Sundance Film Festival 2022
North American Premiere
Interview

Barton Cortright 
Cinematographer
The Cathedral 

bartcortright.com

The Cathedral follows an only child’s meditative, impressionistic account of an American family’s rise and fall over two decades.

Hi Bart, thank you for talking to The New Current, how are you held up during these very strange times?

Not too bad actually! When the pandemic hit I was fairly burnt out and I took a much needed rest during the first month or two. Luckily by 2021 a lot of people had new scripts and ideas for projects, so the last 12 months have been very busy.

Has this time offered you any creative inspiration?

I watched a lot of movies during the pandemic. Mostly ones I had put off for years. I took deep dives into Marguerite Duras, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, Hammer Films, Raul Ruiz, Abel Ferrara, and a lot of the new wave Czech and Polish movement in the 70s / 80s. I was inspired by many of the movies and came away with tons of new references that I could use for upcoming projects.

You recently won Best Cinematography for ‘Killing Evan’ at the Portland Comedy Film Festival, what has it meant to you to get this type of recognition for your work?

It’s always nice to have your work acknowledged. That being said, the idea of competition at film festivals has always depressed me a bit. I wish films didn’t have to “compete” with one another. The flipside is hopefully this recognition will promote the film and encourage people to watch more independent films in general.

The Cathedral won the HFPA Special Prize at Venice Film Festival and is nominated in the NEXT Innovator Award at Sundance, will there be any nerves ahead of The Cathedral screening at Sundance?

Not really, as I mentioned the idea of competition in this context is a strange one to me. There are a lot of great films out there, but I hope that the nominations at least gives The Cathedral a bit of a spotlight and motivates people to go out and see it.

What are the first steps you take as a cinematographer when you’re about to work on a new film?

When I first read a script, I do my best to limit the visual ideas that pop into my head and just absorb as much of the story as I can until I meet with the director or see the pitch deck. Every director is different. Some want you to come to the table with ideas but most have specific ideas already. I like to remain neutral until I have a sense of what the director is going for visually. A lot of directors do want to collaborate and are very open to my ideas, but I try to always start slow and be respectful of their initial ideas. Once I have a sense of that and how open they are to my ideas, that’s when I usually start pulling references - mostly from movies and sometimes photography.

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"Over the years there’s definitely small techniques and style choices I’ve developed, but I really try my best to not have a style and adapt to what the project I’m working on needs."

Can you tell me a little bit about how you got involved in The Cathedral, what was it about Ricky D’Ambrose’s screenplay that interested you as a cinematographer?

Ricky and I have been working together since Graham Swon, his producer, recommended me for his first feature, Notes on an Appearance. He’d mentioned several times he’d been writing a script loosely based on his childhood and I was excited when I finally got to read it. With every film Ricky’s visual palette has expanded. I was excited to see his references for The Cathedral to see how his aesthetic would evolve since our last collaboration together.

How important is the collaborative nature of filmmaking between a cinematographer and a director?

Every relationship is different. As I mentioned before, and I don’t want to sound redundant, some directors know exactly what they want and others lean quite a bit on the cinematographer. Of course the best relationships are ones that are truly collaborative where both of you can bring ideas to the table and meet in the middle. Many relationships also evolve quite a lot with time as trust builds. It’s important, I’d say, to really spend the time in pre-production to develop your relationship with the director. It’s a chance to show each other images and make sure you’re on the same page. Once you’re on set there’s very little time for conversations so you really want that trust to be there on day one.

Lighting plays an essential role in The Cathedral what where the biggest challenges you faced getting the lighting right for the film?

There were a few childhood 35mm photos that Ricky wanted to replicate exactly that posed various lighting difficulties. There was one scene that had a nice sunset speckled light quality on a picnic table and family but the location we had didn’t allow that quality of light to happen naturally. With our budget our lights were only bright enough to read right before magic hour. I spent the afternoon gathering fallen branches in a nearby park and my gaffer, Mike Kohlbrenner rigged up a 8’ by 4’ leaf curtain that we could shine our lights through. We only had about 15 - 20 minutes of light to get the shots but luckily Ricky shoots very fast.

Ricky also really loves to shoot deep focus, there was one shot in particular where Geraldine Singer is inside in the foreground and a group of people are outside on the patio. Ricky wanted all of them in focus and properly exposed. In order to do that we had to shoot at an F15 and put enough light on Geraldine so that she was properly exposed, it was a bit of a challenge just with space but it worked out. 

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Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?

I’ve always loved movies. I had a great teacher in high school who had been a student of Stan Brakahge’s. He almost exclusively showed experimental and structuralist films, which at the time were unlike anything I’d ever seen. This introduction to filmmakers such as Brakahge, Paul Sharits, Owen Land, Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, etc. had a huge influence on the movies I gravitate towards and ultimately steered me towards being a cinematographer. Moreover, they have also largely shaped my aesthetic and the projects that interest me.

How much has your background in editing short films help to inform how you approach your role as a cinematographer?

I think it’s really essential when working on set to have done all the roles on a film. You’ll end up having a greater understanding and appreciation of everyone on set. I always recommend to first time directors to try to make a film themselves - do the sound, art direction, producing, cinematography, editing.

I heard Eric Messerschmidt say on a podcast: “Cinematographers get too much credit for the look of a film and not enough credit for the editing.” I think it’s true. Editors of course bring so much to the table and have the final touch on the movie. However, when you’re shot listing with a director, you really need to be editing the film in your head. If you don’t you’ll leave the editor with a lot of shots that will be hard to cut together. Editing shorts when I was starting out really helped give me confidence in making decisions about cinematography on set, but also when shot listing.

Has your style and to your projects changed since you started out?

When I was first starting out my goal was mostly to make pretty pictures. Once I got that out of my system I realized my focus should be on supporting the director to tell the story. Pretty is nice sometimes, but it doesn’t always help with storytelling. Over the years there’s definitely small techniques and style choices I’ve developed, but I really try my best to not have a style and adapt to what the project I’m working on needs. Something I really love about cinematography is that most directors want a different visual style. There are hundreds of ways to approach lighting and framing which makes every project new and exciting.

 

Do you have any advice or tips to offer an emerging cinematographer?

 

Find a way to elevate the director’s style and approach without asserting your personal style. Pick great projects and see them through from start to finish – pre-production is as important as production. A hard one sometimes is don’t take projects just for the money. Some of the best projects you’ll get starting out will likely pay you next to nothing if at all, but they’ll lead to much larger and better things.

 

And finally, what do you hope people will take away from The Cathedral?

 

I really hope people will be able to see it in a theatre and not on a laptop! There are a lot of films I struggle to watch at home, even on a TV, and I think The Cathedral is one that really needs to be seen in a cinema. I hope people can see past the minimalist visual style and appreciate it as a meditative story about growing up in the 90s on Long Island. The film also has moments that are intended to be funny and I hope people know it’s okay to laugh at those moments.