A Look Behind the Lens of Filmmaker Adam Newport-Berra

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As it turns out, silliness and soulfulness aren’t mutually exclusive traits. Director/DP Adam Newport-Berra (Barry, Creative Control) switches from affable goof to introspective poet quicker than you can say Super16. He’s the type to change your iPhone contacts to 911 when you leave the room (happened) or invent bizarre noises without provocation. Yet, Adam is always down to get existential, with a knack for sorting through the fluff in order to reach the guts of a complex matter more easily than most.

We caught up with the Oregon native, who has spent the last decade in Brooklyn and is currently traveling the world without a home base for the first time in his life. Adam’s captured rolls of enigmatic stills along the way, a process that’s become as much of a vehicle of self-discovery as it has been a nuanced study of the human condition.

He is, as Fiona might say, good at being uncomfortable.

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Cinema Thread: You’ve had a busy couple of years with the release of the critically acclaimed sci-fi drama Creative Control and Barry, a Barack Obama biopic. Have you had any time to decompress?

Adam Newport-Berra: I think I’m like most of the folks in our industry, in that, I’d rather be working than not. It might be a curse of the freelance artist, but I really love the work and I’m easy to let it consume me.

Most of my downtime between films is spent shooting commercials and music videos, and when I’m not doing that, I’ve been trying to travel and spend as much time as I can outside. After ten years in NYC, I’ve  decided to live without a home base for a while. The lifestyle has already lasted about a year, and in making this choice, I seem to have forced myself into discovering where I really want to spend my time.

Lately, I’ve been trying to find more peaceful spots where I can practice some stillness in order to find what inspires my work. Finding some personal discipline in photography has helped a lot with that.

Lately, I’ve been trying to find more peaceful spots where I can practice some stillness in order to find what inspires my work. Finding some personal discipline in photography has helped a lot with that.

It’s a funny duality. As we grow as people, we gain more wisdom, but we are constantly accruing more physical and mental baggage. I think my process has become one of constant reduction —shaving off the things I don’t need so that I can focus more energy toward the things that matter. It’s a difficult path in our industry with so many opportunities vying for our attention, but it seems to be what defines us.

CT: How did you get involved with Barry?

ANB: I first received the script for Barry through my agents Paul Hook and Lara Sackett at ICM. Initially, I was reluctant to make a film about our president; I had little interest in making art that championed a politician. When I read the script, however, I discovered that Barry was about so much more than a mythical political figure. It was an endearing, funny, human story about a brilliant, young, mixed-race man moving to New York City during the most violent year of its history.

His struggle for identity was not heroic. You see him make mistakes, act wrongly on his feelings, and generally behave like a twenty-year-old dude in college. But through this, you get to know the intentions of a conflicted yet inspired guy. What sold it for me is that the story resonates on so many levels, and it’s nearly irrelevant that the lead character will one day grow to be the president. It’s an important story to tell, and his story felt all the more relevant today. I  loved making a film set in my favorite era of NYC—one I know only from anecdotes, films, and photographs. It hardly felt like a job to reference all my favorite artists and photographers.

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CT: Your affinity for the era and appreciation for the film’s narrative are both very apparent while watching Barry. What was it like collaborating with Vikram Gandhi?

ANB: I loved working with Vikram. We vibed right away in our first meeting, loving all the same references of that era in NYC. What I appreciated most about Vikram was the balance he found between his thoroughness in conveying his vision and his ability to let go and trust his collaborators. He did an amazing job of setting the stage for everyone around him to offer their best work, and he always managed to maintain a sense of levity—something difficult when shooting a period piece on a budget in 25 days. A great director is like a conductor, and Vikram’s instincts both in prep and on set were spot on.

CT: Barry has a stylized, retro vibe. What lenses did you use for it?

ANB: Most of our filmmaking references were American films from the 1970’s and NYC photography from the 50’s through the 80’s. We were making a period piece and wanted to instill a sense of nostalgia for the time period, but it was crucial that it didn’t feel stilted or reductive.

This story still holds so much relevance in our current cultural landscape, and we wanted to make sure folks could watch this and find a place for it in the contemporary psyche. It was crucial we avoid it feeling like a dreamy artifact. Because of this, we opted for Zeiss Master Anamorphic lenses, which provide the sharpest, cleanest anamorphic image I’ve ever seen, and lend a sense of realness and immediacy to the screen. It doesn’t hurt that you can shoot those lenses wide open and still get a really refined image— helpful when working with a limited lighting budget.

Because of this, we opted for Zeiss Master Anamorphic lenses, which provide the sharpest, cleanest anamorphic image I’ve ever seen, and lend a sense of realness and immediacy to the screen.

With a fairly sharp, clean image to work from, I was then able to finesse (and destroy) the image as much as possible in color correction with the help of my colorist Damien Van Der Cruyssen at The Mill NYC. We pored over our reference photos and films, as well as the hundreds of on set 35mm film stills I shot, and found a palette that fit our vision of the time period, but still felt relevant to a modern audience.

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CT: Can you talk a bit about the decisions you made when shooting Creative Control? What would you say was the biggest technical challenge there?

ANB: The biggest challenge on Creative Control was owning up to our ambitions for the film. Ben and I spoke about the film for over a year before we made it, so we had plenty of time to imagine the possibilities and craft the most sophisticated (and often most difficult) way of making the film.

From the onset, Ben and I wanted to make a film that was both classic and modern— one that looked toward the future while honoring the past. Our initial references were the nostalgic images of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, the deep focus compositions and immaculate lighting of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, and the constantly evolving panning shots and mise-en-scène of Antonioni’s La Note.

Because this film is set in the near future, we juxtaposed our influence from these timeless films with a modern approach that suggested an awareness of current culture and the rapid progress of technology. We chose to shoot the film digitally to give the picture a clean, glossy, and sharp texture. To balance this, we used anamorphic lenses to give the picture a softer, more enveloping texture and feel. By using a combination of a dynamic camera mixed with static wide compositions, we aimed to shift between a more immersive and objectifying experience.

The goal was to confine David within the seductive yet often overwhelming constructs of modern New York— a sophisticated world his generation created, but one it now must seek to navigate. By using deep focus, graphic compositions, and wider, dynamic frames, we used David’s environment to subjugate him.

Ben had always wanted to shoot the film in black and white, and I supported the choice fully. In doing so, we created a world that felt timeless and familiar, while simultaneously trapped in a surreal, consciously objective space. By setting these hyper-modern, ultra-serious conceits, we were able to find the humor in David’s egotistical, digitized vision quest.

As for challenges, making a movie like this for half a million dollars and in 25 days was nuts. Every indie movie I’ve done has been 25 days regardless of what the script is or what the budget is. It’s like a strange formula has been created on the assumption that every film can fit in a template of 25 days. Shooting in NYC isn’t easy. It’s tough when you have a lot of locations, it becomes a logistical jigsaw puzzle. But that’s what also makes it great too, working within limitations and finding the most creative approach.

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CT: Was it difficult to DP when your director (Benjamin Dickinson does double duty in Creative Control) was also the lead actor?

ANB: Ben and I are very good friends and long time collaborators. We have worked on small films as well as larger commercials, and those experiences shaped us and our relationship. We wanted to embrace and honor these weird, beautiful, and often hilarious moments of our careers. We trust one another and that empowered us to take risks and make strong choices for the film, which we hope ultimately pay off for the audience.

It was tough at times to have Ben in front of the camera instead of behind the monitor. The film’s story was very personal to him, and the role was physically and mentally draining. We did the work in prep to align our vision for the film, and that allowed me to take a more active role in the direction of the film.

CT: Typically, how far in advance do you talk about the look of the film with the director? Do you do it while reading the script or on set or both?

Prep time varies from film to film, and really comes down to when I’m hired for the project. With Creative Control, Ben and I had over a year to discuss and daydream before even diving into prep, whereas with Barry, I was hired only a couple months before production. Either way, I devote as much time as I possibly can to the director; I’m greedy for any moments I can get to discuss our approach and gain insight. Prep is one of my favorite parts of filmmaking; it’s a time to build relationships, trust, and find unexpected inspiration.

It’s crucial to have a cohesive, mutual understanding of the approach before production. The more aligned I am with my director, the more adaptable we find ourselves on set. The more prepared we are, the more willing we find ourselves to abandon the initial approach if it’s not working on set. Ultimately the director and I know what our objective is for that scene and can find another route to the same destination. The end is not questioned, which gives us freedom to be flexible with the means.

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CT: You DP-ed and directed the short film/documentary Greenwood. Was it challenging to handle both?

ANB: I love the DP/Director collaboration because in most instances, two brains are better than one. With Greenwood, it made sense to do everything myself because it was as much about the craft of the piece as [much as it was] the storytelling, and I enjoy working with a small, intimate crew.

It was important that I shoot and direct Greenwood, because the process called for silence, observation, and meditation. I wanted to avoid any discussions during production so that I could let the process unfold unhindered. With just my camera and a zoom lens, I was able to fade into the background. The beautiful thing about shooting and directing documentary work is the simple intimacy you can achieve with your subjects, who are most often folks that don’t spend much time in front of cameras. Your subjects really trust and put a lot of faith in you because they know you’re the arbiter of the piece. With that dual role comes added pressure and responsibility, but it’s a great challenge.

CT: Well the results are stunning. How were you able to make a documentary look like a scripted feature? Did you make the decisions on what to cover ahead of time?

ANB: I wanted to design the film before I shot it. It was helpful to know the process ahead of time —I really wanted to avoid “finding” the film in the edit. I had witnessed their work prior and I did research on their techniques so I knew what to expect. A big part of it is just committing to compositions and letting them evolve. I might set up a shot that doesn’t seem quite right at first, but if I let things play out long enough, something interesting will happen, and the frame earns meaning.

In blending the world of narrative and documentary, I was thinking a lot about the coverage. Having a narrative background informed how I was going to edit the piece, and pushed me to build a shotlist before we began. I tried not to impede the process, as we only had two days to shoot. We couldn’t afford to set up every shot and have the subjects wait for me.

Either way, I devote as much time as I possibly can to the director; I’m greedy for any moments I can get to discuss our approach and gain insight. Prep is one of my favorite parts of filmmaking; it’s a time to build relationships, trust, and find unexpected inspiration.

CT: Do you have a particular lighting philosophy?

ANB: That’s a tough question. I find that my instincts lean toward embracing and augmenting natural environments. Every project is different, but what’s most important to me is that you can sell through an aesthetic that elicits a visceral reaction without drawing unwarranted attention to your work.

I feel most comfortable with this approach, but as a filmmaker, I am also very wary of feeling comfortable! Every time I feel like I have a grasp on my approach, I usually find myself questioning that, and asking myself how I can turn this into a challenge that will teach me something new. Lighting is so heavily dependent on finding strong locations and compositions that work with those landscapes. Once I have that locked in, it inspires me to use lighting to push the narrative.

Ultimately, I try to make my lighting symbiotic with the overall filmmaking style we are employing, always allowing actors time to work, honoring the production design, and giving the director freedom to explore.

CT: You’re pretty nice at still photography as well. I bet you’re pretty intense during color grading.

ANB: Ha! I do tend to obsess over color grades, especially now that most of my work is digital. I spend a lot of my time in prep building a library of reference photography, paintings, and films. I notice that more of my abstract references are most helpful, because they offer a palette and tone to work from, as opposed to saying “I want it to look like this movie.” I also shoot a lot of my own 35mm film stills of locations, talent, and production design, to see how they react to film. This usually has a huge influence on the grade I find with my colorists.

I’m incredibly lucky to work with two incredible colorists I admire enormously, Damien Van Der Cruyssen and Michael Rossiter at The Mill NYC. Both of them come from a commercial background, so they are used to spending hours on single shots. They’ve inspired me to take that same level of scrutiny to each frame of the films we make, and we’ve spent many a night obsessing over our work. We basically only take breaks when we crash their computer system from overloading it with layers. I feel that I have a pretty consistent aesthetic to my grade, so I’ve been able to develop a really efficient workflow with my colorists to get us most of the way there during production. Once we go into color, we are really able to fine tune things.

Damien and Mikey’s aesthetics have informed my work hugely, and I love that they have become such active participants in the films I shoot. They get involved with my projects early on, pulling references and building LUTs, so that when it comes time to color, we are all on the same page and we get plenty of time to finesse. This process has not only inspired my filmmaking, but my photography as well.

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CT: In your dream world, how would you want people to describe your work?

ANB: That’s a terrible question!

CT: No it’s not!

ANB: I want to be known not only for my work, but for the friendships I make with my collaborators. The human connection in this process is so important, and is what empowers us to do our best work. I look to work with folks who feel the same way, and I’d like to think that despite how seriously I take my work, I’m just a dude who does his best to make great movies with good people.

I’d like to be regarded for the diversity of my work and my ability to adapt to different subject matter while still having a consistent aesthetic. I always seek to find the dramatic weight in the moments between scenes. The points of silence and meditation often hold as much or more meaning to me, and taking the time to explore that is something I pride myself on.

Also, I want people to always remember my dad jokes.

Follow Adam at @knucklewood

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