The last time that Film Slate Magazine caught up with cinematographer Sam Levy, it was right before the release of “While We’re Young,” his latest collaboration with writer/director Noah Baumbach. The two work very well together, with Levy being an apt choice in helping to bring Baumbach’s unique cinematic sensibilities to the big screen.
Levy described their working relationship as being quite streamlined, and he was complimentary of Baumbach’s talents; as he said, “The experience with Noah works pretty much like this: Noah is a totally brilliant director, brilliant writer; he has a really great sense of cinema. We start working out what’s happening very early in the process. So by the time we’re shooting, all of the discussion and the decisions have been made and we’re just executing things that we’ve ironed out well ahead of time.”
This time around, FSM chatted with Levy about “Mistress America,” Levy’s third film with Baumbach, although in the strict order of things, it was completed after “Frances Ha” but before “While We’re Young.” Levy’s talents are in demand, and the recently completed “Maggie’s Plan,” directed by Rebecca Miller, is gearing up for a festival run and release as well.
The affable Levy, who has called New York City his home for the past 20 years, was more than happy to talk about working with Baumbach (one of his favorite subjects), winters in the Northeast (about which he has mixed feelings), and what he looks for when he signs on to a project (it’s all about trust).
“Mistress America” was co-written by the multi-talented Greta Gerwig, the titular character in “Maggie’s Plan,” as well the co-writer and star of “Frances Ha.” It’s not uncommon for filmmakers to surround themselves with talented individuals and form long-running partnerships, and it seems that Baumbach, Gerwig and Levy have found a combination that works quite well.
“Mistress America” tells the story of 18 year old Tracy (Lola Kirke) a neophyte to all things New York, who is given a crash course (almost literally) in life by Brooke (Gerwig), her slightly unhinged, adventurous stepsister to be. It’s an interesting dichotomy, seeing the world and Brooke through Tracy’s eyes; the older woman’s life may seem fun and freewheeling in a delightfully off-kilter way, but there is more than a hint of melancholy lurking under Brooke’s surface trappings.
For Levy, working with Baumbach is always a consideration, but he identified with the material in the script for “Mistress America.” New York offers a vibrant background, and for a longtime city dweller, many of the things in the screenplay rang true.
“The Tracy character, experiencing New York for the first time as an adult, young adult 18 years old, it was an experience I can relate to,” Levy said. “I didn’t go to college here, I didn’t move here until I was older, until I finished school, but a lot of the story is about New York City as seen through the eyes of someone who’s completely in love with New York and doesn’t really have any experience here and she’s getting to know it through her older stepsister to be, who’s lived here as an adult, who’s a little bit beaten down by the city, has grown disenchanted, and kind of wants to leave. But she has New York down. She knows where to go out, where to hear a cool band, how to get a job, how to have an apartment.”
He continued to expand on the themes of the movie. It’s clear that Levy, who of course was responsible for the visual look of the film, felt a connection with the material. It became more than just shooting the movie and allowing “Mistress” to breathe on screen. The visuals have to work, but the audience needs to connect with the characters, which is also part of a cinematographer’s responsibilities.
“It’s a big deal,” he continued, “when you first move to New York, finding a place to live (laughs), especially your own place to live, is difficult. It’s really, really expensive, even if you can get the money together, which is really difficult, getting the lease is very difficult. That’s evident by the Brooke character living illegally in the commercial space. Through Tracy’s eyes, it’s really cool. She lives in an industrial space, she goes to hear a cool rock band at a secret bar, and yet you kind of see Brooke through Tracy’s eyes when you first meet her, she’s this mysterious and fabulous creature and then at the end Tracy sees her as a flawed person—someone that she’ll still love.”
As for working with Baumbach, he and Levy have developed a pretty strong shorthand system when it comes to prepping, pre-production, and shot listing and breaking down what needs to be done. Even with Gerwig as a co-writer, most of the script is set in stone by the time they’re on set, and Levy explained that when he’s behind the camera, his contact is almost exclusively with Baumbach.
“Noah and Greta have their process together—very direct,” he said. “My dialogue on set is pretty limited. They’re very much attuned to each other. Through the natural course of the way filmmaking works, the way a director talks to a DP, and then any information gets disseminated. The first step oftentimes is for them to consult with each other, and then Noah, if there’s anything I need to know, it gets passed along, really anything relevant for the cinematography of the scene.”
This cinematic shorthand was something Levy brought up in our first conversation. After having worked with Baumbach—and Gerwig as well—several times, the cinematic flow becomes almost second nature. With all of the prep time beforehand, and an extremely strong script that almost never changes once they begin shooting (Levy says this is one of Baumbach’s calling cards), it leads to an almost elegantly simple situation.
“Most of the time, on ‘Mistress America,’ which we did right after ‘Frances Ha’ and before ‘While We’re Young,’ we all had a great shorthand,” Levy said. “We didn’t have to say too much once we were shooting. Noah and I did a lot of prep work ahead of time. But once we were shooting there weren’t too many words exchanged. It was great. My experience with Greta I would say was beautiful and indirect.”
And with a script that’s basically set and a crew that has worked together multiple times, it means that everybody has the comfort to do their jobs within their own creative parameters.
“The script, he works on it very carefully, beforehand,” Levy said. “By the time he shows it to me, it doesn’t change. I mean, nothing changes. Maybe over the course of three months together a word here or there—one word on a page. But really not. I would say it’s a lock. We all have great boundaries which within we can do our creative work. There’s no wondering, ‘What’s going on?’ or ‘Does this need to be changed?’ The experience, I would say, is collectively, the scripts are so strong, and the dialogue so tight, it’s like, ‘Alright, let’s go. Let’s break it down and do it.’”
Ultimately for Levy, whether he’s working with Baumbach or another director, it comes down to trust. It comes into play when he selects a script, in the first meeting with a filmmaker, and once he gets on set. It almost seems rigid in a way, but it’s exactly the opposite—when everybody knows where they stand, then they can relax. It’s the nature of filmmaking. Artists can be a bit eccentric, but a shooting schedule—mostly those with a smaller budget–can’t be. Otherwise, films would rarely get made.
“With Noah, we know each other very well and I know what I’m getting into,” he said. “But if it’s someone that I’m working with for the first time, really the deliberation comes when I read the script for the first time, and I have to meet the director for the first time. And then when we agree to work together, then the trust begins right there. It has to start right there. And generally, it has to work both ways. I have to trust the director and they have to trust me.”
Photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight