Thursday, April 19, 2018
  • Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017
DP Sam Levy Reflects On Writer/Director Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird"
Lucas Hedges (l) and Saoirse Ronan in a scene from "Lady Bird" (photo by Merie Wallace/courtesy of A24)
Nick Houy edits the film which has already scored National Board of Review and Gotham Awards honors
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Two of Greta Gerwig’s collaborators on Lady Bird--which marks her solo directing debut--are on opposite ends of the working relationship continuum. First, we have cinematographer Sam Levy who’s teamed with Gerwig on several occasions, shooting, for example, Frances Ha and Mistress America, features which she starred in and wrote in tandem with director Noah Baumbach. Additionally Levy lensed the Rebecca Miller-helmed Maggie’s Plan, which had a cast that included Gerwig.

Meanwhile editor Nick Houy had never worked with Gerwig prior to Lady Bird. He came to her attention and the two met on the recommendation of editor Jen Lame whose credits include Frances Ha and Mistress America. “Jen is a great friend,” related Houy. “We were apprentices together under Naomi Geraghty, a great editor.” 

Upon getting together for the first time, Gerwig and Houy developed an instant rapport, leading to his getting the opportunity to cut Lady Bird, which tells the story of Christine (portrayed by Saoirse Ronan), a student at a Catholic high school. Christine, who has given herself the nickname “Lady Bird,” aspires beyond her seemingly mundane life in Sacramento, Calif., dreaming of college in New York or at least “Connecticut or New Hampshire, where writers live in the woods.” Lady Bird’s story, though, extends beyond herself, perhaps most notably to her mother (Laurie Metcalf). The mother-daughter relationship is a major part of the film’s resonant core.

This week Ronan won Best Actress at the Gotham Awards while Gerwig earned Best Director distinction from the National Board of Review.

Insights into Lady Bird from writer-director Gerwig will appear in an upcoming installment of SHOOT’s Road To Oscar Series. In this Part 3 of the series of features, we catch up with Messrs. Levy and Houy.

Sam Levy
Levy and Gerwig had an extended stretch to discuss and ruminate over their approach to Lady Bird. That’s because Gerwig first approached the DP about the film back when they attended the premiere screening of Mistress America. “It was a dinner right after when Greta said she’d like to send me the script,” recalled Levy. “She did, I read it and it was wonderful. I expected it to be great and it exceeded those expectations. We both live in New York and had a chance to get together at different times, hang out and talk about the film, what it should look like and so on. I remember her saying, ‘It should look and feel like a memory.’ I knew what she meant after having worked with her for so many years. We put images we were drawn to up on the wall of the production office. We had a cheap copier in the office and would color xerox those images. We’d photocopy them again, removing a generation from them, creating the aesthetic of a memory. We experimented with taking xeroxes and re-xeroxing them, distressing the image in an organic way and figuring out how we could get this on screen.”

A means toward that end was pairing the Alexa Mini digital camera with Panavision ultra and super speed lenses that were manufactured in the 1960s and ‘70s. “We picked lenses,” said Levy, “that are great but not hyper modern sharp, helping us get to that memory aesthetic we wanted.”

Levy described Gerwig as “a great collaborator. I trusted her and felt trusted by her. She is amazing at casting and working with actors. But it’s not just the actors. She has a strong visual sense, a great ear. Working with composer Jon Brion, she had an exceptional score to go with a great sense of dramatic timing.”

Levy’s career has its roots in commercialmaking. He and Patty Jenkins (director of Wonder Woman) started out together as interns at spot production house Epoch Films. “Commercials represented my path into the business, how I met great cinematographers like Harris Savides and Darius Khondji whom I worked for in New York.”

The late Savides was a mentor to Levy. “No one researched more thoroughly than Harris,” assessed Levy. “No one worked harder, was more thoughtful or more technically proficient. Yet Harris was able to dispense with all that, put it to the side, and get to the heart of the visual poetry. He was the sweetest most funny, gentle soul you’d ever meet. I miss him dearly.”

Levy began as a self-described “completely commercialmaking animal.” He then dovetailed into features, lensing a colleague’s low budget horror film. Later came Levy’s first breakthrough feature, the Kelly Reichardt-directed Wendy and Lucy, which was nominated for Best Picture at the 2008 Independent Spirit Awards. Levy went on to lens features for director Baumbach.

Meanwhile Levy’s commercialmaking career continued to blossom as he went on a run of spots directed by Randy Krallman of production house Smuggler. In fact, Levy recently shot an eBay commercial for Krallman.

“The commercial work and features feed off of each other,” observed Levy. “I feel at home in commercials. I came up in commercials. It’s a vibrant community of special creative people. To go from that to running a long distance marathon in a movie is a great ride.”

So while Lady Bird has been creatively innervating, so too have Levy’s recent shorter form exploits including a Spike Jonze-directed dance piece, Changers, made for the clothing line Opening Ceremony. Following its premiere at Fashion Week in New York, Changers had a run at the East Village theater LaMaMa. And then a live film was made from one of the numbers, performed on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Additionally, Levy shot a Mark Romanek-directed short film for Budweiser made from Jay-Z reading a poem. The project entailed reconstructing Jay-Z’s childhood apartment on a stage in L.A. 

Incidentally, it was Savides who first introduced Levy to Romanek. And it was Gerwig who helped connect Levy and Jonze, leading to a live video for Frank Ocean and then the Changers project.

Nick Houy
Lady Bird marks the second major break of Houy’s career--the first coming with his earlier being afforded the chance to cut The Night Of, HBO’s limited series. Jay Cassidy cut that show’s pilot awhile back, with Levy later cutting a reconstituted pilot (necessitated by the passing of James Gandolfini) and the rest of The Night Of episodes. For their work, Cassidy and Houy went on to earlier this year win the primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Limited Series.

Houy said of Lady Bird, “It’s one of the best scripts I ever read. I could tell what Greta was going for and she gave me the opportunity to work on the film. She completely knew what she wanted, cast it well, had great support. As an editor you have to find your rhythm, especially if you hadn’t worked with someone before. She gave me great creative freedom. There were times she would leave and I’d work for long periods of time. And there were plenty of times that we would sit together and hash things out, look at dailies and go back and forth.

“Greta is always pushing the work along further. If something is good, she’s looking to make it great. We used every resource at our disposal to make things as special as we could. I remember the movie’s opening where the two actors [Ronan and Metcalf] are working so well together. It’s an extraordinary scene, originally seen as a wide twoshot, looking through the front windshield of the car they’re in. I remember Greta and I agreeing that this was great but let’s work the coverage and try to make it even better. We went with some coverage shots and the scene played out even better, more fully exposing the work of the actors.”

As for what he learned from his experience on Lady Bird, Houy shared, “Anything that moves you when you’re reading it, that you feel you have to do, you have to do everything you can to do it. That’s how I felt when I first read Greta’s script. If you’re feeling that, probably a lot of other people, your audience, will too if you do it right. Don’t mess around. Pursue work you feel strongly about.”

In terms of what’s next, Houy was at press time editing select episodes of the Showtime series Billions. He also recently cut Jonah Hill’s feature directorial debut, Mid ‘90s.

This is the third of a multi-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 90th Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, January 23, 2018. The 90th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 4, 2018, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, and will be televised live on the ABC Television Network. The Oscars also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.

Credits for ScreenWork: 

An A24 release, Lady Bird marks the solo directorial debut of Greta Gerwig who also penned the script. Sam Levy, DP; Nick Houy, editor.