Out of all the performances I saw in 2017, my very favorite was delivered by Haley Lu Richardson in “Columbus,” the brilliant directorial debut of ace video essayist Kogonada. As Casey, a young woman living at home with her mother (Michelle Forbes) in the titular Indiana town, Richardson’s face radiates a wealth of bittersweet emotions. The pivotal sequences in the film center on her conversations with Jin (John Cho), the visiting son of a revered architect who has fallen into a coma. Kogonada melds the hypnotic visuals of Yasujirō Ozu with the philosophical wit of Richard Linklater in this extraordinary picture, a masterwork that reveals new depths with every subsequent viewing.
Though we are only five months into 2018, I doubt I will see a performance this year that will move me more than Peyton Kennedy’s portrayal of Kate, a teen coming to terms with her sexuality in the ’90s-set Netflix series, “Everything Sucks!” The sequence where she attends a Tori Amos concert and spots two women in the crowd unapologetically embracing each other—affirming for Kate that her orientation is no anomaly—is one of the most sublimely crafted epiphanies in television history. What is the similarity between these astonishing star turns from Richardson and Kennedy? They were both lensed by Elisha Christian, a cinematographer who is quickly proving to be one of the best in the business.
It was impossible to watch “Columbus” at last month’s Ebertfest in Champaign, Illinois, without being overwhelmed by Christian’s meticulously crafted compositions. I had the honor of joining festival director Nate Kohn in moderating the post-screening Q&A with Kogonada and producers Danielle Renfrew Behrens, Bill & Ruth Ann Harnisch and Andrew Miano. Fresh off his richly deserved Film Independent Spirit Award nomination for his cinematography in “Columbus,” Christian took time to chat with me about these two acclaimed projects, as well as the short he made that impressed Kogonada and his thoughts regarding the largely uncharted realm of VR.
Seeing “Columbus” on the enormous screen of the Virginia Theatre at Ebertfest was a thrilling experience. The film received such an enthusiastic response from the audience.
I am so happy that it’s still finding an audience. I connected with the script right away, yet I wondered how many people would react the same way. I credit Kogonada for taking what could have been a formal exercise and infusing it with heart. The scene where Haley starts crying outside the bank at night, as she starts talking about her mom’s meth addiction—that is really the hook. If you haven’t been drawn into the film at that point, you never will. But if you have, that’s the scene that grabs you.
You are so skilled at bringing out a sense of the characters’ inner lives in how you lens their faces. What makes for an effective close-up?
The decision of when to go in for a close-up is story-dependent. When we were going into prep on “Columbus,” Kogonada wanted to avoid close-ups. He wanted to be strict about using only medium and wide shots. My take was that there were going to be a couple moments—not a lot—where you’ll want to be up close with the character and use the impact of those shots to connect with them. I liked the idea of relating the surrounding architecture to the architecture of the human face. I love portrait photography, and I look at close-ups as my chance to really shape the person’s face. Of course, it is not just lighting, but angle, composition, and focal length are all huge factors in the impact of the shot.
Some of the most beautiful close-ups I’ve ever seen in a film are of Haley Lu Richardson simply looking—being receptive to what is before her. Would you say that Casey’s connection to architecture reflects your own connection to cinema?
Yeah, a little bit. I definitely have a connection to cinema and architecture, specifically mid-century. Kogonada’s depth of film knowledge is so vast that I really learned a lot just from talking with him about different films and filmmakers that he connected with. Kogonada has spoken about how architecture and cinema mirror one another, which I think was something personal for him.
One close-up that took my breath away while seeing it at Ebertfest was the shot where Casey closes her eyes, allowing the surrounding nature to overtake her senses.
We wanted to match cut, going from Casey to the bank and then back to the same framing of Casey, but now she’s at the hospital. You initially think that you’re still in the same spot because it’s the same lens, the same distance and the same framing, but you realize that you’re in a new place. That moment is all about her face, and Haley conveys so much without saying a word.
The shots in “Columbus” that view the same spaces at different times of the day—with and without people—reminded me of Kogonada’s video essay on Ozu and the transitory nature of modern life.
One of the themes of “Columbus” was absence and presence, which is why Kogonada wanted to show these spaces without people in them. For nearly every shot in the movie, we shot a version that included the actors, and then we shot a plate with the actors removed, just lingering on that empty space. Kogonada wanted every frame in the movie to be beautiful, regardless of whether the actors were present. It’s as if we were shooting a plate for VFX, but the “background” is the subject. It’s a unique approach, but it’s satisfying because it turns the standard approach on its head. There is a specificity of composition that really works because of the subject matter.
In what other particular ways did you go about using absence as a formal device?
We would find ways of letting the frame breathe, such as framing for the architecture rather than the actors. That’s one of the reasons why we chose the aspect ratio 1.85:1 as opposed to 2.40:1. We went back and forth quite a bit in prep just looking at different locations, and seeing which ratio would work better with the architecture.
Another thing that Kogonada was adamant about was that camera moves would be rare and deliberate. We basically limited ourselves to lock-offs for almost everything and if we moved the camera, there had to be a really good reason. We would often live in these very wide shots where the characters would have room to move around in static frames rather than the camera panning with the action.
For every project, I think making those rules in prep is very important. Some are dictated by budget, and some are fueled by the way that you want to tell the story. Making that box for yourself to live in just helps to define the language of the project. Having those guidelines in place is really important, but there can be times when you intentionally break the rules for impact.
A memorable instance of the camera moving in “Columbus” occurs during Jin and Casey’s first interaction, as they walk together with a fence in between them. I love how they reach the open gate precisely after they have introduced themselves.
If I’m remembering it correctly, that scene was originally going to play out with them standing on opposite sides of the fence. It was a static scene where they’d talk and share a cigarette. One of the producers, Ki Jin Kim, is also a DP, and he would join Kogonada and me on director’s scouts. Some scenes revealed themselves right away, but this particular scene was one that we kept going back and forth on in terms of approach. It was a really important moment, but we didn’t want to force anything. It just didn’t feel right to be static on either side of the fence because that would have necessitated more standard coverage, cutting back and forth between the characters.
We were searching for a way to shoot it all in one take. There was an Antonioni influence in the long, long tracking shot that we created. I think we laid about 120 feet of dolly track, which was all we had on the truck. [laughs] We shot quite a few takes of the scene, just working out the timing. Getting the actors to that gate at the right time was kind of tricky, but John and Haley were really good about trying different things and working out timing with the camera.
When Casey says that she saw Jin at the hospital, I realized that in an earlier shot, we saw him enter the building from her point of view. We entered her headspace in that moment without realizing it.
Yes! After we show Casey’s POV of the bank and we cut back to her looking at it, then we cut to her outside the hospital. That shot of the car driving up and dropping off Jin at the building is again from Casey’s perspective. As a general rule we avoided doing any over-the-shoulder shots, leaving the perspective more subjective. We see this guy enter the hospital, but the camera never gets close. It’s one of those instances where if you’re not paying attention, you might miss it. It was very much a creative choice on Kogonada’s part to stay in that wide shot, rather than to go in closer on Jin.
It was interesting to learn Kogonada’s particular style and what he would be drawn to. We’d be setting up a wide shot and he’d be fixated on the placement of a certain object in the frame, or the way the light would hit the set. In the shot early on when Casey comes into the library and sits with Rory Culkin’s character, Gabriel, we had a light coming in through the back window that created a sheen along the rows of books. Kogonada thought it was too much because it diluted the books of their pastel color. We had to work to flag off the light from the row of books so we could bring those pastels back. He has a very meticulous eye and a specific sensibility, but he is also a great collaborator.
How did you and Kogonada develop the extraordinary shot of Jin and Eleanor (Parker Posey), framing them in a mirror in a way that gives us a sense of their history? We feel as if we are peering into a reflection of their past.
That scene took place in the same inn where Jin was staying. There were only four or five guest rooms in the whole inn, and we had our pick of which room we wanted to shoot in. That location is so visually interesting — you could shoot a whole movie there. When we saw the mirrors, we knew where we wanted to place the camera, though my AC couldn’t even stand next to it to pull focus. She had to sit underneath the camera while reaching up above her head to pull focus because the space was so slim. We even had to pull everything off the sides of the camera in order to fit in that tiny area without catching it in a reflection.
We saw that if John walks out and stops at a certain point after Eleanor basically kicks him out, he could turn back to her and we’d be able to frame them both in an interesting way. It was definitely a dance. I remember that we were running behind that night. It took a while to set up the shot and get it ready, and we probably shot about 7 or 8 takes of it. We had two other shots planned in the scene, but when we got the take that Kogonada wanted, he said, “We don’t need the other shots.” That’s a ballsy decision, considering the length of the scene. It’s decisions like these that made the movie better.
You also shot additional photography for cinematographer Tim Suhrstedt (“Little Miss Sunshine”) on “Lucky,” another film where the landscape and the town have an almost spiritual connection to the central character.
I actually interviewed to shoot “Lucky.” I read the scripts for that film and “Columbus” back to back, and I loved them both. I’m a huge Harry Dean Stanton fan, and I thought that the script was such a beautiful love letter to him that I wanted to be a part of it. Tim was very generous and helped get me up to speed. I only shot a very small amount — mostly establishing shots.
It was crazy to read those scripts in such a short time period because they are both so unique, and both films also happen to be produced by Danielle Renfrew Behrens. She recommended me for both of those films before we had even met, though we had a few mutual friends, including Mike Mohan.
Let’s chat about Michael Mohan, the co-creator of “Everything Sucks!”, who has been one of your longtime collaborators.
Mike and I met in college, and we were roommates during our senior year. I shot his thesis film, and since then he and I have collaborated on most of his projects. He’s one of the most prolific creators I’ve ever met, and he is a such a talented writer/director.
In your and Michael’s award-winning 2015 short film, “Pink Grapefruit,” there is a striking shot of two would-be lovers who appear to be undressing in front of each other, even though they happen to be in separate rooms. Later in the film, that shot is contrasted by a scene in which a couple undresses in the same room, though they might as well be in separate universes. Had Kogonada seen your ingenious approach to lensing locations in this film prior to hiring you for “Columbus”?
I really feel like “Pink Grapefruit” is what got me “Columbus.” Kogonada really responded to the composition in “Pink Grapefruit” and we connected over mid-century modern architecture and the photography of Julius Shulman. Anybody who tells you that shorts are a waste of time should talk to me. I’ve had great luck with shorts getting me other work or at least getting my name out there.
One of the hardest parts of making a short or shooting low-budget projects in general is affording locations, at least in and around LA. That house in the short was located in Palm Springs and Mike and his producers, Adam Hendricks, John Lang, and Greg Gilreath, went out there one weekend during the summer. As Mike sat in the pool, looking at those windows, the idea hatched from the contrast of those shots you mentioned. Those two frames are really what the short was constructed around. He and Chris Levitus wrote the short based on that location.
Just as Kogonada based “Columbus” on his experience visiting Columbus, Indiana.
Exactly. A week ahead of production, Mike and I went out to the house, and we spent the weekend photo boarding the short. The large windows lent to the voyeuristic nature of the short, which was really about contrasting the dissolution of a couple’s relationship with the coming together of these two strangers.
Though the central relationship in “Columbus” is not a romantic one, you nevertheless manage to conjure a sense of eroticism in certain shots, oftentimes when the characters are by themselves.
We learn that Jin had a crush on Eleanor years ago, and those feelings come to the surface in the mirror scene. Jin and Casey’s relationship never ventures into the physical territory, but I think there are times when the audience questions if they will. There’s a bit of misdirection happening, for example when Casey asks Jin if he wants to go to a party, the next scene opens with a series of abstract frames of what is revealed to be her dancing alone in an empty parking lot.
There is definitely an intimacy to some of the moments where the characters are by themselves, such as when Jin is alone in his dad’s hotel room or when Casey sits and looks at the bank at night.
I imagine the task of visually evoking the ’90s in “Everything Sucks!” was a blast.
It was a very different approach from “Columbus.” For the look of the show, we were going for the feel of 16mm reversal film. We wanted the camera to feel like someone in the room with the characters, and we always tried to play at eye level with the kids. While the camera remains planted, it was free to pan and zoom with the actors. It was more of a reactive style of shooting, meant to feel more spontaneous.
Another indelible scene about the transformative power of looking occurs in “Everything Sucks!”, though in this case, the epiphany is delivered not by what is being presented onstage but by what is observed in the audience. I’m curious how you and director Ry Russo-Young approached this sequence with Peyton Kennedy, whose work here is phenomenal.
That was a big day. We rigged and shot that whole concert sequence before lunch. We were up on the balcony of the Aladdin Theater in Portland, which was a really tight space. We brought all of the stage lights in that morning, and our excellent grip and electric team had to rig and program all of them in a very short amount of time.
The heart of the scene is that in seeing the young women kiss, Kate realizes that maybe being true to herself is actually a possibility. Ry knew the importance of that scene, and we worked to create an impactful, intimate moment. Of course, Peyton just brought it take after take.
We knew the concert was going to be intercut with the pool sequence of Ken and Sherry, and we designed the concert lighting to contrast with the ripple effect of the water.
It is in Kate’s story where we realize the very particular reason for setting the show in the ’90s, apart from its nostalgic value. Michael Mohan and Ben York Jones poignantly illustrated just how difficult it was to be closeted back then.
Definitely. In the opening of the first episode, there’s mention of President Clinton signing the Defense of Marriage Act. It’s really touching seeing how Kate’s storyline has resonated with adults who went through that growing up, and kids who are going through that now.
Among the many impressive credits in your filmography is your work as a camera operator on Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Carne y Arena,” a virtual reality short that places viewers in the body of a refugee and earned an honorary Oscar.
I have some virtual camera and motion capture operating experience, and I was one of several camera operators on that project. I worked on the studio portion of “Carne y Arena,” and it was inspiring to be on set with Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki.
Do you see VR as a separate art form, or do you believe it will eventually merge with cinema?
I’ve done a couple of commercials recently that incorporated VR with live action. Some friends are developing a narrative VR project and we’ve had discussions about how to direct the viewer’s attention in a 360 degree environment where the viewer can “wander off.” Cinematography is so much about composition, and with VR, composition sort of goes out the window. That being said, I think VR is an interesting space to explore.