Discover more from Shadows and Dreams
'I have to fall in love with the people I am photographing'
Cinematographer Carolina Costa on the art and beauty of the landscape of the human face
Isabel Deroy-Olson as the free spirited Roki, and Lily Gladstone as her intrepid and confidence protector aunt in Fancy Dance, directed by Erica Tremblay. (Photo courtesy of the Sundance Film festival.)
As promised here is the second of a three-part series of recent interviews with filmmakers who had films at Sundance this year.
The second and third chapters, if you will, explore the art of cinematography, as practiced by two very gifted women filmmakers.
Carolina Costa is a filmmaker of the world. Born in Rio, she studied journalism and made documentary films. She trained in London, and now works on independent American films, throughout Mexico, or wherever the interesting work takes her.
She first caught my eye a couple of years ago with the sharp, persuasive work, Hala, by Minhail Baig , that premiered in the dramatic competition at Sundance four years ago.
Costa has made shorts, documentaries, and features.
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At Sundance, she photographed two radically different films: Fancy Dance, a US dramatic competition title and the first narrative feature of Erica Tremblay; Heroic, in the World Dramatic Competition, a second feature by the Mexican filmmaker David Zonana.
The two films illustrate her versatility and facility with imagery, color and tone.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Shadows and Dreams: At Sundance, you had two very different films. What do you look for in a director, and how do you decide whether you want to take a project on?
Carolina Costa: That's a really good question. I'm sure with my age and experience, things are changing this year. I want to look at it in a little bit different way, but I think there's something that has been similar, or at least at the core of my choices from the very beginning. One is that when I read a script, I have to relate to something or to the story or character in particular.
A lot of the time there are characters that have very different backgrounds from mine, or very different upbringings, but I have to understand the logic behind our actions. How they function, right, because I believe everybody is a result of the system around them. I have to understand what is that system that made that person in a way and then find a connection. I think a lot of the characters I'm into are not perfect ones. They are complicated ones, or maybe not the ones that you love. They make questionable choices.
I think those are the people that I connect with, because they feel really human and those are the people I see around the world, and I have to understand the logic, why they made their choices. Sometimes, if I don't find that, I have to be honest and say I don't think I'm the right person to be here. I’m not judging anyone. I still have to fall in love with the people that I'm photographing. If I can't find that path to understanding and empathy, then I'm not the right person to shoot it. That is probably the heart of my choices.
Director Erica Tremblay (left) and cinematographer Carolina Costa.
Shadows and Dreams: What was the attraction with Fancy Dreams?
Carolina Costa: With Fancy Dance, I felt like we hadn’t seen those characters on the screen before. I wanted to be part of, and support that. I read the script, and I thought this was a story I wanted to be a part of. When I met the director, Erica Tremblay, I wanted to see if I could be a good partner. On that first meeting, what’s my intuition saying? What's my experience saying, and do I feel like I can jump inside a director’s mind?
Just exchanging a look, and I know what they’re thinking. I think that's essential, and that very first interview, contact or meeting for me, that is really important for me to define. If I feel I can do that, I know I am the right person.
Shadows and Dreams: It’s a film about women, made by women. Did Erica Tremblay want a woman specifically for her cinematographer, or was that coincidental?
Carolina Costa: I am pretty sure she interviewed both men and women for the job. I was recommended to her, and the fact that I was a Latina woman—I'm also queer—I'm sure that all helped. She wanted to meet me. I don't think that's the reason she chose me.
I think what came down to it, with that interview, I think it was really clear the passion I had for the story. I think we connected, we have similar tastes and approaches to filmmaking. I think that was clear in our first thirty minutes of a conversation.
Shadows and Dreams: A lot of Fancy Pants is done on this unadorned, natural night. How did you conceptualize the visual look and design?
Carolina Costa: I think we really wanted to go with a naturalistic look, or I guess a cinematography that doesn't call attention to itself. That is usually what I tend to navigate towards. I think a lot came not just from our conversations previously, but also once we were in Tulsa and Oklahoma.
I think scouting is such a huge part of creating that grammar. I remember we were scouting on the reservation, and I realized there was no lighting at night. It was just pitch dark black around. I asked Erica, “Is this common? Do you have street lighting and the rest?” She said there wasn’t any in general.
We found the magic in it. I mean, we kind of took that information, at 9 o’clock at night, there were only a couple of lights, the porch light and stuff like that. It was like 110 degrees, just really hot and sweaty. I wanted it to be bright, hot and actually feel the murkiness of the landscape.
Shadows and Dreams: The other really interesting formal quality is the film has two very distinct parts, the coming of age story of the young girl. There is also the more serious, or probing part, about the search for the missing woman. How did you marry those two very distinct parts?
Carolina Costa: I think it's interesting, having these two sides of the story. On the 0ne hand, it’s about how the system doesn’t protect indigenous women. The other part is this beautiful friendship and kind of naughty, or transgressive actions. Like there is this con element of it, but it feels almost childish. I think naughty is a good word. You could shoot it one way or you could shoot another way. I think we're always, in every scene, asking whose perspective is this and where are they?
We’re basically looking at this story from scene to scene and being honest with the experiences of that character in that moment. I think the camera being loose and following the characters was a very playful element of the story. Everything is very precious, like the little frames. They didn't have true control of their lives, and the camera had to be free, be able to move a little more with the characters and stuff so everything kind of felt as a domino effect with that concept.
I think color wise, we went and really thought about that. Interestingly enough, a lot of times, blue represents the past, the cold, and in this sense blue represents the opposite. It’s the safe space, the moonlight, the reservation culture. I think we also used blue as a way of signifying a joyful moment, or this a dangerous moment right. I think color is a strong element that we use to separate these two worlds.
Shadows and Dreams: Do you have a particular kind of camera that you prefer to work with?
Carolina Costa: I think I usually work with Alexa just because it's a format that I know where I can push and pull. So that's kind of where our conversation started. My first thought when I read the script for the second time was to shoot it in large format. When Erica and I started having these conversations, she said, “Why does it make sense?” She was trying to get less from a technical perspective, and much more of an emotional reaction to the story, and how does that translate into the actual equipment.
We talked a lot about the way we framed the characters, especially these indigenous women being in the center of the frame, and still being able to see the world around them. That just made sense with the large format. We also had a small budget, so it wasn't like we had millions of options. The format had this beautiful rendition on the skin, and I think portraying this character's life through this lens just felt right. We did some testing three weeks before shooting, and Erica was happy.
Shadows and Dreams: Did you talk about other films, or look at anything as part of your preparation?
Carolina Costa: We talked about Andrea Arnold’s films, and her collaboration with Robert Ryan, the style the camera moves, and how they portray the characters, and the empathy through the lens. There’s also this Argentine photographer Alessandra Sanguinetti, whose photographs have these beautiful realistic elements.
She also has this series of photos that she photographed as two young women throughout the years. It's just really beautiful, but also situated in a magic realism. I think that's kind of what we're trying to capture. It doesn’t feel super stylized, but it has this element of magic in everyday life. And I think that was a big reference for us.
Shadows and Dreams: Do you oversee or do a lot of your own lighting?
Carolina Costa: I started in the camera department, in the UK, and then moved up to the second assistant. I shadowed this incredible gaffer in the UK for a few years as well. I have also helped many friends over the years. I think it’s essential that I've been through these positions that makes me a better leader. Now I am the head of the department, but I work really closely with the gaffers.
All of the projects have been like this. One of my favorite parts of the job is just to go and create the spaces and the collaboration. After the collaboration with the director, this was one of the most exciting when I joined the project.
Growing up in Rio, were you deeply influenced by the Cinema Novo, and the major figures like Glauber Rocha and Nelson Pereira dos Santos?
It was definitely influential, and I watched a lot of movies at home. My mom showed me art movies beginning at a very young age. I was born with a sense and appreciation for filmmaking.
But I think the movies that really pushed me into wanting to make films were European films. The movie, Before the Rain (1994), I watched that when I was a kid, and I was like, “Wow.” Movies came later, because I started out as a journalist. I was connected to photojournalism before I moved into filmmaking. By the time I made the shift to moviemaking, I had moved to London and that's when I started working as an assistant camera operator. The Cinema Nova was definitely an influence on my mind, but not a direct reference, like the French New Wave, and some European films.
Shadows and Dreams: In creating journalism and documentaries, did that influence your earlier shooting style in cinema? Was it cinema verite, direct cinema, or reportage?
Carolina Costa: I think the opposite actually, because I came from journalism, and the first few things I wanted to do were much more into fantasy, extreme style and everything. I just kind of wanted to go the opposite direction. I think I'm now moving much more into a naturalistic way. I'm very thankful that I have journalism and documentary filmmaking in my background, to be able to navigate. In Mexico a lot of the productions I work, there's a mix of amateur or non-actors and trained actors.
A lot of times and being able to kind of dance without marks, and the question of where is the camera going to go with people that are not trained? I think it kind of helps me navigate that world better. And I think I'm really more interested in that type of visual language now than when I was younger.
Shadows and Dreams: How has your documentary and reportage background influenced your thinking in using the camera to capture performance?
Carolina Costa: I think it has to do with what I've learned from photojournalism, which is always observing. You are constantly observing, and I never lost that. I am constantly walking around, and observing people. I think that comes from journalism and documentary filmmaking.
In narrative cinema, you are going to put down marks and then you think about how you light and how you move the camera. By observing people, you can guess a little bit, but of course, people are going to surprise you and stuff. I feel like we all have our patterns as human beings, the way we evolved, our way of talking and speaking, and how fast we do those things. I think it’s an extremely helpful skill to have in doing narrative work.
Shadows and Dreams: Did you work in 35mm and film when you first started, or has it always been digital. How has the advent of digital impacted and shaped your work?
Carolina Costa: When I started as a camera assistant in the UK, most of the television shows were in 16mm. All of the commercials were on 35. I was a loader for a few years. So when I started shooting, it just kind of made sense to do it on film. Now we have moved into a digital world and we shoot much less on film. At least I do much less. It's rare that I get to shoot on film.
I'm glad that I came from a moment where I worked in film just before we moved into the digital world. I also think digital has created a lot of opportunities for so many people, and there's a bit of a democracy that came through that, even now with cell phones. As a creator of images I liked that I could see and experience what it was to shoot. You know photochemically because that gives me the mathematics and the physics and everything to kind of carry over to digital and it makes it easier for me. I couldn’t care less about the technical updates, and the new information. Shooting made sense because I came from a moment where I had to understand mathematics, physics and chemistry and be able to translate that into my digital work.
Shadows and Dreams: What provides your greatest thrill or artistic satisfaction in the practice of your art?
Carolina Costa: I think lighting is a huge part. When I talk with a director, they say they want to use available light, and they love my naturalistic approach. I tell them there are much better people than me. I'm extremely interested in creating naturalism, with the feeling I didn’t really light it.
I think that's probably the thing that excites me the most, knowing that I'm going to be on site and we're going to start turning on lights. It just kind of bubbles and energy that comes up, just like talking with you right now.
Cinematographer Carolina Costa and director Erica Tremblay on the set of Fancy Dance.