'Miseducation of Cameron Post' DP on Respectfully Shooting Lesbian Sex and Why Cooke Panchros Are Great Portrait Lenses
Desiree Akhavan's 'The Miseducation of Cameron Post,' starring Chloë Grace Moretz, is the story of a queer young girl's effort to assert her identity, against all odds.
Teenage Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz) is nonchalant about her sexuality. Were it not for her family's deeply religious and conservative worldview, Cameron probably wouldn't hide the fact that she's attracted to women. And to her, that's just what her sexuality is—a fact, like so many other inconsequential parts of her identity.
Inconsequential, that is, until she is caught hooking up with her female classmate and outed to her parents. Almost without deliberation, Cameron is sent off to God's Promise, a gay conversion therapy camp where she will be "cured" of her same-sex attraction. Desiree Akhavan’s film, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which won this year’s Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, follows Cameron as she experiences this attempted exorcism with genuine curiosity, and ultimately rejects it in a laid-back, self-assured way.
The film is shot with great attention to detail. Cinematographer Ashley Connor hones in on the subtleties of Cameron's body language and that of her fellow campers, whom Cameron befriends as quickly as one does when faced with a common enemy. Connor's camera isn't coverage-hungry; it often lingers on a close-up, and the choice not to go wide feels deliberate and intimate. Where Cameron is reticent, Connor's camera is emotive. The cinematographer's eye for human expression is evident in every frame.
No Film School caught up with Connor prior to the film's premiere to discuss how she shot sex scenes without objectifying the young women, how she works from "an emotional place," and why it's copacetic to call her a female DP.
No Film School: How are things going on Broad City?
Ashley Connor: Great! We're halfway through week two of prep. It’s really nice. Exactly what I wanted from the experience.
NFS: Wonderful to hear. So, had you worked Desiree [Akhavan] before Cameron Post?
Connor: I had not. We had met a film festival when I was going around with Josephine Decker's Thou Wast Mild And Lovely. Desiree was going around with Appropriate Behavior, and we had a fun night. And then years later is when she sent me along the script for Cam Post.
NFS: Cameron is such a compelling character. What attracted you to telling her story?
Connor: Cameron is such an interesting character because throughout the movie people question her being gay, but she's not really questioning being gay that much. She kind of knows who she is, and I thought that was a really new perspective. It was a different version of a queer character that I hadn't really seen. I think we're used to [seeing] the person who hates themselves. And that's obviously an aspect of this—and there are kids at the camp who inhabit that space—but Cameron is on kind of a different journey. It has to do with chosen family versus your given family. And for her, I think, she finds her chosen family.
"We were coming from the perspective of, 'How do we not objectify these girls?' So Desiree privileged lots of long takes."
NFS: When you first read the script, what were the aesthetics or visuals that came to your mind?
Connor: We knew that But I'm A Cheerleader was going to inevitably be part of the conversation, but we kind of wanted to do the exact opposite of that. This is not a fun, colorful world. It's muted and neutral. We really wanted the visuals to represent the institutional nature of God's Promise, the conversion therapy camp.
The other major conversations that we had around visuals were the way French female directors deal with teenage sex. And so, we looked at a lot of Céline Sciamma, Catherine Breillat, and Claire Denis—how they approached sex in a more progressive way.
NFS: What's progressive about the way French female filmmakers approach sex onscreen?
Connor: I was just part of this series called "The Female Gaze" at Lincoln Center, and so a large part of the conversation was, "Is there a female gaze? Can you gender something like [a gaze]? How do you approach photography specifically with sex?
Desiree said, "I feel like I haven't seen an American film tackle queer young sex in an appropriate way." We were coming from the perspective of, "How do we not objectify these girls?" So Desiree privileged lots of long takes. [The sex scenes] are pretty dark scenes in general, and it was really just about making a grounded experience for the audience that had to do with female pleasure.
NFS: Can you talk a bit about the logistics of choreographing and shooting these sex scenes?
Connor: Desiree is such an actor's director. She's incredible with performance. She really listens to actors. She's very present on set—she creates an environment where people feel safe.
Connor: For those scenes, we had blocking rehearsals. She approached them from a very rehearsed standpoint, almost like the way that you'd approach a fight scene. So, getting into them, [the actors] had already rehearsed and were on the same page. There were no questions of, "What's going to happen here?" It was very specific.
I think Chloe and all the actors brought an honesty to the performance that I hadn't seen in a lot of sex scenes that I shoot.. In fact, of all of the sex scenes and all of the masturbation scenes—and I've shot a lot of them—I've never seen somebody commit so well to an orgasm. It was very special to watch [the sex scenes] unfold. They seem very realistic to me for what these girls would be doing, which I appreciated.
NFS: That is kind of an anomaly in film, in general.
Connor: Right. We were not doing Blue Is The Warmest Color. That seemed very unrealistic. Desiree wanted to speak to the honesty of her experience and how awkward it can be.
"As a DP, I tend to hyper-focus on the way that people interact."
NFS: I also noticed that the camera pays a lot of attention to the physicality of the characters. You're attuned to their body language. Even strangers—in atmospheric shots where we don't know the characters, we're still paying attention to the way that they move.
Connor: Desiree wanted you to feel the presence of all the "disciples." They're not just background props. The reality is that the movie could be about any of them and their own personal journeys through gay conversion therapy. And so, we really wanted to respect them and not [make them into] stereotypes. You really understand them and you really feel for them, because the payoff is so much more when you care about the characters.
Connor: As a DP, I tend to hyper-focus on the way that people interact. Especially with these kids, sometimes what they're saying is not what they mean. They're terrified. So, it only helps to be able to see their body language.
Desiree is a director who is incredibly attuned to actors' needs and desires. She is somebody who sits on set and really listens. For her, the image is secondary to performance. And so, this movie is not flashy. We're not doing Steadicam. We're not really doing dolly. You're observing faces a lot. That was at the heart of all of our discussions: How do you build empathy by showing the experience of the group? And I think for me, it's about the nuance of their performances.
"With the camera, I want to break down this wall—the machine between us—to create a new level of intimacy."
NFS: You employed a lot of extreme close-ups, which really helped immerse us in the film.
Connor: I work from an emotional place, so if it felt right to go close and break a barrier of proximity to a person, then Desiree was very open to that. For me, with the camera, I want to break down this wall—the machine between us—to create a new level of intimacy.
NFS: Would you meticulously shot list, or would you sort of go with the flow once you got to set?
Connor: We shot-listed the entire movie before we got to set. I called it a "dream shot list." We would shot list what we wanted out of the scene, and then once you get in the space with the actor and watch them perform it, we would make adjustments based on that.
NFS: Which cameras and lenses did you shoot with?
Connor: I shot on the Cooke Panchros—an older vintage set that are a bit softer and gentler. We knew that so much of the movie related to portraiture and [featured] these kids in close-ups, so I wanted a lens package that would really be able to handle a good portrait in a way that I found emotionally responsive, and not just technologically advanced.
And then in terms of other gear, we're a pretty low-budget movie, so you kind of work with what you can get. We shot on the ALEXA, which is my favorite camera to shoot on.
NFS: Looking back on the entire shoot, what do you think were some of the most challenging elements of it, and how did you address those challenges?
Connor: Some of the more emotional scenes. We were living on the property together where we shot, lived, ate, slept—everything. So it kind of turned into its own version of summer camp. It was a really loving environment with people were all working towards the same goal. Sometimes on film sets, some people are making different movies, but it really felt like everybody here was on the same page.
So, by the time you get to the more emotional scenes—the Mark breakdown scene specifically—it's really painful to watch somebody who you spend all your time with actually go there. So Mark's scene was really tough, and it was very physically exerting for him and emotionally exerting for everyone.
"I want to celebrate the fact that I am a woman working, because when I was coming up, there weren't that many."
NFS: I read somewhere—and I'm paraphrasing—that you don't like to have to take up the mantle of the term "female DP." Do you stand by that statement?
Connor: I probably said a version of that. It's complicated.
My new stance is that visibility is so important. It's easy now for me to say, "I don't want to be put into this category, because it feels like an island for women to not be treated as equals with male DPs." But at the same time, I want to celebrate the fact that I am a woman working, because when I was coming up, there weren't that many. I didn't have many role models to look up to. And so, now, it feels extra important to acknowledge it. I can tell young women, "We're here, we're making ourselves visible." We don't have to look at it as a negativism anymore.
I'm trying to have a mentorship program during Broad City to support young up-and-coming women DPs. It's really just about letting women know of the possibilities. Visibility is just a way of envisioning yourself in a position that you hadn't previously thought that women could occupy. And the same goes with visibility for diversity in everything.
NFS: Before shooting the film, did you do a bit of research on gay conversion therapy?
Connor: Definitely. I think a large part of Chloe's prep was meeting with survivors. Desiree would tell us all about these survivors' journeys. The movie has fun, joyous moments, but it never hits a peak of joy that makes you believe that these kids are okay, because the reality of the situation is that even if they get out of the camp, the trauma and the things that they're dealing with does not stop there. So [the research] was mainly about understanding the effects that gay conversion therapy can have in the long-term.
While we were making the movie, it was during the election, and Mike Pence supports these kinds of institutions. Only 14 states have outlawed them. In New York State—and New York City—gay conversion therapy is still happening. It felt important during the shoot that Desiree educated the entire crew that our political purpose shifted while making the film. It was suddenly far more engaged with what's happening now.
This is not a period piece. [Gay conversion therapy] is happening right down the street from you. It is really unregulated. There's no professional training, there's no psychology background. Somebody can just open one of these and start treating kids. It's really fucked up.