Sundance Film Festival 2017 Q+A — Interviewing A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, Thoroughbred and Bushwick cinematographer Lyle Vincent
David Alexander Willis: (I also interviewed Thoroughbred director Cory Finley on the film here. Thoroughbred sold at the Sundance Film Festival just after its premiere for $5 million to Focus Features.) You’re no stranger to Jonathan Milott’s and Cary Murnion’s vibrant visual style, having lensed their narrative debut, Cooties, which premiered at Sundance in 2014. How did the three of you begin to work together? From the BTS material, this new film, Bushwick, looks like it was an absolute blast to shoot? Does it follow in the same horror-comedy vein as Cooties?
Cinematographer Lyle Vincent: I met Cary and Jon on Cooties. Elijah Wood, Josh Waller and Daniel Noah were the producers on Cooties and they were also involved on A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night so they liked my work on that film and recommended me for Cooties. Cary, Jon and I hit it off immediately and I was so impressed by their look book and their ideas for Cooties. Of course it made sense when I l learned they came from a visual background in graphic design and commercials. We have since shot countless commercials together and so I feel we have a a great understanding and short hand together as collaborators. That’s one of the reasons I think we were able to pull off this extremely challenging project Bushwick.
It’s not a horror-comedy but a near-future, apocalyptic scenario, action-film that sets a new American civil war in Bushwick, Brooklyn. We also took an interesting approach in shooting nearly every scene as single-take and blending takes together to create a sense of urgency, and, that the camera is another character who is experiencing the action unfold in real time as if they are there with the main characters. It blends gritty, documentary-style with a cinematic, fluid and choreographed-style.
We were able to pull this off by shooting the entire film, excluding the opening credits and the last shot, on the MOVI handheld stabilized rig. Two operators, Frank Larsen and Paul Bode, worked in conjunction to pull off the complex shots. Frank would actually move the Movi through space wearing an EZ rig, and control the pan and boom, and Paul would remotely-control the tilt. Also, for a few very complicated shots, Frank would hand the camera off to Paul, or vice-versa, and I would control the pan and tilt remotely on a set of hot wheels.
David Alexander Willis: The film Thoroughbred is also debuting this year; would you tell us a little about what interested you about that project and how you started to work with playwright and first-time director Cory Finley?
Cinematographer Lyle Vincent: Cory liked my work on A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and so I took a meeting with him about Thoroughbred and we really hit it off. I loved the script, which is based on his play, and was very eager to work with him. I was also quite impressed by his vision for the film: his references and how he really knew where he wanted to take it despite never working in any type of filmmaking environment. It was quick to see that in addition to his accomplishments in the theater he is really a student and a lover of cinema, and I think that really comes across in Thoroughbred.
Cory was amazingly visual in the story telling of his adaption but I also think what makes the film so great his impeccable sense of timing, rhythm and structure which definitely comes from his theater background. Of course, too, his understanding of the script and working so closely with the actors and helping them bring to life the complex characters he created.
David Alexander Willis: You used the ARRI Studio for A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and with Bushwick, you’re continuing with the ARRI system in the Alexa Mini? Similarly, you chose the ARRI Mini for Thoroughbred. What is it about ARRI’s cameras and now the Mini that have made them such a workhorse for you?
Cinematographer Lyle Vincent: When I got started it was still a film-based world. I learned cinematography in the NYU Grad Film program and at that time we started with 16mm black-and-white-reversal, which is extremely unforgiving, and will teach you a lot about exposure. Also the first feature I shot was in China and we shot just about one million feet of 35mm for that. So I really came up and cut my teeth with emulsion, and I have a deep love for it. The ARRI Alexa to me is the closest digital camera to film and is also the most forgiving, like film is, for close-ups and overexposure.
Also, the Alexa came out about seven years ago, and they have yet to change the actual sensor on any of the upgraded cameras, which speaks volumes to the quality and fidelity that it can produce. Additionally, for all my films, I will create a film-emulation LUT based on either Kodak or Fuji classic-stocks, tailor-made for the Alexa, and I feel this camera takes to film emulation the best. Finally, as you can see in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Bad Batch and now Thoroughbred I absolutely love anamorphic lensing, and for the longest time the Alexa was the only digital camera sensor that shot in the full height of the classic 2x anamorphic format without any cropping.
David Alexander Willis: What was your lensing for Bushwick? Why did you go with Panavision Primo and G SERIES ANAMORPHIC for Thoroughbred?
Cinematographer Lyle Vincent: For Bushwick we basically shot on one lens for most of the movie, which was a TLS rehoused 25mm Cooke SIII Speed Panchro… additionally for a few quick scenes we used the 18mm and the 32mm. I love the look of the vintage Cooke Panchro in the lower contrast, flaring and focus fall off. We tested a bunch of lenses including some anamorphic ones, but because we needed a very close-focus for the single-take shooting, anamorphic became impossible. Also we need very small prime lenses because of the weight and length limitations of working with the MOVI.
For Thoroughbred, I suggested using anamorphic lenses to Cory. I showed him references and he agreed it would be perfect for the look of the film. Anamorphic lends a certain formality and elevation to the images as well as a painterly, expressionist feeling. I also love anamorphic not just for wide screen compositions, but also intimate close-ups and dialogue scenes because of the way the lenses render faces and backgrounds. It really draws you into the actors’ performances.
Sal Giarratano at Panavision was instrumental in helping us find a small set of G series and primo anamorphic lenses as well as their 40-80mm Anamorphic zoom (which we used for some in-camera, slow-zoom-in for dramatic effect). The Primo Anamorphic primes became our go-to lenses for their incredible quality and dramatic focus falloff, especially at T/2. Then of course we used the G series for our many Steadicam shots. We also fell in love with the G series 60mm for certain close ups of the main character Amanda. Because the 60mm is slightly wide for a CU lens in Anamorphic, it gave Amanda a very slightly unsettling effect rather than using a classic 100mm for a close up.
David Alexander Willis: Your deft camerawork for director Ana Amirpour is so meditative and much more slowly paced than a standard horror or dystopian sci-fi, and yet the shots are utterly engrossing while heightening mood and atmosphere. Do you find you have a different approach to shooting comedy, horror, drama or action? Or is it more of an approach to lensing that suits the needs of the director and project?
Cinematographer Lyle Vincent: Thanks so much… I owe much of the praise in the cinematography in both A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and The Bad Batch to Lilly’s vision and her exceptional artistry. She is a director that has a truly singular vision and knows exactly what she wants and will fight to get it on screen. Of course she is a lover of cinema and cinematography as art so it’s an absolute privilege to work with her. I will usually take the same approach to any film despite its genre.
It all starts with the script and sitting down with the director and figuring out the visual language for the film and how best to serve the story and characters. I always see story as first and never want the visuals to overwhelm or call too much attention to its self. They always have to serve the storytelling and character development and of course be in line with the director’s vision for their film. Also with lensing I’m always thinking of how to enhance and bring out the actors performance on the screen so that the audience is completely drawn into the character and the moment and not necessarily aware of how it’s being shot.
David Alexander Willis: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night premiered at NEXT during 2014 Sundance. I was utterly shocked to hear that the shoot was captured primarily in southern California; there was no doubt in my mind while watching that it was a horror tale happening at night in the Middle East. You did such a masterful job with the production design on that film; how did you find such wonderfully nondescript and yet entirely characteristic locations? While scouting, did you have a look already in mind for the film? Or did you merely chose more minimal locations and light to suit the mood?
Cinematographer Lyle Vincent: Actually Lilly grew up in that part of California so she had all the exact locations picked out long before any of us came on the project. We also had to be extremely specific on where the camera would be and the exact direction and angle we should look because if you look one way it was perfect for our world but if you turn the camera a bit the other way it all fell apart.
David Alexander Willis: Regardless as to exterior or interior, the monochromatic palette of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is so rich, almost Ansel Adams-esque in contrast and tonality throughout each composition, do you have a different approach to lighting for black-and-white than color?
Cinematographer Lyle Vincent: It’s funny you mention Ansel Adams because he is certainly an inspiration and influence on all my photography. When I was in film school, his trilogy of The Camera, The Negative, and The Print were instrumental for me, especially in learning the Zone System for black and white photography. Yes, I certainly take a different approach to black and white. The lighting will have much more contrast. I also embrace the use of hard lighting as found in classic cinematography. Basically the goal in every shot in terms of lighting and exposure is to have a reference-true-black and true-white, and also achieve a subtle gray tonal balance throughout the middle. I think it’s so powerful to photograph in black and white… you remove the element of color and you are left with pure contrast and pure imagery.