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“Initially it Seemed Impossible”: DP Greta Zozula on Never Goin’ Back

Never Goin' Back

Actor and filmmaker Augustine Frizzell made her debut as a feature director at Sundance this year with Never Goin’ Back, the shaggy-dog story of two teenage friends played by Maia Mitchell and Camila Morrone. Frizzell has appeared as an actor in the films of David Lowery (her husband) in addition to Krisha and a number of shorts. She tapped DP Greta Zozula to shoot the script, which she also wrote. Filmmaker spoke with Zozula ahead of the film’s premiere in the Midnight lineup about the perils of shifting daylight, the influence of Paul Thomas Anderson and the film’s strategic use of handheld camerawork.

Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?

Zozula: A good friend of mine Joe Anderson recommended me. He was shooting Old Man and the Gun with Augustine, Toby [Halbrooks] and James [M. Johnston] at the time. Toby first got in touch with me and sent me the script. I immediately fell in love with it. When I first spoke to Augustine I would say we really hit it off. It was one of those effortless conversations where everything clicked. Her enthusiasm and love for her film was incredibly contagious, and I found it easy to talk about my goals and aspirations for the film as it read. One thing led to another and I was really excited when they asked me to join the team.

Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?

Zozula: My ultimate goal was to find the best balance of energy through camera movement that complimented, not competed, with the performances of our leads Angela and Jessie. The girls are the film and the approach was finding the best way to carry them through the narrative. If the girls were on the move the camera was moving with them. Augustine and I talked a lot about how to use Steadicam and dolly over handheld for most scenes. We both agreed that the energy that comes from more fluid direct movements matched the energy better and created a constant flow. When we did use handheld we were highly selective – four scenes to be exact. We agreed that if were going to use it, it had to be for specific moments in the film. The first time we used handheld it was to enhance a very chaotic scene in the first act. This scene is loud, fast and exhausting. Handheld felt like the natural choice because the characters in the scene are all over the place and the camera movement wanted to be more frenetic. To make sure it was set apart we sandwiched it between scenes that are much calmer and shot in simple very static coverage. It gives the desired effect and also gives the audience a break.

The second use for handheld, was to create almost the exact opposite effect. These scenes came as “pauses” specifically designed to come after tension-building moments. It created a depth that we felt brought the audience closer to the girls. In these scenes we are much more intimate with the girls in a way that kind of feels like you are in on a secret. Another very specific creative choice was in composition. When it came to the girls, we decided it was important to never let one character lead stronger than the other. In the first few scenes we made sure they had very balanced coverage. As the story progresses, each girl has a scene that favors one over the other and then by the climax we become balanced again.

Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?

Zozula: We did reference a few films. The Big Lebowski, Dazed and Confused and Boogie Nights were some of the bigger influences. Lebowski and Dazed have great examples of long takes with multiple characters. We talked a lot about how to use two shots and three shots as the primary coverage and save close up coverage for more specific moments. Boogie Nights had a lot of influence on camera movement and pacing. We used PTA as a reference for pacing a lot. Music was a very influential part of the process. Augustine made two playlists for everyone during prep. One was for the girls, one for the guys. The playlists were incredibly important in understanding what she wanted the movie to feel like. Some of the songs are even in the final edit; one song for example is used in the ending of the film.

Other influences came from the environment itself. Each location brought on new ideas and would influence the coverage and the lighting. The film is set in present day, but a lot of the narrative is influenced by events that took place in the ’90s, so it was really important to bring that feel into the overall look. Our production designer Olivia Peebles achieved a lot of that by incorporating it into set design and Annell Brodeur with costume design.

Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?

Zozula: I would say for a film of this size we faced a lot of the usual challenges. We had a tight schedule, a small budget and a lot of locations. In addition to that we had a fairly large cast. This meant that we had to prioritize, manage expectations and be as flexible as possible. Our production team was great at making big challenges far more manageable by making sure this was clear from the beginning. This way I knew what I was getting into right away and what I needed to focus on and prioritize. Going into it, we knew with most locations we had to rely on a lot of available light so all exterior scenes were weather dependent and a lot of interior scenes were too. This was challenging on a lot of levels. Continuity was particularly hard because we had to rely on the weather; we had a good mix of sun and rain throughout filming. The heat was another challenge, so exterior scenes had to be broken up, and we couldn’t really shoot in the middle of the day, which ultimately was fine and better for lighting purposes. It just meant a lot of strategy had to go into scheduling to make it all work together. In regards to tight scheduling – we had one day to film all of our bus related scenes, six in total, one day, one night, some moving – and all with rigging and de-rigging. We had two exterior day scenes where we had to time the bus on a live street. Then we had a dolly/zoom shot that had to time out with the girls exiting the bus. And to top it off we had a company move to a bus station to finish the night. Initially it seemed impossible but we were able to pull it off because of the amount of prep that went into that day. One of my favorite shots of the film also happened on this day and I am forever grateful to my focus puller, Justin Scheidt, for being able to nail every take. The dolly zoom of the girls when the bus pulled up was a testament to fluid actions of everyone that day.

Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?

Zozula: We shot on a few different ARRI cameras. Most of the film was shot on an Amira. The size of this camera was perfect for fitting into smaller spaces, and I personally prefer it over other ARRI bodies for handheld. It balances on the shoulder for very precise operating. We also shot with an Alexa Classic for two camera days and a Mini for some pickup days. Ultimately I chose Alexa cameras over RED, Sony or others because it’s the camera I am the most familiar with. I know how far I can push it when it comes to lighting, and that takes a lot of stress out of certain locations and situations you can’t fully plan for or control. The lenses I chose were Cooke S4s. I have always loved these lenses. They are softer than most newly produced lenses but hold up when shooting them all the way open unlike a lot of older vintage options in our budget. I wanted to avoid focal distortion and funky flares. There also wasn’t a lot of time to test a bunch of lenses and different looks, so I went with what I knew would work. We also had an Angeneuix zoom lens 17-80 on tap for when needed.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Zozula: My usual approach is to light to the environment and use the environment to light. I think it’s the most natural and least invasive way to approach lighting, especially when you don’t have full control of the space. For this film that approach was key. Most of our locations were on location with varying degrees of control, some with a lot and some with very little. There is a balance when you have both because you don’t want the controlled locations to look different from the non-controlled ones without completely compromising the overall. I played off sodium vapor for most of the night scenes. The main house location is in the suburbs, so we used “street light” as a big motivator for exterior light coming through the windows. This worked well with all of our night exterior scenes and was a nice continuity throughout. When it came to more controlled environments we did come up with a couple lighting looks specific to the mood. We wanted certain scenes to feel more depressing then other, when the girls are at their lowest point. For example, for Rodrick’s office and the bus station bathroom we went with harder top lighting and stronger ratios, played in the greens and yellows a little bit more. These scenes were not meant to be comforting or flattering; we wanted you to see how gross the girls felt. And in contrast, we lit the girl’s bedroom with softer warmer light. We really wanted their bedroom to stick out from the rest of the interior locations because this is their safe place. We wanted it to feel more inviting and comfortable. I wanted it to share a look that reflected how they were feeling in that space.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?

Zozula: We definitely had a couple fun ones. We had some scenes that ended up being harder because of the amount of coverage we needed or unforeseen challenges but the one that sticks out to me is a scene we did at the diner where the girls work. This scene comes near the beginning of the film when we first meet Crystal and Rodrick. It’s special to me because it’s one of the first scenes that Augustine and I talked about, and it’s also a scene that has stayed the same all the way to the final edit. The biggest challenge was that it’s a Steadicam oner with five characters with two pages of dialogue. Steadicam was important for this scene because we were introducing an environment that needed to feel like a never ending moving cycle. A lot was happening in this scene, and cutting away didn’t feel right. The balance was moving through it quickly enough that the scene didn’t drag but slow enough to take in all of the important moments. It took a lot of careful choreography between the operator and the actors to find that balance. We had very limited time to rehearse and shoot it. All in all we had about three hours to pull the whole thing off. Lighting was also very tricky in this space. Basically the only way to light this scene was from above, but the way the ceiling came out over the set we couldn’t fit a source above them without seeing it. We had to redirect the light by bouncing it and extend the ceiling to create a bigger source. In the end it seemed pretty straightforward but took some creative, outside-the-box thinking.

Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?

Zozula: We worked with the colorist during prep and came up with a couple looks to reference during the shoot. Most were created at the main house location. We kept in mind that the looks would not work in a lot of the other locations where we wouldn’t be able to change color temperature or match it. The quality of light would be different too, and for some exteriors the light would change mid shot. I kept a lot of this in mind while shooting and had a small list of shots that I knew would have to be tweaked in the DI. Ultimately I think what we did in the DI was pretty standard. I only had one scene that I wanted to change pretty drastically from what we shot. If anything, we played with colors a bit more. Added more pinks and purples to the girls’ bedroom and some of the flashback scenes.

TECH BOX:

  • Camera: ARRI Amira, Alexa Mini, Alexa Classic
  • Lenses: Cooke S4 Primes, Leica Summicron-C, Angenieux 17-80 zoom
  • Lighting: Available Light, Sky Panels, HMI, Leko,
  • Processing: Digital
  • Color Grading: DaVinci

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