In 2012, a very good black and white film by Noah Baumbach got some award-worthy attention, it was named “Frances Ha.” The artsy cinematographer Sam Levy, responsible for the beautiful photography in “Frances Ha” is now back with a new film called “Mistress America.” The film is also directed by Baumbach and also stars Greta Gerwig. In this exclusive, in-depth article Levy talks about growing up near Boston, his long road to become a cinematographer and the cinematographers that inspired him in his career.
Sam Levy grew up near Boston in the town of Brookline, Massachusetts. His father was a violinist for the Boston Symphony and also played for the Boston Pops Orchestra. His mother was tax attorney. He grew up in a musical household, not one of relaxed enjoyment, but a tense home in which his father practiced the violin for many hours in the day – before going to rehearsal and performing.
Levy took to playing the cello, but his father didn’t push him to play. His father was pressured to practice as a child and didn’t want the same kind of childhood for Sam. But, for the most part, Sam had a very typical childhood. He loved basketball, acted in plays in Jr. High and Sr. High schools and played around with friends, making short films using a friend’s VHS camera.
It wasn’t until university that Levy thought that he could possibly make a career making movies, “When I got to college, I was a literature student. They offered a filmmaking class and I thought ‘oh, I can do that.’ So I took this beginning filmmaking class. And that is kind of how it all started.”
Levy attended Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. He took a few filmmaking classes there and even ventured to RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) for another class in filmmaking. But it was a teacher at Brown named Leslie Thornton, also known as an experimental filmmaker, that really sparked the idea for Levy that filmmaking was not just a lofty idea, but a doable profession.
“I will never forget, in the first day of class Thornton said ‘when you go out and do this professionally…’, and it was those words that really sparked something in me. I will always be grateful to her for making it possible.”
Levy is the perfect example of making a career happen through sheer will. He started at the very bottom as an unpaid intern, receiving just enough money to cover lunch and commuting to work. He lived with his girlfriend and her parents, “Just to get the intern job I had to hustle. The only reason I got the intern job, was because I knew someone that worked there as a director.
“A fellow intern that summer was Patty Jenkins, she went on to direct ‘Monster’ and now the ‘Wonder Woman’ movie. We both wanted to become camera assistants. They let us on to the set of an American Express commercial and we both noticed how cool it would be to be a camera assistant. They got to be with the DP (director of photography) and be right next to the camera. The camera assistants seemed to be real slick, they all had cool clothes the seriously looked like they knew what they were doing – working with cameras. I thought, ‘My God these guys are amazing.’ So, my immediate goal wasn’t how to become a cinematographer, yet how to become a film loader.”
Levy was successful at every small step he took that led him to the position of a cinematographer. He hounded other assistants to teach him technique, “I had to fight my way on to commercial sets. I always introduced myself to the camera assistants. I offered to work for free, and that is how I got trained. I realized that the only thing I had to offer was to work for free. I didn’t have any skill, so I had to offer them something. Little by little I wore down one guy in particular, who eventually just started to train me. He liked teaching people. Eventually people would bring me out for free to load film. After a while I gained people’s trust and then they started hiring me for money. The next step was to join the union.”
Next was passing the rigorous union text, “Luckily, I passed the test and then I was in the union. So, the next few years I spent fighting my way in to get jobs as a camera assistant. I worked as a full time as a camera assistant for a solid five years and that is all I did.”
Levy’s big break was when he met cinematographer Harris Savides (“American Gangster”), “I got to work with him on a movie called ‘The Yard.’ He really took me under his wing and we got along really great. Working for Harris inspired me. It was at this time I made three spec commercials. I did it myself, put all the expenses on a credit card, totally got into debt. I shot them all on film, had the film transferred at a fancy facility, and paid an editor to cut them together. That got me started.”
Talking about the cinematographers that have inspired Levy is like a wondrous lesson in film history. According the Levy many of the heavy hitting cinematographers of the 1970’s were inspired by the Dutch school of painting. Artists like Rembrandt, were the main inspiration for cinematographers of this time. This would include Sven Nykvist (Ingmar Bergman’s cinematographer), Néstor Almendros (Kramer vs. Kramer) and Levy’s very favorite Gordon Willis (“The Godfather”), “I was obsessed with any film Gordon Willis made. He is like the James Brown of cinematography. In the way James Brown is sampled by so many rappers today, so many cinematographers reference Gordon Willis’ work. I am like a lot of cinematographers in that regard.”
In 2010, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale”) was looking for a cinematographer to shoot his next film “Frances Ha.” He reached out to Harris Savides, but Savides had a scheduling conflict and he suggested that Noah hire Levy, “Noah and I met and we really hit it off. We just really connected. We worked incredibly hard together, and were able to have fun with each other. We shared that experience. It didn’t take long for us to figure out that we liked similar things. We developed a shorthand pretty fast. When ‘Frances Ha’ was done he and Greta, had the idea for ‘Mistress America’. We shot ‘Mistress America’ right after the completion of ‘Frances Ha’.”
Levy describes “Mistress America,” as a wild goose chase film with snappy dialogue, “It’s about discovering New York for the first time, through the eyes of a young person that has just moved there and also through the eyes of someone in their 30’s that has become disenchanted with New York City and wants to leave.”
Next on Levy’s schedule is attending the Toronto Film Festival for the first time, for the release of his next film “Maggie’s Plan,” starring recent Oscar winner Julianne Moore, Bill Hader and “Mistress America” star Greta Gerwig.
Einstein was said that everything in the universe happens for a reason, so could be true for our own personal lives? Sam Levy sees his career as a cinematographer as a series of lucky chances and a lot of hard work. But I would like to think that something bigger was at play. After all, are we all integral parts of the universe? I really look forward to what this amazing universe has in its cards for this talented filmmaker.
“Mistress America” is rated R for language including some sexual references and has a run-time of 84 minutes.