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M. David Mullen ASC || The Love Witch || Interview

The Love Witch has promptly become requisite sustenance for cinephiles. As the obligatory end of the year lists come churning out, you’d be damned if you didn’t catch The Love Witch on most of them. It’s made the Best of 2016 lists of  the New Yorker, Timeout, L.A Weekly, Sheila O’Malley (of rogerebert.com), Rottentomatoes 100 Best Horror Films of All Time, The Rolling Stones Best Horror Films of 2016,  The Thrillist’s sexiest movies of 2016, Filmschoolrejects Best movie Fashion/Best Movies of 2016, and Business Insider’s 24 Best Movies you probably haven’t seen this year, etc…. etc...

The Love Witch looks like film’s just aren’t able to anymore. It’s a glammed up homage to its Vistavision/Technicolor idols -- its flawless aesthetic is pivotal and helps ascend the label of a love letter. I talked with, and learned much, from its veteran cinematographer M. David Mullen ASC on The Love Witch’s production. 

  • The Love Witch is shot and finished photochemically on 4-perf 35mm on an Arricam ST using mostly Zeiss Super Speeds, and an Angenieux Optimo 24-290 (+ a rarely used 28mm Zeiss Standard). David opted for the slowest speed tungsten stock, Kodak’s Vision-3 5213/200T, rated at 100 ASA to print down for increased saturation/contrast.  
  • This required that he get up to 100 foot-candles of key light for the desired f2.8.  That’s a lot of light. 
  • To achieve this he key lights direct with a 2K MR Stage Junior at a distance, and a 1K/650W Tweenie for closer work. 
  • Typical diffusion in front of the lens consisted of a black tule material stretched onto a frame + a ⅛ Classic Soft. But various diffusion/net variations took place throughout production. 

This and more here: 

www.cinematography.com

American Cinematographer Interview

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Questions for M. David Mullen ASC || The Love Witch

Q: This is not a cheap film to shoot. It’s a light sponge, shot on 4-perf 35mm (on Kodak’s slowest stock: Vision-3 5213/200T rated at 100 ASA), featuring an immaculate wardrobe and production design… How does something this specific, this art-house, get blessed with these production values? 

A: This movie actually had a smaller budget than most people think – I haven’t photographed something this low in budget in 16 years.  In some ways, it was a more elaborate version of the short 16mm film “The Hypnotist” that I did with Anna Biller over 20 years ago at CalArts.  A big reason why “The Love Witch” looks “big” is all the effort that Anna put into the sets and costumes, prepared over the course of years; most independent movies don’t have that degree of controlled, stylized production design because they don’t have the time or money.  In this case, she spent a lot of time on her own before we started shooting which paid off visually.

If I have a regret, it was that we couldn’t do more on stage sets on our budget -- at some point, we had to move into real locations simply to reduce the burden of set construction.  In particular, I think all of the remote cabin interiors should have been a set, considering we ended up having to put black cloth over the windows anyway on location so we could shoot during the day for a night scene.  We did, however, build the cabin bedroom as a set.  It’s just that with a stage, I could have a pipe grid over the sets in order to achieve that studio look with more precision.  As it was, when we went on location, I had to think about how a cinematographer in the 1950’s or 60’s would have dealt with a real space where they couldn’t hang a lot of lights above the frame.  Luckily, the house we used for the cabin living room had wooden beams in the ceiling to rig lights to.

Q: What kind of tests did you run before production? Were there any initial concerns you had about a particular scene/how you were shooting? 

A: I did tests of the diffusion filters I was going to use, and a test to compare the two stocks, 250D and 200T Kodak, to see how well they were going to cut together.  I had already known I was going to overexpose the stocks and print them down based on experience, so I didn’t need to test the stocks at different ISO ratings.

We started production on the stage sets, so the main thing for me was getting used to the high light level needed because it was hard to judge key-to-fill ratios by eye in such a bright space.  In the old days, I might have used a contrast viewing glass but in this case, I took some digital stills to see if I were putting enough light into the shadows.

Q: Were there any specific scenes you felt anxious about when it came time for dailies?

A: When we were shooting the Renaissance Faire sequence, a tremendous rain storm hit us and we ran out of time to shoot the fantasy ending to the movie.  But we gave it our best shot, shooting at dusk – since there wasn’t enough light, I ended up shooting wide-open at T/1.4 on the old Zeiss Super Speeds, which was a somewhat milky, dreamy look when combined with the diffusion on the lens.  I was trying to make lemonade out of lemons (i.e. the bad weather and poor light), but we ended up reshooting most of that sequence later in a different location, so only the first two shots are from that first attempt.  The dreaminess of the first shot sort of creates a transition to the fantasy ending, so it all worked out.

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Q: It became clearer to me, seeing you talk about how using the low ASA film (vs a faster, purportedly equally saturated/contrasted stock) obliterates the natural ambience that would have robbed you contrast, why Storaro demands digital cameras with varied native ISOs, and why he attributes that to why films all look the same these days. I imagine you might hold a similar sentiment? Does the Alexa's dynamic range/noise fumble that significantly stopped down to a 200?

A: It’s true that lighting for a very low ISO will force you to overpower more of the natural ambience that fills in a space, but you can make a digital camera have a lower ISO just by using heavy ND filters.  That can sometimes be problematic due to issues like IR pollution but it’s becoming less of a problem now, especially with cameras like the Alexa Mini and Sony F55 that have internal ND filters.  Technically with the Alexa, a lower ISO setting doesn’t reduce dynamic range, it just shifts the balance between highlight and shadow detail recorded; at low ISO ratings, you are losing some overexposure range and gaining more shadow detail (and getting less noise.)  However, that can lead to some loss of dynamic range outdoors. Just because, if the shadows aren’t that dark, you’ve sacrificed bright highlight detail but are already recording all the shadow detail that the scene naturally provides.  Unless you underexpose your highlights to compensate, but then you are just effectively using a higher ISO rating. 

A bigger reason that so many movies look similar today is that the normal ISO rating is so high that it is possible to shoot with less lighting than in the past; now in most cases, that is a good thing if you are aiming for a natural look… but occasionally it becomes a shortcut to creative thinking -- you just accept the light that’s there rather than designing appropriate lighting for the scene.

Q: I read an article recently where Villeneuve reflects on working with Bradford Young (Arrival). On that film, Young really pushed the Alexa to its limits. The set was utterly dark, apparently, to the point that you sometimes couldn’t see where you were walking. It’s interesting, In regards to the way Young worked, Villeneuve talks more about what Young’s light does for the atmosphere of the set than its effect in the film. The opposite is true when he speaks of Deakin’s (he primarily lauds his impeccable technique and imagery). The Love Witch sits on the other end of the spectrum, it’s intensely lit....  I imagine the set swelled like a sun. How do you feel about this? Is a D.P/Cinematographer in some ways responsible for the atmosphere on set? Or, really, is this just being romanticized, and the feel of the set just a byproduct of the many different aesthetic/emotional decisions being made before and on set?

A: Certainly the atmosphere on the set is more comfortable when the light levels are closer to what are encountered in daily life, though I’ve worked with some older actors who actually feel unnerved if they don’t think there is enough light hitting them; they’ve gotten used to acting towards a key light.  As for whether the acting is “better” when the light levels are lower, you have to ask yourself if acting is less good on a Broadway stage under a spotlight – a completely unnatural environment – or in older movies.  You do try to make sure that the technology isn’t hindering the performances in any way, if possible, and you do create a space for the actors to work and move in for the scene. But, short of using no additional lighting and hiding the cameras and microphones in a space, to some degree, it is the unavoidable job of the actor to play in front of an audience in a theater or for a camera on a set.

Every production has different needs, different goals, and directors have different approaches.  And each actor also has different needs. So it is hard to generalize – some shots are going to be technically demanding for the actors and some less so.  Some directors are going to want to shoot close-ups on an 18mm lens only inches from the actor’s face, others are going to want to shoot on long lenses with the cameras on the other side of the room.

Occasionally I did have to apologize to the actors when shooting macro shots of their eyeballs due to the uncomfortably high light level needed just to hold focus.

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Q: For those daylight interior scenes, where you didn’t have enough light to lose 2/3rds stop for an 85 filter, did you ever consider color balancing in the timing instead? Or would the colors be distractingly off from the rest of the film?

A: There were a few day interior scenes I shot on 250D stock for this reason, such as the Victorian Tea Room scene.  I used the 200T stock with the 85 filter for day exteriors though and if I was losing the light, I’d switch to the 250D stock.  However, I don’t think pulling the 85 filter with tungsten stock and correcting in timing leads to badly mismatched colors, it’s just that, in this case, I wanted to make sure that the reds had good saturation throughout the movie. 

Q: What’s the impetus for your compositions, the way you frame? In a love letter/homage like this, are the compositions mostly reference?

A: I can’t think of many compositions in the movie that were a direct reference to some other composition; I would just say that the compositions were classical and formal.  I was just trying to get a nice frame most of the time.

Q: How did the color Hitchcock films (Mostly The Birds, and Marnie), along with your other 3-Strip Technicolor/Vistavision influences, impact your decisions on focal length?

A: We didn’t specifically try to limit ourselves to mostly a 50mm lens as Hitchcock often tried to do, but we did avoid overly wide-angle lenses even though Welles was using an 18mm by the time of “Touch of Evil” in the late 1950’s.  I only used the 18mm twice on the movie for dead overhead shots on the sets, just because I couldn’t get the camera higher in the air in order to use something longer.  Otherwise, we used the 25mm, 28mm, or 35mm for our wide shots, and a 50mm and 65mm for most everything else.  It would have been nice to not ever go wider than a 35mm (which was the widest lens made for 3-strip Technicolor cameras) but we couldn’t back up the camera far enough for that in some spaces and still get a wide shot.

Q: Did you put more diffusion in front of the Angenieux Optimo? How did the standard speeds compare in sharpness and color reproduction? In what cases did you use the standard speeds? 

A: I think the Angenieux Optimo 24-290mm matches the sharpness of Zeiss Super-Speeds pretty well, so I used similar diffusion.  I did discover watching dailies, however, that the large front element of the Optimo zoom meant that outdoors I lost some contrast due to the net filter having more ambient light hitting it.  But the contrast of the prints hid most of that mismatch.  The only Standard Speed I used was the 28mm, just because I needed a focal length between 25mm and 35mm.

Q: How do you photograph a film that’s meant to feel aware of itself?

A: I don’t think the intent was to be stylistically self-conscious so much as it was to simply shoot a movie using the aesthetic values of past filmmakers. In other words, every movie employs a style and we just chose one that was less contemporary.

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Q: As the cinematographer, in this film, you get to directly design some of the jokes. In general, what do you think of this relationship between comedy and cinematography?

A: I don’t think of “The Love Witch” as being a comedy, but if it were, as a cinematographer, it is important to use composition to set up a visual joke so that the “gag” or the humorous relationship is clear to the audience.

Q: Can you say there’s one dominant influence in the way you light and frame? Is it the emotion of the scene? Is it more intellectual? Is it Storytelling? Are there no true blanket statements in this form? 

A: The style is so dependent on the material, plus, I’ve been influenced by the whole history of cinema.  I will say, however, that I have a particular fondness for images that have painterly qualities or resemble other graphic arts.  And I look for ways of bringing mood into a scene when appropriate.

Q: What’s the collaborative process like with Anna Biller? I imagine on some sets, a cinematographer is more involved in the storytelling process than in others. What is it that makes the two of you click?

A: Anna storyboarded the entire movie, plus did paintings of master shots, but the drawings and paintings were not photorealistic so part of my job was to translate the feeling of her artwork into something specific, working closely with Anna, who looked through the camera all the time to approve whatever I was doing.  The reason it went smoothly is that we are both fans of classic cinema so as long as I was following that aesthetic approach, we did not have many disagreements.

Q: The best cinematographers, I think, are adaptable to the needs of a given story. Despite your ability to chameleon into a needed aesthetic, have you noticed any personal tendencies/preferences that sneak their way into all of your work?

A: Maybe it’s because I grew up in the Mojave Desert, but often some hot piece of sunlight finds its way into a lot of my interior lighting – I like seeing small areas of intense exposure in a frame, I think it adds some visual excitement. I like seeing a bright practical lamp or a hot window in the background, for example, and I’m not afraid of lens flares.

Seek this gem out, preferably on 35mm. Future Screening dates/locations can be found here.

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