From a visual standpoint, there’s a very fine line to ride when making a character drama. You want the image to be striking and appealing, but you don’t want to detract from the performances or dialogue too much. Cinematographer Sam Levy has a knack for walking this line to terrific results, having broken out in a big way with shooting Kelly Reichardt’s 2008 film Wendy and Lucy and most recently working some serious magic on Noah Baumbach’s visually dynamic Frances Ha, While We’re Young, and Mistress America.
And now Levy has lent his talents to a highly anticipated directorial effort from actress and screenwriter Greta Gerwig, serving as the director of photography on Gerwig’s delightful, surprisingly emotional coming-of-age story Lady Bird. The story takes place in 2002 and stars Saoirse Ronan as an outgoing high school senior who navigates friendships, romantic entanglements, family, and impending college decisions with a mix of confidence, naiveté, and anxiety.
With Lady Bird opening in select theaters on November 3rd, I recently got the chance to speak with Levy about his work on the film. He discussed his close bond with Gerwig, their extensive planning, what she’s like as a director, and how they developed an aesthetic approach that would feel like a memory. We also discussed Levy’s relationship with his mentor Harris Savides, as the DP shared a nice story that partially encapsulates what he learned from the cinematography legend. And Levy teased a couple of collaborations with Spike Jonze on a pair of upcoming projects.
Levy offers a lot of insight into how one approaches shooting a film like Lady Bird and what a close relationship with the director like Gerwig can bring. Check out the full interview below and definitely check out Lady Bird when it comes to a theater near you.
I know that you worked with Greta on a couple of Noah Baumbach’s films but I was curious, how did you first come to be involved in this?
SAM LEVY: Greta and I did three movies together. Frances Ha and Mistress America with Noah Baumbach and Maggie’s Plan with Rebecca Miller. We’ve worked together a lot and knew each other for many years before she offered me Lady Bird. She actually first mentioned it to me at a premiere party for Mistress America and she was extremely humble in the way that she brought it up. She said, “I wrote this thing that I’d like to direct and I’d love to show it to you but if you don’t want to look at it, it’s totally fine. If you do look at it and you don’t want to shoot it, that’s totally fine.” I was like, “Oh, just can I please read it?” I knew she was working on something. It’s like, “First of all thank you for thinking of me because I know it’s going to be amazing and yeah, I’d love to read it.” I read it. It’s such an amazing screenplay and that was it. It was probably a couple days after that we met at the Noho Star restaurant in the East Village and just started talking about it.
That was another one of my questions was what were your early conversations like in terms of the visual approach to this film? What were some of those early ideas?
LEVY: One of the first things Greta said to me was that she wanted the movie to look like a memory, which immediately got my attention and made me excited. When she said that I knew exactly what she meant, but despite knowing what she meant, the thing was, how do we do that? How do we create something that looks like memory? Something that’s dynamic that isn’t just using commonplace methodology that everyone uses nowadays in motion pictures like making things sepia or just crude black and white or diffusion. It’s not about that. It’s more of an organic and internal sensibility. We talked about it some more. I said, “I know what you mean but let’s keep talking about it.” She said, “Yeah, at a visceral level it should feel like the movie is over there.” She extended her arm and held up her palm as if to say, you’re connected to the movie but my palm, which is the screen, is slightly removed from the viewer, but not overly so. We talked about it some more and then together, both of us equally came up with … I think she said, “It almost should be plain. It should almost look plain,” and I said, “But luscious.” She said, “Yeah, plain and luscious.” We started saying that a lot. Plain and luscious. Plain and luscious. It should be beautiful but not distractingly graphic, so that you can engage but have a nice aesthetic bed to fall into and luxuriate in but not distract from the story or the performances or the words.
Did you guys shoot this on film or digital?
LEVY: We shot it with an Alexa. Digital.
That’s surprising, honestly. Because it has that feel that you’re talking about where it’s somewhat—I feel like sometimes with digital it’s too lifelike, too realistic, and you don’t have that sheen of watching a movie.
LEVY: I think Greta’s first thought was it shouldn’t be too real. It should be a little removed. It should feel like a memory. The way that a memory looks when you envision it. From there after we had these great allegorical conversations where we started to get at the technique of memory and cinematography. A photographer that we were looking at a lot was Lise Sarfati, who’s this brilliant French photographer. She’s done a lot of amazing work. She’s done these amazing portraits of young women about the age of Saoirse’s character and they’re very sensitive and soulful. We were just looking at different photos from the era. A lot of high school yearbooks. It’s a high school movie. High school yearbooks from the early 2000s and we started to notice, especially in high school yearbooks, photos have this quality of—they look crappy and distressed. It’s like a color Xerox or it’s taken with a point-and-shoot 35mm camera. By the time they make it into the yearbook, it’s like several generations have been removed from the initial image.
We happened on this technique in the production office. I took a photography book we were looking at and I made some color copies of some different photos because I wanted to tack them up on the wall so Greta and I could look at them and be inspired. Just have things to look at while we were shot-listing and digesting all the location photos we were taking. I started to notice when making these photocopies, it distressed the image much like the yearbook photos, and sometimes you could take the photocopy and re-copy it and it’d lose another generation and you could lose another generation still and distress it to the point that it really looked like these yearbook photos but it was a technique we could utilize in our own way, in this professional context but still bearing in mind the youth who create their yearbooks.
That really cinched that it was this aesthetic of memory that we’d been talking about and then it got us talking about a lot of different things. The early 2000s was a time when high school kids, college kids, would go to Kinko’s and make copies of different things. Term papers or photos to decorate their rooms or their apartments or their dorms. It just seemed to evoke the era in all these different ways. Then we used these distressed images as a reference for how to photograph the movie using the Alexa. Meaning that the color photocopier has its own sensor that scans the image just like the Alexa has a sensor that captures the images in front of the lens. How can we emulate these multiple photocopied images using the Alexa? The quest then came to be, playing digitally which is totally appropriate but how can we create something within this aesthetic of memory that is unique and of its own and not just taking scans of film grain and overlaying them, calling it a day? Which is very commonplace now.
I think it works. I’m 30 so I came of age around the same time and something that really struck me about the film is that it feels of that time but it’s not dripping with nostalgia. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it but it feels like you pulled off a magic trick where it felt like I was transported there without feeling like the frame was loaded with “remember this” references or like you said, covered in sepia tone or something like that. I think that the memory aspect that you guys did, I think you really pulled it off.
LEVY: Oh, thanks. I’m glad you responded that way.