“When you think of a love story, you usually think it’s between a boy and a girl, and it’s as simple as that,” muses Michael Lavelle, who shared the World Cinema Documentary Cinematography Award with Kate McCullough for the Irish film His & Hers, directed by Ken Wardrop. “This film,” he continues, “uses a series of small love stories to create a sense of the love story of life, in a way.”
Composed of interviews with 70 females — ranging in age from a few years old to the 90s (and edited to progress from young to old) — His & Hers presents a unified narrative of love as it is experienced at each stage of life. However, McCullough admits, “We were a bit concerned about having so many stories and making them fit side by side. It was crucial to lay down a feeling of familiarity [throughout the interviews] so it feels like it’s all one story. That led us to frame simply and not complicate the visuals.
“Rather than have a cinéma vérité feel, where you’re right on top of the character using a raw style of filmmaking, we wanted to settle the camera and let [the women] do the moving,” McCullough continues. The static camera and wide framing apply to the actual interviews as well as the cutaways, which show the women performing such mundane tasks as making the bed or peeling potatoes. The effect, Lavelle notes, “gives you time to absorb the space they live in. You see how they literally move through their world.”
Thematically, His & Hers feels like a continuation of Wardrop’s short film Undressing My Mother (2004), on which Lavelle served as director of photography and McCullough operated the camera. Both films were shot with a four-person crew rounded out by producer Andrew Freedman, who pulled double duty as the sound recordist. Lavelle also shot the shorts Scoring and Farewell Packets of Ten for Wardrop, and in 2008, he wrote and directed the short film Out of the Blue, for which McCullough won a Best Cinematography award from the Rhode Island International Film Festival.
One of the first decisions the filmmakers made was to shoot His & Hers on Super 16mm. “To shoot a documentary on film was an incredible privilege,” says Lavelle. “It was very tricky for Ken, because we usually had only about a can of film for each interview and its cutaways. It was really tight.”
His & Hers was shot over three months, during which the four crewmembers stayed in a house in the Irish Midlands, central to the interviewees, whom Wardrop found with the assistance of researchers Hannah Smolenska and Sheena O’Byrne. The average shooting day began at 7 a.m., with one of the filmmakers preparing breakfast while another made the day’s lunch and the other two packed the gear into the van. By 8 a.m., the crew was on the road to the first of the day’s two interviews; each interview, plus its corresponding cutaway shots, had to be completed within four hours.
Although Wardrop met with all of the interviewees in advance, the cinematographers didn’t meet them until the day of shooting. McCullough recalls, “We sometimes had photos of the person’s house, so we could get ideas about which spots might be good for shooting. The main concern was where we placed the person; that dictated everything else.”
“We wanted the light to have a natural feel,” adds Lavelle. “Anything that looked lit was something we just had to rethink.” To take advantage of natural light, the cinematographers shot on Kodak Vision3 500T 7219 with a set of Zeiss Super Speed lenses, favoring the 12mm, 16mm and 25mm focal lengths and frequently maintaining a T-stop of 1.4. (They framed for 1.85:1.) Filtration was kept to a minimum, with only an occasional ND or polarizer placed in front of the lens. When conditions required additional lighting, they turned to a 1.2K HMI or a 4' four-bank Kino Flo; they also frequently bounced light into a silver cake tray. “The company had a very small van, and that was our physical limitation: What lights could we put in there that our budget could afford?” says Lavelle.
The key to the interviews, Lavelle stresses, was “to be as low-key and friendly as possible so we wouldn’t disturb whatever was naturally going on in the house. It was really important to have the feel that we were just popping in for a cup of tea with an old friend. Actually, the producer sent around a letter to all the ladies that said, ‘Whatever you do, please don’t offer us tea,’ because it could have been 10 hours before we’d get out! Getting out past the cups of tea was the hardest thing, but that shows the warmth of the women we interviewed — they took us into their hearts. I think that’s evidenced in the footage as well.”
His & Hers marked the first time Lavelle and McCullough shared cinematography duties, and to help delineate their roles, the two traded camera and lighting responsibilities each week. However, McCullough says, “there was ultimately more work to do in the camera department, so it wasn’t really that clear-cut. Mike might be operating, but then I might need to pull focus on certain shots. It was an odd mix of jobs.” Lavelle agrees, noting, “The boundaries between the two jobs were quite blurred because we knew we were tight for staff. We watched each other’s backs and double-checked each other. The main thing was that we all felt like we were pushing in the same direction and working as a team.”
During interviews, Wardrop sat with a remote start-and-stop control for the camera — an Arri 16SR-3 Advanced — tucked under his arm. When he sensed a usable moment, he started the camera rolling, but, Lavelle recalls, “because the space was often so quiet and intimate, you’d hear the camera. We had pillows and my leather jacket tied around the camera just to keep the volume down. It was fine, though, because the pillow and leather jacket also made us look pretty low-key. Instead of some big, fancy technical thing in their house, it was just a group of friends with a little camera that made a bit of noise.”
Returning to their rented abode at the end of the shooting day, the filmmakers set about making dinner and unloading the van. While the cinematographers unloaded the film, cleaned the gear and filled out the day’s notes, Wardrop would edit ultra-low-resolution copies of the day’s footage, shot off of a clamshell monitor on set by a Sony HVR-Z1U camcorder, which Freedman used to record the audio. The crew would watch the edited footage each night after dinner and discuss their plans for the next day.
As the filmmakers watched the edited footage, Lavelle recalls, “We found our choices of shots were becoming more limited, because we were trying to build a flow and create a sense of unity over the film.” Serendipitously, the homes the filmmakers shot in offered a naturally unifying color palette. McCullough explains, “The women had their walls painted in such a way that you would think someone had done production design. Pastels were a motif, and what the women wore was often matched to their environment.”
Throughout His & Hers, the camera remains indoors; if an interviewee steps outside, the camera watches through a window. “These ladies were welcoming us into their homes, and it felt like we should stay in their homes for the whole film,” says Lavelle. “That visual motif became very strong in the film.
“At the very end, we take the camera outside and see a woman inside,” he continues. As the nonagenarian sits alone in a nursing home, Lavelle says, the audience is “left with a sense of inevitability, which says enough, I think. We thought about putting in moments like marriage, birth and death, but in the end, those are just hinted at. We don’t show a wedding, but we do show a girl who’s just getting her wedding dress washed. After a screening of the film, a woman commented that we think our lives are made up of really momentous events, but it’s actually these small moments that define our lives. It was Ken’s vision to come up with that type of stuff.”
The production’s negative was processed at Film Lab North in Leeds. Later, the digital grade was done with colorist Angela McLellan at Screen Scene in Dublin, and a 35mm festival print was made on Kodak Vision Premier 2393 at LipSync Post in London.
Thrilled with the success of their collaborations to date, Lavelle and McCullough are currently preparing to tackle a narrative feature as director and cinematographer, respectively. “It’s good fun to work together,” says Lavelle. “Long may it continue!”