Stoner comedies aren’t usually the place to discover masters of light, but it was the Matt Walsh comedy “High Road” where I first took notice of Hillary Spera’s work. To capture the jittery energy of a cast mostly made up of improv all-stars, the camera was just alive and reactive and as if it was some inside joke, there was, for lack of a better term, a baked quality to the colors of the cross-country adventure. It turned out to be an appropriate introduction to her work because any time you see her name in the credits, you always know you’re going to go some place new.
“I’m always up for an adventure into unknown dark corners, and always bring some kind of camera with me,” Spera recently told me in an e-mail. “It makes it easier to interpret and reconcile with the world.”
Spera is a rare cinematographer for many reasons, but one of the more obvious ones is that there has never been a boundary between narrative and nonfiction for her. Shortly after shooting the island-set thriller “Black Rock” for director Katie Aselton, she brought out the majesty in 14-year-old sailor Laura Dekker’s circumnavigation of the globe in “Maidentrip,” the aching heartbreak in the hills of West Virginia where oxycontin had ravaged the community in “Oxyana,” and somehow, with directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, earned the trust of the last remaining doctors that perform third-trimester abortions and their patients to capture their grace under the most unimaginable of circumstances in “After Tiller.” In each case, even the nouveau-exploitation “Black Rock,” Spera balanced a respect for the elements with how the human experience is illuminated in nature’s reflection.
It is no wonder then that when director Frank Hall Green set out to shoot a film in Denali National Park in Alaska, underlining the theme of a young girl (Ella Purnell) who will travel to the ends of the earth to get away from a sexual predator (Brian Geraghty) in his first feature “Wildlike,” he called Spera. She responded with some of her most breathtaking work to date, with the crisp, cool air practically wafting off the screen in wide shots and the vulnerability of its central teen protagonist vividly rendered in pensive close-ups. On an off-day from one of her latest projects, the busy director of photography was gracious enough to answer a few questions over e-mail about her work, including the connection between her nonfiction and narrative efforts, her sensitivity to what she’s shooting — whether a person or place — and how to handle a nine-foot tall grizzly bear.
First and foremost, I was really attracted to “Wildlike”’s story. Frank Hall Green did an incredible job of telling a story with subtlety, strength and adventure that I was really excited about, especially from the cinematography standpoint. That combined with the opportunity to shoot in the big nature of Alaska, [it] sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Growing up in Vermont, I’ve always been more at home in the woods than anywhere else, and I was very interested in the opportunity to represent that visually. The massive, beautiful nature is so humbling and inspiring to me. I’ve always been attracted to untamable wildness in any landscape — the interaction between humans and their environment, and the sense of relinquishing control to forces bigger than ourselves.
Do locations generally dictate how you pick projects? Landscapes seem to be of particular interest and a spirit of adventure, even in rural settings.
I am often attracted to projects where nature or a physical location is a character — the spirit of place and how that shapes the people in it. If “Wildlike” had been set in another location, it would have been a vastly different story. I am proud of the way we were able to capture that spirit. The camera was a ﬁrst-person narrator. I wanted represent [Ella Purnell’s character] McKenzie’s experience through the lens in the same way that she saw it. One of my favorite moments is when she goes up in a plane above Denali. It gets me every time, because I had the exact same feeling of total awe and freedom when I ﬁrst saw it.
We spent a lot of time scouting for “Wildlike,” all over the Alaskan wilderness. We looked for locations that would work on two levels, both technically and photographically. A small group of us would leave our base in Anchorage for a few days at a time and travel out into the wild — Denali, the Alaskan Highway, Matanuska Glacier, Hatcher Pass, Whittier, Juneau, etc. We’d then try to remember later what mile marker/geographic landmark we thought would be perfect. It was an adventure on both sides of the lens. My partner-in-crime — key grip Garrett Cantrell — built amazing camera rigs — we mounted a camera to a side of a five-story overnight ferry moving at top speed in the middle of open water, and shot from two different planes, over 100 incredible miles on the Alaskan highway though the window of a Toyota Forerunner, and on a glacier. We were also the only ﬁlm crew yet allowed permission to ﬁlm so far into Denali. We were shut down momentarily for bear crossings. The crew and cast became a tight family, and the journey of the ﬁlm was also the journey of making the ﬁlm, so I think we all felt every mile right alongside the characters, which is truly a unique thing. I was frequently reminded how much I love my job.
You seem to be able to have it both ways where there’s this great sense of composition, but also highly intuitive and sensitive of the energy the people in front of your camera are putting out, whether that’s in narrative or fiction. Is that a skill honed over time or a balance you find you need to strike?
The natural relationship of subjects to their environment is so intertwined to me, I never want to force the hand. I always feel that how actors or subjects naturally move and place themselves within space is telling. People have an intuitive sense of the world around them. I try to ﬁnd that and show it through camera. In documentaries, many times a composition ﬁnds itself and I am just on the lookout to catch [that] naturalism, and make it about the people as much as their world. Developing the way actors and performance can relate to the space around them, and their relationship to the camera is my goal. With “Wildlike,” Ella and I were able to develop a language based upon mutual trust through the camera, which I think ended up on screen. The camera became her POV, and I felt a responsibility to stay true to that, rather than force anything that would seem contrived. Simplicity speaks loudly, I think.
In general, how much of your shooting style is informed by the POV of the character whose story you’re telling?
I like subjective stories told from a character’s perspective — the world according to them. The camera is subjective. Mackenzie’s world was through her experience. It starts constricted… she feels trapped. As her world opens up, it does through camera as well. One informed the other. Whether in documentary or narratives, I try to be sensitive to the character in front of the lens’ experience. I’m just trying to be there and capture it in a way that I think represents their inner life. It’s the often the subtle moments that are so much more telling than than grand actions. I fall asleep in huge action sequences.
Has working in documentary changed the way you shoot narratives and vice versa?
Documentary and narrative are so closely linked in my work, I’m sometimes not sure what informs the other more. I feel so fortunate to be able to bring the intuition and observation skills I developed and strengthened through documentary work into my narrative work. Intuitive lighting, the strive to make scenes feel natural and not contrived, the subtle moments of being human that cannot be written — I love all of that. I don’t see much of a difference from shooting verite documentary work and intuitive shooting narrative work. It all must feel human and real for me to be attracted to it. Some of my favorite ﬁlmmakers also blend the lines between documentary and narrative: Vilmos Zsigmond, Werner Herzog, László Kovács, Harris Savides, Bob Rafelson, Frederick Wiseman, Louis Malle, and 1970s cinema [in general].
I can think of two docs that must’ve required great sensitivity to the subjects in “Oxyana” and “After Tiller,” which made me wonder if working on those specifically helped with the projects you’ve worked on after.
I’ve always been a live wire of sensitivity in regard to subjects. “Oxyana” and “After Tiller” are both great examples of projects that forced us to really feel and be present much more than be separated by the wall of a camera. We were in the shit. There was no way to avoid it. We all felt it. And I think that feeling ended up in screen. It was unable to be separated. My ideal would be to always have some connection to that tangibility in every project I am a part of. I have a hard time not getting close to the character’s inner world. It comes with a huge responsibility to stay truthful to it. With “Oxyana,” we weren’t trying to impart meaning. We were just there to reﬂect. That would probably be my strongest impulse in cinematography — reﬂecting the world around us through a piece of glass. For me, it becomes a mirror of moments and glimpses. I think there’s something so beautiful in the things we sense and see out of the corner of our eye.
With “Wildlike,” is filming with a live bear as much of a challenge as one might expect?
The bear day for “Wildlike” was an exciting one. Working on independent ﬁlms usually means a shooting within a very tight schedule, so there wasn’t much time to have second thoughts about shooting with an untrained grizzly bear. That scene was ﬁlmed at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Girdwood, AK. The bears had been rescued and rehabilitated on their beautiful 140-acre compound. Our bear was a nine-foot tall grizzly named Joe Boxer (JB). He was accompanied by two (also not small) female bears who took off running when we arrived. I had never realized how fast bears can run. It’s a little disturbing. When they tell you not to run when you see a bear, take the advice.
We were loaded into the bucket of a tractor — actors Ella Purnell and Bruce Greenwood, key grip Garrett Cantrell, and 1st [assistant cameraman] Justin Cameron, and myself sat side-by-side while we were driven into the enclosure “Jurassic Park”-style. The rest of the crew watched behind huge barbed wire fences a quarter-mile away. The plan was that a man armed with a pitchfork and hot dogs was supposed to distract the bear long enough for us to get a few shots with it. If the bear charged, we were told to jump in the bucket loader and it would be raised up out of reach. Hmmm. But it worked for the most part. JB ran for the hot dogs and gave us some great moments until he clued in that we were out of hot dogs. When they ran out of hot dogs, they threw steak [and once we ran out of that], it was very obviously time to leave. So that scene in the ﬁlm feels real because it was. It was shot on a fairly wide lens. There was no trick photography. And I’d probably do it all over again tomorrow.
I read in another interview how you’d take apart camera equipment to see how it worked. What can you actually learn from doing that?
I’m not sure what you really learn other than the conﬁdence to put it back together again. Or perhaps that making mistakes are sometimes the best thing you could do. I’ve always been one who needs to see the guts of every situation in order to fully understand it. Cut it open, let the guts fall out and then let’s put them back in again after taking a look at them in the daylight.
The colors, especially in Denali, were incredible [in person]. We shot in July and August, which is essentially the beginning of fall in Alaska. Some vistas looked like persian rugs. Shooting “Wildlike” on 35mm ﬁlm was an absolute dream, as the look has a timeless quality to it that does not feel modern or digital. The color was a discussion from the very beginning. Frank and I discussed the color of Alaskan daylight, especially since at that time of year the days are so long that the color and quality of light becomes eerie. It’s light [out] at 1 am! It’s not what we are used to seeing. Our incredible gaffer, Jeremy Mackie and I called it “Twi-night.”
We experimented with altering the colors of our sources to try and replicate that feeling for interiors of the uncle’s house. Once Mackenzie was out in the world, it became lighter, warmer… and the colors less monochromatic. While we aimed to establish that in camera, our colorist Alex Bickel (Color Collective) was incredible at ﬁnding a way to enhance and show this arc in the post-production color process. His intuition on how to mirror the emotional state of many of the scenes with subtle and bold adjustments in color greatly enhanced the look of the ﬁlm and often raised it to another level. Alex also worked with me on “Oxyana” and “Black Rock” — he’s one of the best there is.
I’ve read you initially pursued still photography – does that still shape your work as a cinematographer?
I think my love of still photography has and always will inﬂuence my work as a cinematographer. Actually, the only actual training I’ve ever had is a photography class I took in high school. A million years back, I read Susan Sontag’s “On Photography” and it blew my mind — among many things, her discussion of the photograph as Memento mori. Also, Mary Ellen Mark’s photography was and is a huge inﬂuence. The relationship to the world through actually engaging in it is something that I always will be attracted to through cinematography. If I can’t get my hands dirty, I probably won’t shoot it well.