracks for Steven Spielberg. And he met Spielberg and got to know him a little bit around the time I was working as a camera assistant and ended up working for people like Darius Khondji and Harris Savides, and once he met Spielberg I think as a Jewish person, seeing this successful Jewish director, something clicked and suddenly he thought, oh I see, [Sam] could be a successful Jewish filmmaker. And then he was okay.
What was it about cinematography that drew your interest?
When I was a high-school student I always participated in school plays—sometimes acting, sometimes the technical side. I got a thrill out of being part of the show. [At the same time] I had a friend who was interested in making films, he had a VHS camera and he would make little videos and he would bring me along to help. Later, I was a comparative literature major at Brown, and I thought I might actually fulfill my father’s desire—I had this idea to become a foreign dignitary. I interned at the French consulate in Boston one summer. So I had this rough idea of life in foreign service. At Brown I fell into a film production class almost by accident, and loved it. I got to utilize some of the experiences I’d had with my friend in high school. It very quickly became clear that I fit in the best on the camera side of it. It was the thing I excelled at. Most of my fellow students wanted to become directors, but I was fortunate to just be able to see pretty clearly that cinematography was something I was good at, and it would probably be simpler to pursue that path.
I’ll give you an example. When I shot one of my first 16 mm short films as a student, the light meter that I checked out from school was broken. Didn’t work at all. And I just guessed what the exposure should be. And when the film came back, I assumed that nothing would be there, it would just be ruined. And it came back and it was actually pretty good. Even as a neophyte I could tell. And my teacher said, “Without a light meter you managed to do better than most of my other students do with a light meter.” And she kept saying little things to me like that. And I thought, maybe I could do this professionally.
Is it fair to say you are also drawn to composition, to putting a frame around things?
That’s definitely true, but the thing that appeals to me most is choreography. I don’t have a dance background or anything like that, but maybe it comes from having been in school plays. But I really enjoy looking at movement and situating, or blocking, movement. And many times I don’t actually do that much—we just observe a rehearsal that the actors do. Like this movie Lady Bird that I shot, we have these incredibly skilled actors, all of whom have theater backgrounds, and you can tell them what to do, or make little changes, and they run with it. Sometimes it’s like that, and you can have a very intricate choreography, and sometimes we work with non-actors, and the less you say the better, and our job is to maybe just capture that reality, like a documentary. That comes first, studying movement, and the frame comes after that, for me.
Wendy and Lucy
Wendy and Lucy emphasizes shots from a long distance and some intense close-ups. Can you talk about the development of this approach to the material?
Wendy and Lucy consists largely of Michelle Williams walking from many different places, maybe even half the film is shots of her walking. What was interesting about doing that was that so much emotion and meaning gets infused in just her walking. But Michelle was doing most of that for us, so camera-wise, what I found was that the less I did, the less technical things I did, the less virtuosity I tried to introduce, the better things were. In prepping for the movie, which is shot on 16mm film, I tried different film stocks, tried different laboratories—as cinematographers, we try to nail down our technical approach, and for me I try to get there as quickly as possible, so I can focus on more everyday concerns, like okay, she’s going to walk from the gas station to her car, which is 50 feet away, so I want to put the camera in the right place. There’s all these different technical tricks you can do with shooting film—force processing the negative to introduce grain, have the black be a little bit more milky or less milky, have more or less contrast. Having assisted for cinematographers like Harris Savides, I learned a lot of these tricks, so I was trying them when we were prepping and testing. And what I found was the less of those things I did, the better. And so that was also the case with Michelle’s blocking, and just the way Kelly Reichardt and I would go about studying the movement in front of us.
The first shot where you see Michelle Williams is a very long dolly shot, from very far back, and you see her with her dog and the sound is Michelle humming a tune. The ground was very uneven, and we were talking about how we were going to execute it. We talked about maybe using a Steadicam, and Kelly kept saying, “No, it’s very important that the camera feels like a machine, not a person.” It was to marry with the last shot of the film, when Michelle is on a train, leaving, getting out of town. And as soon as she said that, I knew: I’m in the right place, on the right project, with the right director. Even though, to use a dolly there instead of a Steadicam meant there would be some bumpiness [in the shot]. It told me what I needed to know about the approach—the philosophy of a machine that’s capturing this moment.
How was working with Greta Gerwig as a director, after working with her as an actress and writer?
What was nice about working with Greta as a director is it was a confirmation of things I always suspected about her: that she has great taste, she’s a great leader, she’s confident, and she has a very strong visual sense. She co-wrote Frances Ha and Mistress America, two films we worked on together that Noah Baumbach directed. She has a very specific idea of what she wants, but she’s also a great collaborator.
What’s an example of her specific ideas?
The first thing she said was probably my favorite thing that she alluded to visually, which was that she wanted the movie to look like a memory. Very straightforward kind of thing to say, but as soon as she said it I knew what she meant. Despite knowing what she meant, we had to figure out how to do it. What we got to was this idea that the cinematography should be both plain and luscious. Because we both like imagery that doesn’t distract the viewer from the story—but it should have a lusciousness to it. We could look at something and always be on the same page and say, “This could be more luscious.” But generally it was, “We could do less here. We could move the camera less, we could draw back the blocking a little bit.” Because the script that she wrote, the performances her actors give, are so effusive—Saoirse Ronan, she’s just giving you so much—that I always thought with Lady Bird that to add too much to these virtuosic performances might just be too loud. And this “plain and luscious” idea was unique to Greta—it wasn’t anything I’d ever discussed with Kelly or Noah. It was simple concept, nothing earth-changing, but it was something we felt was our own, and we could put it into the work.
Would you ever like to shoot something that’s much more extravagant in style?
If it suits the material, by all means. The best thing I can hope for is to read a great script. As a cinematographer who has no interest in directing or writing, I’m really beholden to the material that I receive. So if something is sharp and snappy and rich on the page, then I’m attracted. If something needs more theatricality, or more flourish, then of course. A lot of people say this, but I’ll say it too: I don’t consider myself to have a style of doing any one thing. I think there’s a misconception on the part of directors looking at cinematographers and not looking beyond their body of work to consider the possibilities of what they might be able to do. And it’s certainly happened to me. Having worked with Noah on three movies—there’s a lot of people who try to emulate what Noah does, especially in the comedy world, so I’ll get sent a lot of those kinds of things. And I’m always happy to be considered for anything, but I’d like to be able to think I could do any genre and be able to do it well.
At what point in your career were you when digital began to eclipse shooting on film?
I would say I felt a seismic shift when I was shooting Frances Ha. That was around the time when digital projection was becoming completely pervasive in mainstream movie theaters. But when I worked for Harris—he was always super-encouraging to me, and he introduced me to Noah Baumbach and told Noah, “This guy should shoot Frances Ha“—Harris said to me, “Sam, I see the writing on the wall. Someday someone’s gonna come up to me and say, ‘Did you see that digital movie Sam Levy shot?’” He probably told me that around 2005, when it hadn’t really happened yet.
Frances Ha brings up the challenge of shooting black-and-white. Did you relish that?
It was amazing. There was never a consideration to do Frances Ha in anything other than black and white, so we could just immerse ourselves in this black and white environment. Not having to pick locations based on how terrible the colors were—like, there’s a bad yellow awning three blocks away—we could just dispense with all that and just deal with the tonality of white to black and everything in between. It’s very friendly to people’s faces. You know, I’d trained, the first things I’d ever made in my film class were in black-and-white 16mm, so there’s echoes of that training to expose film, print film—I’d studied all of Ansel Adams’s technical manuals, The Camera, The Negative, The Print. All that was within me, [and] shooting black and white around 2010-2011, it was very streamlined and very simple.
Did you and Noah Baumbach study examples of black and white? There are so many different kinds.
Noah’s a big Eric Rohmer enthusiast, and I actually studied with Eric Rohmer. So we spent a lot of time talking about Rohmer—his films as a whole, but his black-and-white films, like My Night at Maud’s, shot by Nestor Almendros. Then we’d circle back and talk about Manhattan and Broadway Danny Rose, shot by Gordon Willis. It’s hard to avoid talking about Woody Allen, shooting in New York, and especially in black and white. I would location-scout, which I would do a lot on my bike, I would ride around the East Village and take photos and show them to Noah. From a practical place, we would just look at photos I had taken.
What have you worked on since Lady Bird?
I haven’t done a feature film, I spent the summer and fall working with Spike Jonze. We went on tour with the singer Frank Ocean. He played a lot of summer music festivals, and Spike did all the live video for Frank’s shows, and he hired me to help with that. So Spike and I were both onstage with Frank Ocean operating all these strange video cameras and the image would get piped to these stadium video screens. And all the footage is going to be used for a documentary. So I did that and then Spike wrote and directed a dance piece for the clothing line Opening Ceremony as part of their Fall Fashion Week show. We filmed all the different aspects of this amazing dance piece, we kind of made a documentary about the making of it, we presented a number from the show on the Jimmy Fallon Tonight Show, and then we took the theatrical piece and restaged it in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in all these practical locations. And I think it might become a feature, I’m not sure—it was this immersive experience, working for Spike on this many-tentacled project.
Did you find Spike Jonze to be a director with very specific ideas about the look and design?
Oh yeah. Spike is one of the loveliest people you could meet—extremely meticulous, very precise about what he’s looking for visually. These projects were a little different, they weren’t feature films, so they could be a little more, you might say, aggressive visually. The Frank Ocean show, for example, the image of Frank Ocean projected on a big stadium screen could have these extremely luscious qualities that I might not put into a feature film. We used these anamorphic lenses, they’re quite old and they have these aberrations. They flare the light in a very evocative and beautiful way. On something like Lady Bird that would never do, but for a rock show it was perfect. We wanted more of that kind of thing. The louder the imagery was, the happier Frank and Spike were. Often we’d be really close to Frank, so the people up front, if they actually looked at real-live Frank, they might be blocked by Spike or me, but if you looked at the screen it’s a nice intimate close-up, and he’d play to the camera. There’s still very much a choreography happening. And Spike is masterful at that, coming from making his skateboarding videos—he’s like the best handheld operator I’ve ever worked with. And he can just dance around the stage and jump up and down platforms. You can totally tell he comes from skateboarding. Which I do not.
Given that you grew up around music, do you find the musical elements in what you do?
Yeah, I do. To bring it back to Lady Bird, what I love about working with Greta Gerwig—her writing, her dialogue, is very musical. She says herself, she makes talkies. She makes movies with people who talk. As opposed to something like Wendy and Lucy, very little dialogue. In Lady Bird, what’s special about what people are saying is in the subtext, so for example, when Lady Bird’s mom [Laurie Metcalf] is telling her to clean her room, what she’s really saying is, “I’m scared, because your father just got laid off.” All this great subtext, but also the tempo of the dialogue feels very much like music. So as a DP, it’s very important not to get hung up on exactly what people are saying, but more so the tempo of what they’re saying. So the dialogue becomes more like sound design. And it can flow in and out of the scenes and become a cinematic element, not just, “Okay, we need to understand exactly what they’re saying.” The pace is very fast. Greta cares a lot about the viewer, but she gives the viewer a lot of credit. Things are not over-explained.
Robert Horton is a writer based in Seattle.