"Ok, this is good. We've got to fix this and make it really good!" an interview with Director of Photography, Ian Bloom
Dungeon Beach co-founder Ian Bloom recently shot and colored Celia Rowlson-Hall's Ma which recently screened at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival as part of the Venice Days Selection. The immense beauty and precision of each and every shot is truly remarkable. We asked Ian a few questions about his process.
dB: One of the sequences we really like is a very simple scene where Ma has gone into a motel room with Daniel for the first time and she locks herself in the bathroom. The camera stays outside the bathroom and on Daniel but it's slowly creeping sideways toward the bathroom. It's really simple but it works well, how did you come to that?
IB: So let's give it context from the whole film. I view the Ma character as a this kind of mythical being on a mission. Maybe she doesn't even know what her mission is, but she is on a path that's ordained by some kind of deity. It's her fate. It's her quest. But this Daniel character is just a human being. Even though he plays within the rules of the film, which are that essentially everyone is expressing themselves through this language which is referential to modern dance, but you get the sense that he's still just a normal guy and he's reacting to the world more or less like a normal person would. So it's really hard for me to put the camera in her head a lot of the time, but in the scenes with Daniel, I'm basically doing everything I can to try to put some part of the camera in his head. So that we feel her from his perspective. At the same time you have to understand that this is really Andrew's [Pastides] scene and he doesn't need any help from the cinematography to carry the scene, his performance is going to do that. So we need to give him a lot of room and we need to get out of his way. He's gonna smoke a cigarette. He's going to do all these different things. He's nervous. He wants to know what is going on with this woman. He wants to understand what he's gotten himself into. So if he is trying to ignore what is going on in the bathroom but cannot do it, the camera is going to slowly move the frame towards the bathroom, trying to convey his internal angst, until the pressure is too much, the camera has almost landed on the door, and he breaks through the door. That's basically what is going on with that shot.
dB: There's a long steadicam shot at the end of the film, where Ma moves through a seemingly endless ornate environment and ends up at the top of a staircase in a room bathed in sunlight. Can you talk about that shot?
IB: So I have to admit that Celia really wanted to do that shot a lot more than I did. I was really worried that we would not have the resources to pull it off and to keep the frame interesting. But she really surprised me, this actually happened a lot. Also a lions share of the credit for that really falls on Ari Robbins [steadicam operator] for working with us to build and execute that shot. When we had scouted the location, that's actually a penthouse of the Las Vegas Hotel, I knew there was going to be a very specific time of day when the sun would be coming into that upstairs room and it would backlight the whole scene and possibly flare the lens. Everything for me was focused around trying to get that moment right. So I pushed very hard to get the schedule so we would have a few hours of building and rehearsing that shot and then a window period of about four takes, between say 5 and 6 pm, where we could get that light. The part I like the best is when she goes up the spiral staircase. There is no light in there so it gets underexposed. For me there's a secondary narrative happening here. It shows the character literally crawling out of darkness into light. It's almost too on the nose maybe, when you spell it out like that, but that part of the scene has an emotional impact on me.
dB: What sequences do you like the best?
IB: My favorite shot in the film is where Celia and Andrew [Ma and Daniel] are driving in the car and she signals for him to pull over. He pulls over and she gets out and just walks away. The camera is mounted on a hostess tray, getting a two shot, across the front seat from the drivers side window, but then when she walks away from the car she's framed by the open door in a full shot. To me, compositionally, that's a dream. I love it. The reality was that we didn't have a huge amount of time for that and I didn't fully understand that Andrew was just going to pull over and she's going to jump out of the car. I think she may have just decided to do that while we were shooting. I wasn't expecting that we would be using the portion where she is getting out and walking when we were setting up the shot. But to my credit once we watched the playback, saw that moment, I was like "Holy shit YES! Ok this is good, we've got to fix this now and make it really good!" So for example, we had no remote focus that day and so in later takes Alex Sablow [1st AC] is standing by the side of the road and as the car is pulling over he's stepping over to the camera and racking focus with her as she's walking away. Likewise it took a few takes to get a good walking path for her where she doesn't leave the frame too early. So you're not seeing the first take of that, you're seeing like the 3rd take after we figured out what the shot really was.
dB: Were there a lot of moments of discovery like that?
IB: I think Celia opened me up a little bit more to letting those things just happen. I think intellectually you can understand why sort of random discovery is something that you want in filmmaking but it takes a lot to actually let go sometimes. But now more and more, I like it when the director has some secrets. With this film I did as much planning as I could. You absolutely need a foundation of planning for all the work you have to do to get through a feature. Celia had a very complicated master plan. She knows this... I don't want to call it a story. She know's this myth front to back. But she's not always expressing everything that she's imagining to me even though she's trying to. To be honest I think it's this extremely personal vision for her. I think earlier in my career I would have been really annoyed by that, but on this project, I was so consistently pleasantly surprised by all the things I didn't know about in advance that it really hit home for me how much is to be gained by letting things just happen. Or seeing things that you like and grabbing on to them. Like the shot right after she gets out of the car, she walks into a field of yellow flowers. That was just a location that she and I found while driving around the week before the shoot started. It's one of the first things we shot because we didn't know how long those flowers would last!
dB: You also did color for the film. Can you tell us a bit about that?
IB: From a color point of view we were pushing for a lower contrast. Any time you are in direct sunlight, like the desert, the situation is going to push you towards higher contrast. There are a lot of films that take place in the desert where there are a ton of shadows and it's really hot highs and really dark lows. I wanted everything to have really low contrast so the film would have a pastel look. So everything in the film except for skin tones has this jacked up saturation but then the contrast is extremely low. If you look at the wave form there's almost nothing in the movie that's completely black. The only time we use pixel number 0 is the black hole she pours the water into. But the film doesn't feel washed out because the saturation is being selectively turned up on all these different hues. I'm taking lights that normally would be tungsten, which is going to be very orange, sort of matching the skin tone, and taking fluorescents which are going to be green in an orange direction, shifting those to be canary yellow. In camera I tried to create the most even and lowest contrast image knowing that we'd be coloring it this way.