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Rachel Morrison on Her Two Sundance 2015 Films and Being Pegged as a ‘Female DP’

Rachel Morrison on Her Two Sundance 2015 Films and Being Pegged as a 'Female DP'

She’s worked on some of the most acclaimed indies in recent years, including previous Sundance features "Little Accidents" for director Sara Colangelo and Ryan Coogler’s "Fruitvale Station," which won the coveted Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award in 2013. Morrison also lensed director Daniel Barnz’s "Cake" starring Jennifer Aniston, which premiered at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.

This year she’s back at Sundance with "Dope," the modern-day coming-of-age story from Rick Famuyiwa and the opening-night film, Liz Garbus’ "What Happened, Miss Simone?," on which she shares DP credit with Igor Martinovic and Ronan Killeen.

You were one of three DPs on "Miss Simone." How did that work? 

I had my own task on that one, which was shooting 16-mm film interpretations of Nina [Simone]’s childhood. So my job wasn’t a very typical documentary aesthetic. I wasn’t shooting interviews. I actually got to shoot period footage of Nina as a little girl, which was really exciting and fun. I was given a good amount of freedom, and also, it’s so rare that you get to do period on a budget — but it’s so rewarding, because literally, you point your camera in any direction, and when the costumes and the locations come together, you feel like you’re in a whole other world.

Then with "Dope," what was the idea for the look of the film going into it?

With "Dope," Rick didn’t want to fall into the trap of gritty, urban, hand-held cinematography. He wanted something that had a loose and natural aesthetic, but still felt controlled and fun, and sort of had movement, but wasn’t hand-held. And that was actually the thing that was appealing to me — I do a lot of hand-held work; I really enjoy it, but I find that often the second you put the camera on a fixer tripod or a dolly — especially when you are on a budget and don’t have copious amounts of time — it tends to get stagnant very fast. And so, I really like the idea of a dynamic film: How do we keep it moving, but not resort to hand-held?

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

What about the color palette? Did you think about that?

It’s the sort of film that toes the line between being very contemporary, but having characters that are steeped in ’80s and ’90s hip-hop culture — We wanted to pay homage to that without going back to hypersaturated, fluorescent ’80s and ’90s color palettes. We didn’t want to return to the blue moonlight and cheesy aesthetic, which I think had a kind of overlit quality to it. So my job was to light it naturalistically, but with a little more of a mainstream aesthetic than some of my naturalistic, indie-type movies.

Have you primarily shot digitally?

I actually come from film. The year before last, I shot three films on film, and then in the last year, I shot two films digitally.  I shot "Fruitvale Station" on super-16, and then I shot a movie called "The Harvest" on 35mm, and then I shot  "Little Accidents" on 2-perf 35. And then these last two, "Cake" and "Dope" were both on the Alexa with Panavision anamorphic glass.

Do you prefer working digitally or with film?

It definitely depends on the project — I mean, inherently and aesthetically, I like film. I tend to be drawn to films that are very steeped in character, sort of humanity pieces — and I find that film out of the gate has an inherently humanistic quality. And there’s something really tactile that sort of jumps out at you and helps you put the audience squarely in the characters’ shoes. I think you can get there with digital. It just takes a little more stretching and pushing and pulling.  I think that they both have advantages and disadvantages — it just comes down to which is going to outweigh the other. Film is obviously becoming very cost-prohibitive, now that there are so few labs, and Kodak can’t really afford to cut the deals that they once could. It would be naïve to say that you could make a movie on film for the same price you can digitally. 

But there are advantages to digital.

The newer digital cameras are much faster at night, so if you’re shooting night exteriors, or shooting in dark locations, it’s really helpful to shoot digitally. But I still love film; I think I always will.

Would you say that you have your own preferred aesthetic that you bring to the table or to you like to work with the director to develop the aesthetic of a film? 

I think it really depends on the narrative — story always comes first to me, and definitely dictates the look of the film. I don’t love cinematography that’s very flashy because I find that it keeps the audience from becoming a part of the film; it becomes sort of self-reflective. I think when it’s done tastefully but naturally, you forget that you’re watching a movie, and that’s always sort of the goal for me. The only consistency in the work I do is that I try to use cinematography to best tell the narrative and do justice to the character arcs, but not to do it in such an overt way that people are distracted by it.

You’ve had so many films at Sundance. How significant is it to premiere there? 

This is an interesting time because there’s such an oversaturation of media. It’s so hard to stand out and Sundance is one of the few festivals that gets the attention that allows a film to actually get some traction. It was always a stamp of approval, but now you really need it more than you used to. I think it’s a great launching pad for tons of artistic careers. 

How did you become involved with "Cake"?

"Cake" came about through my agency. That was a kind of cold interview, and the director Daniel Barnz and I really saw eye to eye from the outset, and had a lot of similar references. I believe he had seen "Little Accidents," and got to see Elizabeth Banks in an unglamorous role. That probably helped get me "Cake" which featured Jennifer Aniston in a very glammed-down role. It was incredible to given the challenge of taking this actress who’s very, very, very recognizable, and recognizable in a very particular way, and being allowed to shoot her in a very different way. If Jennifer Aniston looked like Rachel from "Friends" the movie was going to be completely fall on its ass.

What was it like working with Jennifer Aniston?

Thankfully, Jennifer was really incredibly trusting and brave, and allowed us to photograph for drama and not for beauty. Taking that chance to be that vulnerable is really rare, and takes a huge amount of bravery and trust. I hope it encourages more actresses to take that same chance, because I think the more we’re allowed to photograph people in a real way, and light for drama — the better the product is going to be. You need a character to have a complete arc, and I think the problem with movies where you’re chasing the lead actress with beauty light, is that you can’t create a complete visual arc, and therefore the characters don’t get to have the same kind of revelation that they might otherwise.

You’ll be on a panel that I’ll be moderating during Sundance focusing on female cinematographers. Do you think there is undue focus, or not enough focus on the fact that there aren’t that many female cinematographers?

You know, it’s funny — I’ve changed my view on that. For the longest time — Reed [Morano] is one of my best friends, and we were almost on a mission to get people to stop talking about us as female DPs and just focus on us as DPs who just happen to be female. While I still feel that way inherently and I think in the long run, that would actually be a real win, I have realized the focus that’s placed on the lack of female directors is starting to make a difference. There are actually mandates on a studio level to get more female directors in the door, and I think that’s not happening for below-the-line. I actually was given a unique opportunity to direct a network TV show last year, despite relatively little directing experience. A network approved me to direct, and I, for the life of me, can’t seem to get a major network to let me shoot. And that’s a real — that says something. While I hope for a world where we’re just looked at as cinematographers and not female cinematographers, if the attention helps to open that door, then maybe it’s not a bad thing.

I wish we didn’t need to focus on it — I’d rather be part of the rule, and not the exception to the rule — but I suppose if the focus helps to get us all there, I guess I’ll embrace it.

What was the TV show you directed?

It’s an episode of John Ridley’s new show called "American Crime." I think the show will premiere in March; my episode will premiere, I believe, in May. John Ridley went to bat for me based on my work in "Fruitvale Station" — and he was really looking for non-typical television directors. And ABC went for it, which is kind of shocking considering I’ve now met with several networks to DP pilots and even with the directors and producers going to bat for me, when I get to the network level, that’s where I get shut down. It’s mind-boggling that I was approved to direct with so little directing experience, and have still so many challenges as a shooter with 10+ years under my belt.

And then, are you hoping to direct more? Is that a goal of yours?

I really don’t know. I enjoyed it a lot, but I enjoyed that it was different; it was a new set of challenges…It was just a really fascinating, interesting experience, and I enjoyed it a lot. But I love shooting. It’s always been my passion and I would never want to give up cinematography in favor of directing, so if I could do both, that would be ideal. But I don’t want to compromise — I would hate for people to hear I started directing, and not want to hire me to shoot; that would be my biggest fear in going down that road. Photography is where I come from, and what I’ve always loved to do. I would never want to give up being behind the lens.

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