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Interview: Cinematographer Ashley Connor discusses her work on two of the best films of 2018.

Written by: Fiona Underhill, CC2K Staff Writer


Two of the best films of 2018 share the same director of photography: Madeline’s Madeline (directed by Josephine Decker) and The Miseducation of Cameron Post (directed by Desiree Akhavan) — both share young women protagonists, but the similarities pretty much end there. They have strikingly different visual styles, proving the versatility of cinematographer Ashley Connor. Connor has worked with Decker on several of her previous works, but Cameron Post is a first-time collaboration with Akhavan on what is only her second feature. Madeline’s Madeline is a stunning exploration of the psyche of a young drama student, with the boundaries between reality and fiction broken down and the differences between the character she is playing and her own mental state become increasingly blurred. It is one of my top ten favorite films from 2018, features an astonishing central performance from Helena Howard, and contains imagery that will linger with you long after viewing, thanks to Connor’s distinctive presentation. Howard and Connor have both been nominated for Independent Spirit Awards, and deservedly so. The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a much more naturalistic character piece which focuses on a lesbian teenager (played by Chloë Grace Moretz) being sent away to a Christian “camp” to be “converted.” Like with Madeline, this film really centers in on the protagonist and locks itself to her point of view, with the other characters circling around them. Cameron Post was the closing night gala film at Outfest LA, where it received its world premiere.

Madeline’s Madeline

The first shot of the film establishes a woozy, blurry style from the beginning. I want to ask you about your visual style, how you and Decker decided on it and what your influences were for it?

It’s a technique that I’ve been developing since college, it’s something I’ve been playing with in my own personal work. Josephine and I had collaborated on two previous features and sort of established a style that privileges abstraction and different uses of the focal plane. So, for this movie, I’d been sitting on a certain technique and when we were approaching Madeline’s Madeline, we asked ourselves how we could push form a little bit more and build upon principles that we’d worked on on the first two movies. They had a kind of look where I knew I could bend and melt the image a little bit.

You mentioned abstraction there, I wondered if there were any influences from the world of art, perhaps impressionism?

I’m a big fan of filmmakers like Ruth Conner and I shared her work with Josephine. There were aspects of different abstraction, that focuses on spaces, technologies — optical printing technologies and in-camera effects. But at the heart of it, we knew it had to be connected to the story because “artsy for the sake of being artsy” matters little. So when we knew this was really about the interior world of a young girl going through kind of a mental break of sorts, then we knew we could add this in, as we get more and more into her perspective.

Speaking of perspective, I was wondering how you went about doing the point-of-view shots, for example when you’ve got people looking down at Madeline. How did you technically achieve that?

Josephine is not really a director who likes to work from a shot list, she likes things to be exciting and off-the-cuff and so our approach to coverage is very different than most movies. We would discuss what the theme would be and how to frame it and ways of making the camera feel the emotional sub-text, as opposed to just seeing it. That was our goal. With the point-of-view stuff, we definitely wanted you to feel her interior world.

How did you find working in the theatrical space itself with the stage lighting?

It benefited us greatly because our budget was so low that my gaffer (Danny April) — he and I had to develop lighting schemes that meant we had the most amount of flexibility with the actors, so they felt free to move in whatever way that wanted to. The stage lighting was great because we could use it as practical, we could build out from the pre-existing diagram that they had in the space. But it was really about, because there is no solid blocking of the actors, it really benefited us to have almost 360 — to have the most flexibility in coverage.

The finale is about twenty minutes long and in what I can imagine was an extremely challenging space because it’s a multi-storey house. Can you tell me how long that took to shoot and what the technical challenges involved were?

I think that’s a 12-15 page scene, maybe even 18 pages? But we had to do it in two days. So the house has many levels and we had to do almost a full walk-through of the events, so that’s how we approached it – we were climbing up as the actors are performing. The exterior shot is not shot at the house, so we always knew we had to build this up to a space break, I guess.

That street scene right at the end – I love the use of long shadows in that sequence, the light is so beautiful. Did you use a crane at all? How did you shoot that?

We had a gib. Again, it was very low budget, so that was the one specialty piece of gear we could get. I wish I had a better answer but the reality is, you work with what you can get. So it was really about designing shots that highlighted and leaned into what the day was already looking like. For us, that happened to be more direct sunlight and so it was really about making the body more architectural with the light.

 

The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Similarly to Madeline, you’re very much focusing on Cameron’s point-of-view, her perspective throughout. How did you go about focusing on her as the protagonist?

Well Cameron Post is very different — very different-looking and we approached it very differently to Madeline. Josephine is a director who privileges all of the chaos theory of immersive filmmaking and Desiree is a very performance-based director. It was very much about the acting, it was very much about being with Cameron and experiencing the camp with her. But also not really projecting onto what that meant too much because it was really about viewing this world as objectively as you could and really the beauty of Cameron Post is that it could really have been about any of those kids in the camp. We picked one person so it was really about honoring all of the side characters as well and their stories. The movie’s palette is very much beige, almost neutral tones and the blues, so it was really about making the space feel like an institution.

I liked the contrast between the interior and exterior world at the camp, so when the kids go out hiking you’ve got a sense of the wild and the free, which contrasts with somewhere like Dr. Marsh’s office. How did you go about deciding on those two atmospheres of those two contrasting spaces?

Well, we wanted when the kids go out in nature to feel more free and to include more color and kind of have a levity to it. We privileged hand-held a lot more in those scenes. It was really about reminding the audience that these are just kids who would like to live more normal lives than being kind of locked up. It was definitely a conscious choice to make whenever they went out in nature to feel different than anything that happened at the camp.

How did that amazing location and also the era of 1993 inform your choices?

Well we always knew it was period piece obviously but we didn’t want to make it too grounded in a space and define things too much because the story is still very relevant to today, especially with these types of camps that are still not banned. So that was kind of a conscious choice to not really to define the space too much or the location, because it could be anywhere. The camp – we scouted so many places, really were looking for the bones of a location that kind of takes you out of time. That was an old Austrian themed hotel that was in upstate New York and the cast and crew, we all lived and stayed and ate on that property. So it kind of felt like its own version of camp while making the movie.

Thank you to Ashley Connor for speaking with CC2K and Good Luck at the Independent Spirit Awards!

Author: Fiona Underhill, CC2K Staff Writer

Brit living in Southern California.
Former teacher of Media and Film Studies.
Current film writer for jumpcutonline.com, moviejawn.com and others.

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