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“We Had to Create Something Consistent Yet Genuine”: DP Quyen Tran on Palm Springs

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti appear in Palm Springs by Max Barbakow (courtesy of Sundance Institute)

In Max Barbakow’s Palm Springs, Sarah (Cristin Milioti) is reluctantly assuming the role of maid of honor at her younger sister’s destination wedding. When she meets Nyles (Andy Samburg) after he helps her bail on giving a toast, she realizes she’s found an ally who also thinks that the stuffy conventions of weddings are lame. Nyles is technically the date of another bridesmaid, but he and Sarah can’t help but feel drawn to each other, eventually embracing nihilistic sentiments about the whole ordeal as it becomes increasingly more surreal. DP Quyen Tran talks about playing with subjectivity through camerawork, the often fraught conditions of an indie film budget and the symbolism of the color orange in the film. 

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

Tran: My agent brought the script to me after another feature I was gearing up to shoot suddenly got pushed to the following year. I had a last minute meeting with Max Barbakow and we talked deeply about script, which I absolutely loved. He and I really hit it off, and so the next day I met with Andy, Akiva and Becky, and here we are today!

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?

Tran: The goal on any film I take on is to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters. An indie film always lacks time and money, but fortunately I had my fantastic crew, so I was able to call in a lot of favors in order to achieve a specific look. Artistically, we wanted to heighten the realism in the narrative, and without giving away too much of the plot, let’s just say the story is told from two perspectives, so the camera’s subjectivity lets us know whose eyes we were looking through at any given moment. Max and I wanted the viewer to empathize with both protagonists, who find themselves getting to know their true selves whilst unknowingly falling for each other. 

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

Tran: The biggest challenge was time. We had remote locations, so with travel we often only had 9-10 hours to make a full day including multiple company moves. We shot on all practical locations and less than 23 days to complete an incredibly ambitious shoot. As a result, I had to shoot cross coverage on all of J.K. Simmons’s scenes, and many of the scenes between Nyles and Sarah. The benefit of this was all these actors are brilliant improvisers, so we never missed a beat, but it can be taxing on the photography for lighting and composition, especially for night exteriors.             

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

Tran: The film is unique in tone—although there are many absurd, comedic moments, there is so much heart, emotion and pathos. Movies like Punch-Drunk Love and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind alongside the photography of Ryan McGinley have a similar tone, presented with so much texture and realism. We wanted Palm Springs to fall into this category, whatever that may be, and since there are so many different elements in the film, we had to create something consistent yet genuine.             

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

Tran: We shot on the Alexa Mini with Panavision T series lenses. I knew we’d be shooting in tight, practical locations so I needed a tight camera profile and close minimum focus, but I wanted anamorphic to add to the surreal moments of the film. I love the T series, and since we’d be shooting wide angle closeups I wanted to get intimate with the characters as much as I could, both physically and emotionally. Cristin Milioti has a stunning face, and eyes you can drown in, and I wanted to jump in there every time. 

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

In general, I am an actor’s DP, and when I light I really try to give actors the freedom to move wherever. I typically light from outside, and since we were shooting lots of moving masters I would spend more time up front rigging the lights so then when it came time to move in I didn’t need to tweak too much. Orange played a very important role in this film—it represents love, so there are moments when the color temperature of a light shifts during a shot. I can’t give away too much, but orange and fire are used very specifically in this film.

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

Tran: The water sequence was the trickiest. We only had one half day to shoot with the brilliant underwater DP, Robert Settlemire, and for that day I had designed a lot of shots, so basically we had one chance to nail it, and Robert killed it. The other half of the day of water work was all the pool scenes, and I only had the technocrane for that day, so we had technocrane, underwater, and stunts, and less than 10 hours to complete everything. I had a very detailed shot list and overhead plan, and added a third camera body for that day, so that’s the only way we could have made it work. I credit my brilliant camera and grip team especially, and also the actors for being amazing sports that day! 

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

Tran: I typically bake in everything into the negative, since oftentimes I am unable to supervise the DI.  We only had a week to color the film, including the VFX, so it was very quick, but I worked with a very talented young colorist, Ethan Schwartz, whom I met on a doc project I shot for Girl Rising. He went above and beyond to try to get the film to where I wanted it to be, especially those finicky exterior day scenes when you’re running out of light!

TECH BOX:

Film Title: Palm Springs

Camera: Alexa Mini. 4:3 2.8K 2X ANA (2.39:1 SCOPE)

Lenses: Panavision T Series Anamorphics

Lighting: Stephan Dalyai, Gaffer

Color Grading:  Ethan Schwartz, Panavision Light Iron Post

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