“I’m a Make-it-Simple Shooter — My Doc Experience Informs My Narrative Work”: DP Matt Mitchell on Shooting Little Woods
Cinematographer Matt Mitchell lensed Little Woods, which world premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival where writer/director Nia DaCosta won the Tribeca Film Festival’s Nora Ephron Award. Shortly thereafter, the film was acquired by NEON and is currently in theaters.
Little Woods is a modern Western about two women in rural America. Shot in Texas, but set in North Dakota, the film is a carefully composed drama, while also very much feeling like an emotionally-charged thriller. I sat down with Mitchell before last year’s festival premiere to talk about how he went about creating the look and feel of the film alongside director DaCosta and producers Gabrielle Nadig and Rachael Fung. [The majority of the film was shot in Central Texas, near where I lived, so I was privy to the making of the film]
Filmmaker: How did you get involved in Little Woods?
Mitchell: I got involved thanks to Gabrielle Nadig, who’s one of our amazing producers. I’ve known Gabby since our NYU days; we were friends there and got to know each other. A decade later we finally worked together, on the short film Toru, that played at the Sundance Film Festival. She had mentioned this project she was working on, written by Nia DaCosta, called Little Woods. I asked her if I could read it… I met with Nia, made a deck and we all talked about the opportunity of working together.
Filmmaker: Tell me whatever details you can about your first conversation with her.
Mitchell: The first meeting itself was definitely a lot of fun. She’s a really big personality, which I love. We both knew that this wasn’t really a “I love your work” meeting. It’s her first movie. I’m trying to get a sense of who she is, what’s she trying to do with the script and how she wants to tell this really beautiful story that she wrote. She was interested in what I might do or what my approach might be, but she wasn’t really looking for a DP at that specific time. I just tried to be me and give her a sense of who I am. So, we left it at that. And then a couple of things changed. There were some scheduling issues with another potential DP… So, to make a long story short, I stayed in touch and I kept working on my deck and maintaining an open conversation. I remember she called me a couple of weeks later and invited me to collaborate with her.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about putting together a deck for an interview or when trying to get a job? What kind of things did you put together for Little Woods?
Mitchell: I think I’m always still figuring that out. I don’t approach every project the same way, of course. Mainly because most projects come at you from various ways. Some [directors] have decks already and you’re trying to mimic a look. Some people are very open to what you first bring to the table and then just see if they have similar ideas. Nia had a reference lookbook, so to speak, and it was very similar to what I was thinking, which is always a good starting point. Not necessarily the same images or specific references but things like, the period of the films she was referencing, ’70s American cinema… things with high contrast or low key. Even some things as vague as performance-based films that had similar themes. Not necessarily images. I really like using references from other films, but paintings and photographs are also big resources. Music can even be one. I don’t focus on just one art form. So, I saw her deck, I built something too and then we sort of traded. Then we went on to things like camera movement, contrast, light, warmth. Every project is also different because every budget is different. So, I’m very cautious when I build a book. Luckily, I knew the ballpark scope of what we were working with, so I also knew that I had to be realistic. We had a very tight budget; we had a very tight schedule. So, I tried to make sure that in my initial looks, there were always real images that I think would be accomplishable or potentially could be on our scale. I wasn’t referencing images or sequences or things that I know we’d have no way of accomplishing. That would only do damage down the road. I was very cautious about what I think is right for the story. And what I think she thinks is right for the story.
Filmmaker:You’re a guy who shoots documentaries. You shoot music videos. You shoot commercial work. You shoot scripted, narrative work. What’s the common element? I looked at a lot of things on your site, and now I know you personally, but what’s the Matt Mitchell throughline on all of your work?
Mitchell: I knew you were going ask that question, and I still don’t really have a great answer…. I do enjoy all of those different styles… but I don’t discern one from another. I tend to really enjoy narrative, and I tend to really enjoy documentary. That’s not to say that there aren’t things I like about shooting commercials or music videos. But as a throughline, I think it’s something I’ll have to continue to think about as I progress as an artist. I still always embrace things like natural light or some handheld movement. I find that I’m a make-it-simple shooter in the sense that my documentary experience informs my narrative work really well. There are lots of DPs that started that way. I would never make any comparison of myself to either of these guys because they’re incredible, but Roger Deakins started in documentary and I know that Sean Bobbitt shot documentaries for years as well. But, circling back to your question, I think what I do consistently is use natural light — or the appearance of it — and that comes from obviously working in docs just trying to make a window work or having to work in a space very quickly. I bring that into my narrative work. I like to work fast. I like to boil down every moment, every scene, every sequence into the simplest, “What is the story about right here, what is this specific moment really about?’ What is the purpose of this or how do I need to get from here to there?” But in the end, I like stories and I like people. I like to tell stories that have strong characters or themes about people and places… and I like faces.
Filmmaker: I can read the press notes and I can read the official synopsis, but I’m intrigued to hear, what’s Little Woods about for you?
Mitchell: To me, I look at it as a character film about these two incredibly strong female characters. I think the film tackles larger issues as well, which is always in good writing. These two characters go through hardship together and it’s complex. It’s kind of a question about, ‘What are you willing to sacrifice and do for family and for the people that you love?’
Filmmaker : Changing gears, let’s talk tech — production first.
Mitchell: Well, we actually shot in Texas, faking for North Dakota. We shot the movie in what would have been the middle of the winter, which would be completely impossible in North Dakota. And the producers had great connections to Austin and the crew and equipment there. We had a small crew, a fantastic crew in Texas. We shot Little Woods on an ARRI AMIRA. We shot on a set of lenses that I own, Schneider Cine-Xenars. I had a great 1st AC named Aaron Snow, who’s the best… although I’m already regretting saying his name and now everybody is gonna take him.[laughs]
So, we had a two-person camera team and a DIT. And then two in the lighting department and two in the grip department… our biggest challenge with this movie was the amount of locations we had… we had five weeks of prep and we shot for 25 days. We had very few lights. So, we basically tried our best to time as much as we could for natural light, time of day or block around where the sun would be. A lot of DPs really try and work closely with the AD department and with the location department. We also had an incredible production designer, Yvonne Boudreaux. So, we had good things going for us. I think if you have good locations and good art, you’re halfway there. It doesn’t matter how many lights you have on the truck. It doesn’t matter how many guys you have. If it’s a white wall and a white wall, and a white wall, it’s a white wall. We basically just kept things simple. We shot mostly on the primes, we did carry, an Angenieux 24-290mm 12:1 zoom lens and we had a little dolly package. We didn’t have any money for Steadicam, so there’s zero Steadicam in the movie. A lot of the movie is handheld… Nia and I talked a lot about camera movement, composition. Styles of movement, you know when things were supposed to feel a little rawer, when things are supposed to feel a little bit more composed. So, we’d scout, we’d come up with a shot list and then we’d execute that, or we would sit back and see what the actors would do first — which is a huge thing. You can plan and you can plan, and you can plan, but we had incredible performers, in every part of this movie, and they of course have strong opinions too, and the space might say something specific to them… so you have to be open. But I feel like we approached things in a really natural way, and I think Nia and I were on the same page about why we were doing something in a specific way, which is always more important. I worked very closely with my colorist, Mikey Rossiter at The Mill during prep and talked to Nia in depth about the importance of us building this sort of film with a LUT in place. I think it provided us a way to see an image that was consistent and that we thought was really beautiful right from the get-go. So, from the tech side, that’s what we did.
Filmmaker: Can you talk a little bit about workflow and process? Did you shoot ARRIRAW? Did you shoot two takes or was everything one and done… that sort of thing?
Mitchell: We shot 2K: Pro Res 4:4:4:4. I think it’s a beautiful, beautiful capture format. This wasn’t a special effects movie, you know there were just a couple of things we worked through specifically by comping out, just so you couldn’t tell we’re in Austin. We had to move very quickly. We had to download on set. There was no need for us to shoot anything higher than that [2K]. And, again, I just tend to be a person that keeps it simple. And, I really try not to waste too much time thinking about those things because I feel like they can get distracting. And it gives me more opportunity to put my creative energy into why I’m doing something. And I’m supposed to know, all the tech mumbo-jumbo, and I know what I need to… I tend to ask the art team and the production designer for practicals a lot. I think they fit this story obviously, but it also really helped us in the sense of being able to accomplish high page counts per day and get an authentic look. It’s not a flashy looking film and it shouldn’t be. And not everything is timed to make everybody look beautiful. It’s about the tone and the mood and what feels appropriate, again, to the people and to the story.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about a scene in the movie that you’re really proud of. Is there something that jumps out at you that you want to talk about?
Mitchell: One of my favorite scenes in the movie is a really beautiful scene between one of our actors, James Badge Dale and his girlfriend played by Lily James. She comes in and, and she’s pregnant… they’ve had a big fight, the last time you saw them. They haven’t been talking. They come into his room where he works at the man camp. She basically tells him that she’s pregnant and she’s not going to keep it. And then they have this beautiful emotional scene about being better people. It was towards the end of the shoot when we shot it. And it’s a really simple set. It’s basically a college dorm-style room and it’s all white reflective walls. We lit it with one light. I’m really proud of it because in a white-wall set, we were really able to dial it in. I thought the light on everybody’s face looked really appropriate, but again, it’s because of the performances the scene works so well.
Filmmaker: Changing gears — I love that moment when the crew and movie start to gel and work in rhythm. As a producer, I’m always trying to make that moment happen as early in the process as I can. With Nia making her directorial debut, and you guys working together for the first time, can you talk about that?
Mitchell: Totally. It’s an exciting moment. I mean I just love being able to witness somebody blossom or somebody find it, because that’s what I saw. I could feel how special this movie was going to be. Making your first movie is a lot of pressure and Nia handled it beautifully. I mean, she got all these incredible people to believe in her and she very much believes in herself.
Filmmaker: You’re a DP who’s going to keep shooting movies, bigger movies, smaller movies, movies all over the spectrum. What do you, as an artist, take away from Little Woods? And what did you learn?
Mitchell: Well for me, I think what I learned personally, and was reminded of… is that it’s a stamina thing and that’s kind of what features are. I work well in that space though. I work well when I have time to think about a problem. I can work very quickly, like I said, if something arises. I think that for me it was also important, as this is my third feature, that I don’t feel like I’m doing the same thing over and over again. I learned a lot about being able to communicate an idea, from the initial deck all the way through to making it happen on set. I will also say that it was really important to both the producers, Gabby and Rachael, and to Nia, before I was hired, that this is a female-led team, telling a female story. We worked hard getting as many female crew members in key positions, and it was just awesome to work with so many incredible women.
Filmmaker: What’s some great advice you’ve gotten as a cinematographer, be it from another DP or from a teacher, that you’d want to share?
Mitchell: I think that it’s important to know who you are. And what I mean by that is that it takes time. The only way you can learn what you are or what you want to do is by experiencing things. I find that the older I get and the more I do, I take pleasure in so many things that aren’t movie related, even though that’s always going to be my first love and my first passion. Go to museums, travel. I can’t stress that enough. Get outside of where you’re from, whether it’s the country or your town or whatever. Experience life, you meet people. Every one of those opportunities is a story, is a character. It’s a way for you to learn something about yourself and the world and then bring those things to whatever the work is that you do. I will also say in a practical, not philosophical way, work with good people. Not everything you’re going to do is gonna be mind-blowing. Not everything you’re gonna do is going to be completely fulfilling. But I find that when you’re at least in the company of people you respect, and who respect you, the experience is so much better. You’re going to spend more time with them than with your family. Find good people and stick with them. And do right by them and they’ll do right by you.
Filmmaker:Last question… as I know from Instagram, you’re a fisherman. You just won a fictitious fly-fishing trip, it’s three months. All bills paid, everything. You can take one piece of equipment with you, to capture what you’re out there with. One camera, one anything, what do you take with you?
Mitchell: Oh god. It’s a great question. Well… it’s gonna be my Hasselblad 500CM. Even though it’s a studio still camera. But the best pictures I’ve ever taken are on mountain, backpacking trips with that camera. It’s just the best sound in the world, that shutter clicking. So yeah, my Hasselblad…. but I’ll make you carry it, because it’s heavy as hell.