“I Wanted the Camera To Be a Good Listener”: DP Natasha Braier on She Said
In Maria Schrader’s She Said, two New York Times reporters investigate allegations of sexual misconduct against Hollywood producer Harvey Weintstein. Their work not only leads to a measure of justice for victims, but helps inspire #MeToo, an ongoing effort to improve professional practices for women in a male-dominated industry.
Schrader and her crew shot largely on location, including inside the New York Times headquarters near Times Square. The heavyweight cast includes Carey Mulligan (Megan Twohey), Zoe Kazan (Jodi Kantor), Patricia Clarkson (Rebecca Corbett), Jennifer Ehle (Laura Madden) and Samantha Morton (Zelda Perkins).
Director of photography Natasha Braier has worked on a wide range of features, music videos and TV series, among them Honey Boy, The Neon Demon, The Milk of Sorrow and The Rover. This is her first collaboration with Schrader.
She Said screened at this year’s New York Film Festival. Universal opens the film in theaters on November 18. Braier spoke with Filmmaker from London, where she is on location for her latest project.
Filmmaker: This must have been a tough project to shoot because there’s so much dialogue. You have to find visuals for phone calls, interviews and even a voiceover.
Braier: It was very, very challenging. Normally if I read a script with so much workplace dialogue, I would choose not to do it, because I know I’ll be spending two months in an office with fluorescent top lighting. But when I got this story, I wanted to tell it. I had to tell it. I thought, “I will find a way to survive the fluorescents in the office, because it’s important for me to be a part of the story.” Obviously, there’s not much you can do with office lighting, but the New York Times building is visually more interesting than others. There were a lot of windows to work with.
Even though the film is extremely careful about being very accurate with everything, we did move the investigation area to another corner of the building with more windows. Where we shot was actually more similar to where they worked in 2017, when the story takes place. That helped a lot, because we could connect the characters with the exterior, the street, the city. They could get up and walk towards the window, things like that. We had to find ways to motivate them to move around a little bit.
Filmmaker: You can shoot from above down on two characters isolated in the cafeteria. But what do you do when they’re on the phone? You have to find something else to look at.
Braier: That’s tough, because sometimes there isn’t anything else, you know? We can have the phone calls in different places. Sometimes they stand up, sometimes they walk around the desk. Sometimes you’re doing an homage to All the President’s Men. One of the first phone calls Megan gets, she faces all this ridiculous resistance from a clerk. It’s a moment that reveals how the system is rigged, how it protects and enables predators. So, we did this super slow zoom in, showing how her world slows down, narrows, her possibilities closed off.
We tried to figure out what each phone call was bringing to the movie, how it advanced or blocked the investigation, how it affected our characters emotionally. Once we were clear about that conceptually, we could find ways to help support that concept visually.
Filmmaker: You worked this all out with Maria Schrader beforehand?
Braier: We met over the phone. She wanted to hear my approach, get a sense of my instincts. It was a great conversation, about three hours. We both knew the big challenge was to have a camera that is respectful, observational, humble, at the service of a script that is pure dialogue; a camera that listens, respectfully, like the reporters listened to the survivors. At the same time, trying to bring emotion to the camera in a subtle way, finding a connection with the characters.
The Times building was closed at the time because of COVID. They planned to reopen September 1, after a month of renovations. We had to prep really, really fast to get in and out of there in the time they were giving us. Plus, Maria’s visa was delayed. She got there like six weeks before we started and had, I think, 70 actors to cast. With all the work we had to do, we couldn’t really spend time together the way you normally would to figure out shots, look at movies together, throw ideas around. It was a short and intense prep.
Filmmaker: How did that affect your shotlists and storyboards?
Braier: We would discuss what really needed to be prepped. For the rest, we would talk conceptually. I’d take notes about what was important for Maria for each scene, where she was positioning herself as a director. We had strong root concepts to work from on the day of shooting.
We were really designing as we went along. We had time to storyboard maybe the first two or three days at the Times. Every night when we wrapped, Maria and the first AD and I would work another two hours going through the next day’s scenes, figuring out shots. It was a very intense two weeks to get everything we needed there. Throughout that process, we discovered the language of the film together. Let the actors lead the camera movements. Try to feel invisible, be an observer, a listener. Find that fine line of respectful distance and, at the same time, emotional connection. Our rules grew organically, and we used them for the rest of the film after the Times material. We had a lot of locations, almost a new one every day. We had time to photograph some of them when we were scouting, but for others we had no precise plan of how we were going to cover them until we started to rehearse. But we had the communication we had built during the Times stuff to rely on.
Filmmaker: You designed long tracking shots through the newsroom that must have required a lot of planning.
Braier: Yes, they did. Everything at the Times needed very precise planning, which we only had time to do the night before. We couldn’t work things out the day of shooting because we didn’t have time. Each day we had seven or eight scenes. We had to be very smart about time: “Okay, we have ninety minutes to shoot this scene. How do we do it? We choreograph it in one wide shot. We move the characters so everyone can be seen at the right time. That way we don’t have to shoot coverage.” It was really intense. There was no room for thinking on the day, we had to know it beforehand.
Filmmaker: What do you think Schrader wanted from you?
Braier: Visually, I think the main challenge of the film was to be unnoticed. Whatever I was bringing had to be invisible. I had to try to disappear into the work, make it feel as real and as documentary as possible. I wanted the camera to be a window through which you’re observing something that doesn’t feel too manipulated or cinematic. I thought a lot about Frederick Wiseman‘s documentaries. I guess I brought the skill of discovering where that window is. Sculpt it, make sure it opens in the right place so the audience is not aware of the filmmakers.
Filmmaker: It’s also a window that has to be sympathetic to the frequently awful things that are happening.
Braier: On the one hand, you have a philosophy of where to put the camera, but as a human you are concerned about being respectful to people who might be very vulnerable. We had survivors playing roles, playing themselves at times. The performers had to go to emotionally challenging places, like when they deliver testimony. You have to find ways of doing things that aren’t invasive, that allow actors to not worry about the camera and lights and crew, to feel safe, forget that we are there.
Some days on set were very charged, very heavy. We would get goosebumps watching someone delivering testimony. It was moving and, at times, triggering. There is something very powerful about witnessing the moment when people are able to own their voice and tell their story. There is a healing process that happens in the act of talking and being heard. I wanted the camera to be a good listener, to hold space for them. I guess I’m attracted to projects that have this kind of—I don’t know, psychological catharsis or something.
Filmmaker: It’s fascinating how you get in and out of conversations. I can think of three instances—with Jennifer Ehle on the beach, Samantha Morton in a London cafe and Ashley Judd at home—where the camera pulls us into these incredibly emotional moments.
Braier: We had a system for the interviews using two cameras to protect the actors. They just couldn’t do these scenes over and over. We have two sizes on the cameras, a wide shot and a mid-shot. Do a couple of takes so they can warm up, then get close. We didn’t have a lot of time, so that was the protocol.
I couldn’t travel to Europe at the time for visa reasons, so the London scene with Samantha was [shot] by Thomas Townsend, a cinematographer I really admire in the UK. I sent him all the footage from our other interview scenes. He could see our approach and followed it exactly: same lenses, similar distances, same philosophy. He did such an amazing job that every time I watch, I forget I didn’t shoot that scene, because it’s so seamless.
We shot Jennifer’s scene at Long Beach. We were very lucky that it was a cloudy day so it looked like England—super lucky, really, because we were shooting two cameras. No lights: the only thing we used was a big, floppy flag just out of frame above Jenny’s face so Zoe wouldn’t have to squint her eyes.
Filmmaker: For Ashley Judd’s scene, you have the camera outside the window of her house, which makes a lot of psychological sense.
Braier: For that location we could work from a lot of photos, a lot of angles. When Maria arrived, we chose angles which I put on my iPad photoboard. We started that scene with a very wide shot inside her house, behind her, so that she’s a silhouette. There’s a corridor in between Ashley and the camera. Then we go outside through the glass. Ashley’s scene was one of the last things we shot. It was very moving. She was so key, so instrumental to the story.
Filmmaker: I’m curious how you handled all the phone and computer screens.
Braier: We shot some of the phones live. The computer screens at the Times, we had a team who tried to replace the content on every screen. Sometimes, for a very small percentage, we used greenscreen.