TRIBECA 2022 Interview | Oren Soffer Talks Filmmaking in New York and His Use of Lighting

Oren Soffer has just finished shooting True Love, an upcoming sci-fi thriller directed by Gareth Edwards, with Oscar-winning cinematographer Greig Fraser, but currently he is celebrating the Tribeca 2022 world premiere of a feature film, Allswell, and two short films, The Letter Men and Fraud. Given the chance to speak with him about all three of these projects, we dove into how tough, but fun, it can be to cinematically capture New York, as well as imbuing a personal sense of style onto different genres and subject matters. Stay tuned for a little tease about his upcoming project as well.

 

Where's The Remote?

So you had three pieces that you've worked on premiere at Tribeca this year. One of them is the feature film Allswell, as well as two short films: The Letter Men and Fraud. So I'd like to start with Allswell, just because being a New York writer gives me a bias, as I've lived here my whole life. Are you based here?


Oren Soffer

Well, I live in LA now. But I did live in New York for eight years, which I think informed the movie quite a bit, for sure.


WTR

I was going to say, I feel like you had to have spent time here, because you really capture the essence of New York as a setting. How did you get into that mindset of capturing such a large city in such an intimate way?


Soffer

Well, first and foremost, I have to give credit for the concept of how to capture New York, and how much of an intrinsic part of the story it is, to the writers. They’re also the three lead actresses in the film, along with the writer/director, Ben Snyder; All of whom were born and raised in New York, and are older than I am. So all of them were bringing a lot more personal and historical experience from the city to the film. Comparatively to them, I'm just a transient. I lived in New York for eight years, which, according to most New Yorkers, is the official time period before you can call yourself a New Yorker. So I think I tick that box. [Laughs.] But yeah, for me, what really informed my experience of New York is films. I grew up in Israel, very far from New York, but I grew up loving and watching movies all through childhood and grade school. I would go down to the video store on the corner and rent a full director's filmography. Just going through careers movie by movie. So by the time I had moved to New York to attend film school, I had already seen and been immersed in the city through cinema. You know, through the filmographies of Martin Scorsese, John Cassavetes: all included seminal, captured renderings of New York City. So all of that was really informing how we were going to take the idea of New York as a character figuratively and translate it visually. It was pulling from a lot of references, including more recent ones. Noah Baumbach, for example, has some really beautiful New York movies. So it was definitely inspired by cinema, as well as the personal experiences from living there that the cast and writers were bringing forth character and performance wise. From a visual standpoint, I really leaned on my familiarity with New York, both through cinema and also a little bit from living there.


WTR

There's so many moments captured that almost seem staged, but I have to assume they're just New York B roll. The kids on the tree branch being shaken up and down, or the guy washing his car outside a bodega. Is that something that you just went out with equipment and shot what you found?


Soffer

Yeah, all that B roll is just spontaneous New York moments. I didn't personally shoot the B roll, it was an additional cinematographer that shot after we filmed principal photography as I was on another project. But I think we managed to capture that kind of New York flavor and tone in the main unit shoot as well. Scenes and moments with the actors on the street, walking around Williamsburg or the Upper West Side. You know, having a phone call under the loud train tracks and all of those moments we'd already captured. So I think that spirit informed the B roll they went out and got after the fact, and it definitely feels very cohesive in the final piece, which I'm very happy about.


WTR

Definitely, and I'm glad that you mentioned the train scene in particular. As Daphne Rubin-Vega's character is trying to pour out her emotions, she can't even get her thoughts straight, and that's so New York more often than not.


Soffer

[Laughs.] Yeah, you can rarely hear yourself talk or think.


WTR

So many times I've been on phone calls where you just have to go, "Hang on a second, train overhead".


Soffer

Or an ambulance driving by. There's always something.


WTR

So with that, I think it's very impressive that this film is so incredibly intimate in such a grand city that swallows up everything around it. I'm thinking of when Rubin-Vega's character goes into her daughter's room in that cramped hallway, or when there's that fight in the kitchen with Bobby Cannavale and Elizabeth Rodriguez. What's it like filming such tense scenes, especially when cramped in a New York apartment or underground kitchen?


Soffer

It's funny, New York is one of those places where typically everywhere is very cramped. I filmed a lot in New York since I went to NYU and did a lot of student films, as well as feature films, all over the city. All five boroughs. So, I wouldn't use the word extensive but I do have reasonable experience shooting in New York City locations, and they all share that cramped commonality. It's the same across every place that I've ever filmed. It's definitely a challenge logistically and physically. You need to lug equipment up narrow walk-ups with rickety stairs in pre-war buildings. Or you need to rely on some amazing, deeply characterized Union freight elevator operator who is going to leave at five o'clock on the dot. So if you don't get your equipment loaded out by the time his shift is up, you're going be stuck on the 14th floor of this old 1920's high-rise in Midtown. So those experiences are pretty ubiquitous, and they definitely inform creative decisions: lighting, camera placement, shooting style. Because you really have no choice but to embrace the limitations of those kinds of locations. So it puts you in a situation where the scenes kind of unfold very organically. Because you know, if you're on the 11th floor of an apartment building on the Upper West Side, like where we shot Daphne's apartment, you can't put lights outside the window. There's no access to the exterior, there's a narrow elevator so you can only bring up so much equipment, there's tight hallways, and there's only so much space to put things. With one spare bedroom in the back, that's all you get for equipment storage. So you have to make economic decisions about everything. And personally, as a cinematographer, I love those limitations. If you're working in a vacuum, like starting from scratch on a soundstage or in a cavernous location with every tool at your disposal, it can end up being really crippling. It may seem really alluring, but it can be counter intuitively restrictive. It can be really tricky creatively if you don't know where to start with something and a blank slate is in front of you. So, having the locations be small really forces you to lean into it and embrace it. If you can only put the camera here in this hallway, since it's the only place to get a good angle, then that's the angle. And then you build a scene around that angle, where you've staged the dynamic between characters around that iconographic hallway. For Daisy's living room, we shot in this apartment that had this amazing curved doorframe that you rarely see in New York. It was just so unique and iconic, so we said, "Okay, this is the shot in the living room. There's nowhere else it could be". So it's pretty fun and it's a cool part of the process. The locations are leading you and not the other way around, at least in terms of cinematography. That way, the film is imbued with the spirit of the locations by proxy.


WTR

Something I've noticed with a lot of your work as I was preparing for this is your use of lighting. It's incredibly specific, especially when thinking of where Desmond is staying for example. There's one lamp, but it just gives off this incredible glow. Same thing in the hallway like we said earlier. I'm just curious as to how you fine tune that lighting, because it really does work wonders.

Soffer

Well, thank you. That's very kind. But honestly, the locations inform the lighting decisions as well as the camera placement a lot. So in a lot of these small locations, logistical limitations in terms of how much equipment you can bring in has a say. But also, in terms of just the size of a space, I find that the best approach is often the simplest one. And so, in all of those scenarios, and most of the scenes in the movie really, we only lit with one light. It would just be a matter of finding the key position for that light. The minute you add too much, it starts to feel flat. If you're in a small 10 by 10 white-walled room, there isn't much else you can do but put one light in a corner and let that do all the work. Otherwise, you're just dealing with way too much light, and you'll lose contrast, contours and shape: All the things that we look for in lighting as cinematographers. One thing that Ben (Snyder), the director, and I really emphasized from the start was that we didn't want this to have the standard sort of comedy "look" quote-unquote. Not that films often fall into that trap as it's more of a TV thing, I guess. But some films do as well. We wanted the film to have a visual character, and to have contrast and shape. For it not to feel dark, but to feel real and lived in, was key. So anyway, all that is to say, the simple approach is often the one that I go for. Usually, it's putting one light in a very key position, and letting that do all the work. So that's mostly what you end up seeing in the movie.


WTR

Well, if you were going for a clear, distinctive look in the film, there very much was one. And one of the other key elements to that was the slow push-in. I found it being used so effectively. I didn't even realize because I was so caught up in it until I rewatched it, but that final shot without spoiling too much is one long, slow push-in. I found it incredibly moving and was wondering if you have any memories surrounding that shot?


Soffer

So, the push-in is interesting. The whole visual language, everything really, all stemmed from this idea that Ben (Snyder) and I were going for. It was a question of perspective. We're making a film about family. And as an audience watching this family, you're always being asked the question: "Are we outside of the family looking in? Or are we inside with the family"? And each of the three storylines have characters that are sort of on the periphery of the main story, which are important to each of the individual characters. So all of those characters are outside of the family looking in. So that was just something we interrogated a lot in prep, when we were shot listing and sort of designing the look of the film: "Where is the audience"? And the push-in is such a simple piece of cinematic language, but to us, at least in our discussions, the idea there was that a push-in is like leaning in. So it gives you the effect of starting from outside of the family like we're observers in these people's lives. And then, throughout the film and specific scenes, we lean in and we enter the circle of the family. We also did this with a few other techniques as well. We used wider angle lenses closer to the actors when we wanted to feel more inside, or longer lenses from further away when we wanted it to feel more voyeuristic or objective. There are a few other techniques there. But the concept as a whole was about how we depict the family and where we are in relation to it. Also, just this feeling of their connection and the warmth between them. Those things really informed the camera decisions, lighting decisions, color, etc. All of those things stemmed from that sort of core concept.


WTR

Well that certainly explains the feeling I had when trying to break it down the second time.


Soffer

And that's the thing, of course. When someone's watching the movie, they don't pause to analyze this, but our hope is that the effect makes you feel something, and it makes you feel a certain way about your relationship to these characters and to this family. You know, we analyzed that ahead of time and made specific decisions to try and create a scenario that elicits those kinds of emotions. So hopefully it works for the audience.

WTR

It certainly does. And pivoting to the shorts that you worked on, looking at The Letter Men, it's another key example of subtle tricks being used to maximize an effect. The intimacy in The Letter Men, for example, has a massive scope. Yet at the core, it really just is about two men. So going back to your use of lighting, which is something I was very caught by in this: It gives a very heightened, dreamlike sense. How did you come up with that look?


Soffer

The Letter Men is definitely something that we felt we could be more stylized with. Like, there's an element of it that is a genre film in the larger scope. I mean, at its core, it's this very intimate story between two men, like you said. But on the broader scope, we're playing in this genre that has a lot of cinematic imagery associated with it. So we were just very interested in tapping into that kind of imagery. On top of that, we used the cinematic legacy of period films or World War II films, but applied it to a Queer storyline in a way which hasn't really been juxtaposed before. There's a version of this that's just gritty, simple, naturalistic, handheld. You know, like the indie version of Queer storylines that we've seen many times before. But we made a deliberate choice where we wanted these characters to feel cinematic and epic in scope and scale. We stylized it in ways that, up until a recent point, only opposite sex characters got that kind of larger than life, sweeping cinematic treatment. So that was what informed the decisions there. We basically tapped into a few key references, with Atonement being the big one. And Andy (Vallentine), the director, and myself are both just huge, huge fans of that movie. I've been inspired by it a lot over the years, and thought that this was such a great opportunity to play in that sandbox. So we definitely allowed ourselves to go a bit more stylized with the lighting. You have the kind of blooming highlights which is achieved with a filter. It's actually a vintage stocking, like a hosiery, that you put in front of the lens and you shoot through the net of the stocking. It just gives it this kind of bloom and this glow that creates that dreamlike imagery. They used that on Atonement a lot, as well as in Anna Karenina and older films, so we borrowed that. It was a classic technique from old Hollywood. We just wanted it to feel epic like a big war movie, even though it was ultimately a relatively small budget short. But we still wanted to imbue it with as much of that scale wherever we could through the cinematography.


WTR

So it seems that you do have quite the repertoire of being able to work within different genres, as well as different styles of filmmaking. I know you've worked on a handful of music videos as well. And with Fraud, especially in the intro or when the two characters meet in a club, it very much feels like a music video. You know, the camera kind of whips back and forth with distinct stylistic flourishes. I'm curious if your history with music videos plays into your inspirations when shooting a feature or a short film?


Soffer

That's a great question because I don't know if I've ever really sat down and consciously made a connection between them, but you're absolutely right: One definitely informs the other. What I've enjoyed about music videos that I've done in the past is that there's a sort of freedom to them, and a freeform nature as to how they're captured. I think people don't often have that as much in narrative, because it can be very regimented and prescribed. In a good way and by design of course: narratives have a script with a shot list, as well as a film language that tells a story in a certain way. With music videos, it's more about capturing a vibe, and oftentimes, the best way to do that is to create a vibe on set. From there, you can improvise with a Steadicam or some other camera movement tool that allows you to freely flow within an environment that you've set up. From there, you can sort of find moments and shots. So that's often how music performances are covered in music videos or adjacent projects of live performances. It's not often planned and rehearsed. Instead, we'll just get the camera operator up on stage with the performers and start vibing with them. Feeling the beats and the rhythm in the music. Finding the moments where they crescendo and using that to motivate a camera move. So that process is kind of happening live on set as you're shooting or while you're watching the monitor. You can communicate with the Steadicam operator on the fly, telling them to push in, pull out, pivot around as a reaction to what's happening. So yeah, that definitely informed how we shot those scenes. And that gives them a certain feeling of raw spontaneity that you wouldn't necessarily get if it was a more planned, prescribed shot. The rest of the movie is shot in more traditional ways, it was storyboarded very specifically, and that film is also very stylized. We made very deliberate decisions for the same reasons as The Letter Men, in wanting to kind of play in a cinematic sandbox that has a legacy. Going for this thrilling, David Fincher type environment and visual language, but to place a trans character at the center of it in a way that hasn't really been seen before.


WTR

Yeah, when watching, I kept thinking "Is this a heist film? Is this about to go crazy right now?"


Soffer

Pretty much yeah. That short specifically is sort of a backdoor pilot to a series that the writer and star Dana Levinson has written. The series is definitely bigger in scope, and expands into more of a heist/con artist scheme. You know, ripping people off, sneaking around with disguises, credit card scams, that sort of thing. It's very Matchstick Men, but in more of a contemporary, cyberstyle type of Fincher vibe. It's a really cool series. The short is just a little snippet of it really.


WTR

So looking forward, I know you recently wrapped shooting on a film with Gareth Edwards, as well as now Oscar-winning cinematographer, Greig Fraser. Can you talk about your relationship with him? From what I understand, it's been described as a mentorship of sorts?


Soffer

I suppose it has never been overtly stated as a mentorship but yes, it's developed into that kind of relationship and I'm very thankful, appreciative and lucky to have met him. Not only that, but to have had him develop an interest in me and my work, as well as working together. We've done a couple of small projects before, but this was a bigger collaboration. I can't wait for people to see it. and I can't wait to talk about it more... Which I can't yet [with a smile on his face].


WTR

Very hush-hush [laughs].


Soffer

Yeah, exactly [laughs]. The cards are being kept very close to the vest on this one, and I love that. I'm more than happy to tease it, and it's going to be really awesome. Both of us can't wait to talk about it, because we did some really interesting stuff on it.


WTR

Are you at least allowed to say how you approach working in a partnership with another cinematographer? Or if you have any different approaches between an intimate piece like Allswell versus a larger budgeted sci-fi film?

Soffer

We'll get into it more when the film when the film comes out and I'll talk about how it went. Otherwise, it would just be really vague. But we made the film in a very specific way, and our working relationship is a part of that method. So you and I will get into it in a year and a half, I promise. It's going to be really, really cool.


WTR

Well I'm very much looking forward to that! So, I ask everyone this at the end of our interviews, but I'm going to make it a little hyper specific since you brought it up earlier. I like to ask what everyone's favorite film is, just to get into their headspace a little bit or if they have any films that serve as an inspiration on the piece that we're talking about. But I'm going to ask you: Do you have a favorite New York movie?


Soffer

Oh, great question. My favorite film set in New York is Network, directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Paddy Chayefsky. It's the greatest screenplay ever written. It's not necessarily a film that somebody would say New York is a character in the movie, in the way that you would about other films. But that's definitely my favorite film set in New York. And then in terms of favorite New York set movies, Allswell was really inspired by a lot of our favorites. We looked at some Gordon Willis, we looked at Klute, we looked at Manhattan. Both of those are a lot darker than our film, both in terms of subject matter and visually. But just looking for inspiration of how the city is depicted, and how the vibe of the city is captured. Then we looked at more contemporary films like Mistress America and The Meyerowitz Stories, which Ben (Snyder) and I both really love and find really underrated. It's probably my favorite Noah Baumbach movie. Also The Squid And The Whale. [Begins thinking even further.]


WTR

That's certainly a treasure trove of films for people to check out if they haven't seen any.


Soffer

Yeah, I think that's a good place to start. There are obviously many more. I mean, I could just sit here and rattle off Scorsese movies. But yeah, in terms of what inspired this one, it was really films that are a little bit more, like you said, intimate within the context of the larger city. That was important to us, so hopefully we managed to capture that.

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