BackBack to selection

Shutter Angles

Conversations with DPs, directors and below-the-line crew by Matt Mulcahey

Earth Mama DP Jody Lee Lipes

Jody Lee Lipes likes to ask questions—so many, in fact, that the cinematographer says it can sometimes annoy directors. However, Lipes found a collaborator with an equally inexhaustible inquisitiveness in Savanah Leaf.

“Savanah wanted to go through every scene together [during prep],” said Lipes. “I loved it because that’s my favorite thing to do. We would talk about a scene for like three hours. We went literally word by word through the script.” Lipes, whose credits include Manchester by the Sea, Martha Marcy May Marlene and I Know This Much Is True, first met Leaf on a commercial. They developed a rapport, and Leaf began pitching the DP on a script she’d been working on. “It’s very common for a commercial director to have a script in their back pocket, but it’s really hard to make a movie, so a lot of the time they don’t ever get made,” said Lipes. “So, I didn’t really take it that seriously at first, but then the script came to me through my agent, and I was really impressed by what I read.”

Blending social realism (practical locations, non-actors in many roles, an emphasis on long takes with an objective point of view) and magical realism (Gia’s inner life is expressed through daydream-like escapes to the nearby ocean and redwood forests), the film was shot over 26 days around the Bay Area. During prep, Lipes and Leaf went through the script together three separate times in minute detail as they shotlisted the entire movie. “We really distilled things,” said Lipes. “Obviously, that plan can change on the day and get better or shift because problems come up, but we did what we planned like 90 percent of the time. It just really felt like a mind meld where we were speaking the same language.”

Filmmaker: I watched Savanah’s documentary The Heart Still Hums (2020)—which focuses on the story of women dealing with similar issues to Gia—and the doc is actually more stylized than the fictional variation you’ve made with Earth Mama.

Lipes: When I first read the script, I kind of assumed that it was going to be this super real, very gritty story, almost like a Dardenne brothers feeling. I know Savanah has a lot of respect for them—The Son was one of the films we watched during prep—but I was really surprised and excited when I first met with her about the project and she said that wasn’t going to be the language. We watched a lot of Michael Haneke films in preparation. There’s actually a screening at BAM that is Haneke’s Code Unknown and Earth Mama playing together because that movie was such an influence on Savanah.

One of the biggest scenes in Earth Mama is very directly inspired by Code Unknown. It’s the scene in that film following the opening vignette of the children. There’s a lateral tracking shot that moves along the street for a really long time and then tracks all the way back as this [confrontation] unfolds. That was a really big influence on Savanah for the scene when Gia goes to what’s called a sideshow, which is like a party in the streets in the Bay Area where people do crazy things with cars.

Filmmaker: Did you shoot mainly on location?

Lipes: Almost entirely. The photo studio where Gia works was an empty storefront inside of a mall that Juliana Barreto Barreto, our production designer, really transformed from scratch. I think that was the biggest creation for her. There’s another moment where Gia is in her house and sees redwoods through the window. That was actually [a facade with a wall and a window] that Juliana built [in the forest].

Filmmaker: The movie is around 100 minutes long, and if I had to guess, there might only be 250 shots total. You’re often distilling scenes down to their essence. It felt like you were asking yourself, “What are the one or two places I can put the camera in this scene that will tell the entire story?”

Lipes: It’s not always the right approach for everything, but if it works—and not just because you don’t have time or don’t know any better—then that’s the best, right? If it’s working for the performances and telling the story and you can do it in one shot, that, to me, is all I ever want to do. You don’t need to dress it up. Savanah really had confidence in herself, and she knew the story so well that she was able to commit and make visual choices that were bold in their simplicity.

Filmmaker: You shot on Super 16 film with ARRI/ZEISS Master Primes, which is a lens set with an extensive number of focal lengths. Are you a cinematographer who likes to narrow down the language of a film to a few specific lenses?

Lipes: No, I think we probably used them all at some point. One of the reasons I like Master Primes is actually for that very thing—there’s a lot of options, so there’s a lot of very specific choices you can make. Those lenses don’t have a lot of character, but I didn’t feel like we needed a lot of character from the lenses for this film. I thought the 16mm was enough and that it had its own voice. We also needed the speed of those lenses because we weren’t going to have a big lighting budget. I had an incredible focus puller, so I wasn’t worried about shooting them at a T1.3. We also used a 24-290mm Angénieux Zoom and did a lot of long zoom-ins, which is something that several directors I’ve worked with have responded to.

Filmmaker: Why was Super 16 the right choice? 

Lipes: The way Savanah described the movie to me was this mixture of being really pretty and thought out and graphic, but also very gritty and real. So, how do you get both of those things simultaneously? I think [the former characteristics] come from the shot choices, the camera movement and the focal lengths we chose. I think that grittiness and rawness comes from the lighting and the fact that the format is 16mm. Somehow they went together, the lighting style and the format blending with the lensing and the formalism of the coverage choices to make this interesting brew.

Filmmaker: Did you process the 16mm normally or did you push it a stop?

Lipes: I processed it regularly, but the movie is very underexposed in terms of how the film is rated. We only used [Kodak] 7219, which is 500 ASA tungsten, but I rated it at 1,000. Even though the film is in some ways overlit, at least for me, in terms of how there’s light everywhere and it’s not shaped very much, the negative is really starved, and that makes a grainier image. The other thing that accentuates that is the grade, where we wanted it to almost feel like it was developed in a drugstore. I like low-contrast grades, and it’s been hard for me to get out of that habit. I just naturally go that way.

Filmmaker: The lighting looks very naturalistic, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t go to great pains to make it feel “found.” How much were you relying on practical sources and how much were you carefully curating that naturalism?

Lipes: It’s a mixture. We had an incredible lighting team that worked really hard and did a lot. There were definitely some bigger units used for things like pushing through windows, but it’s a period film, so a lot of it was just switching out practicals to make sure things were color-correct and period-correct. We wanted to make sure that the color was a choice rather than just letting it fall where it falls.

Filmmaker: There’s a three-and-a-half-minute shot early in the film when Gia has supervised visitation with her kids that really establishes the rhythm and the style of the film.

Lipes: Savanah had really specific ideas about the way she wanted that room to be laid out—where the supervisor would be, which doors people could come in and out of, the relationship of the room to the parking lot. She based it on research she had done. So, I started to draw out the room with her just so I understood [the geography of what she wanted]. It was really hard to find a room that fit. We ended up finding this room that I think was an Education Department office or something, and at first Savanah really wasn’t into it. The space seemed too big, but the way we designed the shot, you were never going to see half of the room. So, it actually worked perfectly because then we had all this extra [off-camera] space logistically just for [equipment and crew in the room]. Once we found that room, it became about simplifying the shot, which often happens with a complicated oner like this one. [The moves start] getting less and less [elaborate] and the actors start to do less and less. It becomes simpler and simpler, and that’s when it gets better and better. I was also worried about whether the kids were going to be able to pull this off for a shot this long, but Savanah is an amazing actors’ director, and the kids were fantastic.

Filmmaker: Let’s circle back to that oner at the sideshow that you mentioned earlier, which is set in a mall parking lot. Is that just done on a long stretch of dolly track?

Lipes: Yes. We looked at a lot of locations to find that. Sideshows are not secret back-alley things. They happen at a super busy intersection in the middle of the street. It’s not hidden—that’s part of the point. We needed a location where it felt like you could park a car and then, as Gia walks toward the party, the crowd could grow and get bigger. It’s a night scene, so we were also looking for a location that could light itself to a certain extent. Once we picked our mall, which is ironically right in front of a police station, it was then about finding the right spot where we could lay one really long, straight stretch of track. We needed the ground to be level enough that we didn’t need any sort of crazy scaffolding or system underneath to build up the track. We needed it to just be track on the ground [leveled out] with wood.

We did a test shoot at that mall just to make sure there weren’t too many flicker problems with the parking lot lights. Then, we basically begged this mall to replace 50 light bulbs that lit the side of their building. They had stopped using that exterior lighting a long time ago, so a bunch of the bulbs were dead. We had to get them to turn the lights on for us and then put in replacement bulbs. It was a very big job to get them to do that, and it took a lot of work from the locations department and the electricians to make that happen. We also put a light in the glass elevator shaft in the mall that Gia walks by. That was pretty much it. It’s kind of crazy how something that epic—at least, something that’s epic to me—had no [non-practical] lighting really to speak of, except for one little light in an elevator to glow the glass. I love the way that scene turned out.

Filmmaker: There’s a shot where Gia leaves a support group meeting, and instead of following her, the camera focuses on a woman from the group who’s outside crying. That moment personifies this sense in Earth Mama that all the peripheral characters—whether it be the women in the support group, the customers getting their family portraits at Gia’s photo studio job or the people hanging out under the carports by Gia’s apartment—have their own stories as well.

Lipes: That is totally true, and that was Savanah’s idea—that all these people, including Gia, are worth looking at and understanding.

© 2024 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham