While he may be best known as writer/director Noah Baumbach’s go-to cinematographer, Sam Levy’s reputation continues to grow as he continually expands his resume by working with different filmmakers and in different genres.
And that’s true enough of his recent work; Levy collaborated with Rebecca Miller on “Maggie’s Plan” (which Miller also co-wrote with Karen Rinaldi), finding himself surrounded by not only the familiar face of Greta Gerwig , but also Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, and Maya Rudolph among others in the ensemble.
He also took part in the documentary “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” which traces the journey of the maverick writer and producer. And if that’s not enough for variety, Levy is also working on the HBO series “Crashing,” which is guided by the creative hand of Judd Apatow and should hit the air sometime in 2017, and then he’ll be the cinematographer on Gerwig’s upcoming feature directorial debut after that. Have no fear, though. He does plan on taking a small break at some point in between projects.
The last time that Film Slate Magazine caught up with Levy, he had just finished shooting “While We’re Young” and “Mistress America,” both directed by Baumbach, and was getting ready to move on to his next project. It’s been about a year, but it seems that the circumstances are remarkably the same: Levy was taking a break while working on “Crashing,” with “Maggie’s Plan” still fresh in his mind.
Levy took time out of his busy schedule to talk with FSM (he was actually driving to a shooting location at the time) about working with Miller on “Maggie’s Plan.”
Film Slate Magazine: So how did you come into Rebecca Miller’s sights? Did she like your work and call you? How did that happen?
Sam Levy: She started talking to Greta Gerwig about working together. And I had worked with Greta a bunch on Noah Baumbach’s movies that she co-wrote, and we were working here in New York, and I think that Greta may have suggested me or she had just seen the work.
We met over coffee and just started talking. We clicked right away. I loved her script but once I met her, this was a person I could just tell that would be great to work with. She really has the soul of a poet; she comes from a painting background. She’s extremely visual and we just clicked. I had a great feeling just talking to her and listening to what she had say.
FSM: In looking at the movie, I liked a lot of the color choices and the way you would shoot against that. How much did you coordinate with the production designer in the look of that? The balance of what you were shooting and the color choices of the walls and the looks of the characters and that sort of thing?
SL: I worked very closely with the production designer Alexandra Schaller and also the costume designer Malgosia [Turzanska] … And Rebecca. I worked a lot with Rebecca before…I came on before Alexandra did, so we talked a lot about the palette, the color, and light sensibility—the philosophy of color of the movie. And once Alexandra came on she brought her own point of view. We all got along wonderfully. We were able to do things like assign certain colors to certain sets, different parts of the movie. What worked well on this movie was that there was no intellectualizing the palette—we just picked colors that we liked that just fit.
FSM: You’ve talked in the past about having a shorthand with Noah because you’ve worked with him a lot. Did you have that with Rebecca, that by the end of shooting she could give you a look or a tap and you’d be able to figure that out as part of the shorthand?
SL: Definitely. We had the benefit of having a long time together before we started shooting. We started talking about six months before we started shooting. Just unofficially…We’d meet for coffee or stop by her office. We started breaking down the script and just talked, looking at paintings and photos and movies. Just talking about her experience, my experience, life experience, and by the time we started shooting we had laid out a very concrete plan for what to do.
We also had a brilliant AD, Scott Lazar, who once we started working with him it was like he was one of us. We prepared a really precise shot list for the movie. For the shot list of the movie I put a lot of reference photos, Rebecca’s sketches of the actors, diagrams of blocking, things like that.
At the end of the day, what’s in the frame is all that really matters. All of the chaos of the set and the people, and dealing with money, you have to be responsible, certainly—it’s a big part of being a DP. But all that really matters is what it looks like and if the work is any good.
FSM: I’m sure that’s where the combination of where the prep comes in, the know-how, and the trust. You trust Rebecca, she trusts you, and in the end, when you do look at things in post and you say, ‘Okay, we can do this and this,’ it’s sort of laid out for you and ready to go. I don’t want to say easier, but…if you deal with all that stuff up front in the end you can do different things and make those choices. If that makes sense.
SL: Yeah, that’s it. You’ve got it. Maybe the thing about what you just said I like the best is about trust. You have to trust your director and your director has to trust you. In the case of Rebecca we trusted each other right away. Right from the first time I met her for coffee, I thought, ‘I totally trust this woman.’ I would follow her wherever she wants to go. And I felt trusted by her. I can’t speak for her but I always felt she gets me and I think she knows that I trusted her and she was encouraging about the things that I thought were appropriate.
And of course it’s a collaboration. When there were discussions about how to execute certain scenes, about how best how to do them, you don’t always completely agree 100%. It’s a collaboration; it’s bound to happen—we’re two different people. But there were always very pleasant discussions. I would say it pretty much equaled out. When I had an idea that was different…There’s a shot that I really love, where Ethan Hawke and Greta are sitting on a park bench and then the camera dollies away from them while they were talking, and then a few moments later they walk into the frame, sort of anticipating them leaving. It was something that I suggested to Rebecca in prep and first—my memory of it may be different than hers—my memory of it is that she had me describe it a few times and she said, ‘Yeah, let’s do that. Let’s try it.’ And then it ended up being in the movie.
If you work with someone you trust and you’re on the same page, if it works, great, and if not, it reveals itself. When you’ve got that solid prep base set up, you know very quickly.
FSM: Honestly, talking to you, it seems that you’ve found a pretty good balance and with the people you collaborate with, you’ve gotten pretty lucky—you’ve seemed to hit a pretty good stride. A lot of people I talk to—I don’t want to say they’re not that lucky—but I don’t think that they have the consistency that you do. I think that’s the thing I think of, is the consistency; the chances to work with these people, whether it’s Noah, or Greta, or Rebecca.
SL: I don’t take any of this for granted. It took me a long time to get into the position where I could work for somebody like Noah, Greta, or Rebecca. It takes time; it certainly took me a long time and I definitely appreciate it. There’s a grip I always work with who says, ‘This business doesn’t owe you anything.’ It can be tough sometimes but I’ve been very fortunate these last few years to work with some very thoughtful, considerate directors.