Funny, with Restraint: How DP Sam Levy Shot While We’re Young

“I was lucky to grow up with music and have a movie buff dad who’d tell me, ‘You need to watch this movie,'” says Sam Levy. Levy has served as director of photography for filmmakers such as Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy), Rebecca Miller (Maggie’s Plan) and, most recently, Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha, While We’re Young and Mistress America).

Levy comes from a musical household where his father was a violinist for the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops, while his mother became an accomplished flutist for a local amateur orchestra.  Seven Samurai (1954) and The Virgin Spring (1960) struck an emotional chord with the young Levy. “Both were black and white, which might have something to do with it. I sat up and thought, ‘These are different. I like these.’ They were also not in English, so I was reading the subtitles. From there I watched every Kurosawa and Bergman movie I could get on VHS.”

“I had a friend in high school who made these short films with a VHS camera, and I would act in them,” Levy recalls. “When I got to college, I took a film class, and straightaway I realized that the thing I liked most about shooting those 15mm films was the photography part. Visions of Light [1992] came out around the same time; it’s a documentary about cinematography. It captured my imagination.” The high school classmate would have a dramatic impact on the career of Levy. “That same friend who made those short videos had a cousin who was a director/cameraman at a commercial production company. I got an interview with him and that led to an internship which changed my life. I ended up meeting Harris Savides, the legendary cinematographer, who I went on to assist for many years.”

It was Savides who later introduced the young cinematographer to director Noah Baumbach, after Levy had assembled an impressive roster of music video credits for artists such as Oasis, Sonic Youth, Beck and Garbage. With Baumbach, Levy found a director with whom he truly enjoyed collaborating. “We trust each other. That’s critical for the DP-director relationship. Noah allows me to do my job, which is to execute what he has put forth on the page. I love Noah’s writing, ideas and tastes. We like the same filmmakers, and a lot of the same music.”

Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig in a scene from 2013's Frances Ha

Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig in a scene from 2013’s Frances Ha

Shooting the Generational Comedy of While We’re Young

Flashy colors and lighting are nowhere to be seen in Baumbach and Levy’s most recent theatrical release, While We’re Young, which revolves around a childless husband and wife (Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts) in their 40s who meet a free-spirited young married couple (Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried) and begin an unlikely friendship. If While We’re Young‘s sophisticated comedic scenarios and nods to contemporary New York remind audiences of another prolific filmmaker, perhaps that’s no accident, says Levy. “Noah and I looked at some of the Woody Allen movies photographed by Gordon Willis, such as Annie Hall [1977], for While We’re Young. We also did look at Fat City [1972] mostly for the photography. Noah and I looked at certain films from the 1970s for inspiration, even though we were photographing digitally from the photochemical 35mm era at a time when that process was flourishing.”

Mistress America, another Baumbach-Levy collaboration, was shot prior to While We’re Young (though its release comes later in the year) on an ARRI Alexa Plus, and the pair continued to use the camera on the latter film. “What’s great about the Alexa is that it has a mellow, soft, non-electronic look that emulates film,” says Levy. “That was what we were setting up to do, even if we weren’t saying that explicitly.”

says Levy.

The Alexa’s “mellow, soft, non-electronic look” in a still from While We’re Young

While We’re Young was a 40-day shoot. “About half of those days we had a second Alexa,” says Levy; for the other half only one camera was employed. His lenses of choice were Zeiss Super Speed Primes from 18mm to 85mm. “I love those lenses. They’re fast, light-sensitive; old but robust. They have this amazing quality where even with a deep stock like a T4, it has an abrupt and sharp fall-off of what’s in focus and what’s out of focus. The subject within the frame has a hyper-presence. With other lenses, you might have to have a very shallow focus to direct your eye towards the subject.”

One other lens was utilized during a hilarious moment in While We’re Young: a cycling sequence in which Josh (Stiller) suffers an injury and calls after Jamie (Driver), who obliviously rides off toward the camera. “That was the first scene we shot for the movie,” says Levy. He used a Canon Zoom 30-300 mm lens and a process trailer to capture the scene, having to adjust to certain environmental idiosyncrasies.

“Noah and I had done a similar kind of shot in a previous movie where we put the camera in a van and drove. We loved it. But when we scouted where we wanted to shoot these guys riding their bikes in Brooklyn, there were so many potholes and traffic. We only had a finite amount of time to get this sequence, so that steered us in the direction of using a remote head that is gyro-stablized, so if we hit any potholes you won’t really see them. There’s at least one cut within the scene where you go from something tighter to something wider. I like that sequence.”

“The job of the cinematographer is primarily one of restraint and patience,” says Levy. “Film is much less sensitive, so generally you might have to start in an additive sense. The Alexa’s digital sensor can see more than film can, and more than what your eye can perceive.”

Sometimes light sources need to be taken away. The DP cites a scene in While We’re Young where Josh goes to a party, gets freaked out, leaves, and sees Darby [Amanda Seyfried] “making out with this random guy,” as Levy puts it. “It’s a night exterior, but I didn’t turn on any lights. We used the sodium vapor street lamps. There was plenty of light, almost more than we needed. They’re so light-sensitive that car lamps or stoplights from several blocks away would be picked up on Ben Stiller’s face. We flanked the camera with an array of defusing frames, so there was a nice, even, mellow light on Ben.”

The Cinematography of Films Within the Film

While We’re Young‘s story involves two documentaries, one shot by Driver’s character and one by Stiller’s Josh (who has been working on the same film for the better part of a decade). “A lot of work went into putting those visuals together,” says Levy. “We used a variety of different cameras to create footage for Josh’s documentary, which he has been making over the course of 10 years. All of it was video.” Mini-DV plus different HD and SD formats provided a sense of authenticity. “Some of them had great artifacts, especially, when you up resolution to HD. That was fun.”

Jamie, on the other hand, conceives of and shoots his documentary within the narrative of While We’re Young, and this presented additional aesthetic considerations. “We thought a lot about the camera Jamie should use, both for how the documentary would look when it plays in the movie, and also how the camera would look in Jamie’s hand when he’s shooting the documentary. We considered giving him the Canon 5D, but we wanted to pick something that looked more like a video camera, which led us to use the PMW 200.”

Cooperating with Costumes and Locations

The cinematographer worked closely with the production designer and costume designer for the project. “All of us would be in a room discussing what we were doing and how we would interweave the colors throughout Adam Stockhausen’s designs, Ann Roth’s costumes and my lighting. The three of us live in New York City. We were trying to impart our experiences as New Yorkers to the characters—in the colors that they wear, how they decorate their homes and what kind of light you might find in their homes.

Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) at an unusual party in While We're Young

Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) at an unusual party in While We’re Young

“Ann would tell us great anecdotes from over the years. She was the one who did the costumes for Midnight Cowboy [1969]. We’d say, ‘What Jon Voight wore might be good for Jamie.’ She’d go, ‘No. We’re doing something else.’”

New York City is indeed a major cinematic presence in While We’re Young, as in 2013’s black-and-white Frances Ha. Levy involved himself too in the process of finding locations. “Adam Stockhausen canvased locations on his own, and presented them to Noah and myself. Adam and I went to places that he liked. I would take video of every single one. Adam and I would go back to Noah and present what we found. Then the three of us would go together.

“All of this was in concert with Noah and I having done a precise shot list. We had a sense of blocking before we found the locations, so that informed finding them. We talked about the anthropology of the locations—Josh is a professor and he’s married to a documentary producer. What kind of place would they live in that makes sense? Is it too expensive or not expensive enough?”

Key Scenes in While We’re Young

A memorable, ironic crosscutting sequence occurs near the beginning of the film, with Josh and Cornelia wrapped up with modern technological conveniences, while their new young friends embrace a retro, analog lifestyle. “We referred to that as ‘the technology montage,’” says Levy. “There’s no dialogue—it’s pure visual storytelling. You could play with the image and have the lighting be more dramatic or moody than you might if it was a longer scene with people talking to each other. [What’s important is] what’s happening in that particular frame: Josh playing with his iPad or Jamie picking out a VHS tape to watch.”

Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) enjoy analog pleasures in their home

Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) enjoy analog pleasures in their home

Another humorous scene involves Darby taking Cornelia to her hip-hop dance class. “The scene that directly precedes the hip-hop class is all one shot of Darby and Cornelia walking,” says Levy. “You have no idea where they’re going; Cornelia is talking about how she tried to have kids but wasn’t able to. Then it cuts to them walking into the classroom. You still don’t know what they’re doing. Darby is talking about her brother; they settle into the room. At the last second, Cornelia asks, ‘What is this class again?’ Darby says, ‘Hip-hop.’ Then the song comes on and they start dancing. Cornelia can’t do this dance but learns enough to be able to do a certain amount. Naomi Watts was super funny the way she did it.”

Later in the film, a New York City landmark is the setting for a showdown between Josh and Jamie, and another instance where Levy found himself exercising restraint. “The Lincoln Center has big windows looking out on Central Park South,” says the cinematographer. “We were trying to integrate the twinkly Manhattan lights into the frame. I didn’t want to turn on any lights or do anything that would disrupt the interesting things that the available lights are giving us.” A lot of preparation was involved in making sure that shooting at Lincoln Center went smoothly. “It was our most expensive location. We only had two nights there and a significant amount of work to accomplish.”

Production moved outside of the city for a few sequences. “The scene when they are driving to Poughkeepsie to try to find Kent [Brady Corbet], the car is on a process trailer,” says Levy. “We removed the front windshield so that we could shoot through the windshield and not have to fight reflections. Our brilliant key grip, Michael Yurich [A Most Violent Year], built a Plexiglas enclosure to sound-proof the rig. We had two cameras which would shoot a wide and get singles of each person.”

Some digital enhancements were applied to the imagery, such as compositing green onto a cellphone. “The Alexa photographs a flat image, so with the images we did a fair bit of processing in the DI process with Pascal Dangin [The Immigrant], who owns the company Box. We added some saturation in contrast with the overall color.”

Post-Production: Farewell to an Era

A dramatic change for contemporary cinematographers is that they are no longer the sole author of a film’s imagery, because of the growing role that digital enhancements play during the post-production period. “I believe that this is healthy,” says Levy. “Cinematography, at the end of the day, is a relatively uncomplicated craft that happens to have many different elements to it. Each one is simple: There’s lighting, exposure, framing, preparation, logistics, interacting with the crew, working with the director, and money. Each one, over time, you learn.” (One task, though, is still especially hard to master, according to Levy. “Focus can’t be done automatically or with a machine. That’s a complicated job. All you need to do is work with a lesser focus puller to have a deep appreciation for a masterful one.”)

Josh relives a youth he never had in While We're Young

A longing for the past: Josh relives a youth he never had in While We’re Young

One of the deliverables required for While We’re Young‘s domestic and foreign distributors was a 35 mm print. Levy visited the famous Technicolor film lab in New York City to supervise the printing process. “I was there on the last day of the film lab’s existence. It was a Friday. While We’re Young was the last film print ever made by Technicolor in New York—which was a surreal experience.

“The print is the ideal realization of the While We’re Young photographic process. It was captured and timed digitally but rendered to the photochemical print, which bears some resemble to the Gordon Willis films from the 1970s and Bruce Davidson subway chrome print. It was something along those lines. Being in that legendary lab where people had worked for so many years, knowing that on Monday they wouldn’t be doing that anymore, was bittersweet.” MM

While We’re Young opened in theaters on March 27, 2015, courtesy of A24. Feature image shows (background, left to right) key grip Michael Yurich, DP Sam Levy, director Noah Baumbach and (foreground) 1st AC David Feeney-Mosier. Photograph by Jon Pack.

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