“Found Footage with Style”: Cinematographer Maryse Alberti on M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit
As a teenager in the south of France, Maryse Alberti’s first two trips to the cinema led her impressionable eyes to Duel and Harold and Maude. If she’d instead began her cinematic journey with The Barefoot Executive and Escape From the Planet of the Apes, maybe she wouldn’t have become the cinematographer of The Wrestler, Happiness, When We Were Kings and Crumb. But the combined spell cast by Steven Spielberg and Hal Ashby – the great populist entertainer and the iconoclastic humanist – set Albert on a path that has led to a four-decade career pivoting between documentary and fiction.
Alberti’s latest straddles the line between both aesthetics in a “found footage” horror film directed (and largely self-financed) by M. Night Shyamalan. Titled The Visit, the twistedly funny and cringingly creepy genre effort takes great glee in jabbing at the exposed nerve that is our unease with facing the indignities of old age. With three films set for release in the coming months – including the topical drama Freeheld and the Rocky spinoff Creed – Alberti spoke with Filmmaker about her latest work.
Filmmaker: Where did you grow up and how did you fall in love with movies?
Alberti: I grew up in a very small town in the south of France. Just to give some perspective, when I was 12 years old my grandmother was the first person on the block to have a television. Every Wednesday night, the whole block would come to her house to watch a show called To the Theatre Tonight. It was basically a recording of a play. I never went to the movies until I was, I think, 14. I went to the nearest big town, Bordeaux, with a friend and we saw a movie called Duel by Steven Spielberg. I had no idea who Steven Spielberg was, but that movie blew my mind. Then the second time I went to the movie theater was when I decided to escape the south of France and come to America, which was as far away as I could think of. That was like going to the moon to me. (On my way out of France) I stayed with some cousins in Paris and we went to the movies and saw Harold and Maude. I was lucky that, out of all the movies I could have seen, I saw those two films.
Filmmaker: What did you do when you first came to the states?
Alberti: At first I was an au pair. I was planning on staying for three months and I stayed for eight years before I went back to France. I stayed with a family in New Rochelle. That was in 1973. After the first shock of seeing all the big American cars, my second shock was that there was a TV in every room. So I just binged. There were so many channels and movies all the time. That was my crash course in movies.
Filmmaker: How did you get your start as a stills photographer?
Alberti: You have to fast forward like eight years. I had been hitchhiking across the country for a few years. During that time I had this little Instamatic camera and took pictures as a tourist. When I came back (to New York) a good friend of mine bought me a little Nikon camera for my birthday and I started taking pictures for the New York Rocker, which was a rock and roll magazine. So I started to make a little bit of money taking pictures of people like Frank Zappa, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. By luck I also met someone who worked in the X-rated film industry and they needed a still photographer. They were paying something like $75 a day, which was great money. So I ended up in that industry, which at the time had a lot of crew that were students from NYU and Columbia and all the producers were Jewish or Italian men with wigs. That was my introduction to film sets.
Filmmaker: You have an extremely diverse resume of both fiction and non-fiction work, but I believe this is the first horror film you’ve shot. What attracted you to The Visit?
Alberti: Night Shyamalan called and, I don’t know, I said yes. (laughs) I was interested in working with him and it was a great experience. He’s very smart and he has a funny soul. As everybody knows, this was kind of his comeback film and he put a lot of love into it. He’s a true collaborator, too.
Filmmaker: How does the dynamic of a production change when the director has put $5 million of his own money into the film? If you go into overtime or hit a meal penalty, he’s writing that check.
Alberti: Well, we had to do 12 hour days, and that was it. So there weren’t any meal penalties and I think we only had maybe two 14 hour days. Night and (producer) Marc Bienstock were very smart in the way they structured the film. The film was being cut and Night was re-writing as we went along, so sometimes we would re-shoot something for content or for performance, and it was great to be able to do that.
Night also wanted to shoot the film in sequence, for the actors. That was a little bit of a logistical challenge, but because we were mostly in one location, it made it easier. I had a very good crew that I found in Philadelphia. I used part of the crew again when I did Creed, so it was nice to form a little film family in Philly.
Filmmaker: Had Night decided to use a found footage approach before you came aboard the project?
Alberti: Yes, that was what Night wanted to do with the film, but it was never going to be the shaky cam, Blair Witch kind of found footage. The Visit is not your traditional found footage film. It’s found footage with style. And that makes sense because (the character of Becca) is a wannabe filmmaker who is interested in and loves movies. She cares about the image and the frame.
Filmmaker: Though The Visit convincingly creates the illusion that Becca and her young brother are wielding the camera, I’m assuming they actually did very little camera operating.
Alberti: The only operating the kids did was under the house for the hide and seek (scene). We couldn’t get the scene to work so we just gave the kids the cameras to handhold and then it worked. But that’s the only time.
Filmmaker: What were your parameters for choosing a camera? The film’s look is very polished, but you can see in the blown highlights of some of the exteriors that the camera doesn’t have the dynamic range of something high-end like a Red or an Alexa.
Alberti: We shot tests with the Canon C500, the Red and the (Sony) F5. The (Arri) Amira wasn’t out yet. And we decided on the look of the C500. It looked good, but not perfect. So when you go outside in the snow, you see that the dynamic range is a little bit less and it read as video, which we wanted. But it’s still I think a very good looking image.
Filmmaker: There are several shots in The Visit that begin with one of the kids aiming the camera at themselves and then panning away to initiate an elaborate tracking shot. Who was your camera operator?
Alberti: My fabulous operator was Peter Nolan, who also operated most of The Wrestler. He’s amazing. He has unlimited energy and a great spirit on the set and he can handhold the camera where it looks like a Steadicam. There’s a scene in the bedroom toward the end of the film where Becca uses her camera to break the lock on the door. Peter was maneuvering his camera to mimic Becca’s as she smashes the lock with her prop camera. It was a beauty to see his operating on that shot.
Filmmaker: Do you approach your scene prep any differently on something like The Visit? For example, maybe not rehearsing as much so the camera movements feel more in-the-moment?
Alberti: No, we did blocking. It was a very structured film. It’s a very thought-out film. It was not, “Let’s let the actors roam and we’ll follow them.” We really worked on the frame, but there’s also the idea that the camera would be dropped by the kids. They drop the camera on the bed, drop it on the counter, drop it on the table. It was fun to do that and have these off-kilter frames. So the footage is from a character that is an aspiring filmmaker with a knowledge of film and with care for the frame, but they are still kids who will drop the camera on the table. Then as the movie goes along, they don’t pay so much attention to the frame because things are getting a little bit weird with grandpa and grandma.
Filmmaker: I never thought a game of Yahtzee could be so disturbing.
Alberti: (laughs) That was fun for me. The movie starts as a funny, happy (film) and it’s very naturalistic. As things become a little bit stranger, you get a little bit more into the film noir/thriller look and then as things get even more strange you start to get into the look of a horror film. Each of those progressions has a different style of lighting.
Filmmaker: How so?
Alberti: Early on we have soft daylight coming in from the outside and even the night (interiors) are warm and naturalistic. Then we go a little bit more into thriller lighting, which is more shadows, stronger highlights and less detail in the shadows. By the end, there’s an entire scene in the bedroom with Nana that’s shot with literally one tiny little flashlight on top of the camera.
Filmmaker: How has your work in documentary affected how you approach lighting fiction films?
Alberti: On a documentary you learn to work with very simple tools, sometimes just the light bulb that’s already in the room. You have to enter a space and very quickly see the best place to put the camera and how to light the space in the simplest way, because you don’t have many lights and you don’t have a lot of time. Documentary teaches your eye to react fast. But then the beauty of working in (fiction) features is that even if it’s raining outside, you can make it look like sunshine with a couple of 18Ks.
Filmmaker: In addition to The Visit, you have two other features coming out in the next few months in Freeheld and Creed. What can you tell me about those films?
Alberti: It was a gift to work with three very different directors, three very different subjects and three very different styles of film. That’s what I like to do. Freeheld is a very strong political film and an important story to tell. The style is very quiet and simple. And then Creed is a boxing film with a filmmaker (Fruitvale Station’s Ryan Coogler) who has his own style, which is a much more active and inquisitive camera.
Filmmaker: The original Rocky famously employed Steadicam while the stabilizer was still in its infancy. I’ve read that you used the MoVi quite a bit on Creed.
Alberti: We did do a Steadicam shot in Creed that’s kind of amazing. We shot two boxing rounds — a movie boxing round is a minute-and-a-half as opposed to three minutes (in real life) — and we start one round in the corner, the round ends, and then there’s a knockout in the next round and we shot it all in one Steadicam shot. It was a challenge, but it’s a really beautiful shot.
We used a lot of Steadicam and also a lot of handheld and then we used the MoVi for some tracking shots. We did a shot that we could only have done with the MoVi, where the camera circles a boxer outside the ring and then follows him into the ring and (continues) to circle. It was a three-man operation. One operator would duck under and pass the camera to another operator outside the ring, and then he passed the camera through the ropes to an operator inside the ring. The MoVi is a great new tool. There are a lot of great new tools, but you still have to find good stories to tell.
Filmmaker: Had you seen the previous Rocky films?
Alberti: I had seen the first Rocky movie, which was a great film, and then as part of my homework I watched it again and I watched some of the fights in the other Rocky movies. Another film Ryan Coogler and I referred to a lot just for its style of camerawork was the French film A Prophet.
Yes, it is a Rocky film, but it’s (the story of Creed now). We had to stay within the rules of a Rocky movie, but it’s infused by this really talented filmmaker in Ryan Coogler and a talented actor in Michael B. Jordan. I think we’re probably going to see Creed II and Creed III. (laughs)
Matt Mulcahey writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.