At the end of our interview, I couldn’t help but ask Jody Lee Lipes how his planned narrative feature debut was coming along. Through conversations with collaborators of the talented cinematographer, the project known as “Confederacy” has taken on near-mythic proportions since being picked for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in 2012, yet the delay would seem to be explained by the fact that the only thing that appears to exceed his skill behind the camera is his generosity towards his friends, which is how he wound up lensing childhood pal Lance Edmands’ immaculately composed drama “Bluebird,” coming out later this month, or found himself on the stage of Lincoln Center to film the New York City Ballet after bringing them out to the streets for the Jerome Robbins’ adaptation “NY Export: Opus Jazz” with Henry Joost in 2010.
For the record, Lipes expected the wait too much longer for his narrative debut, though it may not necessarily be “Confederacy,” yet he likely indulged my curiosity because he’s also demonstrated a fascination with the artistic process in his two solo nonfiction efforts, first with the portrait of artist provocateur “Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be the Same” and now with “Ballet 422,” a profile of dance wunderkind Justin Peck, who has already established himself as a premier choreographer at the age of 26, providing an infusion of youthful energy into the City Ballet with productions that stress athleticism and eschew classical music in favor of Sufjan Stevens. For someone who specializes in capturing the inexplicable in such films as Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture” and Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” Lipes has a preternatural ability to show the difficult work that goes into making something look effortless, evident in every scene of “Ballet 422” in which Peck pulls together an entire company of dancers, costumers, lighting technicians, various other stage crew and a full orchestra in less than a few months to realize his vision of “Paz de la Jolla.”
Whether or not the City Ballet was open to letting cameras into the process – in the past, they most certainly haven’t been – “Ballet 422” would be a rare look behind the scenes since it’s made by someone who understands the work required to make great art. After a successful premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, the film is finally making its way around the country and shortly before opening in Los Angeles, Lipes spoke about his continuing interest in how other artists work and maneuvering his cameras around the serpentine hallways of Lincoln Center.
When I spoke to the film’s producer Ellen Bar while the project was crowdsourcing, she had said you got to see a performance of Justin Peck’s “Year of the Rabbit.” Did that seal the deal for you as far as directing?
Yeah, it definitely was. Ellen moderated a discussion with Justin at the Guggenheim about “Year of the Rabbit” when it was still being created and that was the first step when I started to watch him talk about his work and then watch him work with Tiler Peck. The thing that really excited me was when I actually saw that work premiere. I realized this guy was really good, and good in a way that would appeal to people who don’t care about ballet at all, but also to people who really, really love the form and know its history. It seemed like his career was going to be really substantial, and we were just catching him just at the very beginning of it. At that time, [the film] was going to be short where he felt like a new guy. Even though he’s so creatively ahead of his years, I think he just still figuring out some of the politics and the social norms of being the boss, so that’s what really intrigued me about making this film.
Had it been your intention to return to do something set in the dance world after “Opus Jazz” or did this come about spontaneously?
It was pretty spontaneous. I have a very deep respect for dancers and what they do, how committed they are, how intense they are about their work and how much of a sacrifice that is. I’m definitely not a huge ballet fan and it’s hard for me to be entertained when I go to the ballet. So it was really Justin and his process that interested me and wanting to learn more about how he does what he does. That’s what spurred me to make this film more about the process of work and making some things creative more than it is about specifically ballet.
That’s part of why being a cinematographer is interesting to me too because I get to be right next to someone while they’re figuring out what they do when they’re in the throes of their work and they’re not worried about the way they appear necessarily, but they’re just doing it because they have to. They’re being themselves for that reason. So it’s really interesting to me how “Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be The Same,” and “Ballet 422” will never be the exact same thing even though it’s about the exact same topic and [the subjects] just happen to be very very different people and very very different forms of art. It’s fascinating to me how much of the movie changes because of that.
Even though you work in an entirely different medium yourself, having the experience you do in working on productions, did it give you certain ideas about how you wanted to depict a production like this coming together?
It was important to me to see as much as Justin’s process as possible and the fringe things or moments of that. The things that you wouldn’t necessarily assume are like the most important things to see are some of the things that interest me a lot. Also, I just wanted to be there for everything and then later decide, what’s moving the story forward the most, what’s telling us the most about these characters, what’s new in each of these situations and being able to pick and choose what makes the story feel exciting.
The theater isn’t the most shooting-friendly place in terms of just the aesthetics. There’s very few windows, very little natural light and what light there is is a little bit harsh, so it’s definitely not the easiest spot to be. Then when you’re shooting in a rehearsal space, in a ballet studio, one entire wall is a mirror. So that’s very limiting and it’s almost impossible to shoot with more than one camera. Also, the floor of a dance studio on a stage is made of dance floor, so it’s very malleable. It moves, so using a tripod is impossible because it would shake too much. Those two things really dictated a lot of the aesthetics of the film.
When you’re shooting on stage and there’s somebody watching from the audience or lecturing a rehearsal or performance, it’s very difficult to move back and forth between having the camera on the stage and having the camera in the audience because it takes a long time to get from one to the other. It’s tricky to be able to capture a scene and make it feel continuous. Also, during a performance, obviously the City Ballet’s first priority is the performance itself and not us shooting it, as it should be, so there’s a lot of limitations in that regard, but that also leads to interesting solutions a lot of the time.
From what I’ve heard, Nick Bentgen, one of your key cinematographers on the film actually had experience shooting promos for the ballet already, so did you lean on him a little bit for figuring this out?
Yeah. Nick is very experienced vérité shooter. He directed a vérité feature of his own called “Northern Light” and he’s done a lot of work with Ellen Bar, so that was really helpful just in terms of having familiarity with the space and the dancers. It can take a long time to get to that comfort zone when you’re shooting vérité, so because Nick and I both knew so many of the people [involved], there wasn’t that warming up period. We were able to dive right in and have people ignore us as we wanted them to. That was huge. Also, Nick and I have been working together for over 10 years, so we understand each other aesthetically and editorially really well. He actually covered me for a whole day and a lot of his footage ended up being part of the film.
After doing “Opus Jazz,” did you have specific ideas about how to capture movement?
I think a big difference between this film and “Opus Jazz,” which is obviously much more cinematically stylized, is that [“Opus Jazz”] was really about contextualizing the story of the ballet that Jerome Robbins created, telling the story of the choreography the way that he wanted it to be presented, but in a new environment. Whereas this film is not at all about the dancing. It’s about the work and the people [doing it] just focusing on what they do, not about presenting the movement that Justin was creating in the same way that he was trying to present it to the audience. So aesthetically, it was really the last thing on my mind. It was more about if they’re working on one particular movement and that’s part of the story, making sure that we can see that.
Not to say that this is the best part of the film, but just being in the room when Justin was watching the orchestra perform, for what I believe was the second movement of the ballet for the first time by himself, like totally alone in this massive theater was great. Just getting to watch his face listening to that. I love the idea that this guy is 25 years old, thought of this thing and then a few weeks later, there’s 60 people in an orchestra pit who know the music and are performing it for him in a massive theater in Lincoln Center. That’s very uplifting and exciting to me that human beings do stuff like that.
“Ballet 422” is now open in New York at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center and the Sunshine Cinema. It opens on February 13th in Los Angeles at the NuArt Theatre, Santa Ana at the South Coast Village 3, San Francisco at the Embarcadero Center Cinema and Berkeley at the Shattuck Cinemas. A full list of theaters and dates can be found here.