Cinematographer Bérénice Eveno, a.k.a. Bear, uses her camera to represent the complex themes of The Free World—freedom, confinement, isolation and violence.

The film premiered at Sundance in January 2016, and opens in New York and Los Angeles in late September.

The Free World, set in Louisiana, depicts the new life of Mo Lundy, played by Boyd Holbrook (Gone Girl, The Skeleton Twins), as he reintegrates into society after being recently released from prison. Mo, who converted to Islam while in prison, works at an animal shelter by day and in the evening returns to his apartment, virtually empty, save a lamp and a mattress. He meets Doris, played by Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men), a woman in the midst of a crisis after escaping her abusive husband, and the two form a bond. Writer-director Jason Lew (who previously wrote Gus Van Sant’s Restless) worked on the script over five years, and The Free World is his directorial debut.

Bear, originally from Paris, has shot features (in 2015, Bad Blood and Mexican feature The Hours With You), music videos, and commercials, including a spot for Guess and work for Vanity Fair. She was a Cinematography Fellow at the American Film Institute and studied at the Fashion Institute in L.A. and the Sorbonne in Paris. In The Free World, she ushers us into the gritty, soulful world of the film, filled with intimate and dark moments, with her use of light and lenses. MovieMaker spoke with Bear about her work, her style and her nickname.

Elisabeth Moss and Boyd Holbrooke star in The Free World

Elisabeth Moss and Boyd Holbrook star in The Free World

Maddy Kadish, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): First of all, tell me about your nickname.

Bérénice Eveno (BE): I go by Bear because no one can pronounce my real name in the U.S.! But I like “Bear.” A bear can be soft and sweet, like a teddy bear. Or it can be tough, like a grizzly bear.

MM: How did you connect with the project? What drew you to it?

BE: I read many versions of the script. I cried when I was reading them; it’s such an emotional story. It all starts from the script. Every beat of the work tells the story—the camera placement, the lighting, they are all tools to tell the story and emotion. That’s where my thrill comes in.

MM: Tell me about your general approach when starting a project.

BE: Every director is extremely different. I must adapt to them. Some are really into the technical, some don’t care about that. Or, a director might mix some blocking and some improv—you always have to be prepared to adjust and move. Being there for the story and respectful of the actors is important to me.

I know when to put other crafts first, like the production design, and when to empower others. It’s important to know what I want, but be open to other ideas that come out of the process.

MM: What did you shoot The Free World on, and why?

BE: I shot on the ARRI Alexa with vintage Kowa lenses. They are Japanese from the ’60s and ’70s, and gave the film a softness. The look is stylized. It feels raw and real, but simple. I wanted the audience to feel what the character is feeling—trapped and free at the same time. It’s an emotional drama, a thriller. Mo is brooding. He’s free, but he doesn’t feel free. He’s trapped because he doesn’t know what to do with his freedom.

MM: Can you talk about the general aesthetic that you and Jason Lew wanted to achieve?

BE: It’s set in the hot South, but it’s also gloomy. There’s a dark undertone to it. I had images of mosques in my head: big, dark, holy places with light pouring in. Mo feels stuck and trapped, but he sees the light.

MM: What were some of the challenges with the shoot?

BE: The scenes set in Mo’s apartment! It was literally a white box—a DP’s nightmare! There was nowhere to hide lights or create contrast. It was tiny and empty with low ceilings. We didn’t want it to be a hipster apartment, but it had to be interesting.

I created contrast with very little. Windows played a big part to help shape the lighting. We put some lights outside—big HMIs—aimed into the apartment. The blinds that the production designer chose were great. They guided and sculpted the light.

Moss in Mo's apartment in The Free World

Moss in Mo’s apartment in The Free World

MM: Because you are a woman working in a notoriously male-dominated field—cinematography—I feel like I must ask the question that you might hate to answer: What is your perspective on being a female DP?

BE: I know what you mean. I can’t wait until I hear, “I’m looking for a DP and really like your work” instead of “I’m looking for a female DP.” So many of us are coming up now; 10 or 20 years ago it was much harder. I’m lucky!

It’s about having leadership skills. I watched my mom direct a company my whole life.  She ran the family company, started by my great-great-grandfather—a high-end jewelry company. Watching her boss people around was good for me.

MM: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received about your career?

BE: Understand who you are as an artist and decide where you want to go. What kind of people do you want to work with? What kind of work? Always choose quality instead of quantity. Learn how to say “no” and pick good projects. MM

The Free World opens in theaters September 23, 2016, courtesy of IFC Films.