Writer-director-cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo was a Film Independent Documentary Lab Fellow with Rich Hill, the Sundance-winning doc about three young men growing up in a poverty-stricken Midwestern town. Palermo co-directed the film with his cousin Tracy Droz Tragos and was the film’s cinematographer. Palermo has also worked as a cinematographer for filmmakers like Hannah Fidell (A Teacher, 6 Years) and Kat Candler (Black Metal) and has shot several of his own short films and music videos.
For his first narrative feature as director, One & Two, Palermo brought on Autumn Durald (who shot Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto) as his director of photography. The film, about a brother and sister with supernatural abilities growing up in an oppressive environment, arrives in theaters and on VOD this Friday. We caught up with Palermo and discussed how he conceived of the film’s visuals and what it was like working with a cinematographer, while being one himself.
What was the process of designing the shots for this movie?
To begin with, I think a lot of it was dictated by the space. We are, of course, a very modest-to-low budget film and so we kind of needed to work with what we had. And it’s also important for me to do this when I DP for other directors. I really like to know the space before we start going crazy with shotlisting because you get all these ideas and then they don’t work. So we looked at the scene with the actors. I really like to let them block the scene with me and see what feels appropriate for their movements. And then Autumn and I would talk about where the camera should be. And obviously we have our limitations given the space and time, so we always wanted to do the language that felt best but was also the most efficient. This isn’t a very cut-y film. There’s not a ton of coverage. And I wanted to maximize my shots as much as I could, whereas some of the films I shoot which are sort of doc-style, we let [the actors or subjects] have the room and go crazy. But I wanted this to be very stately, very still and calm and feel classical in a lot of ways. So that also did give it sort of a language.
How long in advance of shooting did you have your location?
We got ours three or four weeks in advance. We didn’t have full access to it, but I could walk around with my DP and take some photos. Everybody works differently. I work with some directors who really, really like to plan and plan and plan. And then I’ve worked with some that don’t really like to do it at all. They just want me to follow the action and be more off-the-cuff. And I think I fall somewhere in between there as a director. And I think Autumn and I work well together in that way. So we didn’t need to plan every single shot to the point that it was boring on set or that we weren’t finding little surprises. But at the same time, I think we had a pretty good understanding of what we were doing. We would shotlist the day before and by midway through the shoot, we knew exactly how we were shooting it. The AD would come to me and say, “What’s on our shotlist?” We’d write it all out quickly. Autumn would take a look at it. She’d agree or disagree about something. And then [the AD would] set up the shotlist for the next day.
Were there ever storyboards?
We used storyboards for all of the bigger VFX pieces. For the climactic ending, we knew we would need to see something so that people could understand in the edit what was happening. And we found that it didn’t really help anyway. People were still like, “What the hell is this?” They were confused by the boards. And once we started getting drafts of the shots, even if it was on green screen, it made so much more sense to people.
I have a question about the visual effects: are you doing a shake in-camera when you’re on the kids and they teleport, or is that little shake done in post?
That came out during extensive testing. We shot a bunch of footage at Panavision, and I had a bunch of different ideas about things I wanted to do. I knew that I wanted [their powers] to affect the environment. That seemed very important to selling it from a visual effects standpoint. And affecting the environment would be just hitting the windows with some air so the curtains would blow or a candle would go out or a hair would blow. What we found was that if you also made it seem like the camera got hit by the implosion a little bit, it would make us feel it a little more. So that was done in post. That was just a little bit of camera shake that was added afterwards.
You’ve worked on features solely as a DP and you’ve also shot your own work. Why did you choose to hire a DP this time around and what was the process of working with Autumn?
I interviewed quite a few DPs that I really liked, which was great. I had a chance to meet a lot of people whose work I admire. And DPs don’t often get to meet each other because we’re on different sets so there’s very little overlap. But I met with Autumn and I’d seen a few music videos that she’d shot at that point—she hadn’t yet shot Palo Alto—and I just really liked her vibe. I think we got along well. She seemed very sensitive, and I really felt like she was hungry and was going to give me a lot, which I think is really important. You want to know that people aren’t just watching the clock and wanting to get out of there, that they really also want to make something great. And I think Autumn has that personal drive to really want to make stuff look amazing and serve the story.
And then as far as how it works for us, it was relatively easy. We agreed on most things. I was always happy with the frame she was giving me. I thought everything looked great and anytime we had a disagreement, I think we pushed each other to come out of each other’s comfort zones in ways that really helped the film. There were things that I might suggest to her that at the end of the day she’d say, “Oh, you were totally right about that.” And then vice versa, where I would say, “Oh, I totally did not anticipate that would be as good as it was.”
How far in advance of shooting did you and Autumn get together and how did you decide on the look?
I sent her a bunch of stuff really early on, like when I had the first draft. She was one of the first people attached to the movie. And I sent her a bunch of photos and I think she sent me a look book of photos. And I could tell that we were on the same page as far as influences. And I think officially, aside from just a casual drink, she started a month and a half in advance of the shoot. I would get her for maybe a day here or a day there. And, yeah, I’d show her clips and we’d talk about movies or maybe I’d loan her some movies that I thought she should watch. We met at her house a few times and my house a few times and probably a total of a week before she was on the ground in North Carolina. She was there for, I think, three weeks in advance of shooting.
What were some of the things in those look books?
I was really drawn to this movie, Glen and Randa. I don’t know how much visually we ended up doing, but something about the film—just the spirit of it—I thought it had a lot of interesting stuff going on. It’s really hard to find. I think it’s out of print, but it was an interesting film for me. We both really liked The Assassination of Jesse James. I think the lenses particularly in that are really beautiful because they’re old and soft and not really perfect, whereas lenses now are really concerned with perfection and that’s not what we cared about. We really wanted to have some warmth and softness. I liked this movie Kes a lot. I don’t know about photographically, but I just really felt that I was inside this kid’s head in a way that I think is pretty exceptional. I really love that film. Ordet was a film I really liked, the Carl Dreyer film. A lot of the feel of our production design [came from Ordet] and a lot of the still frames that he uses in that film, I think, are there [in our film], even if they were subconscious.
Was there anything that you were able to give to Autumn that you wish you got more from directors?
I think I could sense when what I was doing was starting to become repetitious. I don’t want to throw any directors under the bus, but allowing her to occasionally have freedom to express what I’m trying to express, but only with camera and imagery. I think [cinematographers] can do that for directors, but often they don’t let you. Not that they don’t let you, but there’s this scene and they have this dialogue that they love and… I was not concerned about dialogue at all in this movie and maybe to a fault. I was like, “I don’t really care. I want to know these people. And we don’t have to discuss the past.”
Were there any rules the two of you set for yourselves? The way you used light is very distinctive.
We didn’t necessarily have rules, but I think through discussing all of our interests, we knew the type of light that we wanted. We wanted that creamy, white light. I didn’t want the light to have color in it. I really wanted a clean, heavenly light. And at night, we wanted it to feel like when you’re out in really rural areas and it’s actually quite bright once your eyes adjust. And I think if you look at some of the best films that take place primarily at night, they’re really lit up, it’s just very stylized. And I think that was a language we were working with, but certainly not a rule.
I think if there was a rule, it was to avoid handheld at all costs. There are really only two scenes that we use it. In the scene where Elizabeth [Reaser] and Kiernan [Shipka] are chasing a chicken, that was just logistically we couldn’t plan where the chicken was going to go. But the film is almost entirely dolly, sticks or Steadicam. In one case I used a crane.
What was behind the decision not to use handheld?
Mainly, it was just something I thought spoke more to the way they lived, so controlled and methodical and chaste. All of our horizon lines were always perfect, the camera squared up and center-framed and I think that’s a matter of thinking back to their religion. I always see them as like a fringe Amish or Shaker community and a lot of that is very rigid and I think that was mainly the reason. It just spoke more to their world and what I was wanting to go after for them as characters.
Do you think you would ever shoot a feature yourself?
Potentially, but I think I would need to have a gaffer that I really loved and a camera operator that I liked because I think if I was directing I wouldn’t want to operate and when I shoot for people, I operate. That would be important. But having a DP frees you up to think about your script, think about your actors and focus on the other elements. I think I would spread myself too thin.
Tom Sveen / Film Independent Blogger