“You Have to Find a Balance Between the Eroticism and the Reality”: Ashley Connor on Sharp Stick
For Sharp Stick, her first feature film since 2010’s Tiny Furniture, Lena Dunham relates the adventure of Sarah Jo, a 26-year-old virgin, as she woos the father of Zach, an intellectually disabled child for whom she cares. As the film unfolds, ideas about trauma, sex positivity and body image begin to emerge. Cinematographer Ashley Connor discusses shooting the film on an accelerated timeline and how she captured the feeling of infatuation in the visuals.
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?
Connor: It felt like Lena and I had been destined to meet for a long time. My first job in New York was babysitting for a director, and they were always telling me about their young filmmaking friend Lena that I had to meet, but when I saw Tiny Furniture it already felt like she was out of my league. Thirteen years and many missed connections later, she reached out about Sharp Stick and wanted to know if I would read the script. It was so funny and smart, I hadn’t read anything like it. Sometimes meetings just feel cosmic, and when we finally connected it felt like the easiest decision in the world. We realized we shared many of the same cinematic reference points, we both care about creating challenging material and our quick alliance lent itself to an effortless working relationship.
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?
Connor: Much of why I choose certain films relates to how women are seen and how women’s stories are evolving to include more complicated narratives. The character of Sarah Jo (played beautifully by Kristine Froseth) was so complex and refreshing because she’s never entirely just one thing. The story revolves around a young woman finding her voice in her own pleasure, which begins with an affair with a married man. The film asks the audience questions about power and sex that aren’t addressed enough. And from a visual standpoint, we wanted you to feel her desire, her obsession, her power, and her weakness, so it was asking ourselves how the camera could be in communication with Sarah Jo’s emotional journey. Making a movie about sex, you have to find a balance between the eroticism and the reality, the good and the bad—the camera became a neutral friend to her experience.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Connor: I wouldn’t say we had any specific references for the cinematography, but we watched a lot of films from the ’60s and ’70s that related to women and sex. An Unmarried Woman, Belle de Jour, Turkish Delight, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, you get the idea. All our conversations related to how the women were seen and how women are typically portrayed in these types of films. Lena knew she didn’t want Sarah Jo to ever be naked—it felt too obvious and was something she’d already done—so it was more about visualizing her experience: how it feels to be infatuated with someone when you dive in and lose yourself, how being vulnerable is a brave act that can open you up to painful experiences. In a lot of these films, the women are punished for their perceived promiscuity and we wanted to subvert that narrative.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Connor: We shot the film in 15 days towards the end of 2020. Los Angeles was peaking with COVID and it felt scary to be working around so many people. It’s a low-budget film, so we had to be creative in its execution. I think the whole creative team was phenomenal because everyone used their talents to never let a limited budget stand in the way of their artistic goals. I’m sure you can imagine all the things that could go wrong and all the anxieties involved, but we had a great crew and that’s how we got through it.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Connor: We shot on the Arri Alexa Mini and Cooke S4s. I usually shoot Alexa because I think Arri just makes cameras that work straight out the gate. The lenses I chose because of their softness and I knew I could easily make a more low contrast image with them. We didn’t want the look to overwhelm the story.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Connor: Since our schedule was so quick and the winter days meant the sun went down earlier, I needed to approach the lighting from a more simplistic place. My gaffer Jeremy Graham and I also knew we didn’t have a lot of money to get everything we wanted, so it was really using our locations to our advantage. We’d usually light the space with a few bigger units outside, then shape and enhance a little from the interior but knew we couldn’t get too fussy between set ups. We had a significant page count every day, and it wasn’t on the table to extend the schedule, so you need to know when and how to spend your time wisely.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Connor: There were many difficult scenes to shoot because when you’re only using real locations you live and die by the space. I think the first sex scene between Sarah Jo and Josh (Jon Bernthal) was extremely difficult. We shot it in a tiny laundry room—so tiny that I operated the camera and held the boom pole because no one else could fit in the space. Sex scenes always present their own challenges, and this one was no different. Lena blocked and rehearsed with the actors, we had our intimacy coordinator on set, but everyone was outside the room but me. It took a lot of maneuvering to make it work, but Jon and Kristine were so professional. They were very present to each other’s needs and respectful of the process. The rest was just me holding my breath so as not to distract.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Connor: My colorist Nat Jencks and I have done almost 15 films together—he’s definitely my closest collaborator at this point and we always try to bake in the look up front. We knew Lena wanted a lower contrast look, a gentleness to reflect the California winter light, so we created a LUT in preproduction that would help achieve that, adding filters to either enhance or counter the contrast. I grew up in LA, so I really tried to channel my Valley girl roots and capture that essence.
Film Title: Sharp Stick
Camera: Arri Alexa Mini
Lenses: Cooke S4
Grading: Nat Jencks at Technicolor PostWorks