The filmmakers behind “Submission” had a dilemma on their hands. After securing a tax credit in New York to enable production on the tale of a professor (Stanley Tucci) who becomes inappropriately entangled with a grad student (Addison Timlin), the production set about recreating the cozy college town in New England initially imagined in Francine Prose’s novel “Blue Angel” in the diametrically opposed sprawl of Manhattan. While you wouldn’t know it from the final film, a mix of Fordham University and a seminary on 19th Street between 9th and 10th Avenue fills in nicely for a tranquil Northeastern liberal arts school, though the circumstances were anything but quiet.
“What was funny about shooting it, especially in the city, was our cinematographer Hillary [Spera] is from Vermont and through the lens, it looked right, but once you start listening – the jackhammering and the airplanes and the helicopters and all the noise of New York City, it’s just like you’re going to have to do some work in post to make this sound like Vermont because Vermont is not this noisy,” says Jared Ian Goldman, one of the film’s producers, who with director Richard Levine had to coordinate takes between church bells ringing at the seminary. “But [Hillary] just unflappable. She has an incredible aesthetic sense, she’s collaborative and has a real can do, problem-solving attitude, but also always led by creatively how do we accomplish this. She’s just so easy to be around and a joy to work with.”
Even without having Vermont in her bones, one suspects that Spera would’ve been able to visually summon a sense of place that would go unquestioned. One of the most evocative cinematographers working today, Spera’s gift for location isn’t limited to physical geography but emotional precision, able to find the revealing moment of character in any given scene. This is tricky business in “Submission,” where hidden motives mount up around the transgressions of Tucci’s Swenson and Timlin’s Angela in Levine’s sharp and savagely funny rumination on ambition and political correctness run amok in the university system, but Spera cleverly casts these as shadows in the centuries’ old classrooms that threaten to corner Swenson and Angela in a place of no return.
“Submission” is just one of four films that Spera has shot that has or will premiere in 2017, a year that began with the roar of Zoe Lister-Jones’ ferocious directorial debut “Band-Aid,” about a couple recovering from an incalculable loss by putting their arguments with each other into song, at Sundance and continued with the Tribeca bow of Damon Cardasis’ exuberant musical “Saturday Church,” a Bronx-set coming-of-age story of a young gay teen named Ulysses (Luka Kain) who finds acceptance and community at the local Episcopal Church of all places. (Still to debut is Olivia Milch’s “Dude,” which will see a release on Netflix later this year.) Although wildly different from each other in tone, Spera matches the boldness of each of the films with the way she uses her camera, the shafts of light and movement about the frame are filled with the same kind of passion that one usually sees only up close on oil canvases in the brush strokes of great painters.
Naturally, Spera isn’t easy to pin down, especially given an exceptionally busy dance card these days, yet when the opportunity presented itself to catch up after “Submission” premiered at the L.A. Film Fest, she graciously took the time to talk about her many projects, finding the rhythm on two music-heavy endeavors and the collaborations that have allowed her work to shine even brighter.
Where do we begin? [laughs] I could say so much about all of these projects!
Let’s start with “Submission”. Something I did not know about you that I found out from the other interviews – you’re from Vermont. Was that your way in to filming this?
I was really excited about this project from the get go. Richard [Levine] and I had met through our producer Jared Goldman, who I was also really excited to work with. The script was incredible. I loved that it took place in Vermont, but of course the ironic part was that we shot in NYC for Vermont. It was a challenge to make an unseasonably warm fall in New York look like the iconic colors and tones of autumn I had grown up with. I think we pulled it off. I’m beyond proud of this movie. Richard and I had such a great collaboration, and this one felt like family immediately.
This seems like a departure for you in a lot of ways – the camerawork is more still than I’m used to from you…
Yeah, no handheld. It was more classical cinematography I guess you’d say, as opposed to verite, [which] was right for the film. Some of our references included “Wonder Boys,” “A Serious Man,” “Election,” and “The Graduate” and we wanted to use the frame in a way that felt more deliberate and structured, similar to the character’s reality. The script is so powerfully told through voiceover and dialogue, so establishing and exhibiting relationships between characters within the frame was very important, displaying their connection or lack of. We used a few 1970s-style long zooms, either obvious or hidden, to help give the sense of Swenson’s character as someone invisible in plain sight and isolated. I’m always an advocate of using a long zooms when appropriate. I think it is a great tool that can be so cinematic. I’m also a huge fan of 70s cinema, so I can’t resist. Richard refers to Swenson’s journey as a “slow-moving train wreck,” which I love and think is so appropriate. The camera had the opportunity to support and represent the various stages of the wreck as it happened. That was something I was really attracted to.
That isolation also seems to be present in how you use blacks, which are unremitting here whereas in other films you’ve done, they often seem offset by some other quality, whether it’s an overall crispness to the image or some contrast with a brighter color. How did you go about that?
Yes, one of my favorite shots in the movie is that of Swenson (Stanley Tucci) in his classroom at the end of the film, sitting alone in a dark sea with a lot of space around him. It is winter and bleak both in the timeline of the story and in Swenson’s journey. I love that you can feel the absence of the warmer colors and tones of autumn, which represented a more controlled and stable part of his experience. The intention was to have the color palate and use of heavier blacks to represent this developing isolation. I’m very fortunate to work with a favorite collaborator, colorist Alex Bickel, who really helped create and support the arc of color in this film. It starts out with optimistic tones of fall where everything seems to be fairly optimistic and then develops into the bleaker tones of winter, where his character is desperate and isolated. Everything is dead. Alex also had the difficult task of helping a warm NYC fall look like Vermont foliage. We decided not to do it in VFX and instead he did it all in color, which is really impressive. I also like the scenes where there is the sun coming out in winter, through the snow falling. It felt otherworldly and slightly out of touch with reality, similar to the physiological place that the character was in.
Another collaboration I really owe so much to in terms of color is with our incredible production designer Sara K. White. She has such a profound intuition about color and design. It felt great to work in tandem to create the visual arc across various locations, giving each their own punch in the gut whenever possible.
Was “Submission” shot with mostly natural light?
It was meant to look like natural light! [laughs] You probably already know this about me, but I love natural light and harnessing it in the right way. It’s a skill that takes a while to develop, the confidence of using natural light. I think my documentary work really solidified this skill for me. Moving quickly and making choices that are both cinematic and able to serve the story are crucial on a verite doc. I spend an embarrassing amount of time watching and studying natural light in the world. For “Submission,” the lighting needed to feel natural yet stylized, as reality heightened. Most of the day interior scenes were shot night for day, since it was fall and the sun was basically setting when we came back from lunch. Our G/E team with gaffer Gavin Curran and key grip Garrett Cantrell, really pulled off some magic within challenging locations, including working off an adjacent roof on the 3rd floor of a 150-year-old church in Harlem. Overlighting is really one of the worst offenses in cinematography, so that fine line of just enough can be a hard thing to achieve.
There’s a great scene in the dean’s office where you just feel the weight of the room against him by the paintings on the wall behind him and where the camera’s positioned.
Totally. Swenson’s isolated in and mocked by this space, overwhelmed and trapped by his actions and the tragedy of not being able to get out of his own way, which I love about his character. Even though he makes extremely questionable choices, he feels relatable and sympathetic. You kind of feel sorry for him… there’s a dark comedy of his predicament.
Since it seems like you have your pick of projects now, what are you gravitating towards? Are your interests the same as when you first started or are they changing?
They’re always evolving. I really love a challenge and staying on my edge. I also think it’s as important that the script is good as it is that the collaboration potential is as well, [because] I’ve found that relationship always ends up on screen. So I definitely gravitate towards projects that seem to be capable of being a great experience and a great story with challenging visual potential. I learn something from every project, and that is really a great feeling. There’s a lot that I’m ready and excited to do down the line. I grew up riding horses, and I’m dying to shoot a western or a horror film. Maybe combine all three.
Were these musical projects “Band-Aid” and “Saturday Church” something you were seeking out?
I just got lucky. I love music. I’m not a musician. I played the flute and the piano when I was a kid. I don’t think that counts. I shot a lot of live music coming up and I think it definitely found it’s way in there in somehow. “Breaking a Monster” came from the documentary short I had done with this band of three 14-year-old boys from Brooklyn who played in a metal band called Unlocking the Truth and are total badasses. It’s inspiring to work with musicians as it is any artists who are similarly dedicated. I love the rhythm of shooting music. It’s similar to the rhythms of cinematography and when it all aligns while shooting a live performance, it’s so much fun.
Much has been made of the all-female crew on “Band-Aid.” Did it feel any different?
It was an amazing thing to have an all female crew on “Band-Aid.” It had been something that Zoe had mentioned from the onset, and we worked hard to find our crew. It had to be the right mix of people in addition to being female, which was a further challenge. Especially on a lower budget project that is strapped for time and money, the collective energy on set is crucial and ideally everyone has to share a similar vibe and with similar goals in mind, and some faith in that together we can make this happen. The crew’s quality of life on set is really important to me — I really want them to have a great experience and feel like they are able to be heard and contribute to the best of their abilities. I find the collaborating aspect of cinematography exciting when everyone is working together intuitively, and this crew worked together like a fine-tuned machine. It was really inspiring and we got so lucky. Some of the camera team I had worked with frequently in Los Angeles, though many of the crew I hadn’t, but now my crew base in Los Angeles has expanded in an awesome way. I am crazy proud of this team and thankful that the intention of hiring women also helped promote visibility — female crew is out there and they rule! We had a great time on “Band-Aid.” I’m infinitely grateful.
What’s it like shooting a movie where your main character is played by the writer/director of the film?
I’ve done two films where the director is also the lead actor – both “Band Aid” and “Black Rock” with Katie Aselton. There’s got to be trust for it to work — and great producers watching the monitors, since both projects were also two cameras and I was operating one of them. In the case of both “Black Rock” and “Band-Aid,” we were able to really discuss and plan so much in prep I felt like I could really be able to execute and watch for what we had talked about while the director was in front of the camera. Zoe definitely knew what she wanted and was very specific about it, so it made it easy. We also discussed many references that I think were shared fibers of both of our beings as filmmakers, so much of it came second nature.
With “Band-Aid,” because of scheduling, I guessed you might’ve shot all the performances together, so was the challenge was differentiating them visually?
Yes, for sure. Also showing how they develop their performance. In the beginning they’re playing for the first time and towards the end, they’re playing as a band. We recorded all the audio live, so they were really playing and that is what is in the film. Zoe, Adam [Pally], and Fred [Armisen] just slayed it. They weren’t pretending to be a band. They were totally a band and the music was awesome. I had so much fun shooting them. Once again it was a great throw back to shooting live music. The songs are still stuck in my head and I’m not sad about it.
The tricky thing for the bar performance montage was showing different lighting changes and costume changes so that it felt like it was over a longer period of time. I love the way that our editor Libby Cuenin cut that – how she would do it on a musical change, so they would go into the next outfit as the [same] song was progressing. We also wanted Anna’s solo performance to stand out separately from the scenes with the rest of the band, so Zoe and I liked the idea of one long zoom that slowly moved in on her, just watching her play without cuts. It mostly made it into the film like that.
One of my favorite scenes in recent memory is the climax of “Band-Aid” where you visually articulate the idea that Zoe’s character Anna has rebuilt herself after this devastating event, by creating these individual, fragmentary shots of her body as she’s remaking herself into a complete person. How did you figure out the shot selection on that?
I always loved that scene too. That was a break moment for her character. We really wanted to go for it. We put on the widest lens we had and I shot it like a punk video — up in her grill and taking no prisoners, as opposed to backed off and watching her. It was just me with [Zoe] on the bed, like being in the crowd of metal show and being totally ok with getting taken down in the mosh pit. [laughs] Zoe and I had great trust and I think that shows up on screen, combined with her incredible energy. It’s our collective “FUCK IT” moment and I have massive respect for her just going for it, balls out.
This may be different for both “Band-Aid” and “Saturday Church,” but you can feel the electricity in both during the musical performances. How intuitive can you be on the day getting what the actors are giving off versus knowing exactly where to be during what must be highly choreographed scenes?
One of the reasons why I had so much fun shooting the musical performances in “Band-Aid” was because it was so much from intuition, loving live performance, and being a total music fan. I knew that it had to have the energy of playing in a garage band, and we watch as they’re discovering their rhythm, both as a band and as a couple. I felt often like I was watching it as a fan and it needed to feel like it was exciting for them and for us. It was also a super funny, well-written comedy, so the energy needed to mirror their character’s experience as well.
With “Saturday Church,” there was a different challenge. The film is a drama with magical realism moments that played as musical sequences, so the camera had a much different relationship to the story than in “Band-Aid.” Our amazing choreographer Loni Landon, worked closely [with] us to figuring out how to consider the camera’s movement within the choreography. She was so adaptable that on the day, if there was something we needed to adjust for camera, she was really able to help. Damon Cardasis, our director, was also very specific in how he saw those sequences — he also wrote the music —so on set it felt like a performance that the camera was within. For this reason, the performances had to be more structured with considering the camera physically in addition to visually.
I had never done a musical in this sense and I was so interested in it from the first time that I read Damon’s script. It is a beautiful story, and I loved the dichotomy of Ulysses’ two worlds and the challenge that this mean for me as a cinematographer. I found it really interesting that for “Saturday Church,” Damon really wanted the musical parts to feel separate – otherworldly – and so the power and the rhythm of that was really important. Another shoutout to an amazing editor, Abbi Jutkowitz. She and Damon found a great balance of bringing the story into the musical/magical realm seamlessly. One of my favorite scenes is the love song performance with Ulysses and [Marquis Rodriguez’s character] Raymond that we shot as a oner on a street in the Bronx, on a brutally hot summer night. My insanely talented 1st AC Andrew Juhl pulled off something virtually impossible and it was one of the rare times when something looks and feels great on set, then shows up the same way on screen.
That’s one impressive moment among many. I’ve been wondering since I saw it how you were able to shoot a fully choreographed number in a sliver of a boys’ locker room.
Yeah, that was a small locker room. That scene in particular was hard because our actor was a minor, so we had nine hours on set with him, he’s in almost every scene, and we shot a zillion other scenes that day. We had two hours to shoot this huge musical number (also the first one in the movie), there were lighting gags and we had our work cut out. We were forced to be smart about it and kept the camera in one place and moved [the actors] around while moving the camera in tandem. One shot with a couple lens changes was all we had time for. At the end of the day, I always hope you’re remembering performance and not just the camera move. But yeah, that’s filmmaking. You adapt.