Interview: Cinematographer Maria Rusche on Capturing the Life of a City in “Dating & New York,” “Shiva Baby” and “Milkwater”

It was definitely a coup for the cast and crew of “Dating & New York” to book the Bryant Park Grill for a wedding scene when real-life couples can wait an eternity for the privilege, but unlike most fussing over every detail of their special day, this production didn’t have the luxury of time.

“They have this covered but open air rooftop where they actually do weddings and it was so much fun, but such a crazy experience because we had one day basically to set up and shoot this wedding,” recalls Maria Rusche, the film director of photography who has quickly built a reputation for thinking fast on her feet. “I’m really happy with how it turned out and our production designer Michelle Li did such an incredible job, but it was wild to shoot in iconic parts of New York.”

At this point, it’s becoming harder to tell what locations in the city are actually iconic or if they can be named as such because they’ve appeared in Rusche’s viewfinder. Born in Boston, it may not seem right that she has such a feel for the city’s rival to the south in most things, but Rusche has a way of summoning the soul of any of the five boroughs she’s found herself in, whether it’s the stifling suburbia of Queens in Emma Seligman’s comedy “Shiva Baby,” the endless possibilities of the nightlife in Brooklyn in Morgan Ingari’s “Milkwater” or now in Manhattan for “Dating & New York” where the slippery world of online hookups that director Jonah Feingold imagines finds certain classic locales standing strong in the ever-changing metropolis as its pair of friends with benefits (played by Jaboukie Young-White and Francesca Reale) find their contemporary attitudes towards coupling inevitably bringing up age-old commitment concerns.

Whether by coincidence or taste, Rusche has been shooting comedies of late, save for her ongoing work on the Showtime reality series “Couples Therapy,” but impressively none of them has really announced themselves as such, often playful in her lighting and composition yet never drifting from the reality she’s created for the sake of getting laughs, making all the ones they get that much harder. They’ve all been lively affairs, yet wildly different from one another as Rusche embedded the nervous energy of “Shiva Baby” in its slightly grainy presentation of a young woman (Rachel Sennott) sweating out a family gathering and created the lure of cool, sensual lighting in “Milkwater” that suggests why it’s so difficult for its heroine (Molly Bernard) to leave her younger self behind as she decides to become a surrogate mother.

It’s a particularly rich irony that Rusche’s prolific year has happened with much of the world stuck in quarantine, offering some much needed escapism when they brim with the life you’d typically find out on the streets and with “Dating & New York” premiering at Tribeca and “Shiva Baby” and “Milkwater” both recently made available on VOD, the cinematographer took some time out to talk about what led her behind the camera, how the collaborative aspect of filmmaking holds such appeal for her and being excited by the reach her films have had so far.

How did you get into cinematography?

I went to film school at NYU and actually thought I wanted to be an editor, but I realized the role of the cinematographer in the storytelling really fit a lot of my strengths better. I played a lot of team sports growing up and it’s very much a collaborative leader position on the set. So much of the work is collaborating with the director and then disseminating that information and realizing the vision [together], so that position really struck me and I came up as a gaffer and electrician, through lighting.

Your lighting is often part of what makes the films so dynamic, yet they’re often contained and it made me think about your work on “Couples Therapy” where you’re in this stationary position and you’ve got to keep the presence of the camera to a minimum when it’s these regular people pouring their hearts out. Has that mindfulness blended into your work on films, creating these intimate spaces for actors?

Totally. I think since I came up through the lighting department, it’s the area I’ve focused on a lot and that usually just means being thoughtful about where lights are being placed and not putting things right in an actor’s face, for example. Specifically on “Couples Therapy,” the set is designed so that when you walk into the room, you can’t see any equipment at all because it would take the person out of their experience in the room, so considering the experience of the actors and thinking about the light fitting into the space is something I’ve brought a lot to my lighting.

Does that also mean collaborating with a production designer early?

Most of these have been shot on location and you try to get as much time on location as possible. That’s often with the production designer. The director and I will spend a lot of time breaking down the script and each of them have really wanted me to shotlist with them and really craft the visual language together, which I think is definitely more effective to really understand what their vision is, and [we’re] being really particular about where each scene is blocked out. We really try to bring the production designer in for those conversations because I always say this to the director upfront, if we shoot a white wall with a very nice camera and nice lights, it’s still going to look like a white wall, so getting the involvement of the production designer in as early as possible has been a huge help. on each of these projects. Cheyenne [Ford], designed “Milkwater” and “Shiva Baby” as well, so it’s great to be able to work with the same person more than once. She’s so talented and I know her style and how she works and that’s been really rewarding.

In “Shiva Baby,” when you’ve got all those scenes with a sea of people, what was it like figuring out how to navigate that?

We had so little time on that shoot, so something that was crucial was really preparing with my lighting team how each room was going to be lit at different times of the film because as the movie progresses, we igured out a warming of the house to help build to the climax. We had mapped out in the script what each scene would be, what level of warmth is it and what lighting mode, and my team kept really detailed notes of each lighting set-up because there were times when we’d shoot half of a scene, [filming in one] direction and then come back and shoot the other half on another day because of cast scheduling. I was working closely with Gerardo [Coello Escalante], our first AD who was planning the shooting order and the coverage based on how efficient it was for lighting, toeing that line of what was efficient for other departments and how to fit that in, but it involved a lot of putting lights in the air and lighting through those windows.

Something that’s come up time and again in conversations I’ve had with other directors who you’ve worked with is how resourceful you are. Morgan Ingari had said on “Milkwater” you knew a day that you had to shoot on a sound stage in order to secure the New York tax credit could be the day to create some more stylized shots because you were spending the money anyway. Has necessity been the mother of invention?

The limitations always obviously inspire something new, so that’s something I’m definitely used to working within. The ”Milkwater” example is a great one because that’s a shot Morgan knew she wanted from the get-go and that’s why I always end up being very involved from the get-go in choosing locations with our production design team because using our resources in the best way has been crucial for these smaller projects, and shooting that scene in “Milkwater” on the stage really let us expand the world a little bit and feel a little bit bigger in scope than we would’ve on a practical location.

Has it been exciting to figure out your own version of New York? All your features seem to create their own different cities.

Something that’s so exciting to me about filmmaking is that life seems so chaotic, but you can create a structured world through cinematography — through composition, blocking, lighting, your create this consistent, cohesive world that might not exist in the real world. That’s been really exciting in each of these movies, “Shiva Baby” in particular for example is a movie I wish I had when I was younger, giving importance to her experiences as a young woman at a family gathering like that and creating a world that’s reflective of her anxieties and her hopes felt rewarding.

What was it like figuring out how to present the city in “Dating and New York”?

The director [Jonah Feingold] really loved classic “When Harry Met Sally” vibes, but is also really excited about pushing what’s possible with that kind of traditional filmmaking — one of his first shorts took place entirely on a phone screen, so he’s doing really exciting things with incorporating social media and how we live so much of our life on our phone screen now. It gave us an opportunity to do a lot of fun sort of magical realism moments and it’s very much a romantic New York movie, so I’m really excited for people to see that one. It’s definitely different in style from “Milkwater” and “Shiva Baby,” but still very funny.

As crazy as this past year has been, have you been able to enjoy it with all of these films landing these past few months?

It’s been so strange because we were supposed to premiere “Shiva Baby” at South By and that’s really when everything shut down, so it’s been interesting because we’ve barely been able to experience the movie with other people around. I got to see it luckily at a Nitehawk screening, which was so much fun, but it’s been strange to not really know how people are reacting to it other than what you see on Twitter. But it’s been incredible to see how many people have been able to see it because both “Shiva Baby” and “Milkwater” were more accessible online, so it was reaching a younger audience than it might have just at the festivals and that’s been super exciting because we’ve gotten a ton of love from a younger community.

“Dating & New York” will be available to watch through the Tribeca Film Festival through June 23rd and coming out this fall via IFC, “Shiva Baby” is in theaters and on VOD and “Milkwater” is now available on demand.