By Maria Schrader She saidTwo New York Times reporters investigate allegations of sexual misconduct against Hollywood producer Harvey Weintstein. Their work not only leads to a measure of justice for victims, it helps inspire #MeToo, an ongoing effort to improve professional practices for women in an industry dominated by men.
Schrader and his crew shot largely on location, even inside the New York Times headquarters near Times Square. The heavyweight cast includes Carey Mulligan (Megan Twohey), Zoe Kazan (Jodi Kantor), Patricia Clarkson (Rebecca Corbett), Jennifer Ehle (Laura Madden) and Samantha Morton (Zelda Perkins).
Cinematographer Natasha Braier has worked on a wide variety of feature films, including music videos and TV series Honey boy, The Neon Demon, The milk of pain And The Rover. This is his first collaboration with Schrader.
She said screened at this year’s New York Film Festival. Universal will open the film in theaters on November 18. Braier spoke with Movie director from London, where he is on site for his latest project.
Movie director: This must have been a difficult project to shoot because there is so much dialogue. You need to find visuals for phone calls, interviews, and even a voiceover.
Braier: It was very, very challenging. Normally, if I’m reading a script with that much dialogue on the job, I’d choose not to, because I know I’ll be spending two months in an office with top florescent lighting. But when I had this story, I wanted to tell it. I had to say. I thought, “I’ll find a way to survive the fluorescent lights in the office, because it’s important to me to be a part of history.” Of course, there’s not much you can do with office lighting, but the New York Times building is more visually interesting than others. There were many windows to work with.
Even though the film is extremely careful to be very accurate with everything, we moved the investigation area to another corner of the building with more windows. The location where we filmed was actually more like where they worked in 2017 when the story takes place. That helped a lot, because we could connect the characters with the outside, the street, the city. They might get up and walk to the window, stuff like that. We had to find ways to motivate them to move a little.
Movie director: You can shoot down on two isolated characters in the cafeteria. But what do you do when I’m on the phone? You have to find something else to watch.
Braier: It’s hard, because sometimes there’s nothing else, you know? We can have the calls in different places. Sometimes they get up, sometimes they walk around the desk. Sometimes you pay homage to All the president’s men. One of the first phone calls Megan gets, she faces all this ridiculous resistance from an employee. It’s a moment that she reveals how the system is rigged, how it protects and enables predators. So, we made this super slow zoom, showing how her world slows down, shrinks, her possibilities close.
We tried to understand what each phone call brought to the film, how it advanced or stalled the investigation, how it affected our characters emotionally. Once we clarify this conceptually, we may find ways to help support that concept visually.
Movie director: Did you sort everything out in advance with Maria Schrader?
Braier: We met on the phone. She wanted to hear my approach, to get a feel for my instincts. It was a good conversation, about three hours. We both knew that the big challenge was to have a camera that was respectful, observational, humble, in service of a script that was pure dialogue; a camera that listens, respectfully, as reporters listened to survivors. At the same time trying to bring emotion to the camera in a subtle way, finding a connection with the characters.
The Times the building was closed at the time due to COVID. They had planned to reopen on September 1, after a month of renovations. We had to prepare very, very quickly to get in and out of there in the time they were giving us. Also, Maria’s visa was delayed. She got there about six weeks before she started and she had, I think, 70 actors to cast. With all the work we had to do, we really couldn’t spend time together like you normally would figuring out shots, watching movies together, throwing ideas around. It was a short and intense preparation.
Movie director: How did this affect your shotlists and storyboards?
Braier: We would discuss what was really necessary to prepare. For the rest, we would be talking conceptually. I made notes on what was important to Maria for each scene, where she positioned herself as a director. We had strong core concepts to work from on shooting day.
We were really planning as we went along. We had time to storyboard maybe the first two or three days at the Times. Each night, when we finished, Maria, the first AD and I worked another two hours going over the next day’s scenes, imagining the shots. It was a very intense two weeks to get everything we needed there. During that process, we discovered the language of film together. Let the actors lead the camera movements. Try to feel invisible, be an observer, a listener. Find that fine line of respectful distance and, at the same time, emotional connection. Our rules grew organically and we used them for the rest of the movie after the Times Material. We had many locations, almost a new one every day. We had time to photograph some of them while scouting, but for others we didn’t have a firm plan on how we were going to cover them until we started trying. But we had the communication that we had built during the Times stuff you can rely on.
Movie director: You’ve designed long runs through the newsroom that must have required a lot of planning.
Braier: Yes they did. All at Times it needed very precise planning, which we only had time to do the night before. We couldn’t sort things out on the day of shooting because we didn’t have time. Every day we had seven or eight scenes. We had to be very smart about the time: “Okay, we have ninety minutes to shoot this scene. How do we do it? We choreograph it in one shot. We move the characters so that everyone can be seen at the right time. This way we don’t have to turn the cover. It was really intense. There was no room to think about the day, we had to know in advance.
Movie director: What do you think Schrader wanted from you?
Braier: Visually, I think the main challenge of the film was to go unnoticed. Whatever I wore had to be invisible. I had to try to disappear into the work, make it look as real and documentary as possible. I wanted the camera to be a window through which you look at something that doesn’t feel too manipulated or cinematic. I’ve been thinking a lot about Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries. I guess I brought the ability to find out where that window is. Sculpt it, make sure it opens in the right place so the audience doesn’t notice the filmmakers.
Movie director: It’s also a window that needs to be attuned to the often awful things that are happening.
Braier: On the one hand, you have a philosophy of where to put the camera, but as a human being you are concerned about being respectful to people who may be very vulnerable. We’ve had survivors playing roles, sometimes playing themselves. Artists had to go to emotionally stimulating places, such as when they deliver testimonials. You have to find ways of doing things that are not intrusive, that allow the actors not to worry about the camera and the lights and the crew, to feel safe, forgetting that we are there.
Some days on set were very busy, very heavy. We would have goosebumps watching someone deliver a testimony. It was moving and, at times, triggering. There is something very powerful about witnessing the moment people are able to own their voice and tell their story. There is a healing process that takes place in the act of speaking and being listened to. I wanted the camera to be a good listener, to give them space. I guess I’m drawn to projects that have this kind of, I don’t know, psychological catharsis or something.
Movie director: It’s fascinating how you drift in and out of conversations. I can think of three instances – with Jennifer Ehle on the beach, Samantha Morton in a London café and Ashley Judd at home – where the camera pulls us into these incredibly moving moments.
Braier: We had an interview system that used two cameras to protect the actors. They just couldn’t repeat these scenes over and over again. We have two sizes on the cameras, a long shot and a medium shot. Take a couple of takes so they can warm up, then get closer. We didn’t have much time so that was the protocol.
I couldn’t travel to Europe at the time due to visa reasons, so the London scene with Samantha was [shot] by Thomas Townsend, a cinematographer I really admire in the UK. I sent him all the footage from the other scenes from our interviews. He saw our approach and followed it exactly: same lenses, similar distances, same philosophy. He did such an amazing job that every time I watch, I forget I didn’t shoot that scene, because it’s so perfect.
We shot Jennifer’s scene in Long Beach. We were very lucky it was an overcast day so it felt like England, really lucky, because we were shooting two cameras. No lights—the only thing we used was a big, floppy flag just out of shot above Jenny’s face, so Zoe wouldn’t have to squint at her.
Movie director: For Ashley Judd’s scene, you have the camera outside the window of her house, which makes a lot of sense psychologically.
Braier: For that location we could work from many photos, from many angles. When Maria arrived, we picked out angles that I put on my iPad photo board. We started that scene with a very wide shot inside her house, behind her, so that it was a silhouette. There is a corridor between Ashley and the camera. Then we go out through the glass. Ashley’s scene was one of the last things we shot. It was very moving. It was so fundamental, so instrumental to the story.
Movie director: I’m curious how you handled all the phone and computer screens.
Braier: We have taken some phones live. Computer screens at Times, we had a team trying to replace content on every screen. At times, for a very small percentage, we used green screen.
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