A Cinematography "Knighthood" For Andrew Droz Palermo
Andrew Droz Palermo
DP of feature "The Green Knight" delves into Marvel universe with episodes of "Moon Knight"

The Green Knight (A24) was just the first high-profile foray into “knightdom” for cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo. Written and directed by his frequent collaborator, David Lowery, The Green Knight is an epic medieval fantasy adapted from the 14th century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” starring Dev Patel as Gawain, a nephew of King Arthur, who embarks on a journey to test his courage and face the Green Knight. The feature earned Palermo assorted accolades, including the Best Cinematography honor earlier this year from the National Society of Film Critics. Overall the film garnered such recognition as Best Feature and Best Screenplay nominations from the Gotham Awards, and was named one of 2021’s top independent films by the National Board of Review.

The Green Knight also caught the eye of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, a directorial duo who gravitated to Palermo, inviting him into the Marvel Cinematic Universe for their episodic work on another knight odyssey--Moon Knight (Disney+). This marked Palermo’s first sojourn into the Marvel kingdom as well as his initial collaboration with Benson and Moorhead. 

Mohamed Diab directed five episodes of the series, teaming with Benson and Moorhead on four of the installments. Diab solo helmed the first episode; Benson and Moorhead directed the second. While Benson and Moorhead worked with cinematographer Palermo, Diab teamed with DP Gregory Middleton.

Moon Knight centers on Steven Grant, a mild-mannered gift shop employee who becomes haunted with blackouts and memories of another life. He discovers that he has dissociative identity disorder and shares a body with mercenary Marc Spector. As Steven/Marc’s enemies converge upon them, they must navigate their complex identities while thrust into a deadly mystery among the powerful gods of Egypt. Oscar Isaac stars as Steven/Mr. Knight and Marc/Moon Knight, making for a character study in which a person and his alternate ego’s realities collide. The cast also includes Ethan Hawke and May Calamawy.

Palermo said he was drawn to the story, had admired the work of Benson and Moorhead over the years, and felt simpatico with EP Grant Curtis upon meeting him. Palermo noted that what he found perhaps most appealing about Benson and Moorhead’s work, including the feature Synchronic, was its challenging nature. The filmmakers took on “the kind of projects I like to work with, that go out on a limb and take risks. I don’t want to be making safe projects.”

Moon Knight delves into darkness and gives a new dimension to what can be considered heroic behavior, providing a context much deeper than conventional superhero fare. Cinematography plays a role in all this as Palermo and Middleton mesh visual artistry with character study. Palermo observed that among the prime challenges was to do justice to the many instances when the protagonist talks to himself, particularly in the midst of a twoshot or from an over-the-shoulder perspective. The content of what is said looms so significant yet it has to be captured effortlessly, keeping the audience without a hint of a camera being present. 

At the same time camera deployment sheds light on, for example, the psychological underpinnings of Steven. A hurried, almost frenetic feel is at select times reflected in the camerawork. At certain junctures, shots seem to move in on actor Isaac as if his characters’ worlds--and our world--are about to collide. Fractured images in mirrors, reflections off of varied surfaces underscore a split in Steven’s world.

The DPs used the ARRI Alexa Mini LF for its image quality and nimbleness, with Palermo noting that a larger camera would have proved cumbersome.

Reflecting on Moon Knight, Palermo noted that he expected and received a crash course in scale, tackling how to properly light multiple city blocks at night and illuminating multiple stages simultaneously. But the creative bottom line, despite the technical challenges, is simply that it’s “still just all about character,” affirmed Palermo. “You don’t want to lose sight of that. At the end of the day watching Oscar do what he does so well is what it’s about.”

Palermo said that it’s incumbent on him as a cinematographer to not pin an actor in but rather “allow them the freedom and to help them to do their best work.”

While that was among the biggest takeaways for Palermo from Moon Knight, so too were lessons learned on the lauded The Green Knight which reunited him with director Lowery for whom he earlier lensed A Ghost Story and Strange Angel. Looking back on The Green Knight, Palermo shared that he was “most proud about the ways in which the camera and lighting can underline and heighten the emotions that a character is going through.” The end of the film in particular underscores “the power we have as filmmakers to tell a story without words...At times you need so little to get the emotion you want to get across...A few shots to get something resonant. Not everything needs to be said.”

Palermo and Lowery first met through the Sundance Institute Producers Lab. And their collaborative bond continues as they gear up for another project this year. Speaking of Sundance, Palermo has exhibited his own directorial chops in the past--though he noted that cinematography remains his priority today. Back in 2014, the documentary Rich Hill--which Palermo directed in tandem with his cousin, Tracy Droz Tragos--won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. Rich Hill followed three Midwestern boys on the cusp of adolescence living in Rich Hill, Missouri, carrying hopes for a brighter future. The Sundance jury recognized Rich Hill “for the beauty of its quiet and powerful storytelling revealing its character’s dignity in the face of immense challenges.”

The Sundance Grand Jury Prize came the year after Palermo was nominated for Camerimage’s Best Cinematography Debut honor on the strength of writer-director Hannah Fidell’s feature, A Teacher.


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