When Quyen Tran was dating Sam Riegel, a talented improviser she would eventually come to marry, she spent many nights at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York watching him perform on stage and hanging out with his comedian friends. For the cinematographer, this may have seemed like just an opportunity to unwind at the time, but Tran was pleased to discover how it paid unexpected dividends later.
“Having been forced to attend a lot of those [clubs] while we were dating, I think that helped me understand comedy and timing and rhythm,” Tran says now, with a laugh. “Shooting comedy, you really have to know what the comedic beats are to know how to frame it and to light it.”
Such skill is evident immediately in “The Little Hours,” Jeff Baena’s delightfully perverse tale ripped from the Decameron about the feeding frenzy that commences amongst a group of sex-starved nuns (Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie, and Kate Micucci) when a mute farmhand (Dave Franco) stumbles into their convent. True to Mel Brooks’ approach to “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein,” the outrageous comedy works precisely because of how seriously the filmmakers set the scene, with Baena actually basing the production in rural Tuscany, laboring under similar conditions as one would in the 14th century — Tran had to create her own wicks to light interiors scenes since electricity was largely unavailable, and the intricate craft that radiates from each frame is more reminiscent of “The Sound of Music” than some smutty sex farce.
While “The Little Hours” takes full advantage of its salacious premise, that comes to include the unexpected dimension Tran finds in depicting the longing of those toiling in this remote monastery, where the nuns’ hopeless stillness is contrasted with the expressive zooms and camera pans that convey their inner desires. Their concerns may be intimate, but Tran elevates them to the level of the heavens to which the men and women of the cloth aspire, the emotions stirring in the often airy compositions that capture the beauty of the untouched earth that surround the church compound as the all too messy human nature of the denizens threaten to upset the order of things. Through Tran’s lens, the absurd is amplified by the fact that she sees so clearly what no one else can see in front of them.
This is an ambitious undertaking by any measure, let alone for a genre not known for its visual nuance, yet Tran has a history of bringing imagery to the screen that is both inspired and full of integrity, ever since she set down the still camera she used to take photos for the New York Times and USA Today, among others, as a photojournalist, to learn how to use one to make movies. Her collaborations with her UCLA film school classmate Justin Lerner (“Girlfriend,” “The Automatic Hate”) have been nothing short of breathtaking and envisioning Los Angeles haunted by the serial killer Richard Ramirez in Megan Griffiths’ “The Night Stalker,” the thriller crackled with the low boil of the simmering sodium-vapor lamps that lined the streets. Although she recently took some time away to start her family, she returned this past year with zeal, literally clinging onto a boxcar to shoot Sydney Freeland’s Netflix caper “Deidra & Laney Rob a Train” in addition to “The Little Hours” and the HBO pilot “Mogadishu, Minnesota” for executive producer Kathryn Bigelow. Only days before prepping for her next adventure, shooting “Six Feet Under” creator Alan Ball’s next series “Here, Now,” Tran recalled her time in Italy to film “The Little Hours,” the “insane” demands of a limited schedule and filming in the countryside, and the importance of making actors comfortable.
Jeff Baena, the director, was not going through agencies and he only wanted to talk to DPs who had come to him through referrals from friends. We have a couple friends in common and we [both] have a very warped sense of humor. You saw the movie, right? It’s crazy, a bit mad and a bit mean. But overall, it’s a good laugh and in today’s climate, I think that’s what we need right now. So Jeff said, “Are you cool going to Italy?” And I was like, “Of course, Who wouldn’t be down with going to Italy?” [But then] he said, “It’s going to be really hard. I don’t want a lot of people on the ground.” I thought, “Well, we need at least the amount of crew necessary to set a light and a C-stand and a flag, but it was very difficult in that I was only able to bring five people from the States and that’s it. That’s five people on a crew for the whole movie.
At Sundance, it was mentioned you operated your own camera dolly, which is impressive under any circumstances, but particularly when you’re moving the camera around so much as you do on this.
It was crazy. We didn’t have a real dolly. I had to have [the more compact, portable] Dana Dollies, or Italy’s version of the Dana Dolly, so I was trying to operate a 270° camera pan and zoom and lighting, all the while. I had a gaffer, a key grip, two camera assistants and then a swing guy, who kind of did everything. But it was really intense, really hard.
We had like an 18-page outline and we knew that everything would be shot in practical locations. We had 19 locations in 20 days, so we were basically moving every day and I took very meticulous notes on the sun [while we were scouting] because I didn’t have [lighting tools such as] Condors or flyswatters. I could barely even float a 12x because I didn’t have enough crew to hold it down, so I tried to plan as much of my lighting around the sun for my exteriors, so I took very meticulous notes during our scouts about the direction of the sun. Basically when I arrived [in Italy], we toured all of the locations together and that was pretty incredible to be included from the get-go, working with production designers and Jeff on the locations. I was really proud of what we were able to accomplish with so little. I can’t imagine how much better it would’ve looked if I had more money, more time but we’re all bonded for life over that – going to camp in Italy and having some really good charcuterie and wine every night.
While the fun comes through in the final film, the stress does not. Besides noting the direction of the sun, you light almost exclusively with candlelight for the interiors – did that turn out to be a necessity, even without being true to the 14th century since there might’ve been limited power on set?
Because I didn’t have generators? [laughs] Candlelight became a huge part of key [lighting] the scenes, especially at night, but also to provide some bokeh during my daytime interiors. In the chapel, I worked with the production designer to put candles into the shots, just so we would have some beautiful bokeh in the background and, because I wasn’t really using backlights unless it was motivated by a window, I used the candles to create separation between the character and the wall behind them. I [also] did that in Father Tomasso’s little cabin where where John C. Reilly and Dave Franco get drunk, so I used separation with candle light and I created a candelabra from real candles and then I coved a bounce card around it to really key in to create that flicker and supplemented with a little tiny light into the bounce. So all those scenes were key [lit] with candles, which was really fun, but also dangerous, but we made sure we didn’t burn any actors or their wigs or their costumes down.
Was there anything you did to get that glow you get with this?
I’m not a huge filter person. I try to soften things with lighting, if possible, but in this digital age, I’ve been more open to filters, so when Jeff talked about that, what you see with that glow is created from the Hollywood Black Magic filter.
Jeff just loved Robert Altman films and we watched a couple together — “3 Women” was a big influence, but we wanted to not just mimic what Altman did, but to really use the zoom in a new way. I had a lot of conversations with Jeff where he’d say let’s zoom in and I’d say, “Why do you want to zoom in at this particular moment?” Because for me, camera movement has to tell a story. It has to be emotional – there has to be a reason for a zoom-in or a pull-out or a push-in, so I just want to get in the director’s head about why they like this tool and why they want to do it, and we found a really good balance as to when we would zoom in and zoom out.
I really took into consideration the transitions because I think that’s so important in films. I think the moments in between the scenes is when the audience can really breathe and think about what’s just happened and what’s coming next. Because we didn’t have a [set] script, I would basically write the script as I was going and draw my transitions and make sure if I zoomed out at this point, I didn’t want to do that again [because it would] be redundant, so let’s try to zoom in or just have a static light to transition it from that previous scene. I [also] took a little more liberal approach to comedy lighting on this show because it was a period piece and I didn’t want to have the lights be recognized on the shots. I wanted the viewer to not say “Oh wow, where’s that backlight coming from?” Since it was all candlelight and we didn’t have practical speck back in the 1400s, I needed to figure out different ways of motivating light. It was really fun and challenging in that regard.
You also have these beautiful shots of the Tuscan landscape peppered into the film, almost like still photographs at various times of day. How did those come into the mix?
Oh, the B-roll shots. As a DP, we’re all kind of control freaks. [laughs] And I didn’t have a second unit DP, so I was basically shooting A and second unit whereas normally on a bigger show, you would have a second unit DP go out and do all the B-roll, so because we didn’t have that for lack of time and resources, I was constantly on the lookout to shoot those establishing shots. Whenever we were in between takes setting up or waiting on first team, I would shoot all the stills, as you call them — all the sunrises, the trees, the foliage, the fog rolling in over the mountains, [because] I wanted to create room for the editor to play with transitions.
This is something that could be attributed to an editor, but there seems to be this space embedded into your images to see your characters think, in turn giving them a sense of dignity even in trying circumstances, particularly the female characters, which I understand you take great pride in. Are there ways you create that room to breathe in a scene?
This is where being a female cinematographer does have an effect on the way that I shoot women because every woman wants to feel like they’re beautiful and appreciated, whether it’s emotionally on the inside or on the outside and in this case, it’s both. As a woman, I really do pay attention to how other women look on film and I used to work with newspapers and I just love photography and I love working with people, so I think that has helped me in my cinematography because I really treat every image as a still frame.
But I think it’s important to make our actors look and feel comfortable so that they can perform to their best. I wanted to make sure that these actresses — and [all] these actors all felt taken care of, whether it’s John C. Reilly, Dave Franco or Molly Shannon or Alison Brie. I wanted them to feel like even though we were shooting a very, very low budget film on location at an incredibly fast pace [that] I was doing my best to make them look as good as possible and not think about, “Wow, I don’t think there’s enough light on me right now.” A lot of these actors, in addition to being brilliant comedians and improvisers, know where the light should go because they’ve been in this business a long time, and I wanted to take that edge off of them. Although it’s a given you’re going to be collaborating with your gaffer, your key grip and your camera assistants, that also extends to the actors and I often times become very good friends with all the actors I work with on a show, so [making people feel comfortable is] a combination of the technical and the people knowing that you’re taking care of them emotionally as well as technically.
It’s not a big moment as far as the story is concerned, but there’s a truly jawdropping shot that moves down a table from within the monastery where the nuns are speaking to each other to eventually stopping at a window and zooming in outside, virtually removing the glass for the audience as John C. Reilly’s Father Tommasso and Paul Weitz’s servant Lurco get in a heated argument. How did you figure out the logistics of that?
I’m not going to lie, that was one of the most difficult shots to achieve because I was walking backwards over C-stands and tripping over stuff and zooming out because I didn’t have a Preston remote focus. I think we started on 100 mm and zoomed out to like a 28 and zoomed into a 300 while trying to balance the interior with the exterior with only a 4K as my biggest light. Basically, I had to blast our poor actors with an HMI [light] right in their faces and it still wasn’t enough. On a bigger show, I would’ve liked to have used an 18K light to balance out so I could hold all the highlights outside and then also it took so long because we were shooting through this grate so that [when the scene reaches] John C. Reilly and Paul Weitz in the perfect frame, they wouldn’t be blocked by this window frame while also making the rest of the shot work. At one point, I remember Jeff said, “That looks a little bit shaky. Can I try it?” And I was like, “Yep, go ahead. Feel free.” [laughs] He was joking…I think. It was really hard to achieve with the resources that we had, but once we got it, it was really a proud moment.