INTO THE LIGHT
By Natasha Block Hicks
She Said (2020), from the pen of Rebecca Lenkiewicz, lead writer on Small Axe (2020), and directed by Maria Schrader gives us an account of the events leading up to the watershed moment in the #MeToo movement. Journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey from the New York Times – helped by a brave group of women survivors – ousted a Hollywood autocrat and dragged his three-decade-long regime of rampant sexual predation, coercion and cover-ups in front of the public’s gaze.
Argentinian DP Natasha Braier ADF ASC, who studied at the National Film & Television School in London, and whose credits include The Neon Demon (2016) and Honey Boy (2019), joined us during a brief break between projects, to explain how she wanted her cinematography on the film to play a supportive rather than starring role in the telling of this significant and sensitive story.
“My previous projects have tended to get attention for the cinematography,” Braier states, “but it was very clear from the beginning that She Said was not going to be one of those films. If audiences do not notice the camera and lighting, because these are working in a humble, undercover way, then I will have been successful.”
“It is such an important story… I felt honoured to be asked to participate”
Braier first became aware of the project when producer Dede Gardner, known for 12 Years A Slave (2013, DP Sean Bobbitt BSC) and Moonlight (2016, James Laxton ASC), approached her through her agent with a “top secret script”.
“That mysterious phone call made me very curious, because I think Dede produces really interesting movies,” Braier relates. Maria Schrader, who received a 2020 Primetime Emmy Award (Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special) for Unorthodox (2020, DP Wolfgang Thaler AAC) was already attached to direct. On receiving the script, Braier knew immediately that she wanted to be involved.
“It is such an important story,” she stresses, “I felt honoured to be asked to participate.”
Braier does not typically place too much emphasis on visual references in pre-production discussions with a director, and with She Said she particularly wanted to keep the truth of the story reflected in an understated shooting style.
“I like to build a conversation with the director on the concepts, themes and the emotional resonance that we have with the story,” she states, “and discover the visual language of the movie from there.
“Apart from the obvious themes, like the abuse of power in a patriarchal society, this film examines the process of investigative journalism; what reporters go through in order to be able to validate their story and publish it as truth.”
Comparison will inevitably be drawn to films like All The Presidents Men (1976, dir. Alan J. Pakula, DP Gordon Willis ASC), and Spotlight (2015, dir. Tom McCarthy, DP Masanobu Takayanagi ASC), that share the central premise of young, determined reporters ferreting-out the malefactions of the powerful and influential. However, the filmmakers of She Said wanted to distinguish their narrative with a deeper exploration of the humanity behind the headlines.
“There is an emotional connection that we wanted to honour,” says Braier. “We show the lives of these journalists as working women, mothers and girlfriends, and how the investigation affects them on a personal level. The camera had to find a fine line between being this observational, documentary-like tool, whilst also supporting the emotional journeys in the script. There can be a lot of work behind the camera to make it feel imperceptible in this way.”
ARRI Alexa Mini was teamed-up with Cooke Speed Panchro S3 primes, Braier’s first time capturing digital imagery for a feature film through spherical lenses.
“I normally gravitate towards Anamorphic lenses when I shoot on digital,” Braier divulges, “but Maria and I both felt that the Anamorphic format would move the aesthetics on She Said unconsciously towards that of a ‘movie’. Spherical lenses, with their vérité aspect ratio, would allow us to be more faithful to the details.
“Cooke S3 Panchros have a beautiful fall off and are very gentle and feminine in the way they capture skin tones”
“I chose the Cooke S3 Panchros because they have a beautiful fall off at the edges and are very gentle and feminine in the way they capture skin tones. My favorite Anamorphic lenses are the JDC Xtal Xpres, which are built with the Cooke Panchros inside the element, so I think the Cooke S3 primes were the right lenses to get the best of both worlds.”
The majority of She Said was captured with a single Alexa Mini, with the camera either static or with subtle movement motivated by the emotional content of a scene. Real survivors featured in many scenes, such as Ashley Judd, whilst others survivors lent their voices.
“Many scenes featured a lot of characters, but we did not have time to cover them with a lot of shots,” Braier relates, “so instead we created an internal choreography inside a static frame: one precise camera position to tell the story. It was carefully planned beforehand, with Maria, the 1st AD and myself playing-out the action and deciding how the people should be positioned so that it felt natural.
“I had seen Maria using this technique in her previous feature films, in a very skilled and successful way. It was fascinating to work with a director that is experienced and confident in this approach.
“Occasionally a second camera would be employed to protect survivors from having to repeat their scenes too many times,” Braier explains. “The two cameras would hold the space, respectfully listening, so they could try and forget about us.”
The production was fortunate enough to be able to use the offices of The New York Times whilst it was closed due to the pandemic. However, the uncertainty surrounding the lifting of lockdown restrictions put a certain time-pressure on the crew, which steered Schrader and Braier towards simplicity and efficiency in their choices for the camera and lighting. Some challenges needed particular attention.
“There’s no cinematographer in the world who is excited about shooting in an office with fluorescent lighting,” Braier laughs, “I have passed on many a movie previously that featured this kind of setting, but with this film I felt telling this story was totally worth the challenge.”
“The existing lighting at The New York Times was not good for filming,” she continues, “the ceiling lights were very yellow, and the spaces commonly had white walls. My challenge was to light it in a simple, elegant way that supported the story, but in a way that did not call attention to itself. We had to do a lot of work to make it look like we had just walked in there with available light and captured the scene.”
Swapping-out all the practical lighting in The New York Times building for film lighting units was not an option, so the crew replaced the fluorescents in the main areas with Astera tube lighting, then set the colour temperature of the units to incrementally blend with the existing fluorescents seen in the background. They also selected locations within the office complex that had more windows and natural light that could be supplemented with LED and HMI units, diffusion and bounce.
“Having New York as a character through the windows was great,” says Braier, “and the combination of natural and artificial light helped make certain scenes, like those featuring people talking on the phone, or discussions round a table, look visual but without looking ‘lit’.
“It was satisfying to bring all my tools to the table, all my previous experience from the films I shot before, and somehow use it all but in a very invisible way,” she concludes.
The writer of this article instinctively did not use the name of the perpetrator at the centre of the scandal in this piece, and it was interesting to subsequently learn that the makers of She Said made an informed choice not to feature his face, or depictions of his crimes, in the film.
“If you think about what you want to be left with, after two hours of going through the process of unveiling this horrendous case,” says Braier, “it is that this is a story of women coming together to help women.
“There is a healing that happens when women come together and give those who were not able to speak the space to tell their story and get the trauma out of their bodies. Then other women will be inspired to come forward too, and together we are a voice that ensures something will be done.”