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“Do We Need Another Movie about Two White Kids in Brooklyn?” DP Ashley Connor on Madeline’s Madeline, Shooting Commercials and Diversity

Helena Howard in Madeline's Madeline, courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

I screened the amorphous Madeline’s Madeline twice in preparation for my interview with DP Ashley Connor; on the second go-around, I realized I’d be as nonplussed on a third or forth. I didn’t write any questions because I couldn’t. But perhaps an improvised approach was truer to the spirit of Madeline’s Madeline, which refuses to be pinned down.

One of New York’s most prolific working DPs, Connor’s fervent demand for a higher standard of nuance, diversity, and inclusivity in the film industry naturally formed the backbone and throughline of our oscillating conversation which features, amongst other things, Nathaniel Dorsky’s Devotional CinemaGrand Theft Auto 5, Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together, Broad City etc.

Filmmaker: How do you feel about doing commercials in between your shorts and features?

Connor: I hate doing commercials [laughs]. I guess I shouldn’t say that because it’s like [in a high pitched voice] “Please hire me!” But no. I don’t do a lot of commercials specifically because I’m not that into them. I love the one I’m on currently. But it all just feels like we’re controlled by capitalism. The few commercials that I do have to have something positive in them that’s not just me getting a good paycheck.

Filmmaker: Do you dislike that many eyes looking over your shoulder?

Connor: I don’t mind that. It’s more about what I’m selling to people, which also relates to the kind of movies that I like to do. What do you want to say? How do you want to use your voice? When I go to shoot a movie I always have to ask myself, “Is this something that needs to exist in the world?” And if the answer’s no, it’s like “Cool. Chill. I’ll pass.”

Filmmaker: Are you able to say no to a lot?

Connor: My agents are good about what they bring to me. I think that they know my taste. Commercials beget commercials—and I’m usually doing movies, so.

Filmmaker: Did you go the NY film school route? How did you come up in the industry?

Connor: I went to film school in upstate New York at Ithaca College. I chose Ithaca because it was as far away from LA as I could get. [At Ithaca] you learned on film, shot on film and cut on film. It was a program that I really responded to, because a lot of the professors were experimental filmmakers.

Filmmaker: I went to film school at CU Boulder which was a similar thing. You shot and cut on film and they worshipped Stan Brakhage, who taught there and shaped the school in its founding years.

Connor: Oh, I’m well aware. When I was younger I did camera work on Grand Theft Auto 5, the motion capture stuff. I didn’t know what it was going to be when I started, because it wasn’t really up my alley. But I needed money, and once I realized what it was I was like, “Hopefully Phil Solomon will do something with this one day!” I loved all of the Boulder professors. Who was it, Marie Losier? Does she still teach there?   

Filmmaker: I’m not certain she taught there. I don’t think so, I dropped out after a couple of years, though.

Connor: Even better. I think film school is worth it. But for some people I do think it’s worthless. It kind of depends.

Filmmaker: They started to phase out of shooting/cutting on film by the end of my time there.

Connor: Yeah, it’s getting harder and harder, and it’s not for lack of love. People aren’t taught on it anymore. And people aren’t making enough film content. 

Filmmaker: On the experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky and his book Devotional Cinema, which we both experienced in film school… 

Connor: Devotional Cinema is a text I revisit often. Dorsky’s films are like meditating. You’re being led on a journey, but he is so specific about how his films are shown to an audience—he doesn’t have DVDs or anything like that. I can never find his stuff online, so seeing it in a theater always feels like a special event, and the memory of experiencing his films is one that feels like a distant dream. Same with Phil Solomon. These are filmmakers who create impossible images, I want to live forever in their films. 

Filmmaker: I’ve watched Madeline’s Madeline a couple of times now and can’t get a grasp on it. But there’s something going on with the way Madeline’s looked at and so admired, and later her mother becomes looked at in the same way. I don’t want to say Evangeline fetishizes them but—

Connor: No, totally. You could say that.

Filmmaker: But I think the camera does that to them too.

Connor: You’re bringing up something about point of view, which, I think, is what’s interesting about this movie. You really inhabit a certain perspective. One of the things we talked about was how we could shift that idolatry, I guess. At the beginning of the movie Madeline is super in love with Evangeline, and the way that she looks at her is as this mother figure archetype. I think the heart of the movie is really about who you listen to. Later in the movie, she starts to realize how Evangeline has been exploiting her and hasn’t really cared for her in the way that she thought she did. It’s this meta-narrative movie, a lot of which is about what it means to collaborate. What does it mean to ask your collaborators to give a lot of themselves? It was intentional for us to create a false idol and slowly deteriorate that. And with Madeline, who is having some kind of mental break but also growing—as that happens it’s almost like things become more literal and you’re capable of looking at her situation in a different light. It begins to change from the gauzy, more romantic images from the beginning.

Filmmaker: Would you say the way you’re treating the image becomes more natural?

Connor: I’d just use the word “literal.” It becomes more of a solid presence. By the dance sequence it feels, I don’t know, a little more digital to me? It was about showing you more, keeping things more in focus. There were obvious approaches to do it the other way, you know? As she breaks down the image breaks down. But we really wanted to resist that because it’s a little too obvious.  

Filmmaker: In that sequence it puts us into Evangeline’s POV (through her mask eyes holes), is that meant to say that, as the audience, we’re committing the same vices Evangeline has by fetishizing Madeline’s experience?

Connor: I don’t know. I would argue that it doesn’t really enter Evangeline’s perspective and that it all relates to Madeline. You kind of have to ground yourself in a perspective, and I think the one we mainly approach is Madeline’s. It really is about how she sees and feels the world. Obviously, Helena is very beautiful to look at, but I had to go beyond that, because that’s too easy I think.

Filmmaker: Is that amorphous focus effect happening at all in camera or is that being manipulated in post?

Connor: None of that is happening in post!

Filmmaker: How!?

Connor: I’m very resistant to explain the effect. Experimental film was my love in college, so I’ve been developing a process of bending the image since I was in school. The thing itself is not that complicated, but I think if I explained it it would lose its power and magic. There are people that I’ve told and they’ve tried to do it. It’s just more fun for people to figure out in camera effects on their own, because I think it makes for a more honest expression. This effect should feel like magic, and hopefully unruly magic. It’s not that complicated, just something I like to do.

Filmmaker: Don’t tell me. I assumed it was a post-effect. I’m familiar with lenses that fall out of focus at the edges but…

Connor: I also picked a specific lens kit that lent itself to creating images like this. We shot on Canon K35s. Kind of a janky package [laughs]. They had a lot of chromatic aberration, it bloomed in a funky way, and the focal plane was always very shallow. I knew that that would help us. 

Filmmaker: Any odd filtration in front of the lens?

Connor: No softening.

Filmmaker: Not a low con or anything?

Connor: No [laughs]. I’ve only gotten into softening filters more recently. I was kind of always against them. Not in a way that I was standing on some moral high ground, it just wasn’t something that I was interested in. I like the immediacy of the images when there’s not something in between you and it. But I’m playing around more now because it’s fun. You sometimes turn a page in your work where you do things that you once thought were stupid [laughs]. At the time that I was shooting this movie I had shot three movies in a row without using any filters. I used ND but didn’t use any softening filters. I just think that you feel the presence of the people slightly differently. But, filters are cool [laughs].  

Filmmaker: You also get to shoot on film. That experience hasn’t tempted you to take some of the edge off when you shoot digital?

Connor: On film I never use filters. With digital it depends on what the director’s looking for out of the image. I just shot the final season of Broad City and decided to use filters because the network had a 4K mandate. I wasn’t able to shoot on the Alexa, so I had to do something to soften the image a bit. It really just depends on the project. 

Filmmaker: It’s rare that filmmakers embrace the digital image. Especially American filmmakers.

Connor: That’s why I appreciated First Reformedso much. That’s an image that, to me, is quite digital and progressive in a very cool way.   

Filmmaker: On working with Josephine…

Connor: With Josephine chaos reigns. It’s very much about the surprise. She doesn’t like to shotlist. Even if we do plan, she gets bored of it quite quickly. So, we turn to the more improvisational camera that’s just sort of exploring and searching. It makes for more surprises, it makes Josephine more excited and makes the project more alive. 

Filmmaker: In the first conversation with Madeline and her mother in the car you use short-siding [blocking characters at an extreme edge of the frame with their eyeline directed out of the closer side]. I don’t think it’s ever used again. How do you find that specific of a technique in the chaos? 

Connor: Josephine’s always pushing to go farther with the image. I think on the first two movies she didn’t have a monitor. On this one she was always wondering how we could make it weirder, which is a word I don’t ever like to use, because it’s not descriptive in a way I respond to. But, it is just about finding new ways of looking.

Filmmaker: And in the scene where she rollerskates with that boy there’s a shot where the camera tilts up and drifts away from the action to a tree. That’s just something that feels right while you’re operating?

Connor: Yeah. I’d kind of done that on other projects that we did together. Josephine gives a lot of freedom to explore the world, and if the frame goes off of a face or if something happens off screen she’s not upset by that. I think it’s openly about what in the world moves you, what creates a feeling. In that moment she’s having what’s maybe her first romantic experience, so it was really about creating this desire and momentum.  I think Josephine is a talented constructor of worlds. She gets a talented group of people together to explore aspects of the universe, and I say that with a capital “U.” The types of images Josephine used to share with me were of constellations and space imagery. It was really just about what she could look at, what it meant to look at something, and what it meant to build something that’s bigger than yourself. 

Filmmaker: Do you ever show up with an internal dialogue about how you want to shoot a scene that goes unshared?

Connor: Sometimes. It’s such a low budget movie. We’re doing 11 pages a day and rushing through. Because Josephine is so process oriented with the actors, talking to them about the spiritual sense of the movie, the lighting setups have to benefit them more than the image. That means giving them more room to move. It’s not normal blocking. It’s really about creating spaces they can move freely through.  

Filmmaker: This budget level and “rushed” way of shooting works to the advantage of Madeline’s Madeline where it might not work for a different kind of film working in the same constraints.

Connor: The more money that gets involved in a project the harder it is to step out and do something that’s a little scary, ostly because you have other voices in the room saying they’re nervous about things [laughs]. Slowly, that stops experimentation. So yeah, I think this movie does only exist in this world where we had complete freedom, where we weren’t beholden to anything. 

Filmmaker: Did you have anything like a guideline going in?

Connor: You know, there’s this great word. I’m going to look for it in this book. It’s a word Wong Kar Wai and Chris Doyle use to describe how they do establishing shots. They are never location-based establishing shots, they’re always emotional establishing shots. I took that to heart because I think this movie is a plot of emotions and not purely narrative. It’s more, “What do you need to say in a scene? What emotions need to come across?” We’d ask ourselves “Where is Madeline now? How do we make the audience feel the same feelings she is feeling?” Not just see the emotions, but actually inhabit them. I think that’s why some people really hate the movie. It really requires your participation and if you’re not wanting to go there it’s an exhausting experience. It’s a challenging one, and I think that’s what we set out to do. It’s too easy to just make beautiful looking images now. The image has to be more. That for me means testing the patience of people, pushing back, and making people look at things that elicit an emotional response.  

Filmmaker: Are those images inherent to the script or where do they come from?

Connor: There was a scripted version of the movie, but it’s not a normal script. It’s not something that we’re necessarily beholden to. That can mean a number of things. But it’s evolving and changing. It’s something that’s alive. As things are happening, or as we’re watching them happen Josephine is changing scenes or taking them away. We’re trying to reconstruct. Then a lot of it is Harrison Atkins, the great editor on the movie, David Barker [consulting editor] and Josephine. These editors who are able to look at the footage and see something new and not just take it the old way of, “You make the movie when you write it. You make the movie when you shoot it. You make the movie when you edit it.” I feel like this is an actual embodiment of that idea, because it is very fluid.

Filmmaker: Are you being conscious of perspective shifts?

Connor: In this movie it was about, when do we need to be in her mind, and when do we need to see the world from a slightly more objective space? If we were only from her perspective, that’s a gimmick that I’m not really interested in. A one-take movie doesn’t interest me. For us it was about, how is she changing? How is she viewing the world? And being open to having those questions be difficult ones. It would be too one-note to only be POV. But then it’d be too boring to just show her walking in a space the whole time. This is a movie you have to experience and not just be a bystander, you know? It’s something that engages you to participate. I think that’s an important function of the movie, especially as it has to do with mental health. It’s not really that she’s mentally unstable, it’s just that she’s going through something and you’re going to go through it with her. 

Filmmaker: Did you build in any visual arcs from the start?

Connor: We do land on sticks a few times [laughs]. Very rarely, but it was a very conscious effort when we did. We tried to make those [shots on sticks] longer takes. There’s one scene that’s basically just two zoom shots. The scene where she goes to the photoshoot is very different from what we shot, but we had done it in very long takes. So there is a process behind it. The other thing we asked ourselves was, “When do we need to let the audience have a breather?”  

Filmmaker: And how would you give the audience a breather?

Connor: I think it depends, but for us it was about giving the frame more space. We’re so entrenched in her perspective that we needed to have the consideration to let the audience see more.

I found that Wong Kar Wai word. It’s “kong jing.”

Filmmaker: What’s the literal translation?

Connor: What does it mean [laughs]? So this is basically a diary Chris Doyle kept while they made Happy Together. Sometimes I revisit it, because it’s them really failing and being on this warpath of not knowing what they’re doing. And when I’m on a movie that I love so much, it’s important to know that sometimes along the journey you feel lost. That’s just part of the creation and you just have to go with the direction that a film shoot is going in. With Josephine, every morning we would do 5 minutes of silence followed by primal chants and guttural groans. It really starts off the day in a really unique way.  

Filmmaker: It sounds fun.

Connor: It’s fun and sometimes it’s not fun. Sometimes you get to set and you’re like, “I’m fucking tired, I want to work and I don’t feel like sitting in silence with people.” That’s its own mood [laughs]. I’ve said this about the process already, but because it requires so much of everyone, from the cast and crew down to the PAs, it’s a really inclusive environment and requires a lot of everyone’s personal experience. It makes the work very difficult and emotional sometimes. The conversations you’re having on Josephine’s [sets] are not the ones your having on every other set. Some sets just feel like a job. This feels like you can’t escape it. You can’t just sit as a bystander, whether you’re on camera or off camera.

Filmmaker: Were all of Josephine’s sets a similar experience?

Connor: For her first film it was me, Josephine, the sound guy and the three actors going into the woods. I had one light and we didn’t have electricity, so it had to be battery powered. It was very small. We shot on DSLRs and her second movie we shot on DSLRs too, but I got to bring some friends. I kind of refer to [the set of] Thou Wast Mild And Lovely as “Break Up Island.” No one got paid on that movie. Everyone had just gone through breakups and wanted to get away from the city. So I had some really talented, beautiful friends, like one of my closest collaborators Zia Anger, that came on this journey with me. It wasn’t a typical crewing situation. 

Filmmaker: What does crewing up for a film like this look like?

Connor: There can be no bad seed. If you think of a set like a living organism — I was on the set of The Miseducation Of Cameron Post when Trump got elected. Normally on a film set, if someone’s having a bad day, you gel around them to bring up their spirits and the shape of the crew reformulates to fit the person’s need. But that was a situation where we were all like crying the entire day. I’ve never been on a set where everyone feels the same dark emotion. But for me it’s like, I don’t like people who are assholes. Obviously [laughs]. I don’t mind getting rid of people who don’t fit into the fold and aren’t there for the same reasons.  

With any low budget venture I really have to talk to the person. It’s different on union stuff now. It’s their job and they go back to their family. I don’t wanna call it a 9 to 5 because it’s a 9 to 9, but you know, it’s just a different state of mind and I can’t engage with my crew in the same way that I do on indie stuff. The indie stuff I do is really about building community and holding space for each other and being each other’s support systems, because movies are hard. They take it out of you, and if you’re not supported by your crew, who are you supported by? Danny April [frequent gaffer collaborator] and I have done so much together. We just got back from working together on something that we just have such a shorthand at this point. It’s one of the most important relationships in my life. We don’t have to have the same kind of conversations we had seven or eight years ago.

Filmmaker: You guys are killing it. You had like a swath of movies at Sundance last year.

Connor: We’ve got another one this year! The Death Of Dick Long, directed by Daniel Scheinert, who is one half of the Daniels who did Swiss Army Man. I’m not going to give any plot points away because they’re keeping it pretty under wraps, but it’s a different kind of movie for me. It was really fun to make and I’m very excited to see how it plays. It can go in any direction and this is one that I won’t be able to make it down to Sundance for, but I would have loved to see the audience’s reaction. But, work calls. Sadly.

Filmmaker: Is Dick Long in a similar vein as Swiss Army Man?

Connor: It’s not. I mean, there are shades. But the reality is, I don’t think I’d be the right DP to shoot something like Swiss Army Man. Not to say that I couldn’t but it’s a different kind of work. I think why we made such a good match for Dick Long is that it was important to bring a sense of the feminine—I don’t want to say that because fuck gender [laughs]—but some sensitivity, I think. Daniel and I work off each other in different ways, and he challenged me to work in a way that’s very different than I usually work, and I challenged him by asking him questions like “Why are we doing this?” I like to know those answers from a director even if I have my own opinion. It just informs me so much, hearing what a director has to say about their own piece and why they should make it. We’ll see, [laughs] I hope people like it! You just never know what’s going to hit. A24 is so cool now that people want to give them a hard time or something.

Filmmaker: What will be the judge of what your next film will be? Are you always trying to challenge the parameters of everything you’ve done before? 

Connor: Sometimes. I’m interested in telling a lot of different stories. Some of those stories mean that my cinematography is not at the forefront of it. Josephine’s movies are very specific, and I can’t do that kind of work all of the time because it is emotionally exhausting and you have to give so much of yourself and your person to the movie that I’d have nothing left if I did those all the time [laughs]. I like occupying different visual zones. I like working with new people. I like it not always being about me and I think that turns you into a different kind of filmmaker. I hope there’s a throughline in my work, but I hope you’re not seeing me doing the same thing over and over again. I want movies to look different from each other. 

I took a break from movies last year. One, to make money, because independent film is difficult to survive under and I felt like I was doing one movie after the other and it was a lot. I love movies and they’re my favorite thing to work on, but I needed space away from that. I needed to do something like Broad City that, you know, was just a different thing for me. Now I feel like I’ve kind of hit the reset button and am champing at the bit to get on a movie. I don’t feel pressured to jump on a movie, but I am desperate to find one that moves me and challenges me. You know—if you’re not growing you’re dying. But we’re always dying. So maybe that’s a bad way of putting it [laughs].

I tend to do a lot of female narratives. I think we need more of them and more diverse stories. I really made a conscious effort to choose projects that I felt the world needed in some capacity, or that I felt girls in the world needed. I’m also interested in projects for young women. Like Cameron Post, that was really about “What kind of movie would I have wanted when I was 16 and experimenting with women? What would have been the movie that I would have loved?” It’s not Virgin Suicides, but that movie had a large impact on me when I was young.

I often ask myself, “Do we need another movie about two white kids in Brooklyn?” Like, one of them’s going into cancer treatment and they’re falling in love. Probably not. I reject certain projects on principle now. There’s so much garbage in the world and there’s so much shit and there’s so many shit movies that the movies that I love don’t get the kind of recognition they deserve. There are a lot of movies that I love but that I find little value in—in a cultural sense. It just needs to have more. There’s more. There are bigger conversations to have in the world and filmmakers are in a privileged position to facilitate those conversations. 

Filmmaker: Thoughts on your career inevitably heading towards bigger and perhaps more mainstream projects?

Connor: I’m pretty transparent, especially with young women who I kind of mentor, about what I make. Or, what I made on certain projects and how I came up in the world. This year was kind of the first year where I made a profit and wasn’t living paycheck to paycheck in a very intense way. It feels liberating. I mean, listen, I came from like an upper middle class family and that’s what gave me a safety net when I first started. What I’m trying to do now is find kids who weren’t given safety nets and find out how they get in here.

We’re in an industry that PAs become unpaid. They’re the most vulnerable on set. They’re doing the toughest work, the work that nobody else wants to do, and they’re making a set run. The industry has to change—you are the most vulnerable, your time is worth it. I worked free for so long. Now I have a career out of it, but I made ballet workout videos for years. I would shoot a chunk of footage, be able to go shoot Thou Wast Mild And Lovely without being paid, and then edit ballet workout videos on my days off. I think for me going forward I do want to have a life [laughs] and I’m heading that direction. But independent film is so important, and it’s so important to champion people who can’t get the budgets of something more normal, and that’s what I’m interested in. I really believe some of the most unique voices are the filmmakers whose projects sound unfundable. And that’s where you get exciting work. 

Filmmaker:  How do you deal with those indie projects that string you along for pre-production but never happen?

Connor: I think being a filmmaker means a life of uncertainty. You have no job protection, no consistent structure, and the future is a constant source of anxiety. It is not for the faint of heart and I realized that I have a sensitive constitution that needed protecting. There are so many fantastic projects in the world that people are trying to get financing for and they want you to commit to their vision now. After a long line of commiting to movies that I’d done intense amounts of unpaid prep on, and that would push and push until they fell apart, leaving me jobless in times of financial need, I built my own protective structure. Don’t fully commit until the job feels more concrete. It’s hard for some directors to understand, because they want you to be their cheerleader when they feel most vulnerable—when they’re trying to obtain financing—but I found the process too exhausting, so I try to hold off on engaging too much until the project is more stable.  

Filmmaker:You originally wanted to be a pro athlete. How did you find cinematography?

Connor: I was never going to become a professional soccer player. I simply wasn’t that good, but my life was structured so heavily around the sport that I didn’t make space to think about my future until I blew out my knee.  It was during my recovery process that I began thinking about the fragility of our bodies and how I needed to re-calibrate where I devoted the majority of my time. It’s not lost on me, the irony that I chose cinematography as my focus. I feel like the athlete in me appreciates a physical challenge.

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