Saoirse Ronan in "Lady Bird"

Interview: Cinematographer Sam Levy on Lighting the Way for “Lady Bird”

As a cinematographer, one of Sam Levy’s signatures has been his unique ability to pull out the truth of any given moment, so when Greta Gerwig was hedging slightly after mentioning that she was working on a script to direct herself that she might want to have him take a look at, it was a futile effort not to divulge everything.

“We were having a celebratory evening, just reminiscing and telling war stories about some of the movies we’d worked on together and then she said, “Okay, I’m going to say something, and you don’t have to respond. You don’t have to do it” and I’m like, “Greta, come on. What’s up?” Levy recently recalled of first hearing of “Lady Bird” after the premiere for their second collaboration, the Noah Baumbach-directed “Mistress America.” “And she said, “I wrote this script and I’m going to direct it and you don’t have to read it.” But I’m like, “Of course I’m going to read it. I’m sure it’s incredible.'” I read it a couple days later and I called her immediately and said, ‘When are you free? Let’s start talking about this now.’”

That’s how Levy’s inbox and physical shelves started to fill with photos by Lise Sarfati and portraits by the painter Wayne Thiebaud a year-and-a-half before “Lady Bird” went into production, laying the groundwork for one of the most visually distinctive films of this year, emerging from, of all places, the traditionally sleepy city of Sacramento. Or “soul-killing,” as the film’s heroine, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), might say. Feeling trapped in her final year of high school and rechristening herself in avian terms, she is ready to take flight yet unable to leave the nest just yet, continually at war with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) who wishes she were a bit more ambitious and realistic about her prospects and unable to find a proper outlet for her passion and wits, particularly at a Catholic school.

There’s a slight haze in images Levy captures in “Lady Bird” that reflects the film’s setting just a few years back in 2002, but the frisson in the often still frames serves a dual purpose as if the energy Lady Bird is putting out into the world is tangible and all around, if not able to fully coalesce around one direction and the cinematographer is called upon to see what she is unable to see for herself, allowing the golden glow of icicle lights in her bedroom or the sodium lamps in the streets to burn bright to illuminate the moments which you suspect she’ll carry with her forever and even come to cherish after the frustration with the moment falls away. Levy, who once assisted one of the foremost modern masters of light, the late Harris Savides (“Birth,” “The Yards”), is able to constantly able to make the film feel alive even if it seems as if life is standing still for Lady Bird and coupled with Gerwig’s effervescent script and brilliant direction, it makes for a feature that soars.

As “Lady Bird” arrives in theaters this week, Levy spoke about the unique process that enabled the digitally-shot feature that eschewed the crispness that comes with the format while not looking exactly like film either, as well as getting the film’s arresting opening scene just right and shooting in Sacramento.

Saoirse Ronan in "Lady Bird"Since Greta’s from Sacramento, did she have pretty specific ideas about where she wanted to shoot and how she wanted it to look?

She had very specific ideas about Sacramento and how she wanted the movie to feel. She first described it to me [like], “I am thinking about this like a memory, the way a memory is conjured in your head – it’s not a part of you. It’s next to you. You’re a little removed from a memory, and the movie and its aesthetic should be a little bit removed from the viewer, so the viewer should be engaged, but not too inside of it. So [it became a question of] how do we find that balance?

Luckily, we had worked together on “Frances Ha,” [where] we spent about a week in Sacramento shooting a sequence of the movie that takes place there, and I had the best time in Sacramento. I’d never been there and “Frances Ha” was this great project that I got to be a part of [where] we went to Paris, we went to upstate New York and the rest was all in New York City and one of the last things we were going to do was go to Sacramento. And Stephen, I don’t know… but I was more excited to go to Sacramento than even to Paris. Part of it was I had been fortunate enough to go to Paris before, but something about Sacramento just had this feeling like I could tell it’s this evocative place I’d never been to. It seems really mysterious.

At the time [of “Frances Ha”], Greta started telling me a little bit about it and then we went there and I met her parents, who are just really lovely, and we had the day off while we were there and I spent it walking around the city and just thinking this place is incredible. It’s a modern city, it has its major sports team there and it’s the capitol of California and there’s a lot of power in that town and yes, it hearkens back to the past. There’s something that’s a little bit mysterious. It has this amazing quality about it that just made me think it would be great to do a whole movie here, but that’ll never happen. So when Greta presented me with the script [for “Lady Bird”], I had the benefit of having spent a week there and just thought, “Yes, this is that odd fantasy that I had that day.”

Saoirse Ronan in "Lady Bird"Did knowing Greta as an actress give you a sense of what she’d want as a director?

Yeah, I’d done three movies with Greta before “Lady Bird” and she was a co-writer on two of them, “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America,” and one of them, “Maggie’s Plan,” she wasn’t a co-writer, but she was a great collaborator and her notes were always amazing. So we knew each other well enough that I could see that she has great cinema instincts. She has great taste. The movies that she loves are all movies that I love. She’s a voracious reader, she’s always reading. Always taking notes, always writing down her observations and [I saw] the New York Times describe her as a “natural director,” which I think is a great compliment, but the fact is she works extremely hard to be a natural director. She’s exceptionally well-prepared – she doesn’t burn the midnight oil – she works very efficiently, and I knew her to be someone who works very smart and she paces herself very well. She’s just a great influence for me, and working on the movie just became an exercise in making something great and protecting ourselves so we can give our best and protect the work.

The film has these great visual patterns built into it, occasionally using the same framing to draw parallels between certain places or experiences. Is that kind of thing tricky to map out?

It wasn’t tricky when we did it because we spent well over a year preparing it beforehand. We talked about different points that we wanted to mimic or repeat and how best to make those transitions strong, so that it doesn’t feel repetitive, but instead it becomes something playful, that there’s a spark to it. A lot of it came down to how we transitioned in and out of each scene, [which] becomes very important – how you’ll cut to one scene from another. I’m always very concerned about that – how the scene begins, how it ends and how the scene before it and after it begins and ends and how those transitions become really important for the flow of everything. It just took a lot of time, sitting, looking at those scenes. The scenes at the end where you see Saoirse and Laurie Metcalf, those direct cuts to them [in a car], driving to the same places in Sacramento, [were] definitely part of a larger discussion about how to show the trajectory of Lady Bird and her mom and how [they] both love Sacramento. It’s actually a reference before that [scene], [where] you see the kids driving in a car in the same streets where her mom drives on her way home [that sets up the subsequent sequence], and logistically, when you’re setting up a film shoot and you’re initiating things in the same location, it saves a lot of time, but the challenge [becomes] how do we make this look dynamic and not just like we were shooting different things on the same day.

Saoirse Ronan and Lucas Hedges in "Lady Bird"I had read this crazy story about how you Xeroxed references for the film, where the darkness of the copies actually gave you the idea for how you wanted to shoot it. How did that work out?

That’s exactly right. When Greta said, “I want this to look like a memory,” immediately I started thinking, “I know what she means, but how do we do it?” We can’t just use commonplace methodology that’s used to shoot movies nowadays. We wanted to come up with something unique. Talking about it with Greta, [I went to] Panavision Hollywood and [spoke with] their lens guru and looked at every single lens that Panavision makes. I settled on these old lenses, one of which Nestor Almenderos used to shoot “Days of Heaven” with – the 50mm T1 lens – and I was always referring to these Xeroxed images – facsimlies of images with a generation removed. [I wondered], how do we get to this [as a look for the film]? The key to it was in the native grain of the ALEXA camera, [which is a] digital camera, so it’s not film, but the sensor has its own inherent electronic grain, like video noise like when snow would come on a TV and there’s buzzing on the screen.

I made a lot of tests and I worked with a colorist, Alex Bickel, to tease out this native grain to try out the digital version of a photo facsimile from the early 2000s. What was great about this intellectual side of this conversation I was having with Greta was [how] this would be so great because in the early 2000s, we were still very much of the era when kids would go to Kinko’s, make color copies to tack up on their wall and make zines, and maybe try and Xerox them a couple of times to get them to be distressed, so the fun of creating this look was getting something that was distressed, but not overly distressed – just the right amount of memory.

I’ve seen the film twice now and I was immediately struck with the opening shot of Lady Bird and her mother lying next to each other in bed, shot from overhead, where the sunlight peers in, mostly on Lady Bird and her mother is more in the dark. But after seeing the film once, that shot is even more resonant. How did you figure it out?

Yeah, I was really pleased with how that turned out. The movie always started with them in a hotel room and Greta had had different versions where there was a little more dialogue. It didn’t really change that much from what she first showed me a year-and-a-half before we started shooting, but we spent a lot of dissecting that first scene and how it sets up everything. [Greta said] “It’s important but don’t go crazy trying to make it something weightier. Just make something interesting.”

Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in "Lady Bird"Greta and I spent a solid year talking about that opening scene – amongst all the other scenes (laughs) – but we kept coming back to the opening scene, and how everything transitions out of that scene. By the time we got into prep, and especially by the time we found a hotel room, we decided “Okay, you see the two of them in bed, you’re directly overhead and they’re asleep” and then the next thing you see is just a single shot [with Lady Bird] in silhouette, and the window behind them is quite bright and they each have a line or two. Then you’d go to the car [which is] several pages of escalating tension, so the bedroom scene was very important that they’re together and loving and tender because you go to the car and it’s them screaming at each other, and the first scene was a contrast to that. It also feels like visually a strong moment and [when] you go to the car, it’s not visually weak, but it’s about being graphically bold, so that first scene [was] really important to be evocative and lush and set them up just right.

So as these things go, we shot the prom scene that happens in the movie in a banquet hall of a hotel, and we paired that hotel room with the day when we shot the prom. We looked at 10 different rooms, all the rooms seemingly very similar – there was one that was even smaller and we were going to shoot into a mirror and have it be a little bit more abstract. But eventually, we found the room and we settled on going to do those two shots and then when we lined up the one with the window behind them, I remember Greta was so excited, she said, “Yes! This is the beginning of the movie. This is it. They’re looking out of the window, it’s like they’re sitting down to watch the movie. It’s perfect.” Of course, any time your director gets excited like that as a result of something you’ve spent all this time discussing, it’s really satisfying. It was great.

“Lady Bird” opens on November 3rd.

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