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‘Palo Alto’ DP Autumn Durald On Being a Female Cinematographer

'Palo Alto' DP Autumn Durald On Being a Female Cinematographer

Since premiering last year at Telluride, Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto” has been creating buzz for its cast of promising young actors (Emma Roberts, Nat Wolff and Jack Kilmer), but there’s another “character” in the film that’s also received praise — the cinematography, which plays an important role in setting the mood for the coming-of-age tale.

The film, which recently screened at the Tribeca Film Festival and opens in several cities this Friday, was shot by Autumn Durald, who  previously collaborated with Coppola on fashion videos for Opening Ceremony and Diane Von Furstenberg. Though she shot “Palo Alto” digitally, Durald, inspired by the work of other Coppolas (“The Outsiders,” “The Virgin Suicides”), managed to recreate the dream-like, nostalgic feeling of 35 mm films from the ’70s and ’80s.

We caught up with Durald recently to talk about her visual inspirations, how she landed the plum gig, and what she has in store for us next.

What is your background?

I grew up in Northern California, and went to Loyola Marymount University for art history before going to the American Film Institute (AFI). I had a photography background and decided I wanted to be a DP (director of photography). At AFI, that program is pretty intensive and production-heavy. After that, between my first and second year, I was lucky enough to shoot a feature film with some other classmates on a film that was bought for IFC, “Macho.” It was a great learning experience. It was nice to have something to show people that I didn’t make at school. My first real job I’d have to say was something that is still very important to me, and I still work with this director – it was a Levi’s campaign that (director) Melodie McDaniel did. I met her through a friend I went to school with. She liked my work and gave me a big opportunity to work on a Levi’s campaign. Melodie has always been inspiring to me and supportive of me as well.

Is it challenging being a female cinematographer? Historically, there haven’t been many.

When I started, most of the cinematographers I was inspired by were men. But I love the work of Ellen Kuras, Sandy Sissel and Mandy Walker.

There’s been more media attention in the past few years on great work from female DPs. It inspires women who are wondering if cinematography is a possible career. I always had something strong to say visually and it never crossed my mind that being a female would get in the way of me becoming a DP. Male or female, each DP will bring their own experiences and women definitely offer a distinctive perspective.

So how did you get the “Palo Alto” gig?

I filled in for a friend one day. Gia started shooting some test shoots and using her friends as actors and I ended up shooting one of the scenes – the soccer scenes with April (Emma Roberts). I shot these scenes and we got along great and after that, she started using me and we’ve been working together ever since.

I read the script and had known about the book so it had been something I had known about. When Gia’s producer, who is also a good friend and has worked on everything that I’ve worked on, let me know that they were starting – after I had done the test shoot, we worked on some other fashion shoots together. I read the script and after I read the script, I was even more in love with it.

Read More: How Gia Coppola Turns James Franco’s Short Stories Into Cinematic Teen Angst in “Palo Alto”

How collaborative was the process?

From the test shoot until the time we shot “Palo Alto” was over a year. It had been on our minds for over a year. We were always discussing things we had liked — we had a bank of images. She (Gia) is really great about sending me her inspirations, and, more often than not, they coincide with what I have in mind. We’re very collaborative and she trusts me a lot. When you meet people and you have the same taste — and we have the same taste in photography and film — there were times on set when she didn’t have to say anything and I would know what she wants. But every director is different and it’s my job to adapt to whatever their process is.

What were your visual inspirations for “Palo Alto?”

I reference a lot of photography and films. Even an image you find online on Tumblr can inspire you. A lot of the photography that was inspiring was from William Eggleston and Steven Shore, and the main references were films like “The Last Picture show,” “American Graffiti,” “Virgin Suicides,” “Dazed and Confused,” “The Outsiders,” — some of these are her (Gia’s) family’s films, but they just happen to be some of my favorite films. All of them were shot on 35mm film. They have that nostalgic feel to the image and the texture. We drew from that.

What have you been working on since “Palo Alto” wrapped?

I’ve been doing a lot of commercial work after “Palo Alto.” My next feature will be this summer — it’s a Sundance script by Andrew Droz Palermo (“Rich Hill”). I’ve been in talks with him about that. Shooting features is obviously my favorite thing to do, but you do everything that comes your way.

Do you want to direct?

Filmmaking is such a collaborative effort. I am so inspired by working
with amazing directors and being a part of that process and taking their
ideas and delivering and being that crafts person for them. I think I
would miss that a lot. At this time, I’m just focusing on being the best
DP I can for these directors and telling these amazing stories. The
inspirations for me were Woody Allen and Gordon Willis. I read about that collaboration back in the day and that made me
want to have that with other directors. You can see the work that comes
from two people that contributes to the story in very direct ways.

What’s your advice for aspiring cinematographers?

I told someone the other day, who is a female DP in school, I told her, “Do everything you can.” She was concerned if she should not AC (assistant camera). I started out in photography and that eventually led to cinematography, but before I went to school, I started as an AC and I took every opportunity I could to shoot. You learn from everything you do. The more that you shoot, you end up deciding what you do and don’t want to shoot. It really helps you shape your career and helps you be more selective and helps you build your style.

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