Creative Analysis: Part 15 - Cinematographer Nancy Schreiber On P-Valley

Often, performers at a strip club are fleeting characters in a film or television production, sometimes reduced almost to the level of production design. P-Valley, produced for Starz by Chernin Entertainment, is based on Katori Hall’s stage play Pussy Valley, and defies that expectation by concentrating on the lives of the people who put on the show.

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Hall would go on to be showrunner on the television series, overseeing a bold photographic style. The visuals of P-Valley are perhaps adjacent to the neon noir of Blade Runner, but the people behind them prefer the term “delta noir,” in reference to the production’s Mississippi setting.

The production’s photography was established by cinematographer Nancy Schreiber, ASC. A quick glance at P-Valley might link Schreiber’s involvement with her music video experience, but a more complete analysis uncovers a history of documentary work and keen interest in what makes people tick that goes all the way back to college. Schreiber’s educational experiences did not, however, point toward camerawork. “I have a psychology degree and history of art degree. I went to the University of Michigan - there was no film school, but I started making Super 8 films with friends. It related to an earlier love of photography and art. I'd been an exchange student in Holland, my Dutch family lived twenty kilometres east of Amsterdam and I'd take the bus in to the Rijksmuseum. My mom was a part time art dealer. So, there was always an interest in art.”

Schreiber’s introduction to moviemaking was fairly direct: “I couldn’t see sitting in an office all day as a therapist. I moved to New York and answered an ad in the Village Voice, to be on a movie as a production assistant. I didn't know anyone in the business. It was a small movie and they were so under-crewed that by the end of the movie I'd been put in the electrical department. I took to it, and I parleyed that into a long career in the electrical department. I really wasn't in the camera department – sometimes on documentaries I'd light and load mags for the DP, but I'd be a terrible focus puller!”

“When I started shooting, it was very hard to get work in New York as a woman,” Schreiber remembers. Self-producing a documentary opened doors, leading to music video and, eventually, narrative work. “I still shoot documentaries. I like going out with hardly any crew and observing, seeing life and real people. I study human nature. I filmed a lot of social issue documentaries, including working with Barbara Kopple who won Academy Awards twice for her documentaries. I worked twice with Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who also won Academy Awards. First we did The Celluloid Closet about gays in the cinema. I’ve worked on several holocaust documentaries.” Meanwhile, Schreiber’s work continued to involve music, including The Bangles’ famous track Walk like an Egyptian and music videos for artists including Aretha Franklin, Billy Joel and Pink Floyd. “Music videos taught me to be able to move quickly and yet try not to compromise too much on the look. That has certainly helped my TV work, with the impossibly short schedules.”

The first episode of any drama invariably sets the tone, and Schreiber would eventually photograph episodes 1, 3, 5 and 7 of P-Valley’s eight-episode first season; others were shot by Richard J. Vialet. “I happened to be in New York, where a postproduction supervisor friend of mine told me that Carol Cuddy was looking for a female DP to do a series down in Georgia. That's how it happened. I did a Skype with Katori Hall, the showrunner, and the first director, Karena Evans, who was responsible for the look. She’s twenty-four years old, and had already been recognized for her music videos for Drake. The producers were also on the call, and without being told what they were looking for, I put together a look book of images I thought was appropriate to the subject matter. This is so common today in order to get work. There is always the danger of not being in sync with what they are looking for and not getting the job, but we know that DoPs are chameleons, and can shoot any style!”

Principal photography ran from February to July 2019 at the Tyler Perry studios, recently built on a former army base in Atlanta. Under production designer Jeffrey Pratt Gordon, a small but crucial selection of sets were built representing the performance area of the club, as well as its private rooms and backstage areas, and the interior of an apartment used by Elarica Johnson’s character Autumn Night. The exterior of The Pynk, with its iconic pink fluorescent lighting, was a disused building on the corner of the Tyler Perry lot. “It was about to be torn down,” Schreiber recalls.

“There was mold, and it was really in bad shape. Jeffery, with locations, had been driving around everywhere and couldn't find anything, and happened on it. It cost a lot of money, but we got the place cleaned up, mold remediation and asbestos removal. The funny thing about that exterior is that there was a housing development all around us and over time we could barely shoot without another house going up. In the later episodes you'll see a big truck blocking the view in one direction. By the end of production, the new houses had to be removed by VFX.”

One memorable scene is set outside the club just after closing, with the light of dawn leaking into the sky. It was shot, Schreiber confirms, “dusk for dawn. We did it twice. It's in a later scene too. But these scenes are not half a page; they'd be many pages with a lot of characters, so we had to tent the whole front of the Pynk in the late afternoon. When it was just right we'd rip the tents down and do the reverse toward the street for the proper dusk for dawn light. Katori said ‘dawn is when the club would be closing – we have to do it.’ The grips were terrific, very fast and organized and we made it work well.”

Schreiber arrived early enough during preproduction to exert some influence, particularly over the practical lighting for the club interior. “It was important to be proactive with the art department, so that we could include lights we could control with our DMX system, that were hopefully LEDs, that were in the set. The reason I'm saying ‘hopefully’ is that Katori really didn't want this club to be fancy. [The character] Uncle Clifford would never have the money to get state of the art moving lights. For example, for the grid, we got old housings of parcans and put LEDs inside them. If anyone looked up they'd think Uncle Clifford had found them from some old theater that was closing. We also hung Lekos that were LED but could have been decades old.”

Even the quickest look at P-Valley reveals a striking use of color, and Schreiber’s lighting package included a variety of full-color-mixing devices. What looks like pink fluorescent tubes used on the club exterior were in fact a large number of Astera’s popular Titan Tube. “We spent a lot of money on Asteras,” Schreiber admits. “We used some Rosco DMG Mini Mix and SL1s, and we had Skypanels and a countless Astera tubes. That was our saving grace. We had a little bit of tungsten, large fresnels for some night exteriors mixed with HMI when necessary.”

Color selection was first determined by the story. As Schreiber puts it, “it started as pink because the club was called Pynk, but it was very monochromatic so we had to start adding colors. In the rooms off, all the VIP rooms we'd dial in gold or blue. There was a little bit of turquoise. Katori didn't love green. She just didn't like green light on African-American people.” Otherwise, Schreiber had a very free hand. “Katori ruled the roost, and she wanted it to be funky. We went for the noise and the grain and added some occasionally in post. They wanted it to be gritty. That's what Katori said would be in this little town in Mississippi.”

P-Valley was shot on Alexa Mini cameras at 3.2K and, in pursuit of that grittiness, 1600 ISO. Equipment was supplied by Panavision, a supplier chosen, Schreiber says, simply because “today we know that the personality of the look is really in the lenses, and Panavision had the largest supply. When I was working with Karena, our first director, we used some music video techniques – Schneider Tru-Streaks and all uncoated lenses.” This process, referred to by Panavision as detuning, is available in grades from subtle to extreme and was applied to Panavision’s Standard Primes, which debuted in the 1960s. “We had multiples of several lenses as sometimes we wanted medium and sometimes extreme, so we had one and a half sets of primes. As the season went on we used more of the medium-detuned primes as they matched our zooms, intercutting better.”

For sequences showing dance in the club Schreiber always brought in a C-camera. “We used our Primo 11:1 zoom and a 19-90 zoom which was heavily detuned, by Guy McVicker at Panavision in Hollywood. We brought in a second 11:1 to day-play when we had dance sequences and needed a C-camera. We had one good 24-275mm zoom and that'd be on our B camera. We really liked the soft feel of the vintage glass, plus the unique aberrations typical of the no-coats gave so much character.” On occasions where detuned lenses weren’t available for specific duties, Schreiber used mild low-contrast or Smoque filters to make the difference less obvious.

For flashback scenes, Schreiber needed a clear visual distinction. “I did use Lensbabies, but Panavision found these cracked diopters that really worked out. We did have a couple of spot diopters - the German company Vantage has wonderful spot and strip diopters, but we couldn't afford them on our budget as shipping from Europe was expensive. We did find a few split diopters in the US for slow motion flashbacks of Autumn Night. I really was happy with how they came out, usually sandwiched with a No. 1 White Pro Mist.

P-Valley went through postproduction at Harbor Picture Company in New York. Schreiber supervised the first episode in person, but otherwise worked with colorist Roman Hankewycz remotely, using a setup in Los Angeles provided by Light Iron. “It really worked,” Schreiber says. “It was live grading. I'd be on the phone with Roman talking through every shot, and it was very smooth. And likewise, Richard was in Atlanta remote grading at a facility there.

P-Valley was produced for Starz, which Schreiber describes as “a progressive network that even allows for some nudity - which we showed, but not in any kind of exploitative manner.” There has been, she estimates, something of a change in the level of adventurousness tolerated by producers. “For a long time I would shoot pilots and not want to be on the series. Now it's the heyday of television, where the visuals really matter and the interesting stories are being produced on streaming and TV. Having said that, the ABC series I alternated with Daryn Okada, ASC, last winter took a more traditional approach. We have to adapt and be flexible.”

Having attracted a very positive critical response, P-Valley has already been renewed for a new season. Schreiber’s memories of the production, though, centre on one prominent aspect of it. “I always loved the dance sequences. Except for Brandee, Mercedes’ character, everyone else had a double. And in fact she did have one. We hired the best of the best of the pole dancers around the country to come in. The first time Brandee was climbing the pole, on episode 101, the producers were saying ‘you cannot go to the top, because of insurance.’ But we were rolling when she climbed all the way up, hung upside down, then slid down the pole, from the top, landing in the splits. Everybody gasped. The producers were a bit freaked but they didn't have to do any fancy cutting!”

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