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“My Best Tool is Empathy”: Four Female Cinematographers on “The Female Gaze”

The Milk of Sorrow

“I think women drill down and they’re not afraid of emotion,” says cinematographer Joan Churchill about females working behind the camera in film. Joined by other lauded DPs Ashley Connor (The Miseducation of Cameron Post), Agnès Godard (35 Shots of Rum) and Natasha Braier (Neon Demon) on a panel as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s The Female Gaze series, the women discussed the breadth of their work. Running currently through August 9th at the Walter Reade Theater in New York City, the series shines light on incredible cinematographers throughout the decades, all of whom are women. Some of the additional DPs featured include Reed Morano, Ellen Kuras, Rachel Morrison and Maryse Alberti. Churchill, whose film Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer is screening during the series, discussed on the panel how she is often physically close to her subjects and works on building that trust. In Aileen, she spent time shooting, with blistering humanity, the killer leading up to her execution. There was a common consensus among the panelists that empathy and a strong sense of intuition are skills that have been key in all of their careers. In regards to gender being a valuable factor in their journeys as DPs, Connor urged, “There is something that women bring,” addressing her peers. “When I look at your work, Ellen Kuras, heroes of mine, it unlocks something emotional in me.”

Rather than focus on what it means to be a female DP “in the business,” Filmmaker had a chance to ask each of the four panelists four questions about what it means to embrace that emotion, and their own identity, in their work. We also break down the ways the cinematographers approached a select scene from each of their films. How does their specific gaze lead to their works’ delicate and groundbreaking storytelling? When watching their films, there’s an attention to each frame, utilizing it to create maximum feeling.

Ashley Connor

Filmmaker: Your style feels very fluid and you’ve worked on everything from more experimental Josephine Decker films like Madeline’s Madeline, to Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person to now Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post. What inspires you in a script, and then how do you preserve your voice across various genres/tones?

Connor: I hope there’s strong connective tissue between all my work. To some degree, it’s a reflection of how I approach the world. But I really like being a malleable cinematographer and trying out different styles; it gets too boring to do the same thing over and over again. When I read a script I ask myself, why does this film matter? Why does it need to be made? That’s my guiding force these days; there’s so much garbage and so much violence in film (especially against women) that I really need a movie to justify itself or have some subversive element. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Filmmaker: The Miseducation of Cameron Post feels almost clinical in the way it’s shot — there’s nothing dreamy about the setting or situation. What conversations did you have with director Desiree Akhavan going into the shoot about the cinematography?

Connor: Desiree and I knew that the cinematography had to reflect the institutional nature of the facility and the imprisonment of these kids. The color palette was muted and beige (special shoutout to our fantastic production designer and costume designer: Markus Kirschner and Stacey Berman) and there are a lot of formal elements to the frames themselves. We wanted to avoid comparisons to But I’m A Cheerleader because ultimately this film is very grounded in reality. It doesn’t have flashy cinematography and the moments of joy depicted still have an enormous cloud over them. Desiree wanted the film to have an inherent weight because leaving the camp doesn’t magically end the trauma they endured.

Filmmaker: Tell me about a lens, lighting set up or other tool that you find helpful in emotional storytelling. Like say, a wide lens for certain monologues, etc.

Connor: My best tool is empathy. My second best tool is having a talented cast and crew. You can have all the lights and the best lenses/camera/etc, but to be surrounded by such a loving group of people all working towards the same goal makes my job so much easier. So for me it comes down to performance and story, and the way the cast brought life to these characters was fundamentally the most emotional part about making the film.

Filmmaker: Without me giving away too much, can you talk about shooting the scene where Mark (Owen Campbell) recites the bible verse to the group at camp, losing control? The camera has a lot to accomplish there emotionally and narratively.

Connor: It’s really a testament to Owen Campbell’s ability as an actor and Desiree’s ability as a director to really listen and be present on set. He was so thoroughly prepared, and the entire cast and crew knew it would be a difficult day and really respected that space. I was so moved by his performance, and Desiree gave me the freedom to react to his actions in an honest way. Mark is an important character because he represents the reality of gay conversion therapy and the self-hatred instilled in the kids sent there. We never wanted the ensemble cast to feel like props because the movie could be about any of their journeys, but this scene in particular, you feel the depth of their understanding of Mark’s anger. Also, we made this film during the last presidential election and it really defined the heart and purpose of the film. Gay conversion therapy is only restricted in 15 states and the morning after Trump won, Desiree stood in front of the whole cast and crew, gave an incredible speech and led everyone out of the collective darkness. So I guess this scene felt cathartic for everyone.

Agnes Godard

Filmmaker: I find that your cinematography is both cinematic, but also raw and truthful. How do you utilize the camera, lighting and framing to create this unique tone?

Godard: When I look through the camera, after lighting and framing have been defined, I ask myself only one question: do I believe in what I see to produce the sense and sensation that the narrative requires? My wish is that the camera will be forgotten into the evidence of the image!

Filmmaker: You’ve worked with Claire Denis may times. What’s your work process like? Maybe it varies across films?

Godard: Each film with Claire has been the subject of research, finding something new, not something experienced before in terms of images as narration. It is exploring faith in cinematography every time.

Filmmaker: Can you name a moment in one of your films where you felt like you communicated the feeling of the scene best?

Godard: Dancing sequences easily communicate a strong sensation in feelings. It may be because it is mostly mute, it may be because it’s like dancing too, experiencing the camera finding a rhythm with the actor’s rhythm. But generally any shot can create this plain feeling too if the camera suggests there is no more to see.

Filmmaker: In 35 Shots of Rum I was particularly drawn to the dancing scene where the father Lionel (Alex Descas) is staring down Noé (Grégoire Colin) while he kisses Joséphine (Mati Diop). It’s a subtle, but climactic scene. Tell me about shooting that and your choices.

Godard: In 35 Shots of Rum the dancing scene with Noé and Joséphine was done on a dolly (opposite from the following scene which was shot hand-held). The scene starts with Lionel dancing with his daughter, and then Noé replaces him. We then become Lionel’s POV during the real time of a song, following the development of this intimate moment between his daughter and her boyfriend. The camera keeps the same shot during the whole dance. But we see, as [Lionel] does, that Joséphine escapes after kissing. He wishes her to fly away but she does not. We don’t know why: is she not in love with Noé or does she not want to leave her father ? It happens all at once, it is not a description: it happens during the time of a song!

Joan Churchill

Filmmaker: Your choices in this documentary were incredibly effective. What preparation did you do going into shooting this film?

Churchill: Aileen: Life & Death of a Serial Killer was a film that came calling on us. Nick Broomfield had made a film about Aileen Wuornos ten years earlier when she was first arrested for killing six men. We were in the middle of shooting Biggie & Tupac when Nick received a summons to appear at the final appeals trial for Aileen. I grabbed my first ever small digital camera, the Sony PD 150, and off we went. We got permission from the judge in Ocala, FL as well as from the sheriff who let us shoot an interview with Aileen in jail. When we heard the testimony of Aileen’s childhood friends describing her life after she’d been kicked out of her home, we were horrified. She was the product of incest as was her mother, she was abused by her grandfather, she slipped through all the social services, her teachers didn’t remember her.

Filmmaker: I imagine there was talk of how you wanted to approach the visuals while simultaneously planning on the unexpected with Aileen.

Churchill: Even though we were in the middle of another production, we felt that Aileen’s unfolding story was important. We didn’t have funding so I continued to shoot with the small camera. It was my first experience shooting this way. (Biggie & Tupac was the last production I shot in 16mm). My relationship to the people I was pointing my camera at completely changed once I was able to take the camera off my shoulder. I suspect there is some aspect of shooting holding the camera away from my face that makes me more a participant. I can be a person, not just a big glass eye. They can see my face & my reactions to what is happening & understand I am not a threat to them. For me, it means I am somehow more present.

Also, the small camera is liberating because it is not intimidating. We were hanging out with people who had never been filmed before who were revealing very personal details of their experiences with Aileen. I want to be accepted into the circle of interactions between people so I am physically very close to them when I shoot. This means that they often acknowledge me and I often interact with them. It becomes very experiential.

Filmmaker: Do you view your camera as an extension of you? How is your emotional perspective as a creator utilized in the filming process, and can you give a specific example across your breadth of work?

Churchill: My shooting this film so tight on Aileen is a good example of my emotional perspective coloring my shooting choices. I definitely use the camera as an extension of myself. Without over-intellectualizing it, I simply point the camera in the direction of what I am interested in looking at in the moment. An example: two people are talking to each other and I, the observer, am interested in what one of them is saying, then I become interested in the reaction of the person listening, so the camera moves in sync with my interests. Of course the person behind the camera must be listening & anticipating. I try to make all the camera moves usable and to make them when the moment is right, i.e. when it is appropriate. Too many shooters aren’t paying attention to the content of what is being said & make their moves without thinking about how it might force an editor to make a cut, or how important the moment is.

There are times when it is best not to move at all, when the emotional heat is high. I have been shooting a film about a Psych ER where people come in in deeply extreme states. I do not want to add to their misery by calling attention to myself, so I find one spot where I can settle and stay put, sometimes for the entire interaction between staff and patient.

To summarize, people behind the camera who are trying to capture real life as it unfolds must be sensitive to what they encounter & be respectful. Their people skills are as important as their shooting abilities, maybe more so. If they show genuine interest in others, that shines through & people will let them into their lives. This is a very privileged position. Then it is their job as shooters to honor that relationship, try not to betray it and provide viewers with the experience that has been “captured” with their cameras.

Filmmaker: I want to break down the scene in prison where Aileen first tells Nick, “I’m going to come clean,” about her conviction. This scene is jarringly close up, static and abrasive. I kept noticing where her eyes were darting — from Nick to the camera and back. Tell me about the choices in shooting that scene and its importance.

Churchill: This is the first interview (out of three) we did with Aileen. Aileen was having a great time during her appeals trial. She was seeing her old buddies as they gave their testimony. She was in the local Ocala jail, a much easier-going place than Death Row where she had spent the last ten years in the women’s wing in total isolation. She was probably relating to me because I was a woman. I also was holding the camera, which she needed to address. Her message to us during that first interview was that she had killed the six men in cold blood, a total reversal of her prior testimony that she had killed in self-defense, in which she had movingly described in detail the horribly violent rape that had set her off on her killing spree. But Aileen no longer wanted to live. The ten years in isolation had affected her & she had deteriorated. She claimed to us that her head was being crushed by sonic pressure, her food was poisoned. This first interview set us on our quest to get to the truth. What had happened to Aileen when she was young, what caused her to kill six men, why did she recant her initial testimony?

The experience of shooting Aileen was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. Aileen was determined to go to the gas chamber. That’s tough emotionally. I got sucked into those tortured eyes of hers. I shot much tighter than I normally would. I wasn’t conscious of it. In fact my mentor, Colin Young, when he saw the finished film, asked me about my choice of shooting so tight and it hadn’t occurred to me until that moment that that’s what I had done.

Natasha Braier

Filmmaker: Watching your films The Neon Demon and The Milk of Sorrow back to back, I find that you’re really able to draw out the inner life of your characters, and I continually find myself connected to them. How do you approach the emotional arcs of the characters you’re shooting — how you frame and light them, how the camera language tells their journey?

Braier: This is a very interesting observation. Yes, I always try to reflect the emotional arc of the characters through cinematography; I used different tools on each film, depending on the visual language of each film. In The Milk of Sorrow, there is a progression in the way that Fausta (Magaly Solier) conquers the frame. At the beginning of the film the environment is dominant, she has not found her place yet. When the mother dies in the first scene, the city which is outside the window takes over through a camera movement and she ends up transported from the interior of the room, her comfort zone and safe environment, to suddenly being outside; or to be more precise, the outside comes and invades the inside. When she is working at the pianist’s house, we are framing for the space, the scale is dictated by the architecture and Fausta tends to be a small presence which doesn’t quite belong there. We play with her size in the frame and also with her positioning in areas of the frame where the composition is unbalanced. As she starts to empower herself, she starts to get more grounded in the frame, the scale adjusts to her, she owns it.

Filmmaker: The Neon Demon has such a unique aesthetic. How early on in the concepting are you involved? What was that process like with director Nicolas Winding Refn?

Braier: The process with Nic was very organic and very exciting. He didn’t give me visual references to depart from. We talked a lot about the subject, about being foreigners in LA, about moods, feelings, music. He gave me a playlist with music that had inspired him and a list of films to watch, but they weren’t visual references to follow, it was more to do with mood and tone, and nothing was like, I wanna do this. It was more like, somewhere where all these crazy films meet is Neon Demon, but I don’t know yet….

I joined prep very early on and we chose all the locations together. We saw many options for each location, so during that process of elimination and all the dialogue involved in what we needed, wanted and not wanted, we started to create the world of Neon Demon together. Nicolas is great in the way that he gives a lot of creative room to his collaborators, he knows what he wants but he is at the same time very open and he invites you to dare out of your comfort zone and take risks, without fear of failure, embracing the process, and that brings the best out of people. What I also love the most about Nic’s process is that he shoots chronologically. This allows the process to be a lot more organic and for the script and the movie to develop and grow as you go. I really felt that we were finding the soul of the movie as we were shooting, more than in any other film, because every day we had the total freedom of not being conditioned by other stuff that was already shot. The movie could move forward and change and evolve organically .

Filmmaker: What’s something you feel personally connected to that you want to shoot, but haven’t yet? A person, a story, a circumstance or landscape?

Braier: There are many stories and characters I would love to shoot that I haven’t yet, but it’s hard to say one. I would really love to shoot some sci-fi next.

Filmmaker: Tell me about shooting the scene in The Neon Demon when the photographer, Jack (Desmond Harrington), closes the set for a shoot with Jesse (Elle Fanning). How did you approach a scene that has multiple layers of emotion going on for each character and is ultimately uncomfortable? The framing and lens choices are wonderfully specific.

Braier: There are a lot of things going on. We wanted to evoke this prey feeling and this total exposure, nakedness, even before she gets actually naked. The white cyc was a great canvas for that. We used framing to feel her powerless in the sea of white. When the lights go off, for a moment, we feel he may actually rape her but then it turns out that somehow the darkness feels safer than the bright light. The fear turns into pleasure. But isn’t it still a form of rape? When the lights are on she is raped by the gaze, long distance, and feels more invaded than when he is actually touching her with the golden paint. That other type of rape feels actually closer to pleasure than suffering for both her and the audience, and there is something really interesting to reflect on in there.

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