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“It’s All Love and Rage”: DP Ashley Connor on Polite Society

A young woman wears a green gown embroildered with gold details. She wears an ornate gold headpiece and holds her hands up in combat.Polite Society, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

When Ria (Priya Kansara) finds out that her art school dropout sister Lena (Ritu Arya) is giving up her creative dreams to marry a wealthy man, she sense that an evil force is afoot. Using her amateur martial arts moves, Ria concocts a plan with some schoolmates to kidnap Lena from her own wedding. The feature debut from writer-director Nida Manzoor, Polite Society charts the physical and social struggles of being a teenage girl who no one will take seriously.

Cinematographer Ashley Connor tells Filmmaker about how she came to work on the film and her immediate connection to the material.

See all responses to our annual Sundance cinematographer interviews here

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: I’d worked with Parkville Pictures on The Miseducation of Cameron Post and I think they thought I’d be a good fit for Nida’s movie. What attracted me most to the script was its unique tone. I laughed, I cried, I fell in love with Ria, beautifully portrayed by Priya Kansara — I was really blown away by Nida’s ability to imbue so much heart into the comedic tone. I have two sisters so I understood this sort of manic relationship you have to them, it’s all love and rage and a bond that runs deep. 

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: I’d never really done an action movie before, and more specifically, hadn’t worked with wires, so I wanted to bring a different sensibility to those sequences. I have a black belt in Hapkido (from many many moons ago, not actively practicing), so it was exciting to connect my martial arts training with my cinematography. Nida and I wanted Ria’s fighting to not be totally perfect, it was about bringing a more human quality to the stunt work to ground the action sequences. We wanted the cinematography to not overshadow her performance, because at the end of the day, the film is really about a teenage girl’s desires, so we wanted her journey to feel accessible.

Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, or photography, or something else?

Connor: We had such a strong creative team assembled, between production designer Simon Walker and costume designer PC Williams, we knew they would bring so much color and beauty to the table. Nida had worked with them on We Are Lady Parts, so they shared a common language and visual sensibility. A lot of the films we watched were mainly to see how people cover wire work sequences. Obviously we were looking at films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix, but then revisited a lot of Tarantino to see how the comedy could play out within a bloody fight. We had to find a balance between the world of these maximalist films and the limitations of our budget. 

Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?

Connor: Action film on an indie budget during the Omicron spike — I don’t think I need to say much more. 

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 ALEXA Mini with Cooke anamorphic lenses. I usually shoot within the ARRI family, love the workflow and image rendering. We went with the Cooke series because it gave us an anamorphic image without too many of the more idiosyncratic characteristics of anamorphic lenses. We wanted the image to feel clean and modern.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Connor: Because we knew the costumes and sets would be quite colorful, I wanted the lighting to be more natural and motivated. My gaffer, Gordon Goodwin, and I would light mainly through windows then offer subtle adjustments from the floor — shooting the film during the winter months presented some matching challenges. 

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?

Connor: The scene that still gives me whiplash is the first fight sequence in the school library — we shot it the final week before we broke for the Christmas holiday. Simon and Nida found an incredible circular library that would allow for the wire rigging team to create a grid into the second floor. We had 360 degrees of windows in winter time where every day we’d start before the sun came up and finish two hours after it went down. It was my own fault for saying yes, and sometimes the best lessons are learned through suffering. We shot the sequence over three days; day one was the wides that showed the ceiling and our 50ish teenage girl background actors — this was on Monday. Then the rigging team was going to take two days to build the grid while we shot other scenes throughout the campus. Omicron was surging and we were losing background actors left and right, mainly people staying home not wanting to get sick before the holiday. So by the time we came back to shoot the rest of the fight, we had about 12 girls left and would move them around per shot. As the sun went down I’d have to relight and place silks in front of background windows and blow them out, and having limited gear, it felt like we were constantly maxing out our lighting package. This was also the first time we were working with the wires, so our understanding of timing had a bit of a learning curve. All in all, a beautiful nightmare and the producers dressed as Santa on the last day to give us all a nice laugh. 

Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?

Connor: I try to bake in my look as much in front of the lens as possible. And sadly I couldn’t make the DI because I was shooting another movie, but I typically use the grade as an opportunity to fix some mistakes inevitably made on set. 

TECH BOX

Film Title: Polite Society

Camera: Arri Alexa Mini

Lenses: Cooke Anamorphic

Lighting: LEDs, HMIs, Tungsten

Processing: 4:3 2.8k prores 4444

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