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Co-Director/DP Michael Palmieri on the Arkansas-Set Sundance Short Peace in the Valley

Peace in the Valley

Filmmakers Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher have collaborated on four documentaries since 2009: October Country, Off LabelRougarouing and, their latest, Peace in the Valley. Presented in the Shorts program at Sundance 2016, their new film concerns issues of religion and LGBT rights in a small Arkansas town. Below, co-director and DP Palmieri discusses his visual approach for the film.

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?

Palmieri: One of the reasons I gravitated towards documentary film had to do with the ways that I could work as a cinematographer in a chaotic space, or a space that at the very least you had only some knowledge of what you were getting into. I co-direct all of my documentary films with Donal Mosher, a photographer in his own right, and so in many ways there are two sets of eyes on everything – it’s just that I’m the guy operating the camera, trying to translate what it is we are both seeing as things evolve in front of us. This is a very exciting process, one that I never get tired of. It keeps me on my toes.

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?

Palmieri: I think the goals are always the same, really, to find some way into the characters and story you are telling through images that are not cut and dry. We try to find metaphorical constructs that weave their way into the film, enhancing the storytelling, and I try to do that visually when it’s appropriate. Most of the time I am just responding to the impression of a person I’m talking to, or the environment I’m in, or both, and things come naturally. As I continue making films I find that the simpler visual idea is often the best, but I do my best to think of the camerawork as a living, breathing moment that I’m processing in real time. I always have the time to reshape whatever I’ve gotten in the editorial process, but when things really hit cinematographically I think it benefits the storytelling in an undeniable way, and those are the moments I’m always gravitating towards as the editor.

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

Palmieri: I suppose my biggest influences are photographers. I’m a huge fan of Helen Levitt and Garry Winogrand, the great street photographers. But I also adore and even have had the opportunity to work with Christopher Doyle, the cinematographer of so many of Wong Kar Wai’s seminal works. While these people might be a huge influence on me as an artist, it’s very hard for me to see my work in relation to or influenced by them, because the contexts I’m working in are so different. If I had these influences on my mind while I was actually in the moment filming things, it would get in the way. I would be trying too hard to emulate, rather than be inside of an experience.

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

Palmieri: We had so little time to tell the story we wanted to tell, to weave the idea of a place and a huge political moment for this town into something more strange. I’m thrilled that we were able incorporate something as abstract as a belief system – evangelical Christianity – and juxtapose that visually against those who do not believe in the same thing. I think we achieved that with this small work, and I’m really pleased about it.

Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?

Palmieri: We used two systems, the Canon C300, which I’ve used almost exclusively since it came out, and the Sony FS7, which I kind of fell in love with on this project. I miss shooting variable frame rates at 4k. That camera made it possible, it’s a very different beast, but it allowed me to use different lenses and approaches that the C300 does not allow you to do. Both cameras are amazing though.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Palmieri: I tend to gravitate towards anything that looks good to my eye that is naturally occurring. Occasionally I use lighting to augment that when I have to, but I tried to avoid doing so in this piece. Simpler was the better approach here.

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

Palmieri: There’s a moment in this film that really captures the sense that something very special is unfolding, an actual discovery that seems to only be possible in non-fiction spaces. Something ineffably strange yet appropriate is being stumbled upon visually, and it isn’t just an image, it’s a larger metaphor for the film’s reason for existing in the first place. In this case it involved a spider crawling through its web in front of a live performance of the Passion of Christ, the moment when Christ is dying on the cross. Donal and I were both together in that moment, futzing around in the dark trying to figure out how to visually capture Christ dying in a manner that wasn’t typical, but you don’t have any time to think about it really because it’s being performed live, and we were filming it for the first time. Donal just pointed at this giant spider in front of my face. I was focusing my eyes on the larger tableau behind the spider and it hadn’t registered yet. I immediately tried to find a way of incorporating these two planes of experience into a single shot: Christ on the cross in the background, and the spider crawling through its web to survey the prey it had captured in the foreground. As a single uninterrupted image without cuts, it really makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck, for so many reasons (I’ll leave it to the viewer to interpret the many meanings). I imagine this kind of shot is something that wouldn’t work in fiction if you staged it – it would be gilding the lilly. But because it happened serendipitously, in a documentary setting, I think it takes on a different kind of power. It’s ultimately your job as a DP to be able to react quickly enough to capture these kinds of moments.

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

Palmieri: I tend to just film locations in the most naturalistic way possible then find the balance of color tones and grading later. The final look of the film has more to do with the final story and what is being conveyed than anything else.

  • Camera: Sony FS7, Canon C300
  • Lenses: Leica R primes, Canon zooms
  • Lighting: Available light
  • Processing: N/A. We shot 4k and finished in 2k
  • Color Grading: Lumetri in Premiere and DaVinci Resolve
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