Ava Berkofsky delivers religious experiences. In a literal sense, this wasn’t probably the reason why writer/director Jake Mahaffy hired the cinematographer for “Free in Deed,” despite telling the story of a man (David Harewood) whose Pentacostal conviction runs so deep that it puts him in danger of consuming him entirely as he attempts to do what he thinks is right by a single mother (Edwina Findley) and her autistic son in one of the poorest parts of Memphis. Still, when one staggers out of the film, you leave as a believer in Berkofsky’s ability to create transcendent experiences, somehow simulating the out-of-body feeling of helplessly watching a situation spiral rapidly out of control with an agreeably disorienting approach, her camera seemingly guided by an abstract force that’s neither human nor mechanical that captures an explosion of colors that feel a shade different than what could exist in reality.
Last fall, I felt this nigh-levitational sensation twice watching Berkofsky’s work – unbelievably enough in her first two features after working for a while in the documentary world. Her other feature, writer/director A.D. Calvo’s unexpectedly moving and entirely bittersweet comedy “The Missing Girl” in which a comic book store owner believes he’s unwittingly stepped into one of the adventures he’s long lived through vicariously, is told in tableaus with such vibrance that one’s eyes dart from scene to scene as a young boy’s would scan the page of “Spider-Man” with feverish anticipation. Such range was as unexpected as the images themselves since stylistically the film’s couldn’t be further apart tonally or aesthetically, but it couldn’t surprise me when Berkofsky’s name arrived in the end credits since there was a boldness to both that left visions that I still haven’t been able to shake.
As “Free in Deed” reemerges in Austin this week as part of SXSW after a successful run on the festival circuit last fall at Venice and AFI Fest, Berkofsky graciously spoke about her breakout year, her path into cinematography through still photography and what went into creating such arresting moments of cinema.
What was the attraction to “Free in Deed”?
I read the script, which came through a friend of mine, who I really respect and I’d never met Jake. Knowing that it came through him, I read it that same day and as soon as I finished it, I thought I know exactly how we should do this. I’ve never read something and so immediately known that I wanted to shoot it.
My interest in naturalism but also spirituality really aligned with where Jake was coming from. I’m not a religious person, but I think that there’s a strong connection between art making and whatever spirituality you subscribe to and I’m always drawn to stories that have some spiritual element and [though] he grew up in Pentecostal church and his ideas about the spirit that are very formed by Christianity and mine are not, we talked a lot about the camera as a spiritual presence, manifesting the invisible – when it’s connecting to the humans, when it’s not and hen it’s more of an outside presence that’s driving the narrative. We had disagreements about when it should connect to the people and when it shouldn’t and why. Those were some of the best conversations I’ve ever had with a director.
Because you worked in documentaries before this, did that lend itself to this?
It did, because so much of the church stuff was with non-actors. It wasn’t documentary, though sometimes it looks that way, but these people really were worshipping. We sat in on a number of different services and it’s exactly the same as if we didn’t have the cameras there. Jake often wanted the camera to be completely detached from the euphoria and the rapture of the people, so sometimes we did that, but I pushed for a connectivity, because for me, that was the point of real connection I had with the characters on a visceral level, the kind of joy and ecstasy and presence of the spirit that really happens for people. I just felt like I needed to connect to it with camera. We talked a lot about when and why. I feel so lucky that I went the way I did in terms of documentary first and then into narrative because it informs everything that I do. It was a great building block.
Did you actually spend time in the community, figuring out how you would shoot it?
I went to Memphis twice with Jake, first for a week [where] we just went to different churches and sat in different services, met with different pastors and preachers and musicians just to witness and understand how we were going to approach this. In my documentary work, I really shot a lot in houses of worship in different capacities – I’ve shot in prisons. For me, it wasn’t the first time I’ve been in a Pentecostal service, but everyone has their own style and it was really important to not make up the story of what these services are like, but to really learn.
In my research, I stumbled upon a still photography project you did about a women’s prison – did you actually start out in stills?
Totally. My undergrad is in photography and I was very into photojournalism and fine art photography. I stumbled into shooting my first documentary for a friend of mine, a filmmaker I still work with whose [director of photography] got sick the day before he was supposed to go out and he was like, “Just come and shoot it the exact same way you shoot your stills.” I was like, “You know I have no idea how to do this, but I’ll try.” We worked really well together. And when it was done, I was never going back. This absolutely felt like my calling and I haven’t looked back even once. I love still photography and I shoot all the time for myself, but I was like, this is absolutely what I’m supposed to be doing.
One of the things I’ve been so impressed with is your use of color – in “Free in Deed,” they feel so deep and for whatever reason, green really stuck with me. Was there a general scheme in place?
The stuff in the church – the woman who’s preaching in the film, that’s actually her church and she has a purple and white theme. Then, in the rest of the film, Memphis just lent itself to a muted color palette. It’s a little bit green, a little bit gray, a little bit blue and our production designer just went with that. Jake and I were just naturally selective about where we put the camera in order to keep the tone correct because tone was really our guiding principle and it had to happen naturally because we didn’t have much money for this movie at all.
What camera did you shoot on?
We shot on the Alexa Classic with Superspeed [lenses]. I use a certain kind of diffusion with sharper lenses like Zeiss, to give it a quality that I feel like it worked better for this film, but I didn’t think this film needed to be super sharp, so there were these newer Superspeed [lenses] that I softened a little bit. We could afford so little, there was nothing special about it. Having been in that predicament before, I just have my recipe for how to get the feel like it’s not just out of the box.
There seemed to be a shallow depth of field that gave it this intense focus that was really effective.
Yeah, that was part of this idea that we talked about in prep, which was having a razor focus on the driving force of the narrative. We talked about this sense that the narrative is always moving forward and everyone is having their experience within it and it’s always pushing. It wasn’t about stepping back. It was about being on this intense journey of life and death. Those are the stakes for the characters – good and evil, the Devil and the Lord. So it felt like the right choice was shallow depth of field and a lot of deliberate, slow camera movement that kept pushing us.
In the more documentary-style stuff, with the shallow depth of field, I was hoping to achieve a subjectivity to make you feel immersed because I wanted a counterpoint. In these conversations that I had with Jake, he really wanted objectivity, but I felt you could only feel the objectivity by giving it a counterpoint, a feeling like you’re actually in the rapture of the experience.
Was there a particular shot that was really hard to get?
There were so many tricky days of shooting. But the shot that was difficult to get, and not because it was actually that difficult, but it was at the end of a really long day was this shot that started in the television and pulled back slowly as a whole scene plays out, starting in the white fuzz of a TV that’s like the movie’s run out. In the Pentecostal church, or at least the one that Jake was raised in, the television is a port for the devil and this was one of those moments where we were trying to establish the camera as if it was an outside entity. We started on the television and pulled back slowly. The whole scene plays out, [the character played by Edwina Findley] wakes up, she comes into frame, and [the character played by David Harewood] knocks on the door. They open the door, [the actors] go to their marks and the shot’s a slow pullback from outside, which was tricky because we didn’t have a dolly – we could only afford a dolly for thee days. So we were on 20-foot speed-rail on a Dana Dolly, which is essentially a slider and it’s not a slider shot, and it was really tricky to get it done in one shot. I was like, “Nobody breathe, it’s going to wobble.”
But I had the most amazing first [assistant cameraman], a super-experienced guy who helped make it work in terms of focus, because every time you touched the camera, it bobbed up and down because we were on a 20-foot speed-rail. I don’t know how he did it, but it didn’t move and he managed to keep it in focus.
Was it interesting for you to do “Free in Deed” back-to-back with “The Missing Girl”? Because they’re very different films tonally.
Oh my God, they were so different and the experience of shooting them was so different. I feel so lucky to have gotten to shoot “Free in Deed,” then going straight on to “The Missing Girl,” which was also a total joy, it utilized a totally different skillset. With “The Missing Girl,” Alex [Calvo], the director, and I talked about comic books and graphic novels and how to bring the quirkiness of that into the visual storytelling.
The way that you use shadows in that film is really interesting, like this character finds himself in the midst of a detective novel he’d read. Did you consider the noirish elements too?
I thought about that at every scene, but a comic book detective novel, not mystery because actually, [the story] was no mystery, it’s all in the guy’s mind. It was a lot lighter, so I could play with that a lot more and Alex was open to that. The reason I think I was hired as opposed to someone who more typically does comedy was to bring a darkness to it. I really saw the character as really lonely and he lives in a fantasy world by himself. There’s a lot of funny elements to it, but there’s a melancholy at the bottom of it, so I wanted to mix the darkness of it with the playfulness. The crew [on that film] worked on all of Alex’s films before that and I think they were really confused and shocked at first by my approach, but after a few days, we all got to know each other and it was very easy. Coming from work like “Free in Deed” and all the other work I’ve done, he knew that he wasn’t getting just the straight comedy DP we played with that.
This may be a strange question, but one of what’s perhaps one of the most mundane aspects of the film for you to shoot – the comic book store the main character owns with all the figurines he has for sale, all lovingly tended to – is really effective at giving the sense that the character has built a gilded cage for himself. How did you figure that out?
That was actually super-interesting to shoot, because all these objects are so intricate and beautiful in their own ways. I had a second unit cameraman, who did a bunch of that stuff and what I would do is just go around with my Artemis iPhone app and just take pictures. My guide to him was always like, “Please don’t put [the figurine] on the right side of frame with the space on the left.” [The second unit photographer” also shoots for Hasbro commercially all the time. I was like, “Look, I know you really know how to do this the right way. But however you would do this for Hasbro, take a step back and say like, okay, what’s a new way of looking at this?” Because the story is a little bit weird. The whole world of the story is like one step off from reality, so some of them were my frames where I was like, “Okay, what about if we go up here and look down [at the figurines]?” Some of the were just him, being like, “Okay, I know how to do this. Let’s do it a little bit differently.”
Has this been as exciting a year for you as it appears from the outside? You’ve got all these films that are making waves on the festival circuit.
It’s just cool to be working with people who I think are so smart and interesting. It’s been a really full year. I’m just looking forward to getting to follow the kinds of work that I’m passionate about. Honestly, I’m just like wow, I’m starting to live my hopes because all you want is to shoot movies that you think are interesting with people who you think are smart and challenging.
“Free in Deed” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at SXSW on March 15 at 6:30 pm at the Alamo Ritz 2 and March 16 at the Alamo Lamar C.