“Am I going to jail tonight,” calmly asks Reality Winner (excellently portrayed by Sydney Sweeney), an American intelligence specialist, who served a prison sentence for the unauthorized release of government information to the media about Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections via an email operation.
Based on the FBI interrogation transcript of the fateful day of Reality’s arrest, Tina Satter’s film powerfully brings that day to life as we experience the heart-wrenching events from Reality’s perspective.
Filmmakers World caught up with DP Paul Yee about his work on the film.
By Oliver Webb
Hey Paul, welcome on board! Excited to start this conversation: Where did you train as a cinematographer?
I attended film school at NYU but didn’t really pursue cinematography as a career until several years later. After several years as a grip and lighting technician, I purchased a Panasonic HVX 200 and started to make a living as a videographer. I gradually started to work on more creative work like music videos and documentaries and finally got a huge break on a feature film when an old friend and collaborator, Anna Rose Holmer, asked me to work on her debut feature “The Fits.”
How did you first get involved with Reality?
Tina Satter, the director, is a fan of ‘The Fits’ and wanted to meet with me based on my work in that movie, but I’d also been hired to record one of her plays when I was a videographer and had seen the play that REALITY is based on, so I had been a fan of her work for quite some time.
What were your initial conversations with director Tina Satter about the look of the film? What did she want to achieve?
We started prep by going over the script and creating an emotional roadmap of Reality’s headspace in each scene. Tina would explain what she felt was interesting about specific moments and/ or beats that she wanted to land with additional impact. Then I would pitch different camera and coverage techniques for how we could render that on screen.
Could you provide details about your selection of aspect ratio, cameras and lenses, and the suppliers? Why did you select this equipment? What did it enable you to accomplish aesthetically?
It was practically necessary for us to film using a large format sensor because of the size of the location (most of the movie takes place in a 20’x12’ room). The wide field of view with the Alexa Mini LF allowed us to capture full-body wide shots without having to use extremely wide lenses that might distort and bend around the edges. We were fortunate to use ArriRental’s proprietary DNA lenses, which add such a beautiful texture to the image without softening it.
For aspect ratio, we decided to go with 2:1 because we liked the look of a cinematic wide frame but felt like 2.39 might restrict our view of the performers’ body language.
What was your approach to lighting for storytelling purposes? Could you provide details of lighting set-ups and types of lights being used?
The room that most of the movie takes place in was filmed on location, but our gaffer Kevin Villafuerte, and Key Grip Connor Bewighouse designed a setup that gave us an incredible amount of control over the light in the room. They built ultra-bounce eyebrows over each window bay and bounced skypanels into them. That way, we could keep the sun off the windows and simultaneously have precise control over the luminance and color temperature of each one. I am truly amazed by how much lighting control is possible these days with LED units and an iPad. A decade ago, lighting cues and shifts like the ones in our movie would have taken hours to set up with DMX cable and color gel and whatnot.
Did you work with a colorist on set?
We did not work with a colorist on set, but we did lock in our colorist Marcy Robinson at Nice Shoes early on in the process. I had done a movie with her previously and really enjoyed our working relationship- we’re able to discuss scenes in the abstract as opposed to the strictly technical, so I could say something as broad as ‘this should feel happier’ and she would drive the image in the right direction.
Could you discuss your approach to capturing the film in the confined space of Reality’s home? What were the limitations?
Something that I learned about working on a movie with limited locations is that you are able to take large swings with the camera aesthetics and style because you have the continuity of the space. Reality uses quite a few different lens and coverage techniques and I think that it’s less jarring when we shift gears because of the location limitation.
We also knew going into the production that the room was going to be sparsely decorated by design and that the blocking and dialogue was inherently limited, so every decision feels highly deliberate- if a character moves or if the camera pans or if there’s a bottle of cleaning product on an otherwise empty shelf- it all feels a bit more present.
We are often close and personal to Reality in terms of framing and experiencing events with her as they are revealed, through distortions and pink hues etc. Could you discuss your framing choices and the decisions behind these choices…
The movie starts quite objective and procedural with ‘standard’ coverage that is mostly in medium and medium wide shots. After we enter the back room with Reality, the camera becomes much more subjective and tries to embody how she’s feeling. Reality Winner is an incredibly interesting person, and her interrogation was truly very bizarre. We tried to honor that experience and make the movie feel strange, stressful, claustrophobic, and weirdly funny.
The film only contains dialogue taken from the audio that the FBI documented. How did this affect the filmmaking process?
There were upsides and downsides to being locked to a verbatim transcript. The upside being that the script didn’t change much at all during production. I have worked on projects where a writer/director is constantly changing pages to capitalize on the aspects of a movie that are working best; I think that way of working is smart but it’s also stressful to deal with a constantly changing script.
On the flip side, I think that sometimes, on an independent production at least, script changes are used to band aid a production issue. For instance, the room location that we filmed in was very very hard to find in the New York area and I think that if this movie had been completely fictional and not locked to a true story, we probably would have considered rewriting the description of the room to a more accessible type of space.
What was the biggest challenge in the production? How did you overcome that?
I really loved working on Reality but if I had to choose a ‘challenge’ it would be that it was extremely difficult to maintain lighting continuity for the exterior scenes. The first part of the movie takes place mostly on Reality’s lawn and we were filming over several days in dramatically different weather situations- sun, clouds, rain, wind, and maybe even hail at one point. We didn’t have the resources to really control the exterior lighting, nor did we have the time to wait for the right conditions so we just sort of did our best to anticipate the sun’s position and try to maintain a little contrast on our actors’ faces. Ultimately, Marcy’s work in the grade did a lot to help minimize some of those inconsistencies.
How long was the duration of the shoot?
The shoot was 16 principal days and then one extra day for inserts.