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Day for Night for Day for Night: DP Christopher Blauvelt on First Cow

John Magaro in First Cow (Photo courtesy of A24/Allyson Riggs)

Kelly Reichardt describes her films as being “open.” She does not necessarily mean they are open to your interpretation. She means they are open or not to your engagement. First Cow co-star Orion Lee compared it to public speaking: If you yell at your audience they have no choice but to listen; if you project your voice midway to them they do, which is possibly more effective. 

In First Cow, Reichardt relays, delicately, the antics of a clumsy cook, Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro), and his friend King Lu (Lee). Cookie finds Lu squat-naked in brush eluding vengeance from a gang of Russians. He provides shelter for the night, but Cookie keeps the company of less affable fur trappers whom he is indebted to feed. Lu and Cookie split out of necessity, but coincidence, or necessity again, finds them reunited under better circumstances at the Royal West Pacific Trading Post. They hole up together broke and dream of richer starts in San Francisco. They can only scheme to get there. Cookie can bake goods and Lu has the guile to suggest they sell them and steal the milk to do so from the Chief Factor’s (Toby Jones) cow. They are the only milky things in the territory and take fast. Their fatty taste warms the bellies of the post’s grubby migrants and reminds them of their respective origins. Of course it’s milk that coddles them as it once did from a bosom. But as a taste of their home finds its way to the region they’ve installed themselves in, the land feels increasingly exotic and lost to its natives. 

Reichart frames her period comedy in nostalgia by opening in the present day. Alia Shawkat, wandering the woods with her dog, digs up some skeletons in the mellowest unearthing of bones you’ll ever see on screen. The rest of the film is looked at through that Reichardt-specific redolence, coupled with the sugary fat on it: the love between Lu and Cookie, real comedic chops, and yummy “oily” treats to look at, First Cow is still an “open” Reichardt film that doesn’t force you to engage it, but one which feels more inviting to spend yourself on than others.

How do you shoot a film to be open? For Christopher Blauvelt (Emma, Mid90s, The Bling Ring), Reichardt’s director Of photography since Meek’s Cutoff, it might be as simple as not imposing himself behind the camera—trusting Reichardt’s way and untraditional influences— which deliberately stem far from the patriarchal ground rules and form laid by those films historically understood to be “classics.” The rest is the result of those intricate photographic recipes brewed in prep: a day for night palette, a certain intensity of filtration over the lens, carefully laid in digital grain, an overall texture I was certain originated from a celluloid base.

Filmmaker: So, what lenses? What camera body? What film stocks for day and night? Did you push or pull it, etc?

Blauvelt: Oh, I am so pleased you thought it was film! [laughs] Yes! We used an Arri Alexa Mini at 2.8k RAW, series 2 Cooke Panchros from Koerner Camera in Portland, a Glimmer Glass 2, occasionally 3, and fluctuating ASAs as per our different recipes would call for.

Filmmaker: Why the more intense Glimmer Glass?

Blauvelt: The diffusion filters help break up the high contrast on top of your lenses. It’s just a matter of finding the recipe you like for each environment. For example, in really hard backlight we would go to a lower density glimmer glass because inherently the lenses would soften as it’s flared by the sun, etc. Sometimes we would completely take it off if because we liked the look the sun brought on its own. Ultimately the goal was to have a nice contrast that didn’t feel too sharp or clinical in the way the digital domain can bring. 

Filmmaker: You fooled me. You must have added grain? 

Blauvelt: We did add grain from resolve and it’s important to spend time going through each scene and shot to make sure it’s integrating with the image and doesn’t feel like another layer dropped on top of your image. The digital grain is taken from real grain shot on grey cards and you have control of color, contrast and the percentage of opacity in which it’s laid in. 

Filmmaker: How did you create the gauzey effect at the edges of the frame in the scene where Cookie is recovering from a head injury? Nail polish on an optical flat?

Blauvelt: You are super close. Making films the way we do, we love doing most everything in camera. So yes, we knew we wanted to create an unsettling perspective in Cookie’s point of view, so it’s vaseline on a an optical flat. Times like this are fun because everyone gets behind it and you’re experimenting together. April Napier [costume designer], Jen [Serio, hair department head] and our crew are outside looking at the monitor, reacting to what’s happening. I got rubber gloves on and I’m painting on the filter with vaseline. Nothing brings us closer as a crew than the times we’re really making a statement. 

Filmmaker: Can you talk about lighting these period interiors with sparse, practical, visible light sources in the frame? And about how you worked with your production designer to justify shafts of light coming in through the gaps in wood slats or open ceilings and things like that?

Blauvelt: Working with Tony Gassparo [production designer] is always a pleasure, and his construction of these hutches and our ghost cottage were designed from scratch. There were always references that Kelly would have showed us months before our initial scouting so when we would land on a clearing, for example, Tony and his team would show us with tape measures and string, so we could all start to visualize and imagine the structure he was designing. The interiors were by nature porous and we already knew we wanted to use shafts of light in the day, moon and firelight by night.

Filmmaker: Did you adjust your usual lighting package to adjust for the period?

Blauvelt: There’s no real adjustment for period films, it’s more about going through the reference material and adapting things to the environments we decide on. Our package was small using lots of LEDs, M18s, and day playing 4Ks when we needed them.

Filmmaker: What LEDs did you use?

Blauvelt: We used Arri SkyPanels and 360 degree [4’x4′] LEDs and regular [1’x1′] panels. We would use chimeras on them to preserve fall off, often cutting them with black flags.  

Filmmaker: Do you start your lighting plot with an idea or do you shape an idea within a practically designated scheme of sources?

Blauvelt: I’m lucky enough to work very close to Kelly Reichardt, so even in the fetal stage of any project she is sending me films to watch for any given reason. It could be a particular scene or a vibe created by any of the films. So it starts as an idea related to a film and image, painting or sculpture and gets refined as we go. When we’re shot listing, we go through every scene and all the nuances that might be associated with them and discuss our plan, only to sometimes completely change it after settling on a location or, in this case, a structure built by our very own team. So yes, there’s a plot but it’s very fluid.

Filmmaker: You find a lot of variations in lighting the cow at night from the single source at the Chief Factor’s home.

Blauvelt: The nights with Evie, our cow, whom we all love and who even had a calf named “Cookie”—we’re a proud cow family—were kind of difficult, and I give great credit to my gaffer Scott Walters for figuring out how to light a giant field with a handful of lights. We had our sharper fernels up on lifts behind trees to create some shape and we would diffuse it when we were able to in closer shots. We were very fortunate to have the masterful key grip Bruce Lawson and his family to help us with, most everything actually, but especially in this case the use of 12’x12 bounces with M18 lights going into them, and some 4Ks on the hill to create back edges when possible.

Filmmaker: Why do you shoot the cow’s entrance from the perspectives of the Native characters?

Blauvelt: This is all Kelly and her enormous respect for the Native American culture, thinking of how they must have felt when things like the very first cow ever appeared in a territory.

Filmmaker: How are you going about the nightwork? Were there a lot of overnights? Are you pushing lights through foliage to create these patterned gobo-esque effects? How did you concoct a “moonlight” that actually feels real?

Blauvelt: I feel great pride in the fact that we found a way to make this day for night work so well. It was the challenge that scared me the most about this project. It came about because Kelly wanted to see the landscapes in the background at night, and a big influence on our aesthetic was paintings by Frederick Remmington. He had painted these really beautiful images that take place in western settings. They are often night with warm yellows and browns complemented by coral blue and cyan night skies. I would say he cheated by painting his subject matter during the day. How am I supposed to compete with that?

So, we knew we had a big task at hand, and through a long process, maybe two months, we had the breakthrough. I had been going out alone with my friend and camera assistant, Jordan Green, with a bare bones camera to start getting footage in the can for my very talented DIT and friend, Sean Goller, to start dialing in looks based on our different environments, which were dappled forests, open fields, rivers and streams. We initially thought we would have them in stand alone scenes, but we had a lot of confidence in this look. We even ended up cutting them together with real nights like when [Cookie and King Lu] are caught milking the cow. 

One of the hardest things about day for night in our world is that our films are steeped in reality and the idea that we want to show something as authentic as possible — and therefore not going for a theatrical or gimmicky look. I watched a lot of films and saw some looks I really liked but they would fall into a category not related to the worlds that Kelly creates. Getting the moonlight effect was actually the sun going through dappled foliage. When it wasn’t there we would have to light it ourselves, which again was an undertaking with the limited resources we had on this type of budget.

Filmmaker: There’s a chase scene encroaching morning where King Lu leaps into the water and the woods and the creek far off in the distance can be seen in total clarity. Was that day for night?

Blauvelt: Oh no, this was shot in the afternoon. We were in the canyon so we timed out our day so that the sun was working for us. For example, the chief factor and his henchmen coming over the mound with trees all around had the sun behind them. We would also augment it with hard light where needed to to keep the belief of moonlight present. Going back to Kelly’s initial interest in day for night was this cliff jump into the river. “How are we going to see this in a big wide shot at night?” Necessity being the mother of invention—as the saying goes—put us to work to figure it out, and I couldn’t be more proud of this team that helped me do it.

Filmmaker: What dictated when you shot day for night vs night for night?

Blauvelt: The idea to do day for night was our inability to light big landscapes. Kelly brought it up to me early on and I thought it was a great challenge. The films we referenced were very old and somehow you give them a pass for being a bit theatrical. Whether it’s old black and white Ozu films or even color, the film used back then just looked so dreamy and graphic that you let it go. For us however, we live and tell stories that want to be lived in real time as much as possible, so the great challenge was trying to do this without it being a distraction or theatrical in any way. Just feeling as if you are there and seeing the truth in real time.

Filmmaker: Orion Lee talked to me about that last shot of him and Cookie falling asleep together in the woods. He recalled it looking very dark, almost pitch black on set, and he was anxious the camera wasn’t seeing anything. He was totally surprised that it reads bright in the film.

Blauvelt: That was a shot we really backed ourselves into in terms of time of day. It was the end of their journey in the script, as well as their final resting place, so we wanted it to be exactly that: The end of daylight into twilight. We used a small remote head mounted by our grips next to the big fallen tree trunk. Kelly had them move towards us and around in a circle to seem as if they’re moving along one path until Cookie loses all of his energy and brings King Lu after him to lay a while. We shot at the very end of the day and the Alexa sensor really helps you pull the beauty out of something that’s hard to see with the naked eye.  I wouldn’t necessarily say that scene was bright though. It’s supposed to be the end of daylight.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about adjusting your approach for a film that is so primarily shot outdoors? How are you lighting and shaping daylight exteriors?

Blauvelt: Keeping in mind the only motivation for light in this story is sunlight, moonlight, candle and firelight, I personally embrace the limitation and work hard to make sure nothing seems unnatural. Lighting day exteriors is all about knowing where the sun is and using your compass. We will always bounce, diffuse it and find places in the canopy of the forest to work with us while we’re telling the story.

Filmmaker: I’m particularly curious about the way you shoot Cookie and King Lu, these frames where they alternate between the foreground and background, and how these frames relate to the general rule of thumb that, to portray a friendship or strong union between characters, you show them face forward and beside each other.

Blauvelt: Kelly has these great books she makes with images that move along in sequence with the film. She has these ideas for framing and compositions and we break them down into more specific detail as prep moves closer to shoot and manipulate them to our actual surroundings and eventually with our actors’ blocking. The friendship between Cookie and King Lu was very thought out in the way we showed each of them, and what dynamic is in the frame.

Filmmaker: On shots that’re framed through windows, tent entrances, and other actions obscured through cracks, what’s the effect of letting a character or thing in motion leave a static frame vs the camera follow them in a move like the sparse dolly shots, such as on a new character or element’s entrance, as they seem to be used?

Blauvelt: It’s more about being an observer and not imposing yourself too much behind the camera I think. When you think this way you tend to let the choreography of the actors take place within the frame and it can be very beautiful.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about creating a camera “language” with Kelly in First Cow and can you track a development or throughline to it from your previous collaborations? Kelly talks about trying to break away from the engrained language of film that a patriarchal history has embedded. Can you recall specific attempts to break away from the form’s traditions in your work together?

Blauvelt: This is a very nuanced question. I’ll do my best to share my opinion on this. I think Kelly’s motivations in regard to the tones and vantage points of her stories come from a lot of places. She’s an academic and a film professor, but most importantly a filmmaker. She gets her influences from critical genres and her respect for people past and present who have challenged the normal tropes of the mainstream. She has turned me and so many others on to the greatest films and filmmakers I’ve ever experienced, filmmakers from all cultures and from the beginning of film history. But ultimately I would just say that I am in awe of how unique her vision and voice has become in a time of mediocrity and a rush for whatever entertainment has become these days: “amusement parks,” as Scorsese noted. Also, she’s curated a team of people that all love each other and share the same admiration and work ethic to boot. She is one of a kind and I think the films she makes will attest to this like very few I can speak of.

Also, I don’t know if you’ve picked up on this but she doesn’t like to talk too much about the reference material and films we use, we just say the spirit of this and that, and I get it because you could expect people to take things as a literal pull from something which we do not do. It’s a protection.

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