Interview: Cinematographer Adam Beckman on ‘Sleepwalk with Me’

Interview: Cinematographer Adam Beckman“Sleepwalk with Me,” comedian Mike Birbiglia’s first feature film, has been gaining steam and critical praise since it premiered at Sundance, winning the Best of Next Audience Award. The film began life first as a segment on NPR’s “This American Life,” hosted by Ira Glass, which Birbiglia turned into a stage show, and has been championed by many (including Glass) in the two years that it took to turn into a feature.

Written by Birbiglia, Joe Birbiglia, Glass, and Seth Barrish (who gets a co-director’s credit for the film and also directed the stage show), the movie is the semi-autobiographical tale of a young comedian who struggles with the anxieties of a flailing stand-up career, relationship issues, and the bouts of sleepwalking which put him into some very strange situations.

“Sleepwalk with Me” stars Mike Birbiglia as Matt, the comedian in question, and Lauren Ambrose as his girlfriend Abby. The film has garnered notice not only for its sharp writing (Mike Birbiglia is a master storyteller) but also for its evocative cinematography, courtesy of the Emmy Award winning Adam Beckman. The film teeters between reality and the dream world which results from Adam’s sleepwalking; in lesser hands, this could become a crutch, but Beckman and the production team weave the imagery from both worlds together seamlessly.

Beckman’s credits stretch back more than 20 years, and includes commercial work, music videos, documentaries, and a stint on the TV version of “This American Life,” which ran from 2007-2009.

Film Slate Magazine caught up with Beckman at SXSW, where the film recently screened. The veteran DP talked about the uniqueness of bringing a project like “Sleepwalk” to life, and how he uses his experience to work with directors.

Film Slate Magazine: How did you become attached to this project?

Adam Beckman: I met Ira Glass and the staff of ‘This American Life’ when I did a story for the radio show. I later worked as the director of photography for seasons one and two of ‘This American Life’s’ TV show for Showtime. Towards the end of season two we filmed a short clip of Mike performing, which is when I met Mike and Seth Barrish, the director of his stage play. Then last spring, Ira invited me to a Sundance Institute-hosted reading of ‘Sleepwalk.’ Mike and Ira brought me on as DP a few weeks later.

 FSM: You’ve worked in several different mediums–documentaries, videos, fiction, etc. Is there a particular style that you prefer, or is it always about the uniqueness of each project?

AB: I don’t think I’d ever be satisfied restricting my work to any one medium. Of course I enjoy the range of styles each format affords, but ultimately what matters to me is diversity. The cross-pollination of techniques is essential to keeping my work fresh. For instance, documentary shooting often requires my reactivity – not just to the subject, but to light as well.

The first thing I do on a doc shoot is to look for lights I can turn off to create contrast, or petition the producer to schedule an outdoors shoot for the time of day when the natural light is best. This type of collaboration with available light is ultimately good practice for my commercial and feature work. Meanwhile, commercials allow me the budget to finesse form with the best new equipment, but the 30 second format requires concision. This discipline in spot work can be very useful in finding succinct storytelling solutions in long-form narrative. Basically, each medium makes me a better shooter for all of them, so I’d never want to limit my scope.

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FSM: Stylistically, what were the discussions beforehand with Mike about the look of the film that he and the producers were trying to achieve?

AB: Mike wanted a very naturalistic look for ‘Sleepwalk with Me.’ His references were films shot with little supplemental lighting and he wanted to get the best low-light capable camera we could. Since 80% of his film is set at night and in dark clubs, I knew we’d have to unload the truck more than we’d like. The schedule and budget required me to be economical, so the strategy we developed was to play to the strengths in the locations.

We’d block day scenes at favorable angles to windows, or restrict night interiors to a few key angles we could light properly. Mike even rewrote a couple of scenes so as not to send us into too many night shoots. The dream sequences presented an exciting opportunity, but for a DP, a lack of boundaries can be a problem. Mike made it clear he wanted the dreams to be mostly natural, with an almost imperceptible sense of something being off. Then, as Mike’s character’s sleepwalking episodes worsen, the dreams become more stylistically driven.

 FSM: What was it about ‘Sleepwalk’ that appealed to you as a cinematographer?

AB: I liked the gentle balance of comedy with moments of real pathos. Mike’s character skirts the edge of likeability, but ultimately his heartfelt sincerity keeps the audience engaged and invested. I thought this would afford me some license to go a bit darker than a strict comedy would allow.

FSM: What did you shoot the movie with?

AB: We shot on an Arri Alexa and recorded LogC ProRes files at 4:4:4 to onboard SxS cards. I had shot with the Alexa on several commercials, so I’m comfortable with it and ultimately I’m very pleased with the camera’s performance. Our producer, Jacob Jaffke, managed to score us a set of Cooke S5 high-speed lenses. I generally avoid shooting any lens wide open, but the Cookes allowed us to shoot between a T2 and a 2.8 (with apologies and thanks to my excellent focus puller, Matt Klammer!)

FSM: What were some of the challenges with shooting this film?

AB: Because of budget constraints, I couldn’t bring my usual crew on board for the project. I had concerns at the outset about working with technicians who were all new to me – but in fact, the crew turned out to be one of the best, hardest working group I’ve ever had the pleasure of collaborating with.

We had an ambitious schedule with a very large cast; in addition to writing and directing the film and having a producer hat to wear, Mike performed in nearly every setup. Fortunately we had a super cooperative atmosphere amongst the crew. Mike, our AD and I invested lots of time during prep mapping out our basic approach to coverage for each scene. Mike had his stage director Seth Barrish to watch and hone performances. We also invested in a playback system so Mike could watch takes and be up to speed on what we were getting.

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FSM: As a cinematographer, what do you think you bring to a project? And how do you try to meld your experience in with the writer/director?

AB: This is Mike’s first film, so we spent many prep days on location with my DSLR, walking through hypothetical coverage and photographing the setups, then I printed them out with a storyboarding program. We often ditched these because of choices actors made during rehearsal, but the boards were useful helping us define, in visual terms, what the scenes were about and what we needed to show the audience.

I sometimes think of my role as similar to that of a midwife. I try to get as invested in the project as I can, all the while trying to remember it’s not my baby.

FSM: How long was the shoot?

AB: We shot for five five-day weeks beginning August 22. There were a few sets of pickup shoots later in the fall, once the edit was underway and while Mike continued to shape the story.

FSM: How much prep time did you have?

AB: I took a red eye from LA the night after a long shoot for a McDonald’s commercial, then went right into prep on the movie. I had about four weeks of prep, altogether.

FSM: Were there any sequences that you thought you would have trouble with but came out better than you thought when you first saw the script?

AB: I remember being very apprehensive about the entire sequence leading up to Mike’s character jumping out the window of the La Quinta Inn. But careful planning, consultation with our stunt coordinator, a great set built by our terrific production design team and art department, along with a little luck thrown in and it all came together.

FSM: Any final thoughts about ‘Sleepwalk?’

AB: None!

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