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HomeCraftsCameraMay December Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt Doesn't Hand-Feed The Audience

May December Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt Doesn’t Hand-Feed The Audience


A scene from May December (Credit: Netflix)

A Hollywood actress descends on a Savannah suburb to research her latest role in director Todd Haynes’ May December. Starring Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore, the movie is currently streaming on Netflix.

Loosely based on a real-life case involving Mary Kay Letourneau’s sexual relationship with a teenager, May December mixes melodrama with humor in depicting a world overrun with reality gossip. Portman’s Hollywood star Elizabeth and Moore’s housewife Gracie circle each other warily, each changing in ways they can’t predict. The people around them — especially Gracie’s husband Joe (Charles Melton) — also find their lives changed.

Along with frequent collaborators like Moore, producer Christine Vachon, and Editor Affonso Gonçalves, Haynes worked on May December with Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt. With a limited schedule of 23 days, they took what Blauvelt called a “minimalist” approach, shooting with an Alexa 65, Planar Kowa lenses, and Schneider Radiant Soft filtration.

Blauvelt spoke with Below the Line via Zoom.

Below the Line: Can you talk about how you collaborated with Todd Haynes?

Christopher Blauvelt: Todd sent me the script and his look book, which was extensive and beautiful, and his film references, including a lot of Bergman. We watched Persona and Winter Light. I’ve heard him say that one of the reasons he took this script was that he wanted a chance to do the direct address that he saw in Winter Light.

Todd took the score from the film The Go-Between and had reinterpreted it into this film, which I found incredible. He came with a lot of ideas. So our collaboration started with talks to get up to speed with what he had in mind. Then checking the locations with executive producer Jonathan Montepare and production designer Sam Lisenco, adapting those environments to Todd’s initial ideas. Then every night during the course of prep we would shot list.

BTL: Haynes brings such strong visual ideas to his films. I’m curious what he expected from you.

Blauvelt: I think it was to understand the minimalist approach he wanted to take, how to give an authentic representation of what these characters were going through. And with our short schedule, we designed everything to be the simplest way to show a particular scene, with minimal coverage.

BTL: Does that mean you don’t shoot masters?

Blauvelt: What I mean is that we were looking for angles that could include as much as possible in a single shot. Not a lot of shot, reverse shot, cover, go for closeups. We would definitely shoot masters, and I think sometimes they would inform another way for us to get a whole scene in three shots.

Once we break down exactly what the purpose of any particular scene is, understanding the essence of the scene, we go to work on how to film that in the least amount of shots.

We blocked by letting the actors do their thing while Todd and I would have ideas of which direction to shoot or what we wanted to see in any particular moment. We might shift things here and there to let the frame encompass more information.

That way you’re avoiding having someone leave a frame and thinking that you have to go there for another shot. Sometimes we’d just let them leave frame and come back. I really appreciated Todd’s confidence and sophistication in what he shows the audience.

A scene from May December (Credit: Netflix)

BTL: So is the minimalist approach making a statement about the characters and their actions, their emotions?

Blauvelt: Less a statement and more letting them tell the story. Almost staying out of the way is how I think about it. Sometimes I think the closest to authentic is a camera in a room that doesn’t ever cut.

That means you’re watching a scene play out and you’re not forcing the audience to think about a closeup, an insert. You’re not hand-feeding the audience. It gives the actors the environment to tell the story, as opposed to forcing meaning in a camera move or additional shot to sell whatever point you want to make.

BTL: But you as the cinematographer still need to make choices. You have these two-shots of Moore and Portman in profile, and the focus, the depth of field are all conscious choices on your part.

Blauvelt: Saying something is minimal is not saying choices aren’t being made. You start with the blocking. Then we figure out the shot we’re after to let the actors tell the story. When it came to focus, that’s something Todd would trust me and the camera team about.

My team was super on board with this approach. If we had a question about focus on someone or something, we would have a conversation, or maybe not. Sometimes everyone just got it.

Sometimes my focus puller Laura Thompson would ask, “What do you think I should do here?” Then we’d have a conversation with Todd, because I might have my perception but every single thing is subjective, you know?

There are a million decisions. Our legendary camera operator, Paul Atkins, had to get on board with the way Todd and I didn’t want to tilt. If we moved, it should only be one axis at a time. That minimalist approach we were taking applied to panning and moving the camera as well.

BTL: How much did reality TV influence what you were doing?

Blauvelt: I’m not sure “influence” is the right word. That whole landscape is part of our world now.

One overt influence is the moment Joe and Gracie are in bed and he’s talking about how he may have been too young to be making decisions. I think some of Gracie’s dialogue there was influenced by a real Mary Kay Letourneau interview.

But with regards to how we told our story, it wasn’t like we were using camera language that would come from that world.

BTL: Here’s the difference to me. You have a scene where Joe’s taking the trash out to a garbage can. It’s a moment that you would see on TMZ or Extra, but you’re shooting it in a way that’s more realistic, more intimate.

Blauvelt: We tried to portray these characters in a way that would put the viewer in an intimate space with their reality.

A scene from May December (Credit: Netflix)

BTL: Can you talk about that amazing scene where Portman’s Elizabeth is telling a class of high-schoolers how she shoots her sex scenes? What did that scene require? 

Blauvelt: That was one of the days we used multiple cameras because there were so many different perspectives we wanted to cover. Everything else was mostly one camera.

BTL: It’s an uncomfortable scene that goes very weird, and I’m wondering how you worked with Portman for that long push in on her face.

Blauvelt: Zooms were a sort of through line during the whole film. Again, it’s Todd’s love for old cinema where zooms weren’t just variable primes, they were tools to enhance a moment. That shot seemed like a no-brainer. She’s getting erotic in front of a bunch of kids, so a zoom was the natural way for it to go.

BTL: Did you have to be at a certain frame at a certain point in her speech? Were you trying to hit beats?

Blauvelt: When we rehearsed it, we timed it out. But even from take to take, we would make an adjustment depending on where the zoom landed and where she landed. We were tweaking it in real time. Partly because we had created these rules for ourselves. One was to find reflections, because the whole movie is about mirroring, about Elizabeth trying to become Gracie.

It may sound off the cuff, like we just found it, and in a certain way we were. But we did the work in advance to make sure we were always ready to be able to adjust or tweak. That’s all in the planning. And knowing that we were always looking for specific things, like that zoom.

Todd would play that music on set for us, really loud. It was always so crazy to me. I never thought that it would land in the level that it landed. I thought he was just experimenting on set. Even shot listing, he had that music built into script cues. We’re writing a shot list, writing notes, and he’s like, “What, I’ve got a cue for this.”

Well, I was confused. I come from a sort of minimalistic, grounded-in-realism world of ideas. And Todd just starts maniacally laughing.

There was no way that you wouldn’t jump on board with that enthusiasm. But I do have to say, and I say it all the time, that I didn’t really know until the movie was done how he was sticking to that. It’s the mark of a very sophisticated and confident director. It makes our movie unique. I haven’t seen a movie with this kind of signature in a long time.

BTL: How did you do those extraordinary shots where Elizabeth and Gracie are supposed to be looking into a mirror?

Blauvelt: The one in the bathroom in Gracie’s house, the camera became the mirror. The hard part about that is where the eyelines go. They’re supposed to be sort of judging each other in the mirror, but in reality they couldn’t see themselves. We had to have very specific little marks so it looked to us like they were looking at each other.

For the restroom in the restaurant, we had a shot in the middle and then two angles. Again, the camera was the mirror. The only time in the film that a mirror’s playing a mirror is in the dress shop.

When Todd saw Winter Light, it really affected him. These mirror scenes became the perfect vehicle for him to explore that intimacy of having someone look right at the lens.

May December is now available to stream on Netflix. 

Daniel Eagan
Daniel Eagan
Daniel Eagan is a producer and writer living in New York City.
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