Formality and fury on LIZZIE
Cinematographer Noah Greenberg discusses his work with director Craig William Macneill on the period drama film, and his long-term relationship with ARRI Rental.
LIZZIE imagines a possible solution to the true-life mystery of Lizzie Borden, who was tried and acquitted for the brutal axe murders of her father and stepmother in 1892, in Fall River, Massachusetts. Greenberg shot with a camera package supplied out of ARRI Rental facilities in New York and Atlanta, combining ALEXA SXTs with vintage Cooke Speed Panchro lenses.
What is the background to your collaboration with Craig?
Craig and I have been working together since 2008, when he asked me to do a short film in Spain with him, on Super 16. At the time I was a still photographer and had never touched a motion picture camera, but he liked my eye and was confident that I would figure out the technical aspects. It was a great experience, and based on that I started transitioning into cinematography. We did another short a couple of years later, and then a feature called THE BOY in 2014. After that we shot the premiere season of a TV series called CHANNEL ZERO, and then LIZZIE.
This was your first period project; what kind of a look did you and Craig want?
We wanted it to feel very naturalistic, with soft, moody window light for the daytime scenes, and pools of light from fireplaces, candles, and oil lamps—that fell off strongly—for the night scenes.
What dictated your lens choices?
Craig and I had initially discussed anamorphic for the project. Because of the layout of the original house where these events took place, I suspected we would end up in a lot of very small rooms, and anamorphic would help separate the subjects from the background due to its depth of field characteristics. But when we actually found our location, there was plenty of room to back up, which led us again to spherical—so that we could use long telephoto lenses to compress the space.
We wanted something that had a slightly funkier feel, which pushed us towards the Cooke Speed Panchros, supplementing them with Cooke S4s at the long end. Craig and I had used the Speed Panchros on CHANNEL ZERO for flashback scenes, and he really loved them. As soon as we decided to go back to spherical, he was eager to use them again.
Did you test the vintage Cookes, to make sure they would perform as you expected?
We had extremely limited prep time, so I couldn’t really test them, but having used them before, I wasn’t too worried about it.
One surprise was that the oil lamps were much bluer than we expected, and also flickered more, so it was a consistent frustration, trying to balance them against double-wick candles and some of the other sources. If I’d had time, it would have been nice to test different lamp oils and candle wicks.
What was your approach to composition and camera movement?
We wanted to keep the frame formal and elegant, favoring asymmetrical compositions with stacked depth and foreground obstructions. We frequently kept the camera in motion with slow, creeping movements, either zooms or the dolly, or subtle pans that would track the characters or introduce you to the space. But, at moments of passion, whether that was romance or violence, we often switched to handheld and much wider lenses, very close in—we shot all of that with the 18 mm and 25 mm Speed Panchros.
How long have you worked with ARRI Rental and known the people there?
In some form or another I have had assistance from ARRI Rental from the very beginning. When Craig asked me to shoot that short film in Spain, I went to my friend and neighbor, (cinematographer) Frank DeMarco, to ask him about Super 16 and making the transition from still photography. He introduced me to ARRI Rental in New York and they were super helpful—gave me a camera to play with and a bit of space to build my knowledge of the basics.
Several years later, when we shot THE BOY, production was unable to bring any gear from the US to where we were shooting in Colombia, but I spoke to Lynn ‘Gus’ Gustafson and he let me go down there to test and explore, even though we couldn’t use ARRI Rental on the project. Gus set me up with a camera, lens sets, filters, lighting, and let me play with looks and workflows. He also introduced me to Chris MacKarell and Phil Gosiewski at ARRI who helped with the test and continue to be great resources. It was incredibly generous and much appreciated. Since then ARRI Rental has always supported me, and I work with them on as many projects as I can.
Did it work OK, being supported by ARRI Rental in New York and also Atlanta?
From my perspective it was seamless. I don’t really think of ARRI Rental Atlanta and ARRI Rental New York, I just think of it as ARRI Rental. Whoever is closer or has the right equipment might jump in and take point, but it’s always a team effort between the houses.