“When You Don’t Have a Lot of Time Film Actually Helps”: DP Rachel Morrison on the Kristen Stewart-Starring Seberg
At the height of her fame, actor Jean Seberg was targeted by the FBI for her political beliefs. Clandestine surveillance and smear campaigns helped damage her career, destroy her personal relationships, and led her to doubt her sanity. In Seberg, director Benedict Andrews explores both the actor, played by Kristen Stewart, and an FBI agent assigned to her case (Jack O’Connell). The script (by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse) also shows how the COINTELPRO operation helped undermine the civil rights movement. The Amazon Studios release opened theatrically December 13.
Cinematographer Rachel Morrison worked with Andrews and production designer Jahmin Assa to achieve the look and feel of 1960s Los Angeles, from Hollywood glamour to urban grit and grime. Seberg‘s visuals range from glossy fashion shoots to hidden surveillance cameras, from soundstages to bedrooms. Morrison received an Academy Award nomination for Mudbound and an Emmy nomination for Rikers High. Prior to Seberg she was DP on Black Panther. Morrison spoke to Filmmaker from Los Angeles.
Filmmaker: Did you know about Jean Seberg before the project?
Morrison: Not really. I knew about as much as anybody who had seen Breathless and studied the French New Wave a little bit. I didn’t know the story of how she was discovered, how she was an Iowa farm girl. I knew she died early but didn’t know how or why. That’s a long way of saying I was vaguely familiar with her.
Filmmaker: The movie shows several aspects of Seberg, like shards of her personality. Audition footage, re-created clips from her films, newsreel footage, rehearsals, interviews — we see her in different ways, almost different realities.
Morrison: That’s certainly a theme: perception versus reality, how our different versions of ourselves are also informed by how other people see us. I think we definitely wanted to take a hard look at the way one is perceived, which is different from how people perceive themselves. Hollywood is all about spectacle on some level, making things seem more perfect than they are. So, we also show the Hollywood image of her versus her reality, and how to navigate that dance.
Filmmaker: What makes Seberg especially relevant today is the movie’s focus on misinformation, fake news, and how it can be manipulated against innocent targets. Was this something you and director Benedict Andrews discussed beforehand?
Morrison: I think we were very much on the same page from the get go, which is part of why we decided to work together. He put together an intricate compilation of references to illustrate the ideas he had been thinking about. We wanted to explore the concept of subjectivity versus objectivity and how best to visualize that. It felt like we were both excited about the same themes.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about your different visual approaches to Seberg and to FBI agent Jack Solomon [played by Jack O’Connell]?
Morrison: In some ways their stories mirror each other. It’s Jean’s breaking apart that causes Jack to question himself. I think we decided early on that we were going to be fluid with the camera movements until the moment when things start to go awry, then use varying degrees of handheld. One of the things that I like about handheld is that it’s not one mode—you can go anywhere from a one to a ten.
I tend to literally try to mirror our characters’ emotional and psychological stakes throughout each scene. Jack begins as a naive optimist. Jean’s story is more aspirational. She is a Hollywood darling with sun-drenched dreams Fundamentally Jean’s role was more handheld than Jack’s was, but it was roughly the same point in both when we got off the fluid heads. I liked the idea of being close and wide while we were subjective with Jean, experiencing the world through her eyes, behind her head, feeling things in unison with her. When she was being watched, we stepped back on longer lenses, looked for things to obscure the frame a little bit.
As things start to unravel you really get to turn things on end and play in the space. Maybe we’re still close and wide, but there are times where we’re refracting the lens to create some distance between the viewer and subject. We also got to explore the concept of POV, because in addition to Jean’s experience you also have the role we are playing ourselves—in cinema you inherently have the watcher and the watched. It’s all a bit meta.
Filmmaker: Andrews spoke about the voyeurism behind Seberg, how watching the movie is a voyeuristic experience.
Morrison: I think that speaks to what I was saying about the layers of self-reflexivity and POV. Benedict was inspired by many of the paranoia films of the ’70s like The Parallax View and Klute. It becomes relevant to modern-day life because in this day and age of fake news, misinformation, data mining, etc., it’s clear that we’re all being surveilled. Even your phone is listening, Alexa is listening. Everything is being used or taken for other people’s consumption.
I think Benedict was really fascinated by how Jean makes a choice to be a public figure, then it becomes a question of just how public is acceptable. Can you ever take that choice back? I’m fascinated by that too. In my life I can tiptoe into something and if I don’t like it, I can pivot. Once you’re a celebrity, you lose that anonymity. You can never really take back your privacy. You’ve made a deal with the devil to live your life in the public. Jean realized at some point that perhaps it was not worth the sacrifice.
Filmmaker: Kristen Stewart has lived so much of her life in the public. Some of her experiences echo Seberg’s.
Morrison: That’s one of the things that drew me to the project. I really liked the script, and I loved Beno [Benedict Andrews], I thought he had some compelling ideas. And I thought there were unique challenges with cinematography here. But what sealed it for me was Kristen in the lead role. I thought it was so daring and risky of her to put herself out there. Obviously actors are always making themselves vulnerable, but it’s usually because they’re playing something so far from themselves, as opposed to melding her life experience with this other woman’s. I thought that was fascinating and vulnerable.
Filmmaker: She has scenes where she loses control of her emotions, and you’re right in close on her.
Morrison: I think a huge part of our job as a cinematographer is to create a safe space for our actors in which to be their most vulnerable selves. That’s also a big reason why I tend to choose to operate—it’s an incredibly instinctual relationship. The performance is never identical from one take to the next, so it’s nice to be able to react with your gut and your heart when you see something unfold. That’s something that builds between the actor and the director, the actor and the DP, the actor and the operator.
Also, Kristen has done so much prep work to understand the psychological space of the characters. For me to hand the camera off to somebody who’s starting day one of principal photography seems kind of absurd. In this case, somehow Kristen and I were on the same page from the very first scene of the very first day. I think there was something that I relate to in her—not necessarily with the character per se, but I felt very connected. So yeah, I did my best to make her feel heard and safe.
Filmmaker: You can’t ask Stewart to rehearse her breakdowns. How do you work out the blocking if you’re not exactly sure what she is going to do?
Morrison: It’s almost like being the goalie in a soccer game and someone’s taking a penalty kick and you have to kind of guess whether they’re going to go right or go left. You try to read something in their eyes. In those moments with Kristen it feels like that. You hope you’re in rhythm, in sync with one another, and you can kind of shift in the same direction at the same time.
The one challenge for me was I was incredibly pregnant. In terms of handheld I could do just about anything. But if a character went down to her knees, my big challenge as a pregnant operator was getting back up. Usually when a character goes down to the ground, that’s when the scene ends. But once or twice grips had to help lift me back up with the camera.
Filmmaker: Did you and Benedict Andrews work out shots together?
Morrison: The way that I like to work—and most directors tend to work this way too—is to shotlist each scene. Sometimes you haven’t found the location yet, so you don’t necessarily know more than the intention of the scene. You decide that this scene we want to cover as a oner, this scene we want to minimize the characters in the frame —you kind of commit to an idea of how you’re going to do the scene. And then on the day of shooting, after Beno did a blocking rehearsal with the actors, we could see if the shotlist still held. Usually it does, because it’s not an exact science. And the intention of the scene usually doesn’t shift that much during the blocking rehearsal. Sometimes it does, so you reserve the right to throw out everything you thought was going to happen. But, generally speaking, we had a game plan. He would block and rehearse, and then I would tell him if something was going to kill me because of lack of time or gear.
Filmmaker: You have these shots that are so intimate and lifelike that we don’t realize that they’re single takes. Like when Seberg is interviewed and she changes her outfit and walks through several rooms with her agent.
Morrison: That’s over two minutes, I think Beno came up with that the night before. That was definitely not on our early agenda, I think he’d been going over the scene and had this realization that it was going to work really well as a oner. It’s not exciting in itself, it’s just a substantially long take. It was really about trying to be as experiential as we could, show that things were happening in real time, in an unpredictable manner. Dropping little hints about what would happen later.
Filmmaker: Your previous movie was Black Panther. Was it an adjustment to go to a more modest project?
Morrison: Yes and no. It’s not about having less money. Every other film I’ve shot besides Black Panther had no money, so if anything, Black Panther was the adjustment. But Seberg was very aspirational for the amount of money we had. Every film doesn’t have enough money in a way. This one was period, and wanted a certain breadth or scope. We had a very finite amount of funds to do those things. We were especially limited with exteriors because we couldn’t afford many production cars, picture cars, anything like that. So we asked ourselves how can we make our interiors feel big, full, give the audience some breathing room so the movie doesn’t feel claustrophobic all the time.
The best example was when Jean shoots a Western in Mexico. We couldn’t go to Mexico, so we had to reimagine the whole scene as what would happen if you decide she’s on a bad set on a soundstage in Mexico—”Bad” because she was making a low-budget film. Rather than embrace a reality we couldn’t afford, we worked it into the theme of the film—what’s real and what’s an interpretation or perception of reality. This way we had a chance to fabricate a reality when her reality is becoming entirely fiction. Jahmin Assa, our production designer, did an incredible job with this set. The design allowed me to drain the light and show her isolated on the stage and in her own head.
Filmmaker: Jean’s house, open rooms with lots of windows, must have been tough to shoot in.
Morrison: Often the director and designer start prep before the DP comes on. This time they found a location and were super excited to show it to me. I said, “Guys, I just don’t think it’s right. I think we can do better.” So I get to break a few people’s hearts on the very first day of prep. I’m like, “Just trust me on this. I promise I’m not difficult.”
Fortunately we found this other location that did tremendous things for the film, especially the idea that Jean was living in a fishbowl, or like an ant in an ant farm. A glass house is rife with opportunities for spying, and in it she was kind of like a sitting duck. Yet there’s so much beauty and aspiration in the construction of these homes. It served the film exceptionally well.
Filmmaker: So were you able to work with Jahmin Assa, tell him what you needed?
Morrison: Jahmin’s amazing. He was incredibly collaborative. I think he really wanted to find all new locations that had never been filmed before. But the reality is we live in Los Angeles, we’re looking for a home from the ’60s or earlier. Finding something that had never been filmed before was difficult and expensive. The house we used had been shot before, usually in still photography, but he embraced the challenge of reimagining it entirely new for our narrative.
We felt like we’ve seen that FBI office with cubicles so many times before. So we asked ourselves, what can we do to make it a little bit different? We wound up transforming a basement basketball court into a covert data center, like an underground hub for illicit activity.
Filmmaker: What equipment were you using?
Morrison: We shot on the Millennium XL2 with the C series anamorphic, there were a few E’s in there as well. For sphericals, we had a few of the Panavision ultra primes in different focal lengths that Dan Sasaki de-tuned to match to C series. We shot 80% anamorphic, but used spherical from time to time, mostly at night or occasionally when the anamorphic flare didn’t feel visually appropriate.
Filmmaker: Seberg’s first film was Saint Joan, directed by Otto Preminger. You shot some material from the set of the film. How do you imitate Preminger and his DP Georges Périnal?
That was a fun challenge because you have this guideline to work from. But you’re watching a tiny YouTube video clip and trying to infer from that what the movie actually looks like, after the image has been degraded and reprocessed 6,000 times.
Filmmaker: Why did you decide to shoot on film? What did film add to the project?
Morrison: I think the subject matter—Jean Seberg, the French New Wave—is so inherently celluloid. It felt wrong to shoot it digitally, especially nowadays as digital’s getting sharper and sharper. In a weird way, when you don’t have money, the small expense of film compared to what you can’t afford, like picture cars and extras, is a very simple solution. It’s like the second you shoot in film, the moving grain and the softness of the image say “period.”
Film is also so much more human, and at its core this film is a story about humanity, a character drama. It was a chance to show the tactile and imperfect nature of life. Film replicates that in a way that digital, which is so crisp and predictable, can’t. Film has, to me, a perfect unpredictability to it.
There’s something kinetic and alive about the process when you’re shooting a film. Everything, even the film running through the mag, gives you a charge. The actors know they only get so many takes, so they bring their best. And when you don’t have a lot of time film actually helps, because you can’t do twenty takes of everything. You get right to the core, the essence of the performance.