- LOS ANGELES
Director Michele Civetta made his first mark in music videos and commercials, career endeavors which brought him together initially with cinematographer Bryan Newman. Since then, Civetta made his feature directorial debut with Agony, a 2019 release from Gravitas Ventures. And earlier this month Lionsgate rolled out his second feature, The Gateway, which reunited him with Newman.
An inner city crime thriller that Civetta and Newman extended into the noir tapestry, The Gateway--which Civetta also co-wrote (with Alex Felix Bandana and Andrew Levitas)--stars Shea Whigham (American Hustle) as Parker, a caring social worker with his own personal and psychological baggage. Parker finds himself in over his head when he tries to protect Dahlia (Olivia Munn) from her recently paroled husband, a violent drug dealer and father to her young daughter. Part of Parker’s emotional angst is rooted in an unresolved relationship with his estranged father (Bruce Dern). These and other varied lives are explored within the underbelly of a downtrodden and forgotten city, which too is a character of sorts in the film. The story additionally delves into the foster care system for children, shedding light on its repercussions as we learn that Parker grew up in that space.
Meanwhile the ad space, where he first established himself, made an impact on Civetta when he diversified into feature filmmaking. Civetta observed that while many see commercials as the convergence of art and commerce, the same isn’t necessarily perceived for feature filmmaking. Civetta, though, sees a clear parallel, observing that art and commerce are “part of a big jigsaw puzzle” in which feature directors have to grapple with allocated resources and figure out how to best handle those realities in order to do justice to the art and narrative. In this respect, he assessed that his commercialmaking experience has proved invaluable in his feature endeavors. “Commercials made me mindful of the pragmatics of budget and time, how they work.” At the same time, Civetta’s involvement in spots and music videos afforded him opportunities to visually experiment, to explore different genres, techniques and technologies.
Newman similarly sees his commercial work as an ideal spawning ground which helped develop and nurture his storytelling skills for The Gateway, his first feature motion picture. Newman said he “purposely tried to take every commercial I’ve ever done and treat it as its own little film.” And those ad films and music videos have taken him on a far ranging ride that has included such destinations as fantasy, period pieces, documentary-style fare, action-adventure, even comedy. “The irony is that this film (The Gateway) reminded me of the first music videos I did with Michele--gritty and rough but with a lot of depth.”
To attain that look and feel for The Gateway, Newman deployed the ARRI Alexa Mini in tandem with Vintage Cooke Panchro primes. Newman described the Alexa Mini as being his workhorse camera for some time, adding that he, Civetta and colorist Mark Wilenkin teamed extensively up front to bring their visual aspirations for the film to fruition. Wilenkin was integral to arriving at what Newman said was “an amazing LUT” which helped set the lighting approach, achieving in a sense the color grade on set.
This, remarked Civetta, reflects the importance of developing a close collaborative rapport with both cast and crew. While a director may be at the top of the hierarchy on set, Civetta affirmed, “Ultimately you’re as good as your master craftsmen and actors." Civetta shared that with his second feature, he felt more comfortable and adept at managing attributes--technical craft and specifically the performers--all in the interest of being able “to dig deep and be truthful” in order to fully realize characters and story.
Reconnecting with Civetta has been gratifying, shared DP Newman. “This experience reinvigorated my whole passion for what we do. The reason I got into this business was to create something like this.” The DP further observed that The Gateway has given him a new perspective on every commercial he’s shot since wrapping that feature--particularly when it comes to fully valuing actors and what they bring to the table.
Newman has exhibited an affinity for actors as a DP of commercials over the years, a case in point being his early work in comedy, an arena not often associated with cinematography. He lensed, for example, Skittles’ “Pinata” out of TBWA\Chiat\Day, New York, and the offbeat California Milk Processor Board spot “What Gold Is” for Goodby Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco--two of the four spots which earned MJZ director Tom Kuntz a coveted DGA Award nomination as best commercial helmer of 2008.
While Newman looks to pursue more feature opportunities, he plans to continue lensing commercials. And Civetta too would like to resume his career in commercials and branded content after devoting his time and energy to Agony and The Gateway in recent years. Civetta entered the spotmaking fray originally via HKM and The Directors Bureau. The director--whose credits over the years span such brands as Martini & Rossi, Cingular Wireless, Dunkin’, Bacardi and Coca-Cola--said he would now like to connect with another commercial production company so that his feature work can in turn inform his short-form endeavors and vice-versa. Among the notable ads Civetta directed is a Halloween promo for NBC’s Today Show which in 2016 earned a Daytime Emmy nomination.