Writer/director Miranda July, whose debut feature “Me and You and Everyone We Know” was a
favorite this year, started her career as a performance artist in Portland, Oregon. There, July took to the stage as a one-woman band, frequently interacting live with pre-taped video of herself in much the same way her character does in this film. (In addition to writing and directing “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” she stars in the film as well.)
July received a lot of attention for her script, which interweaves a series of stories—a quirky performance artist pursues a recently divorced shoe salesman, a 6-year-old boy has a chat room flirtation with an unwitting middle-aged woman, a pair of teenage girls decides to test their sexual prowess on a willing neighbor, an old widower meets and falls in love with a woman in his retirement home—using the theme of loneliness to tie the loose ends together. She worked hard to craft the material and had specific ideas about how it should be realized. But when it came time for her feature debut as a director, she knew she’d have to surround herself with some experienced filmmakers, and that’s where cinematographer Chuy Chávez came in.
Chávez met July through director Miguel Arteta, for whom the cinematographer had shot the films “Chuck and Buck” and “Star Maps.” Chávez had worked with quite a few first-time directors and was experienced in a wide assortment of film and video formats. It was clear early on that film—35mm or even 16mm—would be out of the question for “Me and You and Everyone We Know;” the story called for a number of long scenes with children, and July didn’t want to have to be stingy with the stock. “I got famous for not cutting,” she says. “I’d just say, ‘Still rolling, go back!’ over and over. Just getting the scene to work took time. Even with adults, you say ‘cut’ and everybody leaves to go get a soda. I just didn’t want to work that way.”
July explains that she didn’t have a burning need to use film anyway. “I’m of the generation where I took one film class and made a Super 8 film and then abandoned the farce and did everything on video,” the 31-year-old says of her short-lived stay at UC Santa Cruz in the early ‘90s. She quickly dropped out and acquired most of her ideas about filmmaking on her own. “I’ve grown up using video and I’m totally comfortable in this medium,” she adds. “I never thought of it as second best.”
Chávez had shot plenty of film and Mini DV, and he’d also used one of the first Panasonic VariCams to shoot a documentary in Cuba. He was very pleased with that format and its variable frame rate. Producers wanted to go with the Sony CineAlta camera for this show, and he was only too happy to get a chance to learn the ins and outs of that system as well.
His preference whenever digital post is involved is to shoot relatively clean images with a lot of information and then fine-tune the color and contrast during the tape-to-tape. This process lets him move faster and work more flexibly during the photography and perfect his look in the less-harried environment of a post suite. “I like contrast in my images,” he says, “but I like to work on that later. I prefer to capture more details in my highlights and shadows and later I can fix them or [clip them] if I like.”
Likewise, Chávez avoids using much filtration either on the lights or the lens, preferring to capture scenes with a more neutral look that can subsequently be refined. “In the past I’d use [gels] on the lights or filters on the lens to give the scene a very specific look, but then they’d edit the film differently from the way it was originally intended and I’d be in trouble because the look is already there and it can’t be changed. So sometimes I feel it’s better to keep it clean during shooting.”
Chávez used a Fujinon zoom on the camera throughout the shoot. “We had no budget for prime lenses,” he explains. “But in one way it was better to always use the zoom, especially with the kids, to be always ready to shoot. Miranda could talk with them and we could just start rolling without ever having to change lenses.”
“Very few 6-year-olds are experienced actors,” adds July. “The kids all came through auditions and agents and they’ve been on a set of some kind or another, but we had to be spontaneous. I didn’t do a ton of rehearsing. It’s more like I don’t stop until I get what I want, and I’m incredibly picky, so we had to be able to work fast when the moment was right.”
But it was the more experienced actors that gave July the most concern initially. “I wrote the script and I’m in it,” she says, “so my sense of how it should be isn’t wide open. I’d made some short movies with kids in them and I was comfortable with them. In some ways the bigger challenge was working with the really experienced actors and trusting that they were going to be as open to me, which generally they were.”
Chávez made as much use of existing light as possible, in part because the budget was small and the 24-day schedule tight, but those were not the only reasons. “The more I know about cinematography,” he says, “the less lighting I use. For a lot of interiors, I used just one tiny light—a 1K Riffa light, which gives a very soft light—and very low-wattage practicals, 50- or 75-watt bulbs in lamps on the set. Then maybe I would use a 1K HMI PAR through the window, but not that often. For day exteriors, I would put ND and Polascreen filters on the lens so I could still open up, and I’d try to cover up some of the direct sunlight and use a lot of bounced light. A lot of the lighting for the day exteriors was really about trying to find the right moment in the day to shoot.”
Different shows, the cinematographer is quick to point out, have different concerns. “I recently shot a big 35mm feature in Oregon,” he recalls, “and you think differently in those circumstances. There, if the sun wasn’t doing what I’d hoped, maybe I’d add a 12K and fix the problem. But we didn’t have much equipment at all [on Me and You]. One of the scenes I really like in ‘Me and You’ is with the old people and the sun hits a bed in the room just perfectly. I didn’t make that light; we waited for it.”
Chávez grew up in a world of image making. His father, Gregory Chávez, was a cinematographer on a number of Mexican feature films, and the younger Chávez shot and printed black-and-white stills from early childhood and studied painting before devoting himself to cinematography. He continues to bring lessons from these earlier endeavors to his work today. “Sometimes you see a scene like a still photographer does,” he says, “and it is lit naturally and the beauty is right there. Then you need an eye to find these things. Other times you need to be more like a painter and create the whole thing—the color and the light and everything. And sometimes you do a little of both.”
“Me and You,” he says, fits into that last category. He was able to compensate for minimal control over the lighting with good, productive sessions in the da Vinci suite for the final correct. “I love to be able to put windows around part of the scene and just make something lighter or darker or defocus a portion of the frame,” he says.
“If it was a big feature on film,” Chávez concludes, “and I wanted to darken the scene a little behind a close-up, I would take the time to put a flag in or change the light to get the look right on the film. But in this kind of picture, you don’t have a lot of time to do that—but you can get a similar effect in post. It’s always important for a cinematographer to know how make the most of all different types of situations.”