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[Tribeca 2021] Interview : ‘Shiva Baby’ and ‘Dating & New York’ cinematographer Maria Rusche

The cinematographer behind one of 2020’s best films and Tribeca 2021 official selection ‘Dating & New York’ discusses her work and career with Kyle Milner.

With even a cursory glance at Maria Rusche’s resume, it’s clear that this director of photography is a rising talent with good reason to be so in-demand. In recent years, she’s worked on a truly impressive amount of projects from advertisements for major brands like Pantene, Smirnoff and Verizon, short films including SXSW 2019 official selection The Rat, the Showtime television series Couples Therapy and the comedy smash-hit of 2020, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby.

With her latest film Dating and New York celebrating its premiere at this year’s Tribeca Festival, I had the pleasure of discussing Maria’s formative days in the world of filmmaking, her talent for integrating a film’s emotional core into its visual language and much more.

I’ve never had the privilege of speaking to a director of photography, so I’m so curious: what was the starting point for your career as a DP?

Maria: I went to film school thinking maybe I wanted to be an editor. I saw that the role of the DP – the director of photography – is collaborating with the director; figuring out what the audience will actually be seeing in the film and making that happen, actualising that vision with the crew and leading them in executing that work whether it’s the photography or the lighting, etc.

I grew up playing team sports, so that was a role that really made sense to me in terms of the part of the storytelling that I felt I fit into best. So that’s really what got me hooked on it.

It really is such a collaborative effort, no matter what part of the team you’re on, and making it all come together in a cohesive way always shines through in the final product.

Maria: Definitely, yeah. It’s funny, because when you see the final product of a movie, you take for granted what it took to get there. When you’re just facing words on a page, when you read a script, the process of figuring out the photography and lighting and how to execute that and what you’re going to show or not show, I think that’s a really exciting part of building the story.

Credit: Maria Rusche

I always get the impression that your role as the DP is as close to the director as most people will get in the process, aside from the actors. Would it be correct to describe your role as sort of the right hand of the director?

Maria: I think so. That’s why I think the term Director of Photography is a helpful term, because I’m directing the photographic elements while the director is on the set, more so directing the performances. That’s all to say that in prep, of course, is when the director and I are collaborating on what the style will be, what the visual language will be. 

The goal is that we’re so on the same page in terms of what the world will look like that, by the time we’re shooting, the director doesn’t have to think about those elements. I’m executing the plan that we’ve devised, and they’re able to look at the frame and the performance and maybe adjust something – but I’m executing the vision that we’ve established during pre-production.

I think it’s nice that as audience member at the cinema, if a movie I’m interested in is coming out and they announce that a certain DP is attached to the project, I can know to some degree that it’s pretty much a lock that the film’s going to have a certain visual look and language to look forward to. And the director, of course, has the opportunity to focus on aspects like the performances without worrying about that side of things.

Maria: Yeah, exactly. I think that the more in-sync we are, the better I’m able to delegate to my crew – the lighting and the photography – the more I’m able to be there for my director as an extra brain in terms of, “is this scene working?”. Because I’ve been there every step of the way with them in pre-production, I understand we’ve gone through each scene and what the point of each scene is and what beat is supposed to land. The more planned we are, the more I’m able to be that person for the director on set as well.

Through all the projects you’ve worked on in your career, be it short film, feature film or documentary series, you’ve managed to figure out what your personal style or approach is that makes you desirable as a DP?

Maria: That’s a good question. I definitely believe that as a DP, I should kind of be a chameleon and start each project from scratch in terms of the world-building and aesthetics, because I really want the aesthetics to be informed by the story.

So when I think about what directors come to me for, rather than necessarily a specific aesthetic, it’s maybe my approach to the emotional meat of the story. I think that a lot of the directors I’ve worked with have appreciated my perspective, not just based on my experience as a person but my experience as a DP. They can rely on my ability to execute whatever we come up with. 

But I think the connections I’ve made with a lot of directors are based around my ability to understand, emotionally, the story that they’re trying to tell, and then the technical ability to execute that visually.

Molly Gordon and Rachel Sennott in Emma Seligman’s ‘Shiva Baby’

Yeah, absolutely. I think people don’t necessarily appreciate that your job isn’t to just make a film look pretty enough to take screen grabs to post on Twitter. I guess that’s a nice cherry on top, but emotion is the name of the game – and if you’re not feeling anything while watching a movie, then why are you there?

Maria: Yeah, totally. I mean, people don’t take screen grabs of beautiful movies that are bad. They’re only going to take them of beautiful, good movies. So I totally agree.

Shiva Baby, for example – which was totally one of my favourite movies of last year, by the way – is such a good example of what you’re talking about. It’s a relatively low-key film in terms of setting and plot, but in the emotional aspect it does so much with so little.

I guess when people think of DPs, they think of these big-scope Hollywood productions shot by Roger Deakins, but your role is just as important into a mostly single-location comedy like Shiva Baby as well as Dating and New York, which you have coming up at Tribeca. What’s your approach to a film like Shiva Baby where there’s more focus on the subtleties of emotion?

Maria: Totally. I mean, that movie is a dark comedy. So when I read the script, I thought it was really funny, but I had also seen the short and understood that tonally, a lot of the comedy comes from this setting being taken somewhat seriously. We find comedy in this setting, reflecting the anxiety and stress that Danielle is feeling, and the comedy comes from the performances and characters within that setting because of the absurdity happening on top of a dramatic context.

So with that in mind, when I met with Emma (Seligman) for the first time, I actually brought a lot of dramatic references for visual reference. We looked at like, Black Swan, and that is a deeply unfunny movie. [laughs] 

It felt like it was important for us to strike exactly the right tone to help the comedic performances shine, because the whole thing felt quite absurd. I think you would lose a bit of your empathy for Danielle. What I like is that by highlighting her anxiety and her paranoia, it makes it feel important. And it is important, and it’s not just a joke. I remember feeling that way as a young woman graduating from college. So that was how we were figuring out the visual there.

But to go back to your original question of how the understanding of emotion affects where we go visually, I think – especially on smaller movies – it’s so crucial to have a really planned visual language for your film. Once you’re on set, you have so little time to think, really. 

Both Emma on Shiva Baby and Jonah for Dating and New York are first-time directors, and it was really important for me to make sure that they had enough time on set to feel like they could get the performances they want, and to work with actors without feeling rushed. 

For me, that meant making sure we took a lot of time in prep to really understand the emotional needs of each scene and the visual language that we were building so that I could work really quickly and take a lot of that stress off of them.

Catherine Cohen and Francesca Reale in ‘Dating & New York’

It seems like a lot of the collaborative aspect of filmmaking is everybody chipping in at the early stages to make sure everybody is a lot less stressed in the moment on set, as well as in post-production. Every time I speak to someone involved in the process of filmmaking, they emphasise the importance of being on the same page throughout.

Maria: Oh, exactly, yeah. It really helped on both projects. I worked with crew who I’ve worked with for years. The first AC on both projects was Max Batchelder, who I went to school with. I can just trust that he has everything in order. I can hand him a shot list, and he can understand what’s going to be needed for a scene or what might be needed later. 

The speed that that allows is invaluable. And it’s the same with the lighting department. I mean, on Shiva Baby we had really detailed notes for each lighting setup, because we’d often have to return to the same setup. If we didn’t have all the cast on that day, or we were returning to the same exact setup, we had to keep a really detailed plan of overhead diagrams and light values and things like that.

Wow, that sounds like a lot to keep on top of.

Maria: Yeah, it definitely helps to have team members I can rely on.

It’s cool that you’ve managed to work with a lot of the same people. Is that something you’ve found to be common in a lot of the projects that you’ve worked on?

Maria: I get to choose my crew, so it’s extremely helpful to work with the same people and know who will be good for what projects. But it’s also been great for other departments that I don’t typically have as much of a hiring suggestion on. 

I shot Shiva Baby and worked with Michelle Li who was a costume designer, and Katie Schiller and Kieran Altmann, who were producing. When I was brought onto Dating and New York, we were able to get Katie and Kieran on in the production department. Katie ended up as first assistant director, Michelle came into production design and they recommended Hanna Park to edit, who cut Shiva Baby.

So we were really able to get a lot of the same people onto this project, which as we’ve discussed, really helps efficiency-wise. But so much of the project is understanding how your collaborators work and finding talented people who are pleasant to work with, and we got really lucky with that on Shiva Baby. So it was nice to bring a lot of that to Dating & New York as well.

‘Couples Therapy’ S02 | Credit: SHOWTIME

I am really looking forward to checking out Dating and New York, especially with that kind of creative DNA in common. As an audience member, so much of deciding what to watch often comes down to recognisable names, and you know that those people are going to bring something to it that – even if it’s a totally different film, stylistically or tonally – there’ll be an element that previously struck a chord.

Maria: Yeah, totally. Like you said, it’s a different movie tonally and stylistically. But I think it explores some of the same themes in a different way. And it’s exciting to work with some of the same collaborators on a different project and see what other muscles they can flex.

Not everybody will have had a chance to check out Dating and New York just yet, of course – what else have you got on the horizon?

Maria: I was sort of in the middle of shooting a doc series on Showtime called Couples Therapy when the lockdown happened, and we were able to kind of come back in the fall. Weirdly, with the way that the show’s designed, once the lighting is all set up we have each camera operator in their own little area, and each crew member is sort of isolated.

So it was kind of the perfect pandemic job to stay safe. That was really rewarding, and it was nice to be able to work during the pandemic. That came out on Showtime last month, so I think things have really opened up a lot more in New York and I’m starting to see a lot of productions realise that they can actually shoot now. So I’m excited for what the summer holds.

A brand new Blu-Ray release of Shiva Baby is up for pre-order at Vinegar Syndrome, releasing June 29.

Dating & New York premiered at Tribeca Festival 2021 on June 13, and is available for streaming via the Tribeca at Home streaming platform through June 23.

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