Sam Levy can never be accused of sitting still. The in-demand cinematographer has been working steadily for well over a decade, rising up through the ranks of the camera department on his way to becoming a DP. His impressive resume includes “Wendy and Lucy” and “The Romantics,” but he’s probably best known for the trio of movies he has made with writer/director Noah Baumbach: “Frances Ha,” “While We’re Young,” and “Mistress America.” Levy also recently completed the documentary “Adult Rappers” and the Rebecca Miller film “Maggie’s Plan,” which is now in post-production.
Levy didn’t necessarily start out to have a career in filmmaking, majoring in Comparative Literature at Brown University. It was while taking a filmmaking class taught by noted experimental filmmaker Leslie Thornton that he began to gravitate towards the camera. He said he had a sense of drama and theatricality while growing up–appearing in school plays and the like–but most of his experience with making movies came courtesy of acting in his friends’ VHS short films in high school.
“It ended up really capturing my imagination,” Levy said of discovering filmmaking while in college. “I saw the documentary ‘Visions of Light’ not too long after that and I kept seeing these different representations of what cinematography is.”
After being drawn into this world, Levy got an internship at a commercial production facility, and then slowly began climbing the ladder towards being a cinematographer—although, once again he really didn’t know it at the time (“I really thought that was an unachievable thing,” he says laughing). Fast forward to 2015, and his collaborations with Baumbach, widely considered to be one of the most important filmmaking voices of his generation, have cemented Levy’s reputation.
When Film Slate Magazine caught up with Levy, he had just finished wrapping up a project, and was catching his breath before moving on to the next one. Originally from Brookline, Massachusetts, he has been living in New York for 20 years.
Every cinematographer—or filmmaker or department head, for that matter—may have their own approach to work, but for Levy, he has a fairly set routine when he’s working on a project.
“I can only speak for myself,” he said, “and it might be different for other people when they work on a feature film—for me, there’s the shooting day itself, obviously, I turn off my phone, I don’t even carry it on me, and then when I…there’s a solid 90 minutes to two hours of prep when I get home after shooting. If it’s the weekend and we’re shooting the following day—I have a routine where I come home, I read all the scenes for the following day. I go through all of the scenes and the shot list—all the different scenes on the shot list—I’ve made with the director; and usually then I watch dailies.”
Levy has refined his process over the years, and while of course there are bound to be slight variations or times when he may go out with friends to just simply get a break, he knows that all the work he has put into pre-production, and even the prep work he does while on set will ultimately pay off.
“There’s a lot of stuff to oversee and a lot of things to prepare,” Levy said. “There’s the logistical side of making sure you have all the equipment and crew and like that, and just as important if not more to make sure that artistically and creatively that I’m approaching each day with the right context. And in keeping in mind everything the director and I have talked about, because we always shoot out of sequence, that I have as thorough a grasp on the material and scenes that as possible.”
Levy was introduced to Baumbach by legendary cinematographer Harris Savides, who had shot “Margot at the Wedding” and “Greenberg.” While prepping “Frances Ha,” Savides was working on another project, and got the ball rolling for Levy.
“At the time—this is before he was sick (Savides passed away in 2012—ed.), he was actually working on something else, and we were friends–I actually used to work for Harris for a long time—and he and I remained friends after I stopped working for him. He introduced me to Noah and that was it. I think after Harris made the suggestion Noah watched a movie called ‘Wendy and Lucy’ which I shot, and I think it was the combination, but largely through Harris suggesting that I’d be a very good candidate.”
With “While We’re Young” being the third collaboration for Levy and Baumbach, they have developed a fairly streamlined system. It helps that Baumbach is the writer as well the director, because, according to Levy, he inhabits the story so well. The two work out as much as they can ahead of time, even before they have all the locations set. After that, on set, any tweaks come mainly in the form of trying out little things here and there—but the structure has largely been agreed upon.
“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,” Levy said. “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. So the place that we might have a discussion or I might have a suggestion or he might counter-suggest something to me is early in the prep process when we’re going through the script and breaking it down into a shot list and there, that’s a really good open place where he and I can work out what the aesthetic language of the movie is going to be, how the cinematography is going to bear out his vision.”
A large part of being a cinematographer, even when working with a director (or a crew) that you’ve worked with before is recognizing when something needs to be changed, or when to go with a new approach to a scene.
“As a DP, I really depend on my crew, as well as the director, the AD…really everybody that’s in the immediate circle of work on the set I’m with all day,” Levy said. “We really have to trust each other. And that’s how you get through hiccups or unforeseen events that make projects slow down. When you hire someone good—a gaffer, a key grip, focus puller—usually there’s someone in the mix who’ll have a great idea. Something you wouldn’t have thought of yourself. I’ve been lucky to work with a really great crew—especially the last few years. It’s unusual that something just completely stumps everybody in the group. ”
“While We’re Young” was a bigger production and had a bigger budget than the previous two films that Levy and Baumbach did together (“Mistress America” was shot before “While We’re Young,” but won’t have a wide release until later this year), but the filmmaking process remained basically the same for the crew. There are a few bells and whistles that Levy and Baumbach allowed themselves, but for the most part, they operated under the guise of “you don’t do something just to do it.”
“So us having the conversation that we wanted to keep as much the same as we possibly can became very relevant because with more money and more crew and just the possibility of more equipment, we had to be decisive and use restraint,” Levy said, “and not having things like a big crane arm or using the Steadicam every single day, or just things like that. So it made the conversation simple to say, ‘You know when we shot ‘Frances Ha’ it was quite small—crew was very minimal. And we used a DSLR camera, a Canon 5D, just totally pared down and simple.’ So for ‘While We’re Young’ the two of us decided that we really want it to be like that. As much as we can, and as much as is reasonable; we’re using a different camera and it’s in color—‘Frances Ha’ was in black and white—but this process should come out of that process.”
Baumbach and Levy decided early on that they wanted the camera movement to be “smooth and fluid and classical,” which meant no handheld or Steadicam; and while the bigger budget may have allowed for it, they wanted to go with the established look of the film.
“That’s a pet peeve of mine,” Levy said, “seeing a movie where a camera moves in any conceivable direction without any clear motivation. I do know a number of Steadicam operators that I love working with. And it’s a great tool. For “While We’re Young” we decided that this is an aesthetic rule we can make for ourselves because there’s no concrete reason for us to have a Steadicam. Let’s not use one ever.”
And while the shooting schedule may be tighter and there are more moving parts on a bigger project, Baumbach and Levy knew the results they wanted to achieve would come through laying dolly track and a traditional camera setup.
“It’s tempting for me, when you have a tight schedule, when you’re sitting down and diagramming out your blocking, and you need your shot list, and then you sit down with an assistant director and you go through a schedule—well it’s not tempting for me but it comes up. Invariably someone will say, ‘Just use a Steadicam, you can go anywhere,’ or ‘Just use handheld,’” he said.
Ultimately, Levy understands his role and wants to do anything he can to help Baumbach realize his cinematic vision. And in turn, it helps Levy do his job with Baumbach as both writer and director, and also as somebody who has a firm grasp on the medium of film.
“What’s beneficial is there’s one keeper of the story, and it’s him,” Levy said. “It’s one voice, one leader, and it just makes for this incredible elegance and simplicity. Nothing has to be double checked by anybody else. It begins and ends with Noah. It’s a very comforting feeling. Especially with him. He’s such a master at the cinematic process of writing to blocking to shooting to the editorial process. It’s just a nice feeling to be working alongside someone who has such a virtuosic grip on the text and implementing it into a movie.”
While Levy will continue to see his stock rise as a cinematographer, it seems that it may just take a simple request from Baumbach for the two to collaborate again. After all, it was pretty straight forward when he approached Levy to do the last film.
“Honestly, having done two with him…basically it was Noah saying, ‘I’ve got something new.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, I’d love to do it.’ Honestly it was as simple as that. Another opportunity to work with Noah. He had this script for a little while, over the course of the two movies we had done, so I knew a little bit about it, so frankly it was just that. I want to work with Noah every chance I possibly can.”