How 'Lizzie' DP Noah Greenberg Turned a Dark Story into Gauzy, Romantic Cinematography
Craig Macneill's 'Lizzie' was one of the most anticipated films at Sundance this year.
The previous film Noah Greenberg shot—the gritty Most Beautiful Island, filmed on Super 16— landed him a Grand Jury Prize at SXSW 2017. Now, he's back at Sundance with one of the festival's most anticipated titles, Craig Macneill's Lizzie. The chamber drama-turned-horror is based on the grisly true story of Lizzie Borden, a Massachusetts woman who allegedly murdered her father and stepmother with an ax in 1892, only to be acquitted later. Chloe Sevigny embodies Lizzie with a chilly veneer, a fiery passion brewing just underneath; Kristen Stewart plays the housemaid, Bridget, with whom Lizzie has a secret relationship, and who may or may not have been an accomplice to the murder.
No Film School sat down with Greenberg at Sundance to discuss how he meticulously motivated candlelight on set, the most challenging camera movements he engineered for the film, and how he created Lizzie's textured, gauzy, low-contrast look.
No Film School: How did you and Craig Macneill begin working together?
Noah Greenberg: Craig and I have been collaborating for years on various projects. I was a still photographer when we met. A couple years later, he asked me to shoot a short film for him and we’ve been working together since.
NFS: When you read the script, what were you thinking about visually?
Greenberg: I think, aesthetically, my notion was that I wanted to keep things feeling very naturalistic, but leaning towards a darker, more claustrophobic sensibility—with the camera elegant and restrained—and, maybe, a little voyeuristic.
The real Borden house had no electricity, which meant using lots of practical sources for lighting. Also, the architecture of the house is interesting—many of the rooms are interconnected—so that even if the action is in one room, you may be looking through/into three other rooms in the frame. So, if anything takes place downstairs at night by candlelight, you're lighting the entire downstairs to match that…and then turning around.
It's a funny script because there is this dark element. It is claustrophobic. It is very tense and gripping. You don't want to put it down. At the same time, there are these very well-written quips here and there that really lighten it up.
"I've used candle light before, but never lit an entire house motivated by oil lamp wall sconces and somebody carrying a candle.”
NFS: Have you ever lit candlelight before?
Greenberg: Not so extensively. I've used candle light before, but never lit an entire house motivated by oil lamp wall sconces and somebody carrying a candle. We wanted to keep the lighting authentic, so we needed to motivate with as many sources as we could. We worked with our production designer, Elizabeth Jones, to create more opportunities for practical/motivating light—placing sconces in the hallways, and table lamps, and candlesticks throughout the house. We also just decided that the fireplaces would always be burning at night. Luckily, there were a lot of fireplaces in the house—but we couldn't afford to have them active all the time, because that would mean having a special effects person minding them at every second. So, we very carefully chose when they were going to be in frame to use them practically. And, when they were out of frame, we used LED gags to create the “firelight.” Often, that was all the light that was needed to bring detail to a room in the background.
One my pet peeves in period pieces is when you see a candle, and then the shadows cast are obviously not coming from the candle. You see it frequently: there will be a well-lit room with candles, but the rooms are obviously not lit by the candles.
NFS: How did you create that sense of claustrophobia?
Greenberg: From the camera standpoint, we had a lot of very slow, creeping zooms that intensify the claustrophobia. We used longer lenses to stack up and flatten the space out and tried to make the characters look imprisoned within the space. We caught them in reflections, too, so they're a part of the environment—baked into it in a way that they can't escape.
NFS: Which lenses and camera did you use?
Greenberg: The quick tech breakdown is we used an Alexa SXT; shot in Pro-Res; and used a mix of lenses—mostly Cooke Speed Panchros, which are rehoused vintage lenses. So that was the base prime set, and then we used Cooke S4i’s for the telephoto end, because I love shooting with those longer 135 and 150 primes. Then, we used ARRI/Fujinon Alura studio zooms—the 18-80mm and the 45-250mm.
NFS: There's a gauzy feel to at least some of the scenes. I really liked that because it underscored the surreality of the story. How did you create that effect?
Greenberg: The gauzy aspect is partially due to the fact that the vintage lenses have a different, generally softer, character. Part of what makes Cooke’s beautiful is that they are sharper in the center and then fall off a little. The vintage lenses have older coatings and flare more, especially with point sources like candles in frame, which reduces some of the contrast. On top of that, within the Borden home and barn, we used a hazer, which adds a little chew to the air and further cuts the contrast a bit. The light diffuses within it, which adds another layer to that gauziness.
"There's enough falloff that it doesn't feel harsh or chiaroscuro—you feel them as strong sources, but they're open enough in the interior to have a gracious feel.”
NFS: We expect period pieces to look stately and dramatic, with a ton of contrast. This was very low-contrast which I liked a lot. What was the thought process behind that?
Greenberg: Craig prefers a softer contrast feel in general, with no “pure” black, and we talked right away about the fact that we wanted Lizzie to have this more romantic look. We wanted you to be able to feel the falloff from the windows and other practical sources. There's enough falloff that it doesn't feel harsh or chiaroscuro—you feel them as strong sources, but they're open enough in the interior to have a gracious feel.
A big part of that was balancing our widow sources which required the assistance of our production designer. We talked with her about what the window treatments could be, settling on lacy curtains and drapes downstairs and heavier curtains but not drapes upstairs. The drapes were useful for lighting control off-frame. And, in camera, the curtains added texture—they were tinted off-white so that they wouldn't clip.
We then had conversations with our gaffer, Peter Walts, about how to very subtly keep those extremes, so you have a slightly lifted black and a white that still stays white but that has gentle contrast, and the midtowns have some snap while still feeling balanced and soft.
And, the final aspect of the look, of course, comes in the DI. Craig and I have been working for some time with our colorist, Jason Crump at Metropolis Post. With Jason, we are able to really fine tune the contrast and saturation and make little tweaks that keep the whole world feeling consistent and elegant.
NFS: How did you pre-visualize the film, originally?
Greenberg: It was an interesting process, especially working with Craig, because he's so specific visually, in a fantastic way. He has incredible taste and he comes from an editing background in addition to being a director, so he has such a strong idea not only about what he wants the movie to look like, but how things will flow from one scene to another. Before we begin production, he's already shot most of the film in his head. Even before prep, he's shot-listed. Then we'll get to the location and we'll talk about it. On this one, we spent hours in the house walking through it, frequently with the first AD. We'll take an eyepiece and just talk through the scenes. I will get floorplans from the art department and I'll import a jpeg into an app on my iPad, and as we're talking and evolving the ideas of the shots, I'll be drawing a visual representation of the shot list.
By the time we actually get to set, we've got a strong plan. We know what our intent is, and frequently we just do that. And, other times we get there, and on the day something has changed: the schedule shuffled and the light doesn't quite work or the mirror's the wrong height so the reflection won’t work. Or we're getting in a time crunch and we had four shots for the scene and we realize that the only way to get through the day is to do a one-er. But it’s okay because we go in with a plan.
NFS: Can you think of a scene in particular that was the most challenging in terms of camera movement?
Greenberg: I can think of one that was....not so much difficult, well, shouldn’t have been that difficult, but definitely was!. The note-passing scene in the stairwell was a real pain in the ass, and purely for a mechanical issue. In the scene, we follow Chloe down the stairs, she meets Kristen, and then they hand off the notes. We had a four-foot slider to do that move, so it's a tilt, a little bit of a subtle pan, and then a slide across from the upper landing through the balustrade. Mechanically, to get the camera where it needed to be, we basically had to take the slider apart and jerry-rig it. We couldn't get it on any mounting or low enough to get the perspective I wanted, so we had to take it apart.
"It can be nail-biting while you're doing these shots, hoping that everything falls into place."
In general, for shots like these, it's not so much that it's complicated, but it's more about the subtlety of the timing and some of the pans and zooms. There's a scene where Chloe is sitting at her dressing table, and we pan across with her and start to close in on her, and then come off of her into her reflection. That shot, in theory, is not that complicated, but it's difficult getting that to pace out perfectly where it feels like an organic move, as opposed to, "We're just going to pan over to her reflection." It can be tense while you're doing these shots, hoping that everything falls into place.
NFS: In order to get those right, is it more about camera rehearsals, or is it about conversations with the entire crew to get everyone on the same page?
Greenberg: You know, it's funny. A lot of those shots just kind of happened. There's a rhythm to the timing that starts to evolve. I intuitively learn how fast someone’s going to move. I'll get the Microforce control on the zoom and the pan head and work it through a few times by eye. There's a weird short-term muscle memory that develops. Of course, it's an adaptive process. A lot of times, I won't use the eyepiece; I'll use a monitor, so I have both eyes open, and I'm watching for whether the actor’s taking a pause or not taking a pause. I'm anticipating what that's going to mean for camera in terms of where to land and when.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones and Blackmagic Design.