Michael Simmonds (BFA 2000 Film and Video) has served as director of photography on everything from big budget movies like Paranormal Activity 2 to critically acclaimed foreign films such as The Lunchbox. His latest credit is for White Girl, which is set to premiere on January 23 at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Directed by Elizabeth Wood, the film is based on Wood’s experience of falling in love with a drug dealer in New York City and her efforts to get him out of jail, and it’s already generating buzz. SVA Close Up caught up with Simmonds recently to find out what it was like working on White Girl and to discuss his journey in the film world so far.
Can you tell us about White Girl and how you came to be associated with it?
Henry Joost and Rel Schulman from Supermarché put me in touch with Elizabeth Wood, the director of White Girl. Supermarché, along with Killer Films, produced the film and I have worked a lot with the company in recent years. I found the script to be wild and strange and it pulled me in. It was something I wanted to be a part of. I met Elizabeth and found her to be bold and spontaneous. She was anything but shy. She seemed like a director who could get actors to go far in their performance and that was what this script needed.
Can you talk about your experience as director of photography for the film?
On a film like White Girl, it’s back to basics, with me operating the camera and working the lights with a small crew. I wanted to experiment with color in this project, make the audience feel and really notice it. These characters are naïve and full of passion, and the visuals had the opportunity to express that.
You recently wrote that the late Oscar-winning Spanish cinematographer Néstor Almendros didn’t have a signature style but a “harmonious union with story, space and performance.” How would you characterize your style?
If I do have a style, I would like to think that it is shot progression that complements the actors’ blocking or staging, but I don’t think that is something that the viewer would notice. As for lighting, I see it primarily as functional, something that lets the audience know what to look at in a frame. In White Girl, I wanted to complement the youthfulness of the characters and make colors pop, and in order to make colors pop you have to light with opposite colors—orange on one plane and blue on another plane.
When you were a student at SVA, you worked as a teacher’s assistant for Gordon Willis, who is best known for his cinematography work on The Godfather series, and you’ve said that you learned a lot listening to him. Are there other instructors who influenced you?
I have fond memories of my editing teacher Richard Pepperman. Although he was an editing teacher, he taught me how the eye reacts to a moving image. It’s very useful for a DP to understand and anticipate the audience’s eye movement within a frame.
There is Bill Beckley who taught me a few different classes including Semiotics. I think about his lectures often. They had a deep impact on me. He would talk for an hour about the difference between being hit on a sidewalk by a rollerblader and being hit by a bicyclist. It sounds silly but his insight was absolutely profound and useful in filmmaking. For instance, being hit by a rollerblader is comical because you would end up in the embrace of a stranger lying on top of you, and that person would probably need help getting up. Being hit by a cyclist is violent because a bicyclist would actually hurt you and it would result in an argument with the cyclist riding off while yelling profanities.
What projects are you working on right now?
I recently finished season two of the new Danny McBride HBO show, Vice Principals. I have a Lionsgate film coming out in 2016 called Nerve. It stars Emma Roberts.
White Girl premieres on January 23 at the Sundance Film Festival and will have repeat screenings from January 24 – 30. In addition, alumnus Dana Kalmey (MFA 2013 Social Documentary Film) served as Associate Producer on Trapped, which will also have multiple screenings at the festival.