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‘Beyond the Lights’ DP Tami Reiker On the Struggle Of Being a Female Cinematographer

'Beyond the Lights' DP Tami Reiker On the Struggle Of Being a Female Cinematographer

We recently wrote about the disheartening statistics regarding female cinematographers: In the last five years, women accounted for just 3% of the cinematographers among the 250 top-grossing films. Even more shocking, no female DP has ever been nominated for an Academy Award. But, of course, there are many talented female cinematographers working in the industry and we highlighted eight, in particular, who are worthy of attention, including Tami Reiker. 

READ MORE: 8 Female Cinematographers You Should Know About

In 2004, Reiker became the first woman ever to take home the ASC Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography Award (for her work on the HBO pilot “Carnivalé.”) Earlier in her career, she worked with directors such as Miguel Arteta (“Getting On”), Lisa Cholodenko (“High Art”) and Peter Hedges (“Pieces of April). Reiker recently shot “Beyond the Lights,” starring Minnie Driver, Danny Glover and newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw, with director Gina Prince-Bythewood (for whom she previously shot HBO’s “Disappearing Acts”). The film, which will hit theaters on Friday, is sure to gain Reiker even more notice.

Indiewire recently spoke to Reiker about being a female cinematographer, balancing motherhood and career and working on “Beyond the Lights.”

Congratulations on “Beyond the Lights,” which is getting a lot of attention — especially since Gubu Mgatha-Raw was nominated for a Gotham Award.

I know! Finally! Something today on Google Alerts said something about how it’s “the movie that’s not getting all the attention it deserves.” And I was like, “That’s right!”

You’ve worked with [director] Gina [Prince-Blythewood] before. At what stage in the process did you get on board this project?

Right, we did “Disappearing Acts” together. That was like 13 or 14 years ago in New York. And then she asked me to come in this summer to talk to her about it. We’d always stayed friends but we didn’t see each other that much; we both had kids and were busy. So it was great to see her. And after reading the script [for “Beyond the Lights”] we were exactly on the same page.

I was like, “I think it should all be hand-held.” And she was like, “Yeah! Yes! That’s exactly what I want!” And so we immediately had the same vision of the film. This feeling where it needs to feel almost-docu, you know? We’re peering in on her world. No fancy dolly moves, no helicopter or cranes or anything like that. The only part that would be was when it is a TV camera shooting the award show, like the VMAs but otherwise it feels very real.

What camera did you shoot with?

We shot with the Alexa.

Do you have a preference about cameras? And have you always shot digitally?

“Pieces of April” [directed by Peter Hedges] was my first digital movie, on a handycam. That was a camera that fit in the palm of my hand, that was the whole beginning of the digital wave. But it’s been interesting to switch. Parts of it, I love and there’s been other parts that Gina and I just couldn’t bear it. We can’t bear all this cable that you’re attached to. She’d say to me, “Come on, grab the camera! Let’s go!” And I’d be like “Ugh, those days are over! I can’t grab the camera, we need seven other people to come along!” [Laughs]

What are the benefits of working in digital? 

With low light, it’s just incredible. The scenes in Mexico, no one was allowed in the room. The assistant was outside pulling focus off the monitor. It was just Gina. The big love scene in Mexico: that room was like 10×10, it was the tiniest little room. But we just loved that location and the feel of it. By the time we finished shooting I couldn’t see my hand it was so dark in the room…And I was like, “Gina, this shooting is so beautiful.” Lower than your eye can see! So that part is incredible. And I feel like that comes through in the love scene. No one was in the room, just Gina and myself. It was their first love scene for both of those actors. They were pretty nervous. Gina played amazing music, made the whole soundtrack for it. [Laughs]

Did you think at all in terms of color pallette when you set out? Did you and Gina talk about colors in terms of the look of the film?

We did. We wanted it to be slightly de-saturated, a little cooler. But the problem is on such a low budget it’s hard, and what we needed were those big locations. The opulence of Noni’s life. She’s a huge star. So a lot of times we couldn’t really have enough control to keep a cool palette because we couldn’t paint the walls in that $20 million house we were using. We’re both happy with the palette. We were trying to aim for a bit of a cooler palette but we’re happy with what we’ve settled on in the transfer.

What was the most challenging about the production?

That would definitely be it. To keep [Noni’s] world believable, that she is this huge pop star, on such a small budget. When I watch the movie I feel like we did it. We just got so lucky with the house that she lived in, and the size of our crew was small. Thank God that house had so many lights. It had a lighting control room just for that house, it’s own lighting control room. It was thousands of lights and they were all on individual switches. We got very lucky with certain things and the hotel that we used, we were there for ten days and used it for so many locations. That was definitely an amazing challenge. There’s a lot of challenges like that, that all filmmakers have. But we really felt the pressure on it because we needed those big, beautiful locations and they were expensive and we were so limited in our time there.

Backing up quite a bit, how did you get your start as a cinematographer?

I was always very interested in photography and I went to NYU film school. And that’s where I really decided I wanted to be cinematographer. I met a lot of students from Columbia and that where I met [director] Alex Sichel and shot her student film. It’s a much smaller world in New York. Now I live in L.A. now and I’m like, “Wow, how do you start out here?”

Speaking of women, you’ve read the depressing statistics. How do you explain this dearth of female cinematographers?

We do have kids, it makes it harder. [Laughs] It does take a toll, you have to make these huge decisions. Gina asked me to shoot “The Secret Life of Bees,” but my son was having a really, really hard time then. He had some issues and I couldn’t take off and go to North Carolina. Maybe because I turned it down, it’s just heartbreaking but if I was a man I would leave my wife and my child and make it through that struggle and I’d go shoot the movie! I feel like some women don’t want to hear that but I think it’s the reality. 

I was going to ask you “How has being a mom changed your career?” But then I thought, “would I ask a man that?” and I wouldn’t, but obviously…

It’s a reality! It’s a real thing. And we work so hard and when do we have our babies? Between 38 and 44, right at the peak of our careers. I was pregnant when I accepted the ASC Award. I was the first first woman to ever be nominated or win an ASC Award and I was four months pregnant. The funniest part was, I’m at the ASC Awards and people are congratulating me, and I’m thinking they’re congratulating me on the baby because that’s the most exciting thing in my life! And I like, “Oh right, yes! Oh right!”

But then obviously many women don’t have kids and they’re still not getting the same opportunities.

I think it’s harder and harder for more to come up through the system. In some ways, maybe digital should have made it easier, like anyone can go grab a camera and start a reel, but in other ways I don’t know. There’s not as many low-budget independent movies, like when I started when every band had a video I just jumped on videos and learned so much.

I know you’ve gone back and forth from TV to film. Which do you prefer? How are they different?

I definitely prefer movies. I’ve only really done pilots, I’ve never done a whole series. Again, with the mother thing it doesn’t really work. Nine months a year from a 90-120 hour work week, or whatever they work, would be grueling. But I love doing TV pilots. It’s like you’re right there when it’s being created, you’re creating the look. It’s very exciting.

READ MORE: There Aren’t Enough Women Cinematographers and That Needs to Change

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