“The Lighting Started from a Real Place of Honesty”: DP Mia Cioffi Henry on Superior
Having lensed several notable works that have been released in the last couple of years (Jeremy Hersh’s The Surrogate, Ja’Tovia Gary’s The Giverny Document, and the shorts In Sudden Darkness and Dominant Species, among others), New York-based DP Mia Cioffi Henry arrives at Sundance with Erin Vassilopolous’s stylish psychodrama, Superior, based on the director’s 2015 short, which Henry also shot. Below, Henry discusses her own journey back to this material following the short, how references find their way into finished works, and being open to the truth of practical locations.
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?
Henry: Erin Vassilopolous and I first met at NYU Grad Film school. We were assigned to work together in a crew for our first projects, and we just connected from there. I ended up shooting all of her films while in school, including the 2015 Sundance short Superior. We had so much fun creating that world, collaborating and solving film problems back then, it felt like this awesome opportunity to play and experiment with our voices. I remember waking up on the second or third morning of the shoot and feeling like a cinematographer for the very first time. When Erin and Alessandra Mesa, who also plays Marian, started writing this continued world for the feature, I did not hesitate to jump back in. I already knew the characters and aesthetic so well, it was a delight to grow from there.
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?
Henry: For me personally, I was excited to get back into a world we had established as students from newfound perspectives. In that time I shot numerous shorts, music videos, commercials and features, got married, had a kid, moved to Europe and back. I was such a different person in many ways when we picked up this story again, and because of the way the film reenters years later, so were these characters — they lead lives, had gotten themselves into tough situations and now we meet them as they realize how to get out of them. The film is a second coming-of-age story for these sisters, and Erin and Ale did such a great job of writing about this time for women. I identify so strongly with their situations, especially Vivian, so it was just about how to connect with them through the camera and show their inner lives to the audience. Of course this film is also so rich with color and texture, so it was about taking the viewer on a stylized journey, finding beauty in the thriller tone and letting ourselves experience something a bit more than the ordinary.
I always want my cinematography to be rooted very firmly in the story and characters. I work very hard with my directors to make sure the decisions come from a strong understanding of their perspectives and subtext. We spend so much time in preproduction just understanding who the characters are and what they want out of each given moment. I think my process comes out of my early training as an actor and using character study and backstory to inform the decisions that make it on the screen.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Henry: This film has some really key and kind of unexpected references. Erin and I talked about everything from Blood Simple and North by Northwest to Rosemary’s Baby and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. For color we looked a lot at Il Deserto Rosso (Red Desert) which influenced the pallet of Vivian’s house. For blocking and camera movement we talked about L’Avventura and The Match Factory Girl. Erin and I always have an exchange of images and films going in our casual conversations that sometimes end up in our films, we have been trading pictures for eight years and that has built a pretty strong baseline for where our visuals start. We also get to reference our own work on this. There are a couple of moments that are a direct match to things we have done in our other shorts, including Superior, which is fun. All of our work together seems to exist in the same world.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Henry: Time, absolutely. When shortlisting and planning we really like to be in the spaces. When we walk into our hero locations I always turn off all of the practical lights and just experience how the sun or street lamps might fall into the rooms naturally. I try to experience the natural light at all different times of day to see how it changes, how it bounces around the room, or disappears into the colors or textures. We use a lot of color in our locations, together with Maite Perez-Nievas our production designer, we made some really bold choices that changed the feeling of the rooms quite a lot. It took some time to figure out how to light those and of course when you are working on independent films, time is not in abundance. Of course I have learned to work very quickly on set, but I know that the more we can patiently come to our decisions before we arrive on the day, the stronger our choices can be, the more we can trust in ourselves that we are pushing the film in the right direction.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Henry: Just like the short, we knew we were going to shoot film on this project. After briefly debating formats, we settled on the Arri 416 from Arri Rental and 16mm for its characteristic and nostalgic grain and Kodak Vision3 7219 and 7207 stock for its color rendering. We used Cooke S4i 35mm lenses, 12, 14, 16, 18 & 27mm and a Canon 6.6-66mm s16 zoom. I had used the S4s on another film last year, The Surrogate by Jeremy Hersh. I chose them for their treatment of skin tones. On this film which is so incredibly different, it was all about the soft clarity and neutrality that mixed beautifully with the 16mm. We were looking at candid photographs and family albums for how to represent the 1980s. We never wanted it to feel gimmicky or like some kind of instagram filter. We let the locations and costumes do most of the heavy lifting for the era and even then it was a soft handed period piece, more timeless than anything.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Henry: The lighting, like all of our choices, started from a real place of honesty, how does the sun shine through these windows? What does this house feel like in the middle of the night? And then we added character on top of that, the sun cuts stronger across a wall in the day, windows glow a bit more at night, everything feels heightened and cinematic. We never shy away from darkness or shape when it makes sense. There are a number of dreams and sort of hallucinations that happen, we loved playing with the idea that you can’t always tell if they are really happening or not. Sometimes you see a sort of ghost in the daytime and the character has to second guess their surroundings. Other times we take the dreams really far. I loved working with Roman Hankewycz at Harbor in the DI because he totally understood the journey of our characters and helped shape the dream sequences at the different points, leaning into the darkness or finding a little extra light so we wouldn’t miss the nuanced performances of our actors. I love using light as a story point in the script, and there are quite a few lighting gags that were actually written into the scenes that drive the characters actions, chiefly in the ending scene with Robert, Pico Alexander’s character. We had a lot of fun with that and I have to give credit to my lighting team, gaffer Zach Erwin and key grip Josh Elam for pulling most of that scene off after I sprained my ankle the last week of shooting.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Henry: Our biggest scene is the opening of the film, a woman flashes onto the screen in a bright red jumpsuit running toward the camera, a black Camero comes barreling down the dark highway after her. We needed to shut down a bridge in upstate New York on a tight indie budget and schedule. We only had one night to do it, with so many setups and stunts it felt pretty impossible. I think our original shot list for the scene was 60 something shots, could have been more! But we just put our heads down and worked through it as best as we could, prioritizing what we had to and racing the sun until dawn when the road had to open again. The whole crew had to come together for that scene with a schedule that did not allow for any mistakes. In the end we pre-lit a trestle bridge with par cans so we could see the lights in the shot and motivate the entire scene, a scissor lift would swap ends of the road depending on which direction we were looking and a 20×20 rag would dance around so that we could stay mobile as we moved out of the stunts and into the scene. Josh laid 100 feet of track and match the speed of our car for some shots, which was amazing and he also rigged three or four different car setups on our stunt and follow cars. It was kind of a circus and when we walked away that night I honestly had no idea if we even had the exposure, but a week later when we got the dailies back, I finally was able to breathe, it looked gorgeous.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Henry: Another reason we love shooting 16mm is because we know we can get so much of our look right in the can. Marcy Robinson at Goldcrest built a dailies LUT for us that was pretty close to how we saw the final film, so we knew we were on the right track when we were looking at footage. Roman at Harbor got us 90% to the finish on his first pass of the film too. We finished principal photography in December 2019, so most of the finishing process ended up happening during Covid. We got around to the color fall of 2020 and Erin and I were able to get together for the grade at Harbor while Roman joined over video remotely. It was absolutely smooth considering he was working from home and it was really nice that Erin and I could be together in the room looking at a large projected image. Most of the DI was fine tuning work when we were with Roman, but a big factor was deciding how far we wanted to lean into our dream sequences. Roman did an excellent job of structuring our sessions so that we could find our way narratively to the final look.
In the end I am so happy and proud of this film and the years long collaboration I have had with Erin that lead us to this point. It is really gratifying to be back at Sundance with this world and pretty exciting that we are getting to share it all around the country simultaneously this year.