Clare Niederpruem's 'Little Women' is a modern take on a tried and true story.
Louisa May Alcott's Little Women has received many movie adaptations over the years, including a recent PBS miniseries and a highly-anticipated upcoming feature from Greta Gerwig. But no adaptation of the classic novel has ever endeavored to place itself in the modern context— until Clare Niederpruem, that is. The first-time director has set her version of the story in 2018, where four sisters navigate four divergent futures, supporting each other along the way.
No Film School sat down with Anke Malatynska, the film's cinematographer, and Lauren Spalding, the film's production designer, to discuss how they created a storybook aesthetic with a realist edge, how working on a shoestring budget can enhance creativity, why gender parity on set is so important, and more.
No Film School: How did you both get involved in this project originally?
Lauren Spalding: I had actually worked with Clare before on a creepy fantasy series called Mythica.
Anke Malatynska: I didn't know Clare or Kristi [Shimek, a producer on the film]. I had worked with one of the producers, David Wulf, on a couple of movies. I actually got involved in this project quite late. I signed on to do the project about a week and a half before they went into production. Amazingly enough, Clare and I prepped over Skype for a week before we actually met in person. We also worked on the set together in Salt Lake City for three days before shooting. It was pretty crazy, but at the same time, it was really magical. It turned out to be an incredible collaboration that re-sparked my deep love for movie-making.
I almost said "no" because this was one of the lowest-budget projects I had ever done. Low-budget projects can be really painful—having to find the crew and everything else—so it's always with a bit of trepidation that you sign on for something like that. But I wasn't doing anything, and I really love David, so I signed on. It ended up being an absolutely magical, creative, really beautiful collaboration and experience.
"We didn't need to cover everything traditionally...we wanted poignant, moving cinematic moments, and for it not to become a TV show."
NFS: I definitely want to get back to how you both worked with the low budget, but I want to start by talking about the script. When you first read the script, what did each of you visualize for your respective department?
Spalding: I hadn't read Little Women since I was in junior high. I went back to read the book again, to kind of see which parts were Clare and Kristi, or which parts were the original, and I was amazed that the book was still actually so relevant now.
I have to admit that I grew up internationally and I had not read Little Women until after I got the script. I read Little Women and my first thoughts were one, I was really touched by the relationship between the sisters—really touched by that story for my own personal reasons.
At first, I was a little worried that it was so dialogue-heavy. I knew I didn't want to end up just covering the movie because so much happens in the dialogue. But I was pleasantly surprised when Clare and I had the same thought—we didn't need to cover everything traditionally. She really wanted poignant, moving cinematic moments and for it not to become a TV show, in a sense, where we're always on the person who's speaking. Some scenes we did literally in one shot or in two shots, and I thought that was really brave of Clare. We spent the time where we needed the time.
NFS: Is there an example of a scene, in particular, that someone else might have covered in traditional TV-style cinematography, but that you decided to do differently?
Malatynska: One scene like that is Jo's and Meg's approach to the party. On the page, it's like, "Oh my gosh, there's two people talking, and we need a close-up on each person, and we need a wide shot, and we need a medium shot." And then, when you really take it into context, you realize it's minute of screen time. People can actually stay still for a minute. It was both time and budget that pushed us to make the decision to film the whole scene in one shot. Originally, we were going to have more shots, and then we realized that we really didn't need coverage for this moment. It's really liberating to let go of the idea that every moment needs substantial coverage.
"It's really liberating to let go of the idea that every moment needs substantial coverage."
We had the reverse of that, too, on another scene. There's a scene where Jo goes back to the attic for the first time after living in New York when she's working on her novel. It's a one-line scene. We were going to an actual attic and taking equipment up there, and I remember the AD, Brent, and I looked at that and went, "Okay, Jo goes up and sees the attic." And we're like, "Oh, simple. We're lit in this corner of the attic; we can just repurpose the lighting that we did on the last scene." Brent went to Clare and he was like, "So, Clare, we're going to keep this simple, right?" And she's like, "Well, no. We need to see the whole attic in this shot."
It was almost like this moment of, "Oh, man, here's the crazy director." But it wasn't the crazy director. It was the director who was directing the story. Because Jo really did need to go up and see the attic; otherwise, dramatically, it wouldn't have worked. It was really good for Clare to push for that. In the end, it's a really beautiful scene when Jo goes back up and gets to re-visit every section of the attic.
So, I think, both are true. We don't always need to cover dialogue so extensively, and then there are also emotional moments that do necessitate more than just one shot in the corner in order to convey the feelings of the characters or the feelings of the story.
NFS: So when you both first started working together, what were some of the key things that you talked about that were important for collaboration between art and cinematography?
Malatynska: When I came into the picture, Lauren had already done so much work—the design of the attic, etc. Lauren was amazing at sourcing practicals and staying with what I asked, and I remember at one point she was like, "Oh my god, I have no budget. Why do you keep asking for things?" And I was like, "You're so good at getting... I know she's going to come through."
Spalding: I was willing to jump through those hoops and get those practicals because Clare had talked to Anke and I both about this idea that she wanted this to be realism, but she wanted there to be an element of magic, or almost memories. So I think a lot of what Anke and I were working together on was trying to get that feeling. Anke's demand for endless practicals was exactly how we were able to get that result. We had candles and mirrors and window light and lots of lamps and twinkle Christmas lights everywhere. I think that was a huge part of why we were able to ground it in that reality, but also have that magical glow.
NFS: Do you remember a time when you looked at a scene and thought, "You, know, there are ways that I would love to do this, but we can't because we have limited resources"?
Spalding: When I read the script, the attic was such a crucial set piece. I was set on the idea that we were going to need to build the attic—that we weren't going to find an it in location scouting. But we found this beautiful house that happened to have a perfect attic—I mean, almost perfect attic. It didn't have the raw wood that we wanted. So even though I was so set in my mind that it was going to be a build, I saw the excitement in Clare's face of her story coming to life. I was able to just kind of succumb to that magical feeling of it. I did, then, embrace it, and we were able to make that attic into the space that I think ended up working really nicely.
"It's never about my shot or your shot, or the director's vision or my vision. It's my job to align my vision with the director's vision and with the film."
Malatynska: For me, it was also the attic that presented challenges. I have this constant conversation with myself about practical locations. I really like them because I feel like they have a magic that sometimes you don't get with a stage, but our budget constraints were such that I had a very skeleton crew and there was absolutely no way that we were going to have scaffolding on the third story of this house, where the attic was. There was no way for me to bring in light from the outside. So I had to light everything from the inside. But I also wanted to create the illusion that there was some light coming in through windows from the outside, so I used a lot of mirrors so that our lights would mimic a pane of sunlight. That was a really creative way of creating an illusion so that it became that magical feel. It probably would have been done differently had I had a big budget to be able to put lights outside the window.
Spalding: Or a built set.
Malatynska: Yeah. Or a built set with removable walls.
Spalding: When I said that the attic was almost perfect, we had wanted it to be a raw wood attic and that's what I was planning on building. But the attic was covered in unfinished drywall. The shape and the architecture of the room was perfect, but that was just not magical and not what we were looking for, so we came up with the idea of doing a blanket fort—the girls' hang out space. Part of what I love about that attic space now is all the fabric that we ended up draping up there and all the color and texture because of trying to hide something that I didn't like.
Malatynska: I'm just reminiscing about the attic and what a challenge it was to light. Lauren built the blanket fort into the tallest end of the attic and I was like, "Oh my god, I need to bring light back in; I can't balance the dark blankets." It was quite a conundrum to light, but we did it and I think we really did it well. For one scene we ended up building this big, beautiful book light for the scene when they're upstairs reminiscing on Christmas.
"This whole movie was problem-solving on the day."
But it was challenging. It was like playing catch up the whole time. For me, really, this whole movie was problem-solving on the day. I got involved so late in the process, and whenever that happens, I feel like my job is really to listen deeply to the director so I understand all of the conscious and subconscious nuances of their communication in order to be aware and present for the story every day. I saw the location two days before the shoot. We shot five-day weeks. It was problem-solving in the moment and several hours ahead of anything that we were facing.
NFS: Having gone through that experience, do you have any advice for a problem-solving-heavy shoot? General rules of thumb?
Malatynska: For me, it's to be really present and of service to the story—of service to the director's vision. And this is advice for up-and-coming cinematographers: I have this philosophy that I'm really there to help and support the story at a visual level. It's never about my shot or your shot, or the director's vision or my vision. It's my job to align my vision with the director's vision and with the film. You know, my greatest piece of advice is to meditate, to know how to be in the moment, so that you can be creative and problem-solve in the moment, under pressure.
NFS: What was your rig?
Malatynska: We shot on the Red Dragon build and we shot with the Cooke S4 lenses, which are really lovely lenses for digital. They have a little bit of warmth. That was my rig and it was handheld part of the time, and part of the time we were on a dolly. There were sections of the movie where we were in studio mode, on a dolly, kind of doing more classical cinematography, and then there were sections where it was a lot of handheld.
Malatynska: I did all the handheld. I was my own operator and I actually pulled focus for myself on a lot of the handhelds because my crew was made up of a lot of people who are learning. It was like teaching and shooting a movie at the same time. I did have an excellent key grip, Kevin Kennedy, who came from Scandal, so I had someone who was super professional and prepared to get my back at one end of my technical practicals. I had an excellent dolly grip who also came with Kevin from Scandal, who was really professional. But other than that, we had young kids working with us in the camera department and in the electric department. It was a testament, for me, to how little I need to make really, big beautiful scenes.
"This is so embarrassing that I'm being told by somebody I respect that this is too feminine of a design."
I did a lot of this thing that I've been playing with: at night, having the ambient light be much cooler—almost blue tones—and I would bounce really blue light into the ceiling, but the keys are still really warm. That kind of gives the shadows a blue feeling, and you see it in some of the movie. That was, for me, [in service of] the storybook, magical, slightly augmented reality feel. But still rooted in realism.
NFS: Your crew was 50/50 male/female, but many of the department heads were female. Did that change anything for you in terms of the on-set experience?
Spalding: After it was finished, I realized how significant it was for me to actually have the chance to work with all-female head of departments. I was thinking, "Why should that even matter? Why should that make a difference?"
I realized that there was someone that, early on in my career, was looking at my design and they said, "This looks too feminine." I kept looking at my design and I'm thinking, "I don't know what I've done here, but this is so embarrassing that I'm being told by somebody I respect that this is too feminine of a design." I think, subconsciously, for a long time after that, I have tried to steer away from anything that could be labeled as "too feminine," whatever that could possibly mean.
Spalding: Clare allowed me to actually able to embrace the idea that this is a film that is being made about women, for women. I think it's actually helped me in my films after to kind of be like, "What was that that I was doing when I was concerned this is too feminine? That doesn't even exist." So I think, for me, that was one of the most special things that I took away from working on Little Women.
Malatynska: The whole set was very mixed gender. Some of our other producers were men, and I mostly had guys in my technical department. What was really wonderful and unique about this situation was that you had the production designer, the director, the EP, the writer, and one of the main producers who were women. It almost felt like we were like the queens. And we were held up and supported by these incredible, hardworking, gracious men.
Honestly, that's my favorite kind of set—where you are 50/50 between men and women. We can just bypass those conversations of something being "feminine" or "masculine." I found that those are really the best types of working crew.
Recently, I was on this production where we were a very woman-heavy crew, especially in our camera department. It honestly felt like it was kind of the same thing as having too many men. It does help to work with each other—to have mixed agendas, to have different opinions. It's important to have diversity amongst people and on a film set. That really translates to having flow and grace and good communication, much more so than being an all-guy crew or an all -girl crew. There has to be room for different points of view and opinions.