Because of the unique nature of how “Tramps” was made and what a special film it is, we’re devoting this week to celebrating many of the artists behind the scenes that made it possible with a series of interviews illuminating their work before its premiere on Netflix.
When Ashley Connor was 16, she blew out her knee playing soccer. It was a devastating setback for someone who had been on the field since she was five and even had aspirations of playing professionally one day, but as she recovered from surgery, she took comfort in the movies that came on TV.
“It just kind of hit me, “I love movies and I’ve always loved movies. I should make movies! What have I been doing with my life?” says Connor, who can’t help but laugh at making such a bold declaration at 16. “I started making my own short films and for the first time [I thought], ‘Oh right, this is a job.’ It was always very abstract and suddenly it came together.”
Years later, Connor was laid up once more after injuring her other knee, pretty much the only thing that could hasten her rise as one of the most exciting cinematographers working. Her athleticism has come in handy as a director of photography, immersing herself into the bluegrass of Kentucky for Josephine Decker’s phantasmagoric double feature “Butter on the Latch” and “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” or a pig farm just outside of Philadelphia in Alison Bagnall’s unsettling “Funny Bunny,” capturing moments of unspeakable beauty that usually have a roughness to them, as if they weren’t easy to come by for the characters inhabiting them, though you suspect they did for Connor. The lasting impression she leaves — casting what we normally see in a new light, channeling her characters’ ability to see each other and the world anew — is really the only signature of the cinematographer’s style since she has pursued projects so different from one another, it’s clear her allegiance is exclusive to the film she’s making at the time.
“She’s really a narrative storyteller and I was really taken with the fact that this person clearly had the guts to do these bold, visionary filmmaking styles, but her sensibility started with story,” says Adam Leon, who worked with Connor on his latest film “Tramps.” “So many of the notes I got from Ashley weren’t saturation or lens questions, but story notes. She’s so focused on what is the story, what is the tone, what are we trying to tell, what are the emotions here, who are the actors? I really involved her in the casting process [and asked] how can we communicate this world and this story through them and through the places that they travel.”
Leon’s call couldn’t have come at a better time. Connor hadn’t worked in months on account of her injury and was eager to get back to work, but the down time had its benefits in forging an unusually close collaboration between the director and cinematographer. In mapping out an adventure that would take the duo from the streets of Queens to upstate New York and back again on every form of transportation imaginable, Connor and Leon consulted with each other on nearly every facet of the production and Connor’s eagerness to get back behind the camera also perhaps added an extra bit of torque to “Tramps,” where every frame crackles with energy in following Danny (Callum Turner) and Ellie (Grace Van Patten), two young’uns on the lam trying to make amends after a briefcase exchange they’re making on behalf of some low-level gangsters goes sideways.
With his first feature “Gimme the Loot,” Leon had established a distinctive visual style of his own, full of zooms that were deployed in equal measure to capture the New York skyline and his central pair of graffiti artists sought to find their place within the sprawling metropolis, giving an unusually large scope for a scrappy independent film as well as a particular intensity to the close-ups. However, Connor is able to show her considerable skill in complimenting Leon’s in “Tramps,” not only judiciously using the power to zoom in and out as an expression of what characters feel in the moment, but using light to vividly reflect their emotions, all the while staying within a realm that feels like an airy version of the world we all inhabit.
Even lighter on its feet than the fleet-footed Danny and Ellie, “Tramps” was subject to the same pressure that creates diamonds out of coal, as the film’s crew zipped in and out of some of New York’s most populous locations to grab shots, doing so with grace and sophistication. Recently, Connor spoke about running-and-gunning with Leon, reflecting on filming in her adopted hometown for the first time, the physicality involved in the production and why you won’t likely ever see her repeating herself, no matter what extraordinary things she achieves with a camera.
Adam and I have a mutual friend named Natalie Difford, who helped produce “Gimme the Loot,” and when Adam was reaching out to people about cinematographers, she recommended me because she produced a short that I shot. It was a really funny time for me because I had had a massive knee surgery in December of that year, so I hadn’t really worked at all and I couldn’t really work yet. [laughs] When Adam and I started talking, “Tramps” was – gladly – the only thing I could focus on, so I gave it my full attention.
Did you have any immediate ideas on how to approach this?
Our process for prep in the movie was very [eclectic]. He would send me a mixtape for the movie and then we’d go to basketball games and talk or we’d go see movies – we’d go to the Lincoln Center for the Rohmer series. We had a lot of time to get on the same page and find references that made sense for the film. Adam’s a director who has a very strong sense of what he wants already, so part of my challenge was to question him. Whether or not that questioning led to a change [in his thinking], it was opening up the door. Adam does have that style of very long zooms, so the challenge was [asking], “Okay, but at what point do we not do that? And what does it mean not to have that form?” So I was watching a lot of [films to see if] this film felt successful in the zoom work or this film felt too alienating. In terms of script notes, I was around a lot, so I would question certain parts of Danny and Ellie’s relationship and [asking] how do each of these people feel in this situation? Who’s lying to who? Or who’s feeling comfortable at this moment because they have this shift emotionally throughout the film [because] that’s how I like to work in my cinematography is where are we at emotionally with these characters? And how do we subtly show that with camera movement or the way we shoot something to be in their world a little bit more?
It was just a lot of fun push-and-pull and challenging both of us to break something that felt quite comfortable and really incorporate each other’s style. it’s funny because the only films that had been out of mine [before “Tramps”] were Josephine Decker’s movies [“Butter on the Latch” and “Thou Waste Mild & Lovely”] and those films are pretty insane looking. [laughs] The way that we made those films, it was more of a fluid, free-flowing, intuitive kind of look that a necessity of style through the production process, which isn’t always how I like to work as a cinematographer, but it’s something that I can do quite well. Adam’s response to my work [in those films] was very much emotional and [he said], you seem to be able to capture the interior of how characters are feeling, but how do we also incorporate that into [my] style? That’s why I think there’s a really good marriage happening because it’s not “Gimme the Loot” — and “Gimme the Loot” is great — but it’s slightly different in feeling and tone. I also love working with actors. It’s my favorite part — letting the actors drive the frame, that’s been something in my work that I try to always practice. I don’t really like making the body of the camera move, or these big, massive steadicam oners through space, [but instead] reacting to what an actor wants to do and building on top of that.
Adam said you were upfront about the fact this wasn’t going to look like other films you’ve done and obviously, it makes sense to find a style that fits the story, but do you actually seek out projects where you can do something different?
I think it’s more fun for me. If someone approaches me and they directly quote another film [I’ve done] and they [say], “Hey, I want it to look like X that you’ve shot” – that to me is a little boring. So when I meet with a director, I usually like to feel it out because if you’re a director, you know what it is that you like and that’s the basis for where I jump off, asking the director, when you visualize the film, how do you see it? That could be as abstract or as specific as you want it to be, but it’s very hard when I have a meeting with a director where they just have no concept, and it’s not like I can’t make one for them. I want the film to be the director’s vision and to be able to build upon that vision with what I have to offer into what they want because I find that if it goes the opposite way, no one’s happy.
That’s why it was so easy with to build together because he has a vast knowledge of cinema. He’s watched everything and we were able to meet on this level playing field where we could share references. I hadn’t seen as much [Robert] Altman as he had and Altman was a big reference point, so Adam gave me a stack of 15-20 movies to watch and some of them were Altmans that I had never seen, so it was really fun to watch a reference, internalize that reference and then not talk about it too much on set because if you made it too much into your own head, you feel like you’re not creating an honest visual moment. That’s why when I’m shooting a movie, I’m pretty incapable of watching other movies during it. I wish I could, but if you give me a really great film [such as] “3 Women” to watch during the production, I’d be like, “Well, we should all just retire because he’s already done it and better than we’re ever going to do it and we should just stop while we’re ahead.” Whereas in pre-production, I can watch “3 Women” and take from it what feels right, but then not really pinpoint it later on in the process. During movie shoots, I can watch “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” but I can’t watch Fellini. [laughs]
Adam also mentioned that Rohmer series as an influence in regards to depicting movement. Did it nudge you in a certain direction?
It’s funny because I’ve been talking about Rohmer a lot with Dustin Guy Defa’s movie “Person to Person,” which I also shot, because he frames people is in a very intimate way and it really lets you watch the character move and exist and have their own presence, so that was a big thing for Ellie and Danny, [asking] who are these people when they’re in this giant city? And the city has so much movement built into it, it’s picking and choosing moments to have the city have movement or then be static or then have extreme movement and have the city feel like it falls away a little bit more.
This actually is your first feature in the city you live in – were there certain things you wanted to show?
It isn’t that I hadn’t shot in New York, but I hadn’t shot any full features here. All of mine had been like in the woods of Philadelphia or Kentucky, so it felt really positive to look at New York with a new language. And Adam’s very much a native New Yorker, so it became this combination of how do we show these spaces for a New Yorker to watch [where you’d think], “Oh yeah, that is Port Authority, but also [have it feel like] we’re not doing establishing shots all the time. It had to feel like New York, but not a New Yorker’s New York.
There is this subtle sensation of heightened reality in how you light the film – it feels naturalistic for most of it, but you’re not afraid to shine a bold red or blue on the characters to reflect emotion. How did you figure it out?
Our primary shooting schedule was quite long for an independent film of this size, but that meant that the money went into dates as opposed to gear. I [still] had my dream camera package, but in terms of [grip & electric], I would talk with my gaffer because [we needed to figure out] how would we use our gear to protect ourselves during daytime when we need to and light for the few night [scenes]. The night stuff was so limited, we had a very small crew and not that much to work with, so it was like, “Listen, we’re not going to be able to get a balloon light or have some massive source that you can soften up and just do general fill, so how do we create a more stylized nighttime look that works with our gear, our time crunch and still makes it visually interesting? Adam and I talked about this in preproduction a lot and we did tests with my colorist who helped us create a LUT [a Look-Up Table that evaluates what one needs from their light source to get the proper image] that was very much about having this feel very intense, have the colors be very saturated and very bright and having the world pop. [Adam and I] both are Eggleston fans, so a lot of the photos that we shared between each other were Eggleston references and it was like how do you achieve that color? How do we frame city corners to give us this palette that we were looking for with these yellows and reds and blues as primaries? The colored lighting at night just seemed more of a necessity [since] we were leaning in this direction [already for the day].
Others have mentioned the difficulty of shooting Danny’s botched handoff, which sets the rest of the plot in motion, on a elevated train platform — it’s a single long take, zooming in and out as Danny runs down to the street to tell Ellie what’s happened. What was that day like for you?
That was a day where we really broke down each shot. We had gone down to practice it and talk it through and very specifically, we had definite shots in a specific order that would break down the action, [so we planned that] we need to cover X to X and you’re at the mercy of when these trains come and the actor needs to hop on the train and then the train goes away or somebody in another car holds the door so the train door looks as if it’s closing, but it opens up again. It was very much a gamble to get all of those shots down, and it was a very nerveracking day. But we had planned quite well, so once we got into it, we were very capable of [letting] the scene unfold and it was really fun. When it was successful, it was like, “Oh right, we did it. Good planning, guys.”
Independent film shoots are really difficult places to work in because you are stretched thin in so many directions. Everyone’s tired, working three jobs and giving it their all, so if a director’s energy falters or they don’t seem they’re as excited to be on their own set as you are, it really can be an energy suck. There was a three-minute heist scene — that’s been cut, which is a better choice — but we shot it twice [where] somebody goes up to the back of a truck and steals something and it started as a zoom-in, zooming all the way out, zooming back in and following a character run across a street and then me going a full 270° on the sticks, so it was a really difficult move. Everybody’s trying their best and at that point, you have 20 different variables that can go wrong that have nothing to do with me, and I could mess up one thing and it ruins the entire shot. It was a lot of pieces moving around, but Adam gave specific notes and he really came to set every day wanting to make his movie, being its biggest cheerleader and also being the biggest cheerleader for all of us.
Since you had just recovered from knee surgery, was it intimidating to have such a physically rigorous shoot to come back to?
It was insane. [laughs] I’m a hard-headed woman and Adam had a concern because it was going to be a lot of run and gunning and I trained before the shoot, but my knee wasn’t totally there yet. I wasn’t going to let that stop me or complain about it too much. But it was super-intense. We shot with the old Angenieux, which is a 15-pound lens on top of the Alexa with all of these attachments, so when it was all built out and I’d do handheld with the zoom lens, it was like a 50-plus pound rig. I look back at it and [wonder], how was my body functioning? But I think I just went into beast mode. [laughs] The package is so heavy, but my assistants were generous with their help and would make sure to take the camera off me if I wasn’t shooting. And everywhere we went, they had an apple box for me, so I could sit between takes. But I was operating on this [idea] that you have to do this. You have to work hard. Your knee is not a problem. I had down in the dumps for a while having had this knee surgery and not having done the thing that I wanted to do for months, which I need to shoot constantly because it gives me a sense of purpose. [Adam] really took a chance on me and believed in me, and the film was made with so much love from the producers to the crew to the actors to everybody involved in post. I wish more films were made with this much love.
“Tramps” starts streaming on Netflix on April 21st.