Sam Levy studied as a cinematography fellow at the Sundance Institute Director’s Lab in 2007. Three years later, he has returned to Park City as the director of photography on Galt Niederhoffer’s film The Romantics which is premiering—you guessed it—at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. This achievement comes just two years after working as a DP on Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.
Two films in three years at festivals of such magnitude would be the top of the proverbial mountain for many, but for Levy, it’s only the beginning of what’s shaping up to be a rewarding career with some of the industry’s most talented artists. Levy is a prime example of what time at the Sundance Institute Director’s Lab can mean to a moviemaker’s future, and his latest project, The Romantics, is the tangible evidence of the program’s rewards.
Levy took the time to tell MM what it’s like being back in Park City for this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Michael Walsh (MM): Less than two years ago, Wendy and Lucy premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Now The Romantics is premiering at Sundance. You served as the DP on both of them. How does it feel to be a part of two of the biggest film festivals in the world?
Sam Levy: It’s a great honor to have films that I’ve photographed premiere at Cannes and Sundance. Going to a premiere and watching the movie with an audience for the first time is truly thrilling and a bit scary. That sensation is one of the things I love about being a cinematographer.
MM: Galt Niederhoffer wrote the novel “The Romantics,” adapted it for film and then went on to direct it. Did her very specific vision of the story match up well with your artistic contributions as the DP?
SL: Without question, yes. I read Galt’s script several times before I first met her. I prepared a book of photos that I thought represented a look for her story. She responded to them strongly and the pictures became a template for the palette of the film. Galt is a wonderful collaborator. She placed great trust in me as a DP and we very quickly developed a shorthand in prep which served us well when principal photography began. With that trust in place, we were able to work hard, at a quick clip, to bring the story to life.
MM: Did working with such a talented cast (Katie Holmes, Anna Paquin, Elijah Wood, Adam Brody, etc.) make your job any easier?
SL: Yes, it did. In addition to being great talents, all of our actors are true pros who understand filmmaking and great cinema. Galt was very gracious and had many group dinners and get-togethers before and during production. She also had me show the actors the image “look book” I had assembled for our palette. All of this enabled me to develop a creative rapport with the cast. The actors and I spoke very little on set; they all understood the larger aesthetic concerns and fell into line. I occasionally would tell Katie or Anna something simple about their eyeline or mark, but not much else. I thought this gave them freedom to think, and Galt freedom to control the set dialogue, which is very important. Too much talking in between set-ups is distracting and counterproductive.
MM: You worked as a cinematography fellow at the 2007 Sundance Institute Director’s Lab. Does it feel different returning to Park City with one of your own films premiering?
SL: It’s like visiting a great friend. I can’t speak highly enough about the Sundance Institute Director’s lab. It gives filmmakers a chance to practice our craft. Unlike, say, musicians, filmmakers don’t get many chances to rehearse what we do outside the pressures of the business.
I spent all my childhood summers at Tanglewood, as my father was a violinist in the Boston Symphony. The orchestra spends every summer there. In a beautiful mountain setting, they practice, teach, collaborate and perform tirelessly. Being a cinematography fellow at the Institute felt like a return to that very special sort of environment.
MM: What’s next for you?
SL: I just wrapped a commercial and start another one right after Sundance. I’ve had several meetings for films that will shoot this spring and summer, but haven’t yet decided which one to do. Above all, I want to work with visionaries—directors and artists who have a unique point of view, who are looking for a visual language to express it. The next step for me is always to find that experience.