Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller speaks with award-winning director of photography Carolina Costa, discussing her international background, approach to genre filmmaking, and outstanding work in David Zonana’s Workforce.
NBB: Thank you so much for speaking with me.
CC: Of course! Thank you.
NBB: I’m very curious to hear about everything that goes into the way you do your work, but I wanted to first ask, when did you first pick up a camera? Was it video, still photography? Color, black and white, film? When did this begin to interest you?
CC: Well first I had a little stills camera when I was a kid and I’d carry it around on family trips. And then my dad got a video camera, and I’d go around and shoot music videos with my friends; I’d do little soap operas with my family, and make them act. But it was always more an interest in story, and curiosity, and a way of playing, at that point I never saw it as, ‘oh, this is what I want to do with my life.’ At that point, I thought I wanted to be a journalist, and that’s what I was focused on, I did a lot of writing.
So, I think the camera came out more as curiosity, it wasn’t a conscious act, if I can say that; it was later, when I was fourteen, my mom had an art gallery for many years, and I grew up around a lot of art: photographers, painters, so I was always connected to visual language in many ways. But when I was fourteen I got curious about still photography, so I did a course with a still photographer, and in return, I worked for him. He had a black and white lab in the back of his apartment, so I’d process his rolls. That’s when I found the magic, and I was like ‘oh, wow,’ and ‘this is what I want to do.’ I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with it, but it was definitely that, the creation of images, that really fascinated me. I worked for him for three years, until I went to university, and when I went to university in Brazil, in Rio, I did journalism.
But at that point I was writing much less than I was before when I was growing up, so a lot of my teachers allowed me to do mixed media; I would do some writing but a lot would be about visual language, a lot of it through photography. Part of the program was photography for publicity, and for photojournalism, which was the part that I was obviously more connected to. So because I had experienced in the labs, they let me run the labs, so I was a TA for those classes, and I ran the labs. So that all started shaping me, I felt very comfortable in that environment. A few years into university, I started losing interest in photojournalism and migrating towards the idea that I wanted to be a director of photography, that I wanted to make movies.
So that’s what happened; at that point, they didn’t have a film program, they just had classes, like film history, which I loved. I was the person sitting at the front, I’d organize movies to watch on Fridays, so I started getting really into the idea of making movies. So I moved to London; I did a little short course, thinking I want to be a DP but I have so much to learn, so I started working as a camera assistant. I did my undergrad in London in film studies, and everything started rolling from that.
NBB: One of my questions was actually about how international your story has been. Going from Rio to London to the AFI in LA; I’m curious, as a fellow international student, could you tell me how your path was shaped by those places?
CC: When I left Rio, I was kind of disappointed. It was an extremely violent time, and very little was covered in the news. I grew up middle class, but in Rio, it’s all in the mix; I grew up next to one of the biggest favelas, so it was impossible to close your eyes to what’s happening to people the same age as you. I just never saw that in the news, so I was a little disappointed; and I always had this fascination with London. So I found something to go do there, so my parents would allow me to go.
So I was coming from extremely machista, in many ways as incredible as Brazil is it’s extremely conservative, and I felt when I got to London that I just had this entire world open to me that I had had no idea. I met people from so many different countries and cultures, and that was a huge part of my formation as an adult. And I think it’s not necessarily the film studies I did at university that inform who I am now; it has a lot more to do with what London offers, that you can generally be whoever you want. And that allowed me to discover truly what were my passions, what I liked, what I didn’t.
University in London was very theoretical, so there was very little practice, but there are two things I got out of it. Most people wanted to be directors and writers, and that gave me the opportunity to shoot for a lot of the folks at the school. So I wasn’t scared, that gave me a lack of fear, just going out and experimenting and doing shorts with my friends. At that time, they had this funding from the UK film council, that gave one student a year the opportunity to do a short film at Pinewood and Shepperton Studios; you got a mentor, and you got all the toys, Kodak gave you film stock, it was a proper shoot. I saw that opportunity and I jumped right onto it, and I got it. So I got to be mentored by Sue Gibson, who had a huge influence; obviously one of the few women in the BSC, but also the first female president of the BSC. And I just loved that she never even talked about that, that was not an issue that she was concerned about, she just went and did her job. And she taught me how to move around the business and tremendously about lighting; so London gave me that, and this whole opportunity to grow as a human being.
When I went to LA, I didn’t necessarily see myself in the industry in the US at that point; I was more interested in doing European movies just because that’s where my taste was. But I knew AFI was the top school for cinematography, so for me, it was a complete and total sharpening of every tool I had. I had a lot of the tools already, but they were not sharpened, that’s the best way to describe it. They create a mini studio system within the school, so you have to prove yourself every step of the way, and you have to be open to being criticized; every week people are destroyed. So you have to learn how to rebuild yourself, how to learn, how to make a better movie next time. My work is incomparable from where I was before and after I left AFI. Stephen Lighthill, who is a DP and runs the program over there, is a great supporter, and was a great manager to me; from the beginning, he was like ‘where are the areas you feel you are lacking as a cinematographer?’ And they are not always technical, even though the school is very technical — we had extremely mathematical, logarithmic, heavy technology and all of that — but he also shows you that it’s important to think how you are going to collaborate with your fellow filmmakers, and how you will manage your crew, all these other things that in many schools you don’t really learn and you don’t talk about. So you’re learning and re-learning and checking where you’re at, at that school.
And that school gave me some of my greatest friends and collaborators, too. I made a short film, with my fellows at AFI and that short film got me my first feature. We’re all collaborating, it’s such a big family; it opened up such a huge network in LA. I know people from different generations from AFI; sometimes I go for a job interview and the person’s like ‘Oh you went to AFI? Me too!’ There’s an instant click like you know you went to war — because it’s crazy, that school’s super intense. So there’s this immediate trust, that opened a huge network.
NBB: On the topic of collaborating, how do you see the process of collaborating with new teams on each project?
CC: In the US, with my crew, I try to have the same camera team, but I have been shooting all over the place. I did a movie in Minsk, called Crystal Swan; nobody really spoke English, I don’t speak Russian. So I had to find new ways of collaborating with my crew, because otherwise it just wouldn’t work, they wouldn’t understand what I was saying. That’s also exciting, I like going to new places, though also exhausting, but it’s nice to meet new people and work with different people because you’re going to have to exercise different muscles. And that’s one of the parts of the job that excites me, it’s never going to be the same, every day is different.
With directors, I feel like I have to be flexible and adapt to their ways of thinking and doing things; each person is different. That’s also part of what I love, like when you start dating someone and you’re figuring out what they like, what they don’t like, it’s a little bit like that. I truly enjoy that part of the process.
NBB: I’m curious, who inspires you? As a cinematographer, as an artist, a photographer? Who do you think about, if anyone, while you’re working?
CC: In terms of references? It’s project to project; I try to always bring a bit of everything. Always, movies will influence the movies you’re making. The movie I’m doing now is mostly music and paintings, and so we put music in the room and we get inspired, the director and myself. It’s a bit of everything. I did a movie earlier this year; for the corporality, and the way people moved in certain frames, I used a lot of sculptures, from the baroque period — so, it really comes from different art forms. And to be honest, thinking about it, what people bring to set also inspires me. A lot of the choices we made recently in the movie I’m making now has to do with observing actors and what they bring to set — that inspires me. On Mano de obra, or Workforce, we did with mostly non-actors, and I would see how they go about things, and that would determine how I would light and where I would place the camera. They would always surprise me; that was my inspiration on that movie, actually, how non-actors would surprise me.
NBB: I’m curious, in terms of genre and tone — you’ve done The Evil’s Heritage, and you were also second unit on Suspiria, both in such a specific genre, of horror — but do you differentiate between genres, between tones very much? Or is it really project to project? How does the genre or tone influence your work, if it does at all?
CC: It does, there are certain elements, there are certain parts of the language, with horror for example, that we are accustomed to. But I do mostly dramas, that’s what I’m drawn towards; that’s what I’m mostly shooting, with a lot of social issues, all things I’ve been searching for. At the end of last year, I felt I wanted to experiment with other genres, with other types of movies. When I had done the second unit of Suspiria I got a little taste of how exciting it can be to shoot horrors, so when the script for Evil’s Heritage came about through a friend, I thought ‘in 2019, I want to do different things.’ So I did the horror, and now I’m doing a period piece, and I’m hoping next year to do sci-fi. So I’m hoping to kind of break out of my boundaries and push my limits.
Obviously, for horror there’s, as I was saying, all this visual language that we are accustomed to, but it’s also interesting to look at it and as a family drama. I think of Hereditary, and other recent horror movies that I liked, they played it as a family drama, lit it as a family drama. I think it’s interesting to break, in that way, from those concepts.
NBB: Of course; can you give us any details about that sci-fi?
CC: (Laughs) So I have been writing a script for the last three and a half years, in between projects. Last year, I finished a draft that I was finally happy with. I’m calling it an ‘esoteric sci-fi.’ It has all these elements, like a satellite being launched, and new rules of the universe and all that, but at the core of it is a woman trying to make sense of life. I wrote it, and at first, I wanted to give it to a friend of mine to direct, but then it became very personal, as I spent a long time with it. I joined with a producer earlier this year in LA, and we’re now getting a lookbook together, trying to get it made for the end of next year. And I would be directing and shooting it.
NBB: That’s exciting!
CC: I’m very excited about it.
NBB: I was going to ask if you are interested in getting into directing or writing, but you’re ahead of me on that.
CC: I don’t really want to pursue a career as a director, I mean who knows what happens in the future, but I’m just so in love with my work, with doing what I do. So I don’t see it like that, but I find it almost impossible not to do those two things on this project in particular. What’s going to happen after that I have no idea, but I just really want to make this, and it’s now impossible to give it away!
NBB: When you were coming up with the idea, did the writing come first? Did the shots come first? Maybe the themes? Or perhaps all at the same time?
CC: The themes came first, from personal experiences, different things that were happening in my life. I wrote a little blurb, and I was waiting for a movie to get made here in Mexico; I was running in the park, in the morning and I saw these images of a satellite being launched, and it kind of all clicked. It was like this moment of revelation. I went home and for months I just wrote the backstories of these characters, so I built from that. Then the script kept on changing, different things happened in my life and I started seeing events that I had written in a different way. So it was themes, story, in the draft I started working on in the summer of last year, and then it became a visual piece. Now the script is already describing how I see every scene. So that’s another reason, I already see how I want to shoot it.
NBB: I’m curious now as well, on that question, you were saying you still see elements of social issues and parts of the real world into the work that you do — would you say that stems from your interest in photojournalism? How do you see the relationship between films, whether you write them or shoot them, and the social issues involved?
CC: I guess I never thought about it! (Laughs) Maybe it does come from that. I guess I never backtracked to that. Those are the kinds of movies I’m interested in going to the theatre and watching, stories from unheard voices on the screen; because that’s what I’m drawn to watch that’s also what I’m drawn into making.
NBB: Now, of course, I have to get back to Workforce. I thought the film was incredibly well-shot, so congratulations on that.
CC: Thank you.
NBB: I think one of the most interesting ideas is that the tone was in two halves, more neo-realist at the beginning, and then more thorny and unpredictable in the second half. The performances and writing were captivating, but the shot construction just as captivating, and it was so effective how still everything was. Could you tell me about working on the film, how you crafted those images, how you made the decisions to keep many shots so still and so intriguingly placed, and how the themes came into your work? That’s a lot of questions but I am very curious to hear your side of making the movie.
CC: So David Zonana, the director, contacted me maybe a year and a half before. I read the script and I was just in love with it immediately; I felt it was obviously an important story to tell, but it had so many layers, and I loved that you follow this character who kind of turns their back on us and everyone around them. And as much as you hated him for that you also understood he was also what the system, what society had created, and rejected. So it spoke to something I believe, that we are all creatures of our environment, we are a result of that. I immediately connected with it and I sat down with David; he has such a clear mind, he thinks of movies in a very simplistic way. He always imagined that each scene was contained in one shot, basically; for him, it just felt weird that you would be cutting in the middle, he saw all the layers and complexity within one image. That’s a great challenge for a cinematographer — it’s not every day that you get a chance to work with something who proposes something like that. In many ways cinema has moved into cut-cut-cut, so many editing points, everything is so fast; I think it was interesting that he wanted to go the opposite way. And not make it simplistic, I don’t think it’s a ‘simple’ movie in that sense, but to strip down everything, all the bullshit, and concentrate on telling this very specific story in one shot. I thought ‘wow, this is a great challenge.’
He had it so clear in his mind, that I never even thought ‘is this the right thing to do?’ He was so clear, that that was the right way, so we all immediately understood what he was after. Right after we met the first time, I found this book that had images of recently built but empty houses, I think it was in Miami; I loved, in those images, how the light lived in those spaces more than actual people. I loved the idea that we construct these palaces but then nobody inhabits these. So I sent it to him; when we got closer to shooting, we started looking for houses, and when we found the house it was like ‘oh, fuck, this is it.’ Architecturally, it’s doing everything that we’re trying to do, and it has the depth for us to create these shots that we were talking about. So we built our entire shot list at the location because it is an architectural movie in many ways.
Then we start visiting houses, because the non-actors all came from this neighborhood, here in Mexico City, so we started visiting the houses in the actual neighborhood where they came from. We saw how much it contrasted with the plain-coat building, the places with so much color and warmth. So these two spaces existed in that way already, and we just exaggerated it. David doesn’t like to add gimmicks to it, it was more about stripping it down. So it all started from there.
Neo-realism was always a big reference for us. Buñuel movies, especially when all the families move into the house and they have these big dinners, those are all extremely Buñuel scenes. But in terms of framing, we were trying to think of how we see this transition of Francisco, this hero, into becoming the antihero. I talked to David and said I felt the film was a metaphor, for a revolution. For any kind of revolution, the Cuban revolution, it doesn’t matter, where people start with these great ideas, and they get eaten by power, money, whatever it is, and then they get corrupted. That is so human, that we are so corruptible. So I studied a lot of Che Guevara’s photos, from the beginning of the revolution; I thought it was interesting where he was placed within the frame. He was usually centered, and people were always turned towards him. So we did a lot of that placement of Francisco, our hero at the beginning, and where he shifted later in the movie. Then there’s less and less you see of Francisco and more and more of the families.
NBB: I’m remembering the shot where he walks in towards the end, barely says a word, then disappears.
NBB: I could feel at that moment, he’s now been pushed to the margins, that’s really interesting. You said that was something you discussed with David Zonana, was that discussed on set, was everything very planned out or would you try different approaches?
CC: Well it was very planned out, but then sometimes you do things and they don’t turn out to be right for the movie. David is someone who never stops thinking; actually a lot of the scenes we re-shot. In our last week, we re-shot a bunch of things, including the beginning of the movie. We shot chronologically, and because we had very few shots, we actually had a really good time to process and to get the non-actors to get the right emotion at the right time. We were all building this movie together. So by week four, we start looking at what the editor was putting together, and certain things already didn’t make sense anymore, because we had discovered new things. So it was a really interesting process and very respectful of the construction of the narrative. And of the society, the forces playing against each other in the story. So yeah it was planned out, but we did end up re-planning a lot of the scenes.
NBB: You touched on something so true about how the audience takes it, it is so respectful of everything that happens, even as you question certain characters’ moralities.
NBB: How do you think this film will play? How do you see the life of this film when it is released?
CC: I mean, listen, it’s a small movie, it’s not going to get a huge release, but actually a bunch of different people have reached out that they had seen the movie, and I know David has been getting a lot of really good reactions, so I feel people are connecting with what David is trying to make and what the story is. I think it will play really well; I think it’s a movie that would play well in the US, and certain parts of Europe as well. I know in Mexico it certainly will; I think it’s a little harder sometimes when it’s talking about something that maybe we don’t want to talk about where we’re from, where the movie was made, you know what I mean? So I feel like maybe it will play better in the US or in Europe, than in a Latino country.
NBB: Well we’ll have to see!
NBB: Thank you so much for speaking with me, I really appreciate it.
CC: Thank you.
NBB: So you’re in Mexico City now?
CC: I am, yeah.
NBB: Just finished a night shoot?
CC: Yeah, I’m gonna go sleep during the day and become a vampire at night.
NBB: Well I don’t want to keep you up any longer, thank you so much again. And good luck with your film! I cannot wait to see it!
CC: Thank you so much. Cheers, bye-bye!
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