“While We’re Young” marks the third time DP Sam Levy has worked with Noah Baumbach in four years. In 2012, Levy lensed Baumbach’s DSLR-shot “Frances Ha” in stylish black-and-white before shooting “Mistress America,” which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and will get a release later this year via Fox Searchlight.
After premiering at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, “While We’re Young,” which stars Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as a 40-something couple who sparks up a friendship with a younger couple (Amanda Seyfried and Adam Driver), hit select theaters on March 27 before recently expanding nationally.
Levy recently spoke with Indiewire about his work with Baumbach and other directors, including Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy and Lucy”). He’s currently shooting Rebecca Miller’s “Maggie’s Plan,” starring Julianne Moore, Ethan Hawke, Greta Gerwig and Bill Hader.
It’s no surprise that Levy says the most important quality in a cinematographer is “restraint” given that most of imagery is subtly effective without being at all showy.
“All the elements that comprise cinematography, what I find satisfying is subtlety and restraint, not ostentatious or gaudy or flashy imagery that jumps out at you,” Levy told Indiewire. “I think the job of being a cinematographer is a constant exercise in patience and restraint in different kinds of ways.”
That’s certainly the case with “While We’re Young,” where the cinematography completely fit the tone of the film, but wasn’t at all flashy or ostentatious. It didn’t feel gimmicky at all.
It’s the kind of photography that doesn’t really stand out. People won’t make a point of saying, “Wow, the cinematography of ‘While We’re Young’!” And that wasn’t deliberate. I didn’t set out to say, “I want nobody to think about it!”
With “Frances Ha,” the cinematography certainly stood out more.
There are a lot of reasons why the cinematography stood out to people, and a primary reason was because it was in black-and-white. No matter what, if a movie is black-and-white then the cinematography stands out. For “While We’re Young,” it was not deliberate to really have it be in the background. But it definitely was deliberate for it to be natural. It had to be a part of the visual fabric that was in support of the story and the performances. I wanted people to get lost in the world of Josh (Stiller), Cornelia (Watts) and Jamie (Driver) and Darby (Seyfried) without being like, “Wow, that’s so beautiful!” We didn’t want the cinematography to take you outside of that experience, so that part was deliberate.
And, obviously, a big part of the film is looking at the different worlds of those two couples. How did the look of the film help to distinguish their two worlds?
There’s one thing to me that sets them apart and stand out and that’s lighting. Josh and Cornelia live in a railroad apartment in Brooklyn – very nice, but not that big. Jamie and Darby live in a big, airy loft in Bushwick. So in terms of the lighting, what sets them apart right off the bat is that at Jamie and Darby’s, you have the space filled with soft, silvery-blue daylight. At Josh and Cornelia’s, even in the daytime, they have to turn on all these lights because the daylight doesn’t extend into their New York City railroad apartment.
Practically speaking, when we found this location, we thought about what would anthropologically fit these characters of a New School professor and documentary professor and what they might be able to afford. So if the kitchen is in the middle of the apartment, it would never get daylight and you would have to turn the lights on in there every time you went in. To set them apart visually in the lighting, Josh and Cornelia’s has a mixture of daylight and these blue and gold color temperatures, and Jamie and Darby’s has this silvery-blue. Theirs is more free and airy to fit all their books and CDs and chicken cages. The light supports that. In the railroad apartment it’s like, “We come home, we turn on the lights and everything has its place.”
“While We’re Young” reminded me of “Bob and Carole and Ted and Alice” and some of the films of the ’70s. Did you look at other movies as visual references? And did you have ’70s films in mind?
The thing that was the most inspiration were the color films by Gordon Willis in the ’70s, things like “Annie Hall” and John Huston’s “Fat City,” which is one of my favorites. Some of the naturalistically photographed films from the ’70s were definitely a starting point. It was helpful to look at those films, as well as photography like the subway prints of Bruce Davidson as a guide to how to work digitally.
Even though it’s shot digitally, “While We’re Young” has a “film” look. Was that intentional?
Everything from top to bottom is photographed and processed digitally on “While We’re Young.” Despite the fact that the technology is digital, our intent was for “While We’re Young” to have a photochemical, silvery, analogue feeling. We wanted to remove all of the electronic artifacting from the image as much as we reasonably could in camera. A lot of it had to do with our intention. Our intention was for it not to look like video or electronic and instead have it maybe resemble one of the artifacts you might find in Jamie and Darby’s place. And it was a reasonable thing shooting on an Alexa.
One of the bittersweet treats of getting to work on the post-production side of the movie was we actually got to make a 35mm print of the movie at Technicolor New York, which was great. We got to do that and it looked just fantastic. The intention of it being photochemical and from the ’70s was realized in the creation of a 35mm print. It was the last thing processed at the Technicolor film lab in New York City before it closed. On its very last day of existence, we were proofing the print they had made of the movie. It was the last print of a movie ever made there.
Was there any discussion about shooting on film?
With each film [I’ve worked on with Noah, it] was a part of the discussion. “Should we shoot film? Should we shoot digital?” We went through a series of discussions and tests and each film had its own process, after which we arrived at the format we used. With “While We’re Young,” we just got into a rhythm of working with the ARRI Alexa and working with our brilliant colorist. We had this real streamlined, satisfying way of working digitally that we went with it for the movie.
There’s certainly been an effort to keep film alive in terms of keeping Kodak in business. Is that a worthy effort?
Absolutely. My personal experience as a working cinematographer is that the first few feature films that I was hired to do, I shot them on video because they were low budget. My first film was a horror movie on mini DV and we couldn’t afford anything else. Eventually, Kelly Reichardt hired me to shoot her movie “Wendy and Lucy,” which we shot on 16mm, and then from there I started shooting movies on film. Technology has changed and things have happened… it used to be that film was more light sensitive and digital was slower, and now that’s changed.
The digital cameras can see more than our eyes can see. Film was never that way. Film is not as light sensitive as our eyes. It’s hard to observe the passing.. a few years ago the last Kodachrome lab closed. Kodachrome was this magical chrome film with a very complicated chemical bath that’s now gone. Now film is just holding on. There’s no more in New York. There are very few technicians who are there to support it. It’s sad.
I certainly think it’s worthy to keep Kodak around and to keep the labs around and to keep the small amount of experts employed, and yet, it’s hard. As someone who lives in New York, if you want to shoot a movie on film in New York City you need to send it to be processed in Los Angeles. It’s hard to reconcile what that means, especially if you’re working on a modest sized production.
At the of the day, what we’re trying to do, the process I just described for you, that’s just an effort to emulate what film is. It’s sad and I also completely participated in shooting digitally for the last however many years, really my entire career. There are some people who are proactive about using film and lobbying to shoot film, and I haven’t exactly been one of those people, only because I went down the digital path from the outset.
How did you begin your collaboration with Noah?
I met Noah through Harris Savides, who was his cinematographer on “Margot at the Wedding” and “Greenberg.” I had worked as Savides’ camera assistant for years and we remained friends. He was an incredible mentor to me. When “Frances Ha” came up, Harris was not available and he suggested Noah meet me. That’s how I met Noah, and he had seen “Wendy and Lucy,” and from there, we just hit it off.
Having shot three films with Noah, I’m guessing you have a shorthand way of communicating.
Definitely. Out of the three films we’ve done together, “While We’re Young” had the biggest production budget on it and the largest amount of crew in support of the process. It was nice to go into it having made these smaller films because we agreed without having to discuss it too much that we wanted to do the same kind of things on this bigger production that we had done on “Frances Ha.”
We wanted to keep things minimal and intimate. Our first discussions were all about being sure to keep doing what we’ve been doing but, with the appropriate variations based on the new story and new actors. We wanted to preserve our method of working, which is to say, “Let’s not have any piece of equipment or anybody in the room who doesn’t need to be there.”
What was great was intuitively understanding what that meant because I had worked on these other projects. But we could also make use of these new people. I had a brilliant gaffer and key grip and an Oscar-winning production designer [Adam Stockhausen] and [Ann Roth,] the costume designer who worked on “Midnight Cowboy,” so we could work in a minimal way with all these brilliant filmmakers and kept this principle of simplistic filmmaking. Everyone got on board and we all went down the road together.
What’s the most crucial element to a successful relationship with a director? What’s your ideal working relationship?
The most important element on both sides is trust. I have to trust the director and, of course, the director has to trust me. One of the things that really works well in my relationship with Noah is that I really trust him and I feel really trusted by him….Sometimes Noah might say, “Here we should cut to a close-up,” and there are times when I might not see it, but I just know if he’s making that kind of suggestion, it’s always for a good reason. I never even question it, we just start doing it immediately.
The director needs to trust me when it comes into things like allowing me to do my job – hiring the crew I think is appropriate, giving me freedom with lighting, stuff like that. I’ll usually do a pass at a scene and Noah doesn’t feel the need to be present at every moment. He’s a part of every aspect of the process, but allows me to do my job, and my job is to direct the photography in the direction he’s set out for us to do. I need to bring it back and he needs to be pleased with it, so trust is very important. It’s essential. Trust and patience.