Cinematography of "Dating and New York" by Maria Rusche. Courtesy of IFC.

The art and craft of cinematography – interview with Maria Rusche

July 10th, 2021
Cinematography of "Dating and New York" by Maria Rusche. Courtesy of IFC.

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Maria Rusche. In this interview she talks about teaching cinematography to the next generation of storytellers (spoiler alert, they love film), keeping up with the technical advances, affecting social change through her stories, and the future of storytelling in post-Corona world. Around these topics and more, Maria dives into her work on the upcoming “Dating and New York”.

Maria Rusche behind the scenes.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Maria: When I went to film school, I thought that maybe I wanted to be an editor. I have a cousin who worked as an editor on big comedies, and I thought that that was the part of the storytelling that I wanted to be a part of – crafting of the arc. But then I got into film school and started to learn more about how movies are actually made. I figured out what the job of the cinematographer is, which is to work with the director and the production designer to create a visual language to tell the story, and create this visual world – but also work with a team of people to actualize that vision.

That role really made sense to me, as someone who grew up playing a lot of team sports. It’s a leadership position, but really it’s about working with and delegating to a team, and collaborating with the team. That was an area of the storytelling that I fit into really well. So I got into cinematography when I was in school, and I never looked back.

Kirill: Do you think this field does not work well for people who don’t collaborate well with others? Perhaps people that have strong ideas that they are not willing to compromise on?

Maria: There can be a bit of a stereotype of this auteur who rules with an iron fist, and has their vision and they won’t compromise. But I’m not sure how true that actually is.

The best directors and cinematographers can understand what the vision is that they’re trying to achieve, and they’re able to encourage the people around them to contribute their own ideas. And then they’re able to filter what works well for the project and what might not work well so that there’s a cohesiveness across the project. There’s absolutely no way that one person can execute everything, and I mean that literally. They’re not moving the lights around, they’re not moving the camera themselves. They need people to work with them, and if you can’t work with the team, I’m not sure how great of a product you can ultimately make.

Cinematography of “Milkwater” by Maria Rusche.

Kirill: There’s so much great storytelling that has been happening in the last few years, especially on streaming services. Do you feel that there’s more space for storytellers of different backgrounds to have their voices heard?

Maria: I’m definitely excited by the democratization of voices getting opportunities. There’s a lot of streaming services that are starting to produce content, or at least give a platform for a wider variety of content to be seen. Some people worry that it’s too much content, but I think it’s still true that the good stuff floats to the top. We are seeing a wider variety of storytelling opportunities for people who didn’t traditionally get opportunities, and by opportunities I mean financing, compared to a few years ago.

I feel that there’s still a gatekeeping aspect of it. It’s still these streaming services or production companies that are choosing who gets to tell those stories, and what stories they deem are authentic enough or palatable enough. The “diverse” stories that we’re getting are still the ones that streaming services deem palatable or appealing to an audience. I would say I’m excited, but with that caveat.

Kirill: Is there a space for crowd-funded initiatives that are so popular in the gaming world, or in the world of gadgets – on platform like Kickstarter, or are these productions a little bit too expensive for that?

Maria: It’s a little bit expensive. You are seeing some crowd-funded independent movies. You can make a movie on a smaller budget compared to 20 years ago, and maybe those movies are serving as a way for a new director to get their foot in the door and get a little bit of attention. But most of those independent movies still end up being made by people with some connections to financiers in some way, or at least an ability to call a few people and scrape together a couple hundred thousand dollars to make their movie. That model doesn’t really help those who don’t have any access to wealthy donors.

I have not seen a true crowd-funded movie from someone who has gotten a hundred thousand people to give two dollars each. There’s still some issues there.

Cinematography of “Might” by Maria Rusche.

Kirill: Would you say that you have fallen on the digital side of the industry transition from film to digital?

Maria: I was lucky that when I was in film school, I still learned on film. A lot of our cinematography classes were run on film, and I was able to shoot a number of projects on film at the start of my career.

I think that is crucial for learning the fundamentals of cinematography. You learn how to control the visual components that you’re in charge of as the DP. You learn to understand what goes into your exposure. And at the same time, digital cameras were starting to get viable, and we were starting to see digital cameras that you could take and shoot a movie on that looked comparable in a lot of ways to film.

In some ways, I got the best of both worlds as I was still able to learn on film. Digital cameras were designed in a lot of ways to mimic what film does to the best of their ability. So understanding what it is that film does and what it looks like is crucial to getting the most out of a digital camera and understanding why it’s built the way that it is. I was able to get the best of learning on film, understanding it, and feeling comfortable shooting with it – but still being able to embrace the digital cinematography as well.

Kirill: You are now also teaching cinematography to the next generation of artists. Do you see any sort of a pushback on working with film, as people who grew up with iPhones do not maybe get the importance of that physical medium?

Maria: It’s funny, as I’m really seeing the opposite. The kids are absolutely obsessed with film. A part of it is that film has made a comeback, and it’s very much back across commercials and features.

It’s a bit trendy. I’m not exactly sure what it represents to these kids, but it’s almost like an authenticity of filmmaking. It’s a draw for the industry at large. There’s something authentic about it, same as with vinyl records. I’m so glad that they’re into it, because it is an incredible teaching tool. As I was saying earlier, it is crucial to understanding exposure. I see that students are technologically literate and very comfortable with the digital technology, but there’s a certain lack of discipline in that it’s so easy to push a button and have the image get brighter or darker or change colors a little bit. If you’re not forced to be disciplined about understanding how your ISO works, how different elements of the exposure work, you’re not necessarily going to learn them and those skills are really fundamental, they’re the building blocks on which the rest of the technical knowledge is built.

Film forces you to do that. The image you see on your video tap is not what the exposure is going to look like. You’re forced to use your light meter. You’re forced to understand the different principles that you’re using. It’s great and I’m glad that the students are excited about that. I think it does give them a lot in terms of their education.

Maria Rusche behind the scenes.

Kirill: How do you approach balancing the art and the technology of cinematography, for yourself and your students? Is one more important than the other, or is there a balance between the two?

Maria: I believe that a cinematographer is made of three equal parts. The first one is the artistry, the second is technical expertise, and the last one is managerial, collaborative aspect of it. This third part gets brushed aside a lot.

My experience in film school was very much tech focused, and cinematography can often be pitched that way. Some people would say that if you can’t understand the technical aspects of the job, then you’re not going to be able to do the job.

I think that cinematographers often start out pretty good at one or two of these three things, and work on the others as they gain experience. I know tons of incredible DPs who have great artistry, but maybe are not as strong in the tech side of it, or who are incredible leaders and collaborators and work with excellent technicians who can help them fill in that part of it. That is important to remember, and hopefully that encourages people who don’t see themselves necessarily as technically strong to still see themselves as great cinematographers.

Kirill: Does it get sometimes overwhelming to try and keep track of all the advances in technology of cameras, lights, lenses, filters, software, etc?

Maria: It definitely can feel overwhelming if you let it. I think of all of those things as tools for me to help tell the story.

Each project I do usually has something new for me that I am going to be trying out. I use that as an opportunity to keep up with new lighting tools or different cameras. We shoot though mirrored glass on “Couples Therapy” and it cuts a lot of light. We use Varicam LT [link tp] that has a dual ISO function, and it allows us to shoot at 2,500 or 3,200 ISO and not have an overly noisy image. This allows me to stay focused on the way the tech is helping me rather than just trying to use a new toy because it’s new.

I work with great technicians, gaffers, key grips and ACs who are excited about the new tech. When I come to them with a problem or some new idea that we’re trying to tackle, they often bring new ideas to my attention, and that is really helpful for me.

Maria Rusche behind the scenes.

Kirill: Does it help that you started in the camera department as a gaffer and worked your way up?

Maria: Definitely. I started as a gaffer and an electrician, and I think that helped me feel comfortable technically with lighting, and to be able to be really specific about what I was looking at, and how to manipulate the lighting. I intimately worked with many different technologies, and that has definitely helped me keeping up with those tools. I know what I’m looking for, or how something could be used or integrated into what I’m doing.

Kirill: Getting a little bit closer to your productions, how do you choose what you work on? What are you looking for?

Maria: First I’m looking at the script and the project overall. One reason I wanted to make movies is because I do think it’s one of the fastest ways to affect social change and public opinion. You can normalize things or create empathy through the way ideas are represented in media in a faster way than you can affect policy change.

One of the first things I’m looking for in a script is what is the story that they’re telling. Does it move us forward in some way? Does it make me think about something in a way I haven’t before? I really love when there’s a comedic element because my world view is to try to laugh at most things. That’s the way that I get through life in general, so that’s what I respond to most.

On top of that, I’m looking at the director because that’s a relationship on a feature that lasts months, and it’s an extremely close relationship. I have to trust that person that they’re going to be able to steer the ship. I have to like that person. I have to be able to wish them well. I’m putting so much time and effort into this project, and often I’m bringing a ton of crew who are going to put a lot of their time and effort into this project. So I have to believe that the director is someone I want to support and someone I want to see succeed.

Those the two biggest ones that I think about when I’m assessing a new project.

Maria Rusche behind the scenes.

Kirill: How would you compare your work on feature films and your work on the TV show “Couples Therapy”?

Maria: On features I’m working so closely with the director on developing the vision and the visual language, and that one-on-one relationship.

On “Couples Therapy” we have a few different executive producers who are designing the show in addition to a director. I talk to them and work closely with them, and it’s this bigger group brain trust that is developing this longer-form show. It’s also a doc series, so in that way it’s quite different from the scripted features that I do because it’s a lot more about patience and waiting for the right moment rather than imposing your vision on the material. But in general, it’s a larger group of people that is collaborating on the story, as opposed to it being one-on-one with the director.

Kirill: As you work on these productions, do you want to have your own distinct style that you bring to them, or do you use different styles for different productions?

Maria: I definitely try to be more of a chameleon on the projects that I shoot. I really want the visual style to evolve from the story and I try to start from scratch each time in that way. Of course, I am bringing my own taste, but I hope people can’t necessarily watch a movie and pinpoint that it was me that shot it. I want each style to be centered on that specific story.

Kirill: Do you want viewers to talk about what you did, or do you want people to talk about the story? Do you feel that if they talk about the story, that means that you did your job so well that it became almost invisible?

Maria: Ideally the cinematography acts as a way of enhancing your experience of being immersed in the story. It’s OK to appreciate well done cinematography. But when cinematography is overpowering what’s happening in this story, and it’s taking you out of the scene because you’re noticing that crazy camera move, you’re just calling attention to yourself. It’s easy to fall into that trap, because everyone wants someone to take screenshots of their work and think that it’s beautifully done. But I try to be mindful of when an aesthetic choice doesn’t serve the story.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as your favorite production that you’ve worked on so far, or are they all differently attractive to you?

Maria: It’s tough to pick your favorite child, for sure. I feel that I’ve been extremely lucky in the projects that I’ve done. I look at “Shiva Baby”, “Milkwater” and “Dating in New York”, and I see how my collaborators have turned into great friends, and that has been extremely rewarding, because it’s made the collaboration a lot richer. I don’t think that you always get that lucky with projects, so I love them all equally.

Cinematography of “Dating and New York” by Maria Rusche. Courtesy of IFC.

Kirill: Is there a particular a sequence, a scene, or a set in “Dating in New York” that stands out as one of your bigger challenges that you were facing?

Maria: In “Dating in New York” we had to do a wedding scene, and we had one day to create an entire wedding. That was definitely a challenge. We wanted to have high production value around the production design of the wedding itself. On top of that, we had both the ceremony and the reception to light, which were two different lighting scenarios, daytime and nighttime. We wanted to make that scene look grand and romantic, so we a lot of camera movement as well.

It was a lot to coordinate in one day, but it is a such a center piece of the movie, and ultimately the team worked super hard to pull that off. I’m happy with how it turned out, but it was definitely nail biting at the time.

Kirill: Looking back at your earlier work, do you remember the pressure, the stress, things that didn’t go well, or do you look at it through a rose-colored filter?

Maria: You have to look at it somewhat through rose-colored glass. It’s so difficult and it is so high pressure that it would be hard to continue to do it if you only fixated on the difficult aspects of it. Of course, you never have enough time. There’s always that pressure trying to get everything done, and make sure the director has enough time to get the performances that they need and to execute everything.

I’ve found that it’s always so rewarding to sit in color correction, because in some ways you are looking back at it more romantically. It happens months after those scenes were shot, and you see it all come together. That’s when you see that ultimately it all worked out, and that helps you move on to the next one, and continue to put yourself through it.

Cinematography of “Dating and New York” by Maria Rusche. Courtesy of IFC.

Kirill: Does it feel sometimes almost random which stories manage to capture the audience’s attention and have an impact on the public debate, and which ones fall on the side of the road, so to speak?

Maria: I don’t know that I think it’s random per se, but it is quite difficult to be able to predict which ones will capture people’s attention and will land at the right time. A big part of that is that the process of writing, and getting the movie made, and finishing it, and then ultimately distributing it is such a long process. It is extremely difficult to have the foresight to write something that’s going to feel timely in maybe two years when people are getting to see it.

I remember the line on “Shiva Baby” where Rachel the lead says “I’m not really a girl boss, that’s not my thing,” and at the time I remember thinking that it was a hot take that being a girl boss is out. That was two years ago now, and now you see comments and memes poking fun at girl boss energy all over the place. It points to the talent of writers and directors who can foresee that commentary or relevancy before it’s really widespread.

Kirill: Do you think that it’s more palatable to the audiences to get these messages through comedy or through drama?

Maria: I think that people equate sadness with depth a lot of times, and that people don’t necessarily feel that way about movies that are joyful or funny. A lot of times those movies are dismissed as being frivolous, light, and superficial. But there’s absolutely just as much depth in comedy and in joy as there is in sadness. A lot of people I know, myself included, get a lot of meaning out of seeing something portrayed in a funny, poignant way.

Cinematography of “Dating and New York” by Maria Rusche. Courtesy of IFC.

Kirill: How has Corona treated you in the last 18 months?

Maria: It’s been OK. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to hunker down in Brooklyn. I was in the middle of shooting “Couples Therapy” Season 2 at the time, and luckily that show is pretty well suited to Covid restrictions, because each crew member is pretty separate on the set. So I was lucky to be able to finish up that job and feel relatively safe.

I’m definitely relieved that the vaccine is allowing a safer environment and means some restrictions are lifting in New York, and I’m seeing a huge resurgence in productions trying to get things off the ground.

Kirill: Do you think the storytellers want to incorporate this global pandemic into their stories? Do you think the viewers want to see that in the entertainment on their screens? Are we going to collectively ignore, if you will, that this never happened?

Maria: I hope so, in a way. The best art to be made from Covid times is going to be Covid-adjacent. If you can speak to the feelings or the things we learn from this experience – without literally setting your movie during Covid and having everything take place over Zoom calls – because I have no interest in seeing those movies. I don’t want to literally relive what we just went through.

I think that some interesting art in the next few years will spring from exploring the things that we’ve learned in the past year.

Kirill: You go to a party and people there are not from your industry. Somebody asks you what you do for a living. How difficult is it to convey this complexity of art, technology, managing people, managing budget, managing schedule into something that can be understood?

Maria: It’s so difficult. The way I usually approach it is to say that the director is the orchestrator of the overall movie, and the director of photography directs the photographic elements. I’m directing the lighting, the camera movement, and how we’re capturing what you see. That’s the small talk version of how I explain the job.

Kirill: Going back to last year and even earlier this year, it wasn’t even clear if movie theaters would be able to stay in business. Do you see a world where movie theaters do not exist, where people watch films only on their TVs, tablets and phones, where there is no more that communal, shared experience?

Maria: In some ways, the Covid experience has made me feel like movie theaters won’t go anywhere. People realized that we became starved for collective experiences. This experience showed us how much we want to do things together, and how much we miss collective experiences like going to the movie theaters.

It’s made me see that it’s not going to be one or the other. There are plenty of people who want still to go to the theaters to experience certain movies collectively and on a big screen. And at the same time, streaming has allowed way more movies to reach a wider audience. I’m seeing it with all of the features that I’ve done. Because they’ve been streaming, they have become accessible to a much wider audience. And that audience is typically younger, viewers who are more comfortable with streaming a movie even if it’s not on necessarily a major platform. These viewers grew up watching Youtube videos instead of TV, and they’ll watch a movie that their favorite Twitter comedian is in, they are not turned off by having to stream it or buy on iTunes. Hopefully we’re going to keep both around.

Kirill: If you won a lottery tomorrow and had enough money that you don’t need to work for the rest of your life, would you still want to be in this field?

Maria: Totally. I feel lucky that I can participate in the type of storytelling that I do, making movies and TV. It’s something that affects my community and the people around me. I get to choose what projects I participate in, help those projects succeed, and I get paid to do it.

Even if I won the lottery, all it would allow me to do is be even more selective about what projects I choose to work on.

Maria Rusche behind the scenes.

And here I’d like to thank Maria Rusche for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of cinematography, and Leni Weisberg for making this interview happen. “Dating and New York” will be released in Fall 2021. And if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.