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Summer in the City: ‘Very Good Girls’ Captures Youth and Yearning in New York

Once inseparable BFFs Lilly (Dakota Fanning) and Gerry (Elizabeth Olsen) fight over the moody, mysterious David (Boyd Holbrook) in the coming-of-age story 'Very Good Girls.'

Once inseparable BFFs Lilly (Dakota Fanning) and Gerry (Elizabeth Olsen) fight over the moody, mysterious David (Boyd Holbrook) in the coming-of-age story Very Good Girls, the directorial debut of veteran screenwriter Naomi Foner (Running on Empty, Bee Season). Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski enjoyed shooting the modest, 21-day indie on the beaches and streets of New York—“my hometown,” he says.

Bukowski, who has always gravitated to smaller, more personal projects, often with newbie directors, had known Foner for many years before she asked him to shoot Very Good Girls. He feels she came to directing with a more complete sense of the job than the average first-timer: “Photographically, she knew what she wanted things to look like and relied on me to help translate those ideas into images.”

Bukowski shot using the ARRI Alexa, recording ProRes 4444 onto SxS cards. The native 1.78:1 frame was masked to 2.35:1. “We were looking for a pastel, soft, open look,” the cinematographer elaborates. “I used the older Panavision Ultra Speed Prime lenses that are quite beautiful and soft.”

He used Tiffen Glimmerglass filters in front of the lens. “I like the way it just helps smooth out the highlights. For night interiors, I frequently used a one-quarter [Tiffen] Black Pro-Mist on top of that.”

Best friends Lilly (Dakota Fanning) and Gerry
(Elizabeth Olsen), home for one last New York
summer, both fall for the same handsome artist
(Boyd Holbrook) in Very Good Girls.

Production took place in the midst of a particularly hot New York summer. “The nice thing about heat in New York is that it produces a haze. All that humidity brings so much inherent softness into the air,” the cinematographer says. “But the problem is highlights hang high in the sky and we wanted to always show how beautiful these girls are.”

With a bigger budget, he says, he would have had more control over the light through the use of large overhead “rags” to soften direct sunlight and/or big lights to fill in harsh shadows. “It might have helped to have a 12x or 20x to block some of the direct sunlight,” he says, “but we didn’t have the crew. And when you’re on a beach with a small crew and rags, the wind can catch them and it can be dangerous.”

So the production did as much as possible to avoid such situations. “We tried not to set the action outside in the bright sunlight,” he says. “Instead, we would try to use shadows from trees or houses. And we would shoot anything involving direct sunlight in the early or late part of the day, then do the wider shots in the direct, hot light of the afternoons.”

Dakota Fanning as Lilly.

Romantic portions of the film, particularly when Lilly visits David’s darkroom, represent the other end of the scale, with faces going several stops under key. “The world when she was with this guy is a little bit off the track for her and more mysterious,” says Bukowski. “It’s a place to introduce shadows into the film as Lilly explores that part of her life.”

For scenes like this Bukowski prefers to work with practical lamps that serve the set but are rigged with extra bulbs for increased control. His electrical team rigged the lamps with additional sockets, each on its own dimmer. “We’ll have one on top of the existing socket that we can aim up towards the ceiling, and another below, facing a table or desktop,” he elaborates. “It gives you a lot of different ways of using the light, both as a prop and a real light source.”

David and Lilly

The cinematographer also likes to use various ellipsoidal reflector lights (Leko style) because they give him a great deal of control even in relatively tight spaces. The beam can be spotted or flooded easily and light spill can be cut without having to use flags. “You can make the light very directional very quickly,” he says, noting that he can use the lights for a variety of purposes, from accenting an element of the shot to creating a very contained illumination source that can be bounced into the scene with a small card.

Despite the issues involved in shooting real locations, the filmmakers made sure to show the city’s diverse neighborhoods and impart the feeling of a true New York beach. “I think it definitely helped the film,” Bukowski says. “And it helped make the experience fun. It’s where I grew up and where I live. And I know it so well, with all its alleys and out-of-the-way places. I love that I can get on a bike myself and go location scouting.”