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Cinematographer Sam Levy On Shooting “While We’re Young”

By: Marjorie Galas

Sam Levy likes to think the projects he shoots find him. The cinematographer behind acclaimed indie films including “Wendy and Lucy” and “Frances Ha” had been a fan of their respective writers/directors, Kelly Reichardt and Noah Baumbach. Although he still reviewed their scripts, his heart was already attached to the material.

“The synopsis was enough for me,” said Levy. “Both directors had work I greatly admired. Reading the scripts almost seemed like a formality.”

Levy had reteamed with Baumback for “While We’re Young,” a drama focusing around a middle –aged couple (Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts) who’s lives and careers are upended when they encounter a charming younger couple (Amanda Seyfried, Adam Driver). “While We’re Young” marks the third feature Levy and Bamback have collaborated on. The duo began discussing their second feature, “Mistress America” (a release date is still pending) while still shooting “Frances Ha.” Their mutual creative sensibilities inspired Levy, and made him eager to return to the acclaimed director’s projects.

“There’s a time to laugh and a time to focus. We work hard throughout the entire process of prepping, shooting and researching the films, but we also laugh a lot,” said Levy. “I like everything about working with him. I just feel alive working with Noah.”

Levy and Baumbach developed a great shorthand on their first two features that they wanted to maintain throughout “While We’re Young.” However, their third feature had a much larger scale, both production-wise (larger crew, more equipment) and from a cache standpoint (big name actors, Oscar-winning department heads). Although they were initially fearful of losing the intimacy and the indie dynamic that previously serviced their films, they found working with production designer Adam Stockhausen (Oscar win for “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) and costume designer Ann Roth (Oscar win for “The English Patient”) stirred creativity. After developing a shot list with Baumbach, Levy reviewed the list with Ross and Stockhausen for additional input and advice. He then took the list back to Baumbach for a second pass to confirm their vision.

“Adam went location scouting, then I canvassed the locations with him, shooting video that I showed Noah,” said Levy. “I had meetings with Ann to synthesize colors in the wallpaper and paint, and talk about the palette and themes. It was amazing for me to sit with the woman who did the costumes for ‘Midnight Cowboy’.”
Collaboratively they found ways to interject bold splashes of color that “permeated without saturating” the shots, such as the introduction of an “oreo margarine” into the drab mental institution scene. Adam Driver’s character wears a shirt that introduces the warmer color and elevates the scene without overpowering the atmosphere or distracting from the shot. With a plan in place, shooting was kept to a minimal with some scenes being completed in one take. Baumbach prefers to keep coverage to a minimum, to prevent distractions from the story or mood.

Levy shot on the Alexa Plus camera with vintage Weiss Super Speed lenses; the same package he used on the much smaller scale “Mistress America.” While discussions did arise regarding other cameras, Levy was ultimately pleased with the effect that maintaining the same ISO with some lens adjustments had on the larger picture. Natural light was used as frequently as possible. When shooting in Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby’s (Amanda Seyfried) loft – a space flooded with light from large windows, HMI lights were hung outside to keep a natural and consistent look, particularly in dealing with cloudy days and evening shoots.

“The daylight for the younger couple emphasized their airy, free-spirited quality. For the older couple we had a more cramped, tight space,” said Levy. “We had a tungsten light in the middle of the room. Adam had hung pendant lights and set up track lighting. On set I mixed in color temperatures and really pushed it. It’s great to monitor that on set.”

Looking back at the process of shooting “While We’re Young”, Levy is fond of the sublime moments he captured, particularly scenes at Lincoln Center that had undergone months of planning. He finds that moment of having successfully captured a scene, while bitter-sweet (seeing it fulfills the vast amount of research, time and attention previously paid to its successful completion) is what keeps him fueled as a cinematographer.

“There are serene moments, through the process of any film, when you know you get the scene and got it well,” said Levy. “When you do something to the best of your ability, you know that feeling is there waiting for you.”

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