The director/cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes has been one of my best friends for over a decade. Since meeting our freshman year at NYU, we have worked together on no less than a hundred short films, music videos, features, and commercials. I edited the first feature documentary he directed, Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be The Same, and Jody will get behind the camera for my upcoming narrative feature Bluebird. Additionally, Jody wrote, co-directed and shot NY Export: Opus Jazz, a scripted adaptation of the Jerome Robbins ballet which won an Audience Award at SXSW and aired on PBS. Additionally, Jody has cinematography credits on Afterschool, Two Gates of Sleep, Tiny Furniture, Wild Combination, and the upcoming Martha Marcy May Marlene and Margaret Brown’s Untitled Oil Spill Documentary. We recently sat down in his apartment and talked filmmaking over beers and Korean ramen.
LE: So you’re a cinematographer and I’m an editor, but we also direct our own films. I’d like to ask you about how you separate those things in your head. Is there a difference in how you invest yourself in something that is your own film versus something that you’re shooting for someone else?
JLL: I think when I’m working as a DP it’s a very different feeling than working as a director. I think the biggest difference is that I feel less safe and sort of more exposed when I’m directing. I’m sort of baring myself more, and for that reason it’s a harder job and a job I aspire to more. When I’m shooting I feel a lot more confident and less neurotic about the outcome because ultimately it’s not my name on the product.
LE: Personally, I know that if I just wanted to be an editor and never direct my own stuff, then I probably wouldn’t have turned down as many projects as I have. I’ve been offered films that would have been good career choices, working with a new director, a bigger budget, or in a new genre. But I don’t end up doing it, usually because it’s not creatively interesting or challenging to me. I think because I aspire to make on my own films, I only want to work on projects that I think are going to make me a better filmmaker.
JLL: Sometimes I tell people that being a DP is just my day job, but it’s really more than that because I learn a lot, too. Also, I can use it to the benefit of my directing career because I can sort of keep my name afloat while I’m working on other peoples projects. When someone knows your name from other movies, I think it’s a great foot in the door. I mean, it can be negative because other people might think of you as a camera person and have trouble seeing you as a director, but I also think its good for people to recognize your name. It can either be a source of income, it can be a learning tool, a way to meet collaborators, or it can be a way to keep your name in the film industry. But there are certainly traps to all of those benefits too.
LE: You also have a very specific style and people can see that in your DP work and associate you with that style. That’s harder for an editor. There’s no such thing as a recognizable editing style. It’s supposed to be invisible.
JLL: That’s true. It’s more difficult.
LE: Do you ever think of yourself just as a filmmaker, not necessarily as a director or a DP, but just a person who is a storyteller who uses a different tool each time?
JLL: Yeah, that’s how I like to think of myself. I’ve spent 90% of my energy every day for the last ten years working on movies, whether it’s as a PA, a cinematographer, or a director. I think that many of the cinematographers that I respect think of themselves as filmmakers.
LE: It’s also nice sometimes not to take the driver’s seat of a director but to work on a film in a more interpretive way, where you’re helping someone find the film. I think a film like Tiny Furniture and other things I’ve edited aren’t really films I would make myself, but I think they’re great films. So it’s a great way to discover new cinematic techniques that you never would have found if you only worked on your own projects. And the reverse of that is that being a director makes you discover new things about editing or shooting which makes you better at your craft. For example, since you’ve directed, I think you’re particularly attuned to performance as a DP.
JLL: Well, when you’re looking through the camera, if you can shut off everything else and just be totally immersed in watching the take and respond to how you feel about it, then it doesn’t really matter what you think isn’t working, if that is the thing that needs to be improved than that is what you need to talk about. If it’s performance, or sound, or whatever. Regardless if it’s your job or not.
LE: What do you think about commercial stuff? It seems like every director now has a body of film work and a body of commercial work. If you type David Fincher into Youtube, you’re going to see the Social Network trailer, but you’re going to also see his Nike commercials. When we were learning to make films I always thought that working on commercials would be kind of a tragedy, and yet we do that, and even more punk rock directors do it. Like you can find Harmony Korine’s Budweiser commercials online.
JLL: I think it’s the same thing as differentiating being a director and a DP. Some people’s day job is making commercials and I think a lot of the same things can be said about dividing your time. Like you might self-identify as a commercial director but you want to make a movie because you feel like you’re supposed to, or you want to try it. I mean, I think a lot of super star directors in the last twenty-five years have come out of the commercial world, which didn’t really exist on the same scale before that. I think Spike Jonez works very well in both of those worlds and it appears to me that he feels creatively satisfied. His short of Absolute Vodka is a great example of the kind of creative crossover that you can achieve working in advertising.
LE: But is that a new thing? To me it’s just really hard to imagine Bergman making a floor wax commercial. Or even Peter Fonda doing a Levi’s tie-in with Easy Rider.
JLL: I think the commercial world is changing a lot. You were just saying the other day. Is being a commercial director in the next ten years making 30 second TV spots? Probably not. I think our idea of a commercial director is kind of on the way out.
LE: I’m just not convinced that things are necessarily changing for the better in the way that advertising is getting ingrained onto everything. It just feels like there’s less of a chance of having an outside voice that isn’t going to get co-opted by the ad agencies. And that might be bullshit. It might have always been that way.
JLL: I definitely think that movies that push the boundaries of entertainment and storytelling can be great, but to me the ultimate goal is to make films that are unique, but that still have a mass appeal. The best creative minds can create a movie that everyone loves but still has it’s own voice. Even someone like Kubrick was always upset that more people didn’t go to see his movies.
LE: But you’re not blowing your wad on these commercial shoots. Are you only pushing yourself to a point, or are you actually trying to make them awesome?
JLL: Well I’m more sought out for narratives and documentaries, really. But most of the commercials I’ve done don’t really have a through line. There is only a loose narrative. To me that’s kind of boring. If I’m only supposed to make it look amazing, it’s not that interesting to me, its only a paycheck. Which is way I hate shooting music videos because most of the time it’s just nothing. If you just want to make pretty things, that’s fine, I’m just much more interested in telling a story right now. Which is why my commercial career is much less alive than my feature career.
LE: I think in order to become a great film DP, you have to have a deep understanding of story, which you don’t necessarily have to have to shoot commercials or music videos.
JLL: Well it’s much more tonal. Which a valid skill, its just not a skill I’m interested in at the moment. When I was in high school I just wanted to make cool looking videos with my video camera, but I think for me it got to a point where I wanted more than that.
LE: Do you still prefer shooting film versus video?
JLL: Most of the time, yeah. But with something like Wild Combination, shooting the VHS stuff for that was great. But I think, generally speaking, compared to the video formats that I’ve used, film is still superior in almost every way.
LE: Do you think part of that was because we learned by shooting film at NYU? We were one of the last classes to learn on 16mm black and white reversal that we cut on a Steinbeck. I think there is a big divide between people who had to learn by forcing themselves to make decisions, shooting a project on three rolls of 16mm which is six minutes of film rather than shooting hours of video and finding it in the editing room.
JLL: I think it’s more about your personality. I have a sort of lofty theory that when you make movies, you have to make strong decisions. I think most of the movies I like turn out better that way, rather than trying a thousand different things without a commitment to telling a story a certain way. As a director and as a DP I like to do a lot of one shot scenes. I think of the editing process ahead of time and use it as a guide.
LE: There seems to be a thing in your work, particularly in Brock Enright, where the conflict seems to be about people who are very committed to their own work, and the problems that arise from that dedication clashing with their family or with the mess of life that creeps in. Do you think you struggle with those problems in your own life?
JLL: That’s a very specific way of looking at the movies that I make. In a broader way, what I’m interested in is people who are really good at what they do or really dedicated and consumed by what they do. I think the conflict is often expressed through family. I think about Opus Jazz, the same way. Jerome Robbins, who created the ballet the film is adapted from, was totally consumed by his work, and more successful at several different careers in the arts than almost anybody. There was a lot of conflict in his life because of how successful and dedicated he was. He was a total perfectionist. I think that’s a beautiful conflict, when all someone wants is to do a good job. When Opus Jazz changed from being just a hired job for me to being something I was really passionate about, was when I read one of the biographies about Robbins and learned about his relentless drive. But I don’t know any one else in the world who would draw parallels between my two films that way.
LE: I hope this interview is interesting. I feel like there are people out there who want to know more than, “How did you raise the money?” or “Why did you use that camera?”
JLL: I actually think those are valid questions. Sometimes you need to start at the very edge of something to understand a deeper idea about it. I saw Hadewijch at the NYFF last year and I asked Bruno Dumont a question about why he shot the film in 1.66 instead of his normal 2.39 ratio. He said the investors wouldn’t pay for it if it was 1.33, which is how he wanted to shoot it because of projection issues that could occur during release. He explained that the film was about one person so it should have been a square and that it was a more modest frame which contradicted the weighty importance of the religious subject matter. I had a thousand other questions based on his response. So it can be like a window into more fascinating things about the movie.
LE: That’s actually something I think about a lot. When you’re making a film it’s a constant battle about what you want and what does the audience want. How much do you care about satisfying other people? I mean how do you decide to change things based on what is the most satisfying to the audience?
JLL: The way I think about it is, as you get older and develop more of a career with a wider audience, you have more responsibility to other people. What was special about the Brock film, was that it was straight from my subconscious, I wasn’t even sure it was going to be a movie. With Opus Jazz there was a lot of money and a world famous artistic legacy on the line, so there were more people and expectations to balance with my creative impulse.
LE: How do we get back to that point like when we were kids running around with video cameras? I remember making movies with my brother and we’d just find costumes and run around in the woods, and we wouldn’t know how it would end. You wouldn’t know what it was, you just had this general notion. We can’t do that anymore. You can’t discover what it is as you’re making it. People want you to have it figured out. And shooting it is just like, executing it.
JLL: Who? Investors? Well, yeah. It’s a trade off. If you want the resources then you’re going to be accountable to the people supplying them to you, and if you don’t, then you’re limited by a lack of resources. I don’t think one way is more evil than the other. It’s just really important to me to have enough freedom right now in my career to have access to that childlike thing, so when you’re older and there are more resources and responsibility, that you’ve had enough time to play so that you sort of know what you’re about and what is unique about your point of view. Opus Jazz was a perfect balance, we got almost everything we asked for to make the film and PBS gave us total artistic freedom so I feel like I was able to make my personal mark on it and have the tools and people I needed to make it work.
LE: The films that I think are the best are the films that really feel filtered through a personality. Where you’re seeing a very specific point of view.
JLL: I think so too, and I think that’s because I love filmmaking. But I think when a lot of people go to the movies, they want to see a “movie” and they don’t want to see the filmmaker. That’s what I think the highest form of cinema is, something that is totally unique but that feels like it’s totally cookie cutter. Kramer vs Kramer gives me this feeling sometimes.
LE: Like when you’re watching a movie and it feels like your own thoughts and not like something that came from someone else’s brain.
JLL: But how do you get that place where you’re reaching a big audience, it’s commercially viable, it’s relevant to people, and it’s totally your own voice? That’s obtaining perfection to me.
LE: Well that’s not something that everyone can achieve, obviously. There are some directors who’s point of view is just too strong. They just can’t get out of their own head. You mentioned Bruno Dumont before. I can’t imagine him taking a Hollywood script and playing it straight without getting in his own way.
JLL: True. Anyway, it’s good to have small goals on the way there. It’s good to outline what you want and remind yourself what your goals are so you’re not making those decisions in the moment. And it’s good to have a bio or something just to remind yourself what you’ve accomplished. Because there’s so much failure, so much stagnation and so much disappointment that its good to look at something and say, well I may be a failure, but at least I did that one thing.