Alex Lehmann’s career path has taken him from camera operator to director, and he is playing both roles simultaneously. And, remarkably, this fall sees his release of not one debut feature film—but two.

We can trace Lehmann’s steady pace into the director’s chair by revisiting his previous work. He’s shot all manner of films and TV, from Project Runway, America’s Next Top Model, The Last Comic Standing and The League to The People SpeakCape Spin: An American Power Struggle, to Pulse, The Collector, War of the Dead, Project X and Where Hope Grows.

His two newest features cross genres both in story and in form. Blue Jay, lovely and unadorned, is a simple romantic drama that focuses on two characters (played by Mark Duplass—who also wrote the script and produced—and Sarah Paulson) in a few locations; the nonfiction Aspergers’s Are Us, another Duplass Brother production, documents four openly autistic friends who have formed a comedy group in the suburbs of Boston. Asperger’s Are Us has a reality-TV aesthetic, while Blue Jay displays an interest in more controlled form, reminiscent of Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, works of Woody Allen, Jim Jarmusch and Francois Truffaut. The films, which premiered at Toronto International Film Festival (Blue Jay) and South by Southwest (Asperger’s) respectively this year, weave lively camerawork into stories of human bonding, while Lehmann guides performances imbued with both a seriousness and a light-hearted humor.

Looking at the history of cinematographers who have become directors, such as Nicolas Roeg, Ronald Neame, Ernest R. Dickerson, Chris Menges and Zhang Yimou, we asked Lehmann to place himself within that lineage.

Alex Lehmann (center) with (L-R) Jack Hanke, Ethan Finlan, Noah Britton and New Michael Ingemi, subjects of Asperger’s Are Us

William Paul Smith, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Can you talk about your process of going from to camera operator to director? 

Alex Lehmann (AL): Let’s see. I guess, basically it all happened through Asperger’s Are Us. I made two documentaries back when people were still hiring me as a camera operator, as a cinematographer, and I wanted to be a director. I wanted to be involved in more access of the storytelling, and I saw this opportunity to make this great doc, and shot it, and edited it, did everything on it, and that put me in the position where I was being a director.

I hired myself as a director. And then I showed Mark Duplass the doc. He really liked it and saw that I could tell a story, and that’s where he started thinking of me as a director.

MM: What camera and lenses did you use on each film, and why you did chose them?

AL: They were definitely two very different set-ups. For Asperger’s Are Us I mostly used a Sony EX1. This was in 2013 and even back then it was a really out-of-date camera, but it’s a war horse of a camera. Basically, I wanted something that was battle-tested for the field, something that would be easy, because I was just running and gunning for myself, doing camera and audio and everything. I liked the image enough for what it was. It was very functional because it was a follow doc; I never wanted to run around with a big camera and draw attention. We used a few other cameras. Eventually, some DLSRs to get extra coverage of the performance, and I did the epilogue with the A7f because it was the new EX1 in 2015.

And then with Blue Jay I needed something that was going to be very different. I liked the idea of using a large-sensor camera to make it a very intimate feel—that I could shoot hand-held and get up in actors’ faces but not distort them with wide angle lenses. So I used a large-sensor camera. The Arri 65 and the new Epic, they all have large sensors, which means you don’t have to use as wide angle of a lens to get as wide a scope of a shot. Instead of a fish-eye standing two, three, four feet away from Sarah or Mark, I could use a reasonable 25mm lens or something like that and still get what I needed. A lot of movies are doing that, like The Revenant and Tarantino’s work. I also really wanted a camera that didn’t require too much of a crew and too much lighting. I knew we were going to give it a black-and-white treatment, give it a little bit of grain, so I was thinking, if I had a very sensitive camera then I could reduce the amount of people on the crew. With the whole vibe of filming something so improv-based and personal, you give the actors a little more room to relax.

I’d heard of this Canon ME20, and it was still definitely in the test phase. Nobody had shot a feature with it, and I asked Canon if we could be their guinea pigs because it kind of felt like the perfect camera for what we were doing. So that was with the Canon Cine Primes and a few Canon zooms.

MM: How many days of shooting did you have for these films?

AL: Blue Jay I shot over seven days with the actors, and another two days with the second-unit DP and myself. We did some major photography. Asperger’s Are Us was 16 days of principle documenting, and I came back for four days of epilogue, so maybe 20 days of shooting. I’m pretty proud of the fact that we got a good story out of 20 days of shooting.

Shooting Blue Jay in the small town of Crestline, California. Photograph by Xan Aranda

MM: I was wondering about some of the discoveries and challenges you encountered working as the director and the cinematographer at the same time, especially on Blue Jay.

AL: The one lesson I learned quickly was to not operate a camera when we were doing two crossing cameras, because I could only be one actor at a time. I could hear them both but I could only see one, and I very quickly realized that it was way more important for me to be there, for first the actors as a monitor, then to be framing one camera. When it was just single camera and I was doing roaming, like oners, that was fine, and in fact when I was doing that, it really felt like I didn’t need a DP. For that movie specifically, I really felt like it made it more efficient, I knew what I wanted. A lot of it was reactive storytelling, and so I wanted to be the one holding the camera, and really choosing what to look at and reacting based off of performances and dialogue, which was improvised a lot. That was not a challenge. That was a benefit. The only challenge was when I was cross-covering.

MM: Where did you prioritize? Were there any sacrifices that you felt you had to make?

AL: I’ve been a cinematographer for most of my career, and I’ve made sacrifices for performance and actor comfort even as a cinematographer. It has always been the most important thing for me: the story and putting the actors in a position where they feel they can most succeed. I would say that as a director, I wasn’t making any sacrifices, per se. I was just constantly looking at what is the most important element to telling the story, and making the actors feel comfortable. I’d say everything look-wise came second, by instinct.

MM: Moving forward in your career do you see yourself continuing to occupy both of those spaces or do you plan to solidify yourself more firmly into the director’s seat?

AL: It all depends. I would love to be just a director and collaborate with other cinematographers. There is a lot of stuff that other DP friends of mine do, which I’m in awe, and I’d love to get them involved in some of my projects. I would like to hire a DP as much as possible.

MM: You’ve explored a variety of different formats—TV, documentary and narrative—and genres from comedy to horror. How do you navigate these forms? 

AL: I wish I could give you a really smart answer to that. I just look at the story and boil it down to what the story is and what my connection to it is. I just tell the most honest version of my connection with the story. I don’t try to think too much about what is expected of the piece, genre-wise. The only thing I will be careful of is not falling into too many tropes of a genre, but I don’t try to be anything. I just make sure I’m not repeating things that have already been done.

MM: How do you choose a project?

AL: That’s a very good question. I’m still learning. Sometimes I read a script or a book, and I think I’m into it and it’s the best thing I’ve got developing and then—this happened to me recently—then I revisited something else that reminded me, “This is how I feel when I’m excited, when I feel like I need to do something.” So I’d say it’s a gut feeling, if I’m waking up thinking about it and I’m going to bed thinking about it… if I’m being annoying at the bar, you know, telling every one of my friends my latest thoughts on this idea I’m exploring, if I can’t shut up about something, then I know I’m passionate about it.

MM: Which filmmakers influenced you in your work?

AL: Lots. I watched a lot of French New Wave when I was younger—I am French; I was born in Paris—and I definitely like old-school Jarmusch. Neither of those things were purposefully imitated with Blue Jay, but I definitely have looked at some of those old films and thought to myself, yeah, there’s probably some subconscious stuff going on there. You know, Down by Law and certain films.

MM: In both projects you collaborated with the Duplass Brothers, Mark and Jay. Can you tell us about your relationship? How did you meet?

AL: I met Mark on The League. I was a cameraman on The League—It was a job for me and a job for him. We got along with everyone on that set, making fart and dick jokes, and then sometimes Mark and I would start talking about these weird docs or indie films that we were in love with and we realized we had a connection there. Then I brought him the doc as we were finishing up on The League. I said, “Hey man, here’s this thing. I’m almost done with it. I’d love to get your thoughts.” It was kind of crazy but I was really proud of it so I went for it. That’s how I continued to work with Mark. We’re still working on stuff and we get along.

Sarah Paulson and Mark Duplass in Blue Jay. Photograph by Alex Lehmann

MM: And how did you collaborate with him and Jay on Blue Jay?

AL: Yeah, Mark and I had a very short outline that Mark had come up with for the story. We kept bouncing ideas around and started doing meetings with three female producers: Sydney Fleischmann, Xan Aranda and Mel Eslyn. We sat down with them and Sarah Paulson, and we bounced ideas around for the movie—thematically, for the characters—and we all
ended up wearing multiple hats on set, but it was that core creative group that really found the story. We kept it an intimate set and maintained the honesty in the story.

MM: I’m curious about the creative control. Who had the final say?

AL: Um, there was this PA on our set and whenever we couldn’t make up our minds, we would refer to the PA.

MM: That’s great!

AL: I’m completely making that up. I have a very bad, dry sense of humor. [Laughs] Nobody had the final say. If we felt like we needed to have a few options, we would shoot a few options and find what worked. I’d say we were all pretty much on the same page by the time we were shooting. Those seven days weren’t film school days—this wasn’t an 18-hour day or 24-hour days. These are under-12-hour days. We were shooting efficiently. We knew what the story was, and we were looking for genuine moments. So it was less about, “The story has to be exactly like this.” We didn’t have a fully fleshed-out structure. It was an outline, so when someone did something great—like Sarah Paulson spits some eggs on Mark—fantastic! We’d go, “Great, that wasn’t in the script, but how wonderful was that?” A lot of people try to do the improv-organic-thing and I think that if they’re going to find success, it starts with having the right core group of people where there’s no ego, and there’s a lot of trust and openness and willingness to explore and find great stuff.

MM: For first-time filmmakers looking to break through, where do you recommend they focus their efforts?

AL: I would just say they should be shooting. They should be making stuff and focusing their effort on making inexpensive things, so they can have the opportunity to fail until they’re good at something. It’s cliché, but it’s the truth. There are too many people who are like, “Alright, I’m making a script,” and they save up and save up and save up and spend every penny they have, and they put all their heart and self-worth into this one thing, and if it doesn’t end up being “amazing,” they feel like they’ve lost and they give up. First films are probably not going to be as amazing as you want them to be, but that’s why you should make more until you get really, really good. MM

Asperger’s Are Us and Blue Jay are currently available on Netflix, iTunes and VOD.