Though best known for his lyrically stunning work as the director of photography on “Afterschool” and “Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell,” Jody Lee Lipes would rather be known as a filmmaker than as a cinematographer. His directorial feature debut, the provocative doc “Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be the Same,” premiered at SXSW ’09. It’s then that Lipes met director Lena Dunham and agreed to shoot her Manhattan dramedy “Tiny Furniture,” making its world premiere at this year’s fest.
However, he’s a filmmaker first: Lipes’ second feature (as co-directed with Henry Joost) is the Emerging Visions entry “NY Export: Opus Jazz.” Commissioned by two members of the New York City Ballet, this conceptual staging of Jerome Robbins’ titular “ballet in sneakers” (like a raw B-side to “West Side Story,” here followed by a fun behind-the-scenes doc profiling Robbins and the project) is a jaw-droppingly gorgeous marriage of choreography and cinematography. In fact, has there been a richer dance performance committed to film, with camerawork catching subtle details instead of the typical lazy wide shots, this side of Bob Fosse?
Loosely structured into an abstract narrative about youth expressing themselves in forbidden venues, five dance movements are filmed in an NYC we haven’t yet seen: a geometric guys-and-dolls dance-off colorfully fills Brooklyn’s McCarren Pool, a dusty-floored warehouse overlooking the nighttime skyline becomes a mating call between a lithe beauty and her gentlemen suitors, and a sexed-up, limb-entangling duet in the knee-high grass of the High Line railyards could change the minds of those without a regular taste for modern dance. (Okay, at least one!) I spoke with the New York-based Lipes after he had been shooting all day, and just before we both headed down to Austin.
As the doc shows, Jerome Robbins had a cinematic eye and placed bulky cameras in seemingly odd set-ups. Did you take anything from his notes?
We definitely did. The only movie that Henry and I watched together before shooting was “West Side Story.” That’s the best example of dance on film that we’ve seen. One of the most intelligent things he did was to integrate the movement into the actual space that they were shooting. We needed to stay true to the choreography as much as possible, but the dancers are having to negotiate around train tracks or the pillars in the second movement. On stage, it’s just people walking in from both sides.
New York City is one of the most photographed locations in the world. Was it difficult to find new ways to illustrate it through cinematography?
Definitely. Location was a huge part of the film. Luckily, we had a lot of time to look. We had years to keep our eyes open. There’s a quality to it where you know it’s New York, but it’s not the New York you usually see. A lot of it is run-down New York that used to be something else. That was a huge part of the film for me, finding spaces that would work that we didn’t have to change much.
I’ve never interviewed a shooter before, so I’d love to hear you riff on the technical methods you’ve picked up from others or accidentally discovered for yourself. Is there a specific approach to your style?
I can say that Gordon Willis is the biggest influence on me in terms of cinematography. One of the biggest imprints that the camera makes is that each one of the movements is shot in its own unique style. The first movement is all on stick, all totally static camera except for one pan, the second is almost all on Steadicam, the third movement is the most handheld, the fourth is on a crane, and the fifth movement is almost all on a dolly. By making those rules for yourself, you force yourself to have to renegotiate the way you normally do things.
Do you have that — a way you normally approach material?
In general, I try to cover things as minimally as possible. If there’s a way to show something without having to cut [and] that’s not distracting, that’s the best way. Lighting is the hardest thing to learn about cinematography because it’s so technical. It takes so much practice to find out what you like and don’t like, and you never stop learning. That’s why successful cinematographers are usually in their forties or older because it takes so long to have that experience.
Also, most people who graduated from film school in the past few years don’t use film much anymore. I was right on the cusp of that changeover. I was pushed hard to work on film, and lucky enough to do a bunch of projects that did. I’m part of the last generation of people who are comfortable working on film. It was such a battle to raise the money to be able to shoot on anamorphic 35mm, which is obviously expensive. Jerome Robbins only directed one movie and it was on 70mm, so we wanted to make sure we were shooting on the best format possible. I shot anamorphic before on “Afterschool,” and it has this retro quality, but it’s also very high quality.
So many filmmakers are purists who don’t want to shoot digitally. Having done both, what do you like about video that you can’t do with film?
For example, the shoot I did tonight was shot on the same camera that [“Tiny Furniture”] was. It’s a digital SLR, so really it’s just a still camera that shoots video. What’s amazing about that is that it’s extremely sensitive to light in a way you can never get with film. Part of the reason we shot Lena [Dunham’s] movie on that camera is because there are a lot of night exteriors, and we literally didn’t have any money to light. That’s really the only camera in existence that can see that way. They had come out a week or two before we started, so we did a quick test, but it was just jumping in. Shooting on film, it just would’ve been black.