Cinematographer Paul Yee on Building Character with “Reality,” “JessZilla” and “Joy Ride”

Even as gifted as Paul Yee is at lining up all the elements for a perfect shot, the cinematographer couldn’t have possibly arranged things any better to showcase his versatility and skill than the trio of films that arrived this summer after years in the works, including one project shot over the better part of a decade.

The most prominent, “Joy Ride,” opens in theaters across the country this week and is as breezy as its title implies when besides a game cast including Ashley Park, Stephanie Hsu, Sherry Cola and Sabrina Wu go all out in the raucous comedy, their hijinks as Asian Americans returning to their roots across the Pacific are made even wilder by Yee’s iridescent lighting to punctuate punchlines and illuminate the emotional undercurrents lurking just underneath. If Yee uses the full expanse of a 2.35 aspect ratio for the globetrotting adventure, he is able to build the claustrophobic world that Reality Winner (Sydney Sweeney) inhabits inside the tightest frame possible in Tina Sather’s tense thriller “Reality” (now on Max), drawn entirely from the transcript of the whistleblower’s interrogation and apprehension at the hands of the FBI an a gift for conveying the surreal comes in handy even in capturing the unbelievably true events unfolding in “JessZilla” (now on the festival circuit), an electrifying profile of Jesselyn Silva, a three-time national boxing champ who first laces up her gloves at the age of 15 and isn’t intimidated by the many tests she faces in and outside the ring with her father always in her corner.

Although Silva’s calling puts her muscles on display naturally in “JessZilla,” Yee has a way of bringing them out of those in front of the camera in all the films he’s worked on, making a feature debut for the ages along with director Anna Rose Holmer’s “The Fits” where dance becomes an expression of resilience for an 11-year-old (Royalty Hightower) and following it up with “Colewell,” a quiet drama from director Tom Quinn where the resolve of a longtime postal worker (Karen Allen) to preserve the spirit of a meeting spot for locals in spite of the impending closure of her outpost is rendered with luminous tactility, as if one can feel the bond of the tight-knit community and how it begins to fray in the wondrously wooly aesthetic of the film. The distinguishing trait of Yee’s work to date is being extraordinarily in tune with whoever his central characters are, allowing the image to reflect how they process the experience they’re having without being entirely sure what the full picture is and allowing that confidence to emerge organically, a quality that has made him unusually suited to the longitudinal documentaries he’s shot alongside his narrative work such as “JessZilla” and “Chef Flynn,” in which he tracked the growth of the cooking prodigy Flynn McGarry over his formative years from starting a pop-up kitchen in his family home to becoming an established restauranteur.

Recently, Yee showed the same level of generosity he extends to his subjects in finding the time to talk about this exciting trio of movies and his career in general, finding an application for his gymnastic training in the rigor required for a film shoot and the collaborations that have made the work so worthwhile.

How did you get interested in cinematography?

When I was 11 or 12, I was in a dentist office waiting room and discovered Entertainment Weekly. I got my own subscription and quickly became obsessed with all of the information about movies, actors, and the industry. I was particularly enamored with their seasonal movie preview issues — [in] the late ’90s, it was one of the only ways to learn about forthcoming movie releases, and I would read and reread the synopses of every movie and circle the ones I wanted to see.

At that time, I was also a competitive gymnast, so I had an incredibly full schedule and whenever I had free time I would go to the theater. That was my life throughout my teenage years — school, gymnastics, homework, movies, and reading about movies. Ultimately, I attended film school at NYU and I can’t really say I was focused on becoming a cinematographer. I did shoot quite a few student films, but I was mostly focused on making my own films. When I graduated in 2005, I worked as an electrician and grip and eventually as a gaffer. When that lifestyle became unsustainable — it is very, very physically taxing to work on independent film sets for a living – I bought a camera and started doing videography and advertising work. After several years, I eventually started to work on creative projects like music videos and documentaries.

Then in 2015, a dear friend and collaborator, Anna Rose Holmer, asked me to be the cinematographer of “The Fits,” and that entirely changed the trajectory of my career. In retrospect, my path to becoming a director of photography has been fairly indirect, but in hindsight, I can see how decisions I made at each step led me to where I am now.

It actually is interesting to hear about your background as a gymnast since not only is physical strength often required in cinematography, but there are definitely ideas about movement in your work. Do you think any of that training has subconsciously worked its way in?

I’ve seen two loosely connected threads between my experience as a gymnast and my work as a cinematographer. The first is that as a camera operator, you do need a strong core, especially if you are working on documentaries. Nowadays, the expectation on a verite doc production is that you are able to roll continuously for hours. Furthermore, a lot of documentaries are using real cinema cameras and lenses so you could easily find yourself carrying a 20-lb. rig for eight hours straight.

The other connection is that when you’re a gymnast, you have to put in an incredible amount of time into your training. I was spending four hours a day, five days a week, with about 90 minutes of travel to train on top of my workload as a public high school student. The time intensive and demanding lifestyle is similar to what it’s like on a film set. You’re showing up every day and putting in the necessary work to slowly build something and sometimes things don’t work out but you have to push through, stay focused, and not get discouraged.

Sounds like you might’ve had something in common with Jesselyn Silva training for all those matches in “JessZilla.” What was it like to get involved in that project, and to return to the documentary space while working on narrative projects?

Emily Sheskin approached me about doing a short documentary about JessZilla in 2016 and the joint interview she did with Pedro, her father, was one of the most joyous and entertaining conversations I’ve had the privilege of recording. Then we did a single day of verite filming with them and it was clear that this silly and precocious ten-year-old was also intensely devoted to the sport of boxing. Their story really appealed to me on so many levels — it was about family, fatherhood, childhood, etc., and personally I related to the fact that she was a child athlete. Shortly after the short premiered on N.Y. Times Op-Docs, Emily, Ben [Kainz], the producer and I began discussing the possibility of expanding “JessZilla” into a longform doc, and it was genuinely thrilling to talk about all the directions that Jess and Pedro’s story could go.

My job as a cinematographer is so much simpler when something unique is in front of the lens — whether it’s a personality, a performance, a situation, a landscape, or a shape or form. At the bare minimum, whatever you are filming should be “interesting.” I like working on documentaries because I often get inserted into unique situations with remarkable people and I’m given permission to create a record of how special it was. Narrative filmmaking is different in that you are trying to manufacture a unique image and that success is dependent on so many disparate factors. In documentary, the rare access is sort of inherent to the form.

I couldn’t help but notice “JessZilla,” like “Chef Flynn,” was about capturing a specific time in this person’s life and their dynamic with their family, and wondered about whether there was something of enduring interest there as well as what’s it like to commit to a longitudinal shoot like this?

Well, I love nostalgia, and love that in both “Chef Flynn” and “Jesszilla,” there is a form of longing that develops over the course of the film. By the end of each, you are in awe of how much the characters have grown. I don’t think that narrative filmmaking can really achieve that feeling unless you are doing something insanely ambitious like Linklater did with “Boyhood.”

I should also note that as the years went on, I became increasingly committed to narrative projects and that three other extremely talented cinematographers — Kyle Dietz, Serena Kuo, and Brendan Banks — lent their skills to the production. Truthfully, the most beautiful scenes in the movie consist of their work. Additionally, a significant portion of it was filmed by Emily herself. I wish I could have been present for every moment on “JessZilla” but the nature of narrative filmmaking is that it is all-consuming of your time and energy.

That nostalgia is encouraged by the fact that you often see the same shots repeated throughout the film where the framing doesn’t change, but you see Jesselyn literally grow up in front of the camera. Were there certain tenets that you and the other camera crew that worked on the project referred back to to keep the shooting style consistent?

Yes, that is interesting and something I’ve thought about a bit – the way boxers train is fairly repetitive and relatively contained so it’s easy to film. You naturally get “takes” over and over again until the boxer moves on to the next series of exercises. But [in the end], that sequence is really powerful and resonates with a lot of people who have seen it and as you’re watching the movie, it’s natural to not only root for her but also want to protect and care for her, so seeing this temporal sequence where she goes from a ten-year-old to a 15-year-old evokes a whole bag of emotions. I also want to shout out our wonderful editor Katie Turinski for threading that sequence together.  She was so good at combing through the hours of verite footage and finding really small and special moments that add so much to the movie.

When scenes aren’t planned for as they are in a narrative film, do you pay attention to the frame in a different way?

I approach documentary and narrative cinematography in a weirdly similar way. While I’m filming, I continually ask myself what coverage do we need in order to complete a scene? With a narrative film, that question is addressed in prep. When you are filming a verite scene for a documentary, you have to construct that coverage as you are rolling and keep a mental tab of things that you’ll need in order to make a scene work. When I first started in documentaries, I was working under the impression that there was an ethical code for documentary camerapersons – that I should be invisible to the subject, a “fly on the wall” who is barely seen or heard. Over the years though, I’ve come to realize that almost everyone who is a subject of a documentary is a willing participant and is aware of a certain level of performance that is part of the process. As a camera person, I’m always closest to the action, so I try to gently ‘direct’ scenes by asking for participants to repeat lines or actions.

What attracted you to “Reality”?

The long answer would be that I think I manifested the project. At the end of 2021, I finished principal photography on Adele Lim’s “Joy Ride.” A lot of modern comedies are made in a way that embraces improv and openness with writing; our movie had a tent of writers constantly revising scenes and coming up with alternate lines for jokes. From a cinematography stand point, the challenge was that some scenes had as many as 10 characters and they were often moving around the set, so the amount of coverage required to give everyone a close up with a tight eyeline was incredibly difficult to predict.

It was also a location-heavy project where pretty much every two days we were in an entirely new set. When we wrapped, I told my agent, “The next thing I want to do, I want it to be small, with very few locations, and maybe not a script that’s changing every day.” Three months later, she texted me,”There’s this script that’s based on a transcript, so they literally can’t change any of the dialogue.” [laughs] “It all takes place in one house, and they are interested in meeting with you.” I was like, “Okay. That’s a little on the nose, but tell me more.”

The short answer is that Tina is a fan of “The Fits,” so she wanted to meet with me based on that. I also happened to work as a videographer on one of her plays in 2012, filming the stage production, so I was familiar with her style and her aesthetic. Furthermore, I’d also seen “Is This a Room” on Broadway [the play that “Reality” is based on], so it was reassuring to know that the bones of this screenplay worked in the most sparse setting – just four actors on a sparsely dressed stage. I wouldn’t say Tina is a comedic writer per se, but there is a humor to her work that is incredibly unique that I’m really drawn to.

While a shoot that’s largely a single-setting like this may simplify things in one way, it must make this more complicated in others. Were there any specific challenges?

Technically, what drove me the most nuts was that the movie takes place over the course of a few hours, but had to be filmed over six or seven days, so we were dealing with dramatically different qualities of light every few hours. I know it’s silly to be stressed out about the weather, since it is something you can’t control but we didn’t have the time to wait for the right  conditions nor the resources to create the right quality of light. For the most part though, we really lucked out, we often had really soft light with clouds, and a gentle breeze that moved the background trees in a pretty way.  Like with all movies there are some exterior lighting continuity issues but they were expertly smoothed out by our colorist Marcy Robinson at Nice Shoes.

On “The Fits,” you said that when there were these very firm restrictions on the frame, that lent itself to a more unsettling quality for the film, which this seems to have as well. Did you actually feel that was the case?

Yeah, there are definitely some instances in this movie where action takes place at the edge of the frame or just off camera, where I think it’s almost frustrating in a comedic way. Something that comes to mind is when the FBI agents are outside by the dog enclosure, and they’re trying to access her phone. You just see these hands at the left edge of the frame, fumbling with the phone and mashing at keys and it’s already so silly that this mundane interaction is in the movie at all, but then it’s also like, “Why isn’t this frame just a little bit wider so I can just see this person’s face?” I think it’s particularly rewarding for filmmakers because we know that movies and TV shows nowadays typically want every moment and line to land in a purposeful way, so it sticks out when there is any sort of peripheral dialogue in a scene.

You have an incredible location with that street corner where so much happens ends up happening at the edge. What was it like to find?

“Reality” takes place in Augusta, Georgia, but we filmed in Staten Island and Westchester County in New York. As with most locations, when we were searching for our location, we started with the most limiting factor, which was that we had to film in New York to take advantage of the tax credit and within the zone so that the crew would commute from their own residences. It was very hard to find a location that felt like Augusta in New York City — it had to be dense but not urban; not a wealthy neighborhood, but not impoverished; and on top of that we did want to find something that was similar to the house that Reality Winner actually lived in. We cast a very wide net and ultimately Tommy Love, the production designer and Tina, with an immense amount of help from the locations department and the producers decided on a house in North Staten Island.

Since you’ve mentioned the production designer, I had to ask – one of the best shots I’ve seen in any movie in recent memory – is where Reality is making her way through her own kitchen and you see all these agents diminishing her in the frame. What needs to line up for that shot to happen?

I saw that in your review and it was interesting to me that that really connected with you. It was important to Tina that it felt like Reality’s home was being swarmed by men — that these strange agents in khakis and polos were occupying her space and searching through her life. There is a tonal irony to the scenes that are in the house before they go into the back room- they are not particularly tense in how they’re shot —  mostly static, mostly wide — but still injected with a claustrophobic energy because of the blocking. I have to credit Tina and our first AD Gerardo Coello, for blocking extras to make the frame feel full, but also to allow you to see what’s happening.

Something I’ve deeply admired about all your work is how often the perspective of the character comes through in the aesthetic choices. Do you think about the character as a starting point?

That was actually really interesting for this movie particularly, because I do think it starts more procedural and objective, and then as the movie progresses, we push into Reality’s character a bit more and the visual language becomes more subjective and visceral. That’s one of the advantages that we had by establishing a world with such a limited scope. When there is so little stimulus, every choice, whether it’s a pan or a lighting cue, feels deliberate and more impactful.

Tina’s not a highly technical director — at least when we started, not the type to really just call out lens choices or anything like that — so our working language was built around an emotional map for the story. In prep, she was like, “This is how we want this moment to feel,” and then I would show her different options with Cadrage [a lensing app on the iPad] and get a sense of how she responded. Tina is incredibly honest and direct and I could palpably feel when she was responding positively or not to something. That sort of energy is really infectious and I think it fosters a creative environment. As a collaborator, it is such a satisfying feeling to know that your contributions are appreciated and valued.

“Joy Ride” opens in theaters on July 7th, “Reality” is now streaming on Max, and “JessZilla” is currently on the festival circuit, and you can find its next dates on its official Instagram.

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