Would you have guessed A Ghost Story’s aesthetic was primarily formed instinctually day by day? I wouldn’t have, and I didn’t. The fact derailed everything I thought I knew about Andrew Droz Palermo (Cinematographer: You’re Next, Rich Hill, A Teacher) and David Lowery’s (Writer/Director: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon) formal motivations and forced the interview to operate in an intuitive mode similar to the film’s process.
Each day Andrew operated with the immediacy of a musician, or as close to that as the film industry allows. Even the most premeditated of shots/scenes could undergo major adjustments on the day, and they weren’t beholden to any rules for the sake of developing their own grammar. The film’s small budget allowed them to take their time and properly evaluate the results of their intuition.
I caught Andrew in between shoots. He outlines the experience, how he was able to remain confident in his intuitive judgement calls, and the reasons behind some of the film’s more deliberate designs.
Andrew shot ProRes on an Alexa Mini
- Panavision Ultra Speeds & Super Speeds, shot wide in the home & long in the past
- Primarily lit with Bi-Color LED LiteMats, with the occasional HMI outside to help fill the house.
- Otherwise utilized negative fill -- lined the grass outside with muslin to avoid lime-green bouncing in.
- Soft Edge Grads for wide exteriors, occasional POLA
- Haze used in almost every scene with the Ghost present.
Cinelinx: Do you use commercials to experiment and prep for features?
ADP: Yeah, it’s a good way -- for me at least -- to put lenses through their paces. Testing lenses in a controlled environment is one thing but actually taking them out and shooting with them is different. And almost no one really notices the difference [On commercials]. The clients don’t notice, and the directors rarely even notice — so it’s a good place to play.
Cinelinx: IMDB lists Panavision Ultra/Super Speeds. Is this correct?
ADP: Yeah, I actually updated that material myself, because people kept asking me. So now people can see for themselves.
Cinelinx: What dictated when you used the super speeds vs the ultra?
ADP: Well, it was kind of a mixture of the two. So I’d have one 50mm, not one super speed and an ultra. I’d just have the Ultra Speed 50mm T1. But we landed on Super Speeds and Ultra Speeds because I had done a series of commercials on them, and really liked them, and that was also on 4:3… I knew that we needed speed; that was something I was after. David and I had actually talked early on, and we were both interested in the idea but ultimately couldn’t pull it off budgetarily, that we’d shoot Anamorphic but crop it to 4:3.
So you’d still get the extreme depth of field that you’d get with anamorphic. We thought that’d be really interesting, and something that neither of us had ever seen before. But ultimately we couldn’t afford it so we went with truly vintage glass. These lenses were built in the 60’s and are just really lovely and soft and not particularly contrasty or sharp -- and that all just sort of fit our movie.
Cinelinx: Are those lens choices and the 1.33 Aspect Ratio and rounded corners an extension of these themes of history and time?
ADP: Yeah I mean I think you can definitely justify it that way. And I know that David — it came to me this way: David said it would be a 1.33 in like the first line of the script. And I think he knew he’d never be able to do that for any of his bigger films. We’re both avid film watchers and love classic cinema, so many films that we love are in that ratio.
Another layer adding to that is [that] it makes the ghost feel constrained and sort of trapped. In a single, he’s just kind of surrounded by the edges of the frame. I never wanted it to feel claustrophobic but I did like that it felt contained. There are other things like with the height of the ghost. It really helped to shoot his entire costume. If we were in a 2.40 it would be really hard to get him head to toe, but in 1.33 you can really hold his whole costume, which is really when the costume shines -- when you can see the whole trail.
Cinelinx: There’s some very prominent blues and yellows in the first half of the film, what are these two colors meant to elicit?
ADP: I think, in the instance of this film, I didn’t necessarily dive too deeply into the meaning of it. But for me at least, the warm yellows and oranges, the tungsten looks, often evoke a sense of domesticity, the home as a safe place, and the home as a place they love. And that’s such a theme of the story. It was true even when I shot my first film You’re Next. We talked a lot about how the home should feel safe in some ways, it should always feel warm, and outside it should feel cold and dangerous.
And that kind of gets flipped in the movie a little bit. But in this film, the coolness was also like an eerier existential thread that runs through it, or not even existential, but it provides ghostly overtones before the ghost even enters the film. It’s sort of an oddly staged film.
Why does the color palette expand in the second half?
ADP: I wanted to give it a different look for every family, or every inhabitant. So where with Casey and Rooney’s characters it was this warm nest, when the Latino family moves in, it still has its foot in that world, but there are subtle details like the under light in the kitchen -- the ones under the cabinets. Those were actually rather warm while I made them cooler for the Latino family -- nearly fluorescent. So that started broadening the spectrum of having daylight at night. And then when the prognosticator and their whole party crew come in, those same lights go almost pink. It’s a light party gel essentially. It makes it a little more festive, more like they chose some odd light. It’s not for them to be seeing while cooking, it’s about some feeling they’re after.
And that’s also reflected in the way the movie’s shot. It’s very still when it’s Casey and Rooney and it’s really fluid and active with the Latino family. Then the party scene has the most coverage in the whole movie.
Cinelinx: I was going to ask about the camera first becoming fluid with the Latino family. Instead, I’ll ask: Why does it become still again when the partiers enter when the ghost seemed to get frustrated with the others?
ADP: I kind of personally attribute that more to the Ghost’s interior, that he’s essentially throwing a fit that this family moved in. He misses his girlfriend, he’s acting out. And by the time the next group of people arrive I feel like he’s just resigned. He’s decided that this is just going to continue to happen, and what can you do but listen to this guy ramble on -- who knows nothing about time in comparison to what he knows at this point. And so in that way we can land a little more still. But we’re introducing the coverage in a way that it becomes its own sort of thread.
I think in an ideal world we would have loved to cover that in one master that kinda roamed around with him like the scene that opens Werckmeister Harmonies, The Bela Tarr film when he kind of does this bar room thing about the cosmos. That would have been our ideal, but it’s such a long monologue, and we had so many extras there, that there was just no way we could pull that off in the time given. So we went a more traditional route of covering Will’s character and the people he’s talking to and covering the party, the magician, and Kesha -- and all the other people on the other side of the room.
Cinelinx: There’s a point where the ghost just sort of sits down and resigns, like you say, and gives up. Were there discussions early on about how you’d convey the ghost’s feelings with camera movement, blocking, etc?
ADP: You know, it’s interesting. David and I didn’t necessarily dive too deep into the meaning of things I guess, or the significance, or the ways of which to portray it. The way we spoke was rather intuitive and often would be determined on the day. And not only on the day, but a shot by shot basis. This movie was a great way to work. You couldn’t have planned this movie. You certainly could have tried. We shot listed and everything. But so much of it was 1. dealing with our budgetary constraints and 2. Problem solving/learning about what’s possible for the ghost.
So certain things became really hilarious. If he moved too much or if he sat and stood up sometimes his costume would do funny things. It was really just shaving all those things down to its bare essentials. So we kinda found out what worked and what didn’t. The very first time the ghost came home from the hospital we had a couple of shots where he walks into the door and the door shuts behind him very dramatically. There was a take or two where his tail would get caught in the door, and he’d look back and slump his shoulders, you know? It was a completely different movie. It was a comedy.
So we just had to figure out -- knowing that -- maybe we just have to see him in a series of shots throughout the house and really loosen up the temporal qualities and not be so stuck linearly. So we kind of just figured it out as we went.
Cinelinx: Were there any rules, or guidelines your and David’s intuition was working in? Was there anything you couldn’t do?
ADP: Not really, I don’t think we had any rules that we stuck by… We rewrote the movie every morning or rewrote our image of what it would be. Certain things would work for certain situations and we just wouldn’t think that much about it. I love working that way and think it took us to some interesting places and for me, it feels like a more unique movie because of that approach.
This is kind of a weird analogy but, I’ve always been envious of musicians. They can make music by themselves, or with a few people, and can follow their intuitions, follow grooves, follow any kind of thing, and make it quickly, and in the current of wherever their mind’s taking them.
That’s so much more difficult for filmmaking. In the instance of this movie, it was actually possible because it was such a small crew, and David and I were really pushing and pulling the movie in new places every day, and that’s what it felt like. It felt like we were making music together every day.
Cinelinx: When you’re working this way, how do you stay confident that you’re making the right call?
ADP: Yeah, it’s tough. Sometimes we floundered, you know? We were drowning. We shot and reshot certain things. So I think you have to trust your instincts, know what you’re seeing is true, and that what you’re doing is deeper than just the surface. It’s not just a cool shot, but it evokes something, it’s doing something for me on a deeper level. I think that lack of confidence fell more on David. I think he really struggled with wondering what this thing we were making was. Was it a movie? Could it ever work? Whereas everyone else was confident in it. We were like “This is fantastic!” this is the way we want to work, and this is the kind of stuff we want to be making. And I think that because David was so concerned he pushed it into greater places.
If we were all just like “This is great let's go have fun!” it would have felt like a film school experiment. But David really kept pushing us further and further, and reshooting certain things, or restaging things, or picking up different bits that he plucked into scenes. But what can you do but just charge forward and trust your instincts?
Cinelinx: It sounds like you guys really took your time with it, with principal, and reshoots, etc… A perk of its lower budget.
ADP: Yeah exactly, I think the initial principal photography was something like 15 days, but even that was kinda loose. Like we shot a day in preproduction and all of those shots basically made the movie. Then we kind of went away and came back and shot for another few weeks. It was rarely scenes that we were reshooting, it was just new material. That unhurried pace really helped the movie and it also clarified what we needed after we were able to go in and edit the movie and see what was working and what wasn’t. I spent my days off looking over all of the footage and explaining why I thought things were successful or not.
But yeah, that’s a real gift to have that time schedule and also that our personal schedules were working that way. That none of us were going on to bigger films. With the exception of Jade our production designer, we were pretty much all able to come back whenever we needed.
Cinelinx: Were all of these compositions found on set then?
ADP: Some of them were, and then some of them were extremely planned out. I’m trying to think of some good examples.... In the morgue when the ghost first appears we shot a bunch of photos in the scout day. On the day we put the camera down and move it an inch here and an inch there and you find your frame like you do for anything. So things like those were really planned out. But even those we would adjust on the day and sometimes in drastic ways.
One of those opening shots where Rooney drags the furniture onto the front lawn… The plan was to have that long dolly track, but the way that it ended up working we kind of played together to find. A lot of things were compositionally rigorous and I’d know what I was after and others times a situation would be presented to me and I’d try to find the best way to exhibit it. In the instance of Rooney eating the pie: that was found on the day. We knew we were gonna do this thing, we had this scenario in mind. But she put forward to us that she would probably eat it on the ground. So we said great, I got a lens up and tried to walk around and find where approximately she would sit, where would be best for camera, took the time to light it, and found the time of day that would work best for the natural light that plays so nicely in that scene… So it’s a little pairing of both. To have the time to kind of plan it, try it, shift it around, and improvise.
Cinelinx: What were your parameters for focal length, and were they difficult to abide by within the aspect ratio and the space?
ADP: I knew I wanted to shoot wide. That was the only parameter I guess. It presented challenges sometimes when characters needed to come close to the lens or cross and have big actions… But within the house, it was all very wide. That of course changes when we travel back in time. Then I started shooting long lens and on zooms. But there were really no rules except that it felt to me that in the house we should always shoot as wide as possible, with the exception of anytime emotion really needed to be punctuated or underlined.
Cinelinx: Is the initial perspective in A Ghost Story, before Casey’s ghost more/or less takes it over, an objective or omniscient one?
ADP: Yeah, I suppose in the beginning it feels pretty even handed in some ways, but there are some shots like when Rooney comes up to Casey when he’s making music that it’s still Casey’s perspective more than hers because she’s in such soft focus. It’s true that nobody views Casey’s ghost from any POV with the exception of, I think, the young latino kid. There’s a shot in reverse where it’s clearly like the kid is looking at the ghost and the ghost is looking at him. We do get a little of that with the other ghost, but I think it’s firmly planted within the Ghost’s POV.
To me, it was always important to [consider] how do I best embody what’s going on in Casey’s mind? Or the ghost’s mind, rather?
Cinelinx: There’s a shot where you track from the ghost to the edge of a door frame and we know somehow that someone’s looking for him. It turns out to be the neighboring ghost.
Yeah, I think the music is kind of swelling there too and leading you to believe that something’s about to happen. I think that’s actually a post zoom that David added in that particular instance if I recall correctly. There was a lot of that actually, where David would zoom in on a shot slowly, or over the course of a shot. But the music is really playing into that feeling.
Cinelinx: How are you lighting while in this unorthodox, intuitive mode of shooting?
ADP: A lot of it’s removal… Blocking out certain windows... We also laid out a bunch of muslin on the grass because the Texas trees and grass were bouncing in a lot of lime green into the house and Rooney’s fair skin would really take in a lot of that green. Other than that we occasionally had some HMI’s out that would help fill in the house from outside. But really our workhorses were two bi-color LiteMats. They were nearly always in play as either fill, or edge, or even key. I really love those fixtures and think they’re fantastic. It’s pretty incredible that you can light a whole movie with something that can be plugged into a wall. It looks great, it’s soft, dimmable, color changeable; I mean I really really put those through their paces.
Cinelinx: The house and its space go through a full span of time. Obviously, you’re shooting at different locations for some of these. How do you make it feel like one space?
ADP: That’s largely just due to the power of editing. It’s really suggested in the way we frame it and you’ve got this sort of space in mind. The future stuff is an assembly of like 4 to 5 different buildings in Dallas, roaming through different construction sites. Then in the past: this was just a ranch that they shot at -- if you saw David’s movie Ain't Them Bodies Saints, the opening scene where they’re having a long argument -- was shot on this exact same land just looking at it from a different angle. So it was kind of like what’s available to them [laughs]? And what can we use to make it feel deep in the past and not see any modern buildings or anything? There were a few power lines they painted out, but that’s really all that was out there.
Cinelinx: If, in your opinion, the cinematographer’s job is to best adapt themselves to fit the director or story -- what personal tendencies, or affinities, if any, can you say you’ve spotted in your work?
ADP: Yeah, I mean, I think for me — My films really seem to bounce around. I really like to shape the style around the movie. Which for me is a big strength -- but it’s sometimes hard for people. Let’s say I’m in an interview and they ask “What is your style?”
That, for me, can be disappointing because I really like to work in different ways. But there’s a throughline in my work, I think, which is that there’s always a palpable emotion. And that’s the thing, it’s harder for people to see that instead of being like “Andrew’s the one who likes to shoot things this way, using these kinds of lenses and this kind of lighting,”
That’s not me. But there’s an emotionality to all my work that’s evocative, and that to me is a real strength. But if you look at a lot of really big D.P’s like Deakin’s for instance, there really is no style. You could look at all of his movies. There are some consistencies but they all look so different. What he brings to a movie is that the camera’s always in the right place, we’re never struggling to understand the story, there’s always a great clarity. And for me, it’s more about something textual, and evocative, and emotional. That’s what I’m sort of after, a poetry of imagery.
Cinelinx: As you take on bigger film projects has your career outlook or personal trajectory changed?
ADP: Mmm. I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. For me, I just want to keep making interesting films. I grew up on really commercial — even corporate films; and I love those films and I suspect I’ll make a few. But I really just want to make interesting things with friends. Ghost Story for me is a perfect example of a bunch of friends getting together and making something that we’re all interested in, and all putting our love and talents into. Jade, the production designer, Annell with the costumes, and David, and all the producers, and everything. It’s such an ideal situation, but it would be great if we had a bigger canvas, and that we could keep doing what we’re doing there but in a bigger space.
I don’t want to make particularly talky films. I don’t find there’s much room for great cinematography in really talky films. I want to continue making interesting films, whether it be interesting characters or places where I get to play with tone and mood. I really like Gus Van Sant’s D.P (Harris Savides) that he worked with for a long time and the stuff they made together. I think they did a nice job with working in kind of a commercial environment and then also doing some deeply artistic pieces. I really love what he’s done. He’s done a number of commercial films, and a number of really challenging, interesting things. There’s room for both, and you still get to see him do interesting things in both. I think he’s fantastic and one of my favorites.
BTS Stills Courtesy of Bret Curry. See A24's A Ghost Story in theaters now.