“Most of the Atmosphere Was Fully Created on Set”: DP PJ López on Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided Go For It
Rita Moreno stands as one of the rare few entertainers to attain EGOT status. Mariem Pérez Riera intimate documentary on the West Side Story star the racism Moreno faced as a Puerto Rican immigrant with aplomb, featuring interviews other iconic entertainers such as Gloria Estefan, Whoopi Goldberg and Eva Longoria. DP PJ López discusses how they captured the authentic essence of a beloved figure in movie history.
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
López: I had already worked with director Mariem Pérez since her first feature film in 2007 Maldeamores. We have also made two documentaries in Puerto Rico and we have an excellent working relationship, so I think it’s what led her to contact me when the project on the life of Rita Moreno began to come to life. For me it was not only a pleasure, but a great honor, for what it would represent to tell through my eyes the story of such an important figure in the history of cinema.
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?
López: In the first moment when the proposal came to me to be the cinematographer of the documentary that would tell the life of Rita Moreno, I knew and agreed with the director that we wanted to capture the most genuine aspects of this great woman and for this, we would have to go unnoticed in her daily live, in this way the public could have a much more vulnerable side of this great artist. And I think that in my position as DP, this could be achieved thanks to the handheld execution so that everything that we filmed with it, created a style of cinema vérité. Regarding the interviews of the documentary, we decided to adopt somewhat opposite techniques, we wanted them to evoke Rita’s film career through the locations and the art direction within the locations, working with lighting with high contrast and low deep of field to keep your attention on the interviewee.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Cinematographically speaking, I think that if any film inspired me it was West Side Story. I tried to use some elements that lead the viewer to remember one of the most important works in the career of Rita Moreno. But mainly my research and greater visual inspiration was created based on the work of the artist Edward Hopper, the high contrast and hues in his works can be seen in a large part of the portraits of the documentary.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
López: Film was shot on ALEXA Mini with Angeneioux Optimus Zoom. First of all because of the excellent resolution of the ALEXA and also for its compact design, since I knew that it would be a production with a lot of travel and movement, so we needed the perfect elements for fast and accurate movements.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
López: With Rita we tried to capture her in the most natural way possible within the environments where we filmed. The story tries to chase as much of Rita Moreno’s daily life, so I wanted the light to maintain a very natural line. On the other hand, the guests’ interviews were portrayed in a more glamorous way, selecting locations that will help us to reflect Rita’s artistic career. The lighting for these interviews was totally different and these are the moments you can feel that Edward Hopper inspiration I mentioned before.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
López: In this case I cannot recall a much difficult scene for me as DP. I think that if there was any challenge, it was related to the location movements and busy schedules of all participants. But this documentary had an excellent production team and even the element of time and distances was handled in a very efficient way thanks to this team.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
López: I can tell in this film, it’s a 90/10, most of the atmosphere was fully created on set.
Film Title: Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided Go For It
Camera: ALEXA Mini aspect ratio 1:85
Lenses: Angenieux EZ-1 EZ-2
Lighting: LED Arri Skypanels, Joker 800, Litepanels
Colorist: Tyrell Lloyd