“A Deep Reminder of How Beauty and Darkness are Intertwined”: DP Jenni Morello on Shooting Victim/Suspect
Below, DP Jenni Morello discusses her work on Nancy Schwartzman’s Sundance-premiering Netflix documentary, Victim/Suspect, her follow-up to the doc Roll Red Roll. The film deals with alleged victims rape and sexual assault who find themselves on the other end of legal charges when they are accused of making false accusations.
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?
Morello: I met Nancy in early 2020 (pre-pandemic days) and honestly, I can’t remember how I became the cinematographer for this but we had had many conversations about working on films that deal with the subject of an assault. I had written an essay in 2021 addressing trauma in the documentary space and I think that might have had something to do with it.
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?
Morello: Nancy came to me with lots of visual references which made my job very easy in terms of artistic goals. I really wanted to create parameters that incorporated Nancy’s references but also kept the audience engaged in a visual melange. In the early days, we had lots of conversations about tone, and things we liked and didn’t like. We both wanted to push the boundaries a bit in terms of how we approached a veritè film and I’m really grateful that she was down for us to try lots of things, even if they didn’t end up getting used. Often I’d say “Can I break the rules if we try this?” and she was always down to try it. Nancy wanted to incorporate as much beauty as we could find for a film that is heavy and dark in the subject matter. The film follows an investigative journalist who was active in the throes of her research. This might have felt banal at times, but it offered me a creative challenge to enhance how we observe journalists. We wanted people to feel like they were along for the ride; in the discovery, pouring thorough research, the loneliness, and isolation of reporting, and uncovering the truth. We also were very cognizant that we were telling the stories of some incredible women who have survived an awful attack. It was important that the cinematography enhanced the storytelling but also held space for them and who had the power in those scenes.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Morello: I’m always influenced by other filmmakers, painters, and photographers. I often keep notebooks of things I see and how I can incorporate them into my work. Nancy came to me with an incredible archive of images from films and a lot of fantastic literal ideas. In earlier conversations, we had discussed all the great films about journalists and both kept returning to Spotlight. There were many obvious parallels that helped find specific influences like Unbelievable, Broadcast News, and Ex Machina (my favorite Nancy suggestion). I’d print off her ideas and put them in a journal, which eventually started having its own themes emerge.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Morello: Well, we started filming in the early summer of 2021. The world was slowly still reopening. So besides the obvious challenges of filming in those days, I think our biggest challenge was we were writing our own visual story. We were trying things we hadn’t seen done before and trying to incorporate them within veritè scenes. I remember asking often do we think this is working? Will the editor be mad at me for not covering this traditionally? Often we were doing things, that normally we’d have a much larger crew for but we wanted to see how we could pull it off with our nimble but mighty team. I was incredibly fortunate to have our entire team on board to support all of our ideas.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Morello: We shot on the Sony FX 9. We had many conversations about which camera we wanted and had a close tie but ultimately the size of the Fx9 and knowing we could source it in different places helped us pick it. We also wanted the flexibility of filming in full frame. We use the Canon FD prime lenses. The vintage glass was something we both wanted to use to break up the feel of digital cameras and it had a bit of creaminess to its image that would provide us with happy surprises.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Morello: We had different parameters for different parts of the film and I’d say they were mostly all lighting related. I wanted to have a natural look for the interviews. Things we could easily recreate in different places in the United States. We knew we might be in small places for the interviews, so something that felt feminine and warm for our survivors. Nancy wanted to play with color temps, so interviews with law enforcement were cooler, and advocates were warmer. The Astera tubes became our workhorse. We’d shine them directly into the lens for interviews to create a creamy hue. Anytime Rae was reporting in a hotel room, we’d throw a tube somewhere with a fun color to break up the hotel’s bleakness. These would be based on things we’d see out in the world, if she was driving at night, the colors you’d see across her face reflected from a street lamp the glow of a laptop when you’re working late into the light. They became a fun addition to scenes that we had control over but always felt natural to the environment.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Morello: The most difficult scene for me to film was returning to a scene where one of our subjects was assaulted. It was the first time the subject returned to this place, and we had many conversations about how to film when we put the camera down, and how we film it in a way that feels respectful but also still cinematic. We decided to use one prime lens and make it work with that lens. We wanted to make sure that we could give this person space but also film what was necessary and not film when it wasn’t. Everyone present that day held space for each other and the camera was the thing we had to remember wasn’t as important. It ended up being one of those moments that we as cinematographers dream of visually in documentary, where the light hits the lens in a magical way but yet it was in a place that held a horrific incident. A deep reminder of how beauty and darkness are intertwined.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Morello: None of the film was baked in. We had many references that were realized in the DI.
Filmmaker: If possible, could you fill out the below information about your film’s cinematography?
- Film Title: Victim/Suspect
- Camera: Sony Fx9
- Lenses: Canon FD’s Canon CNE 15.5-47
- Lighting: Astera Tubes
- Color Grading: