Hungarian cinematographer Marcell Rév is a long-time collaborator of “Malcolm & Marie” writer-director Sam Levinson. The pair first worked together on Levinson’s feature debut “Assassination Nation” and continued into the hit HBO series “Euphoria.” For their latest, most intimate feat, a two-hander starring Zendaya and John David Washington as a couple confronting their turbulent relationships over the course of one night, Rév and Levinson had to scale down.
Conceived during the pandemic, the production used a limited crew, all of whom had already been part of the “Euphoria” team. Gorgeously crafted in 35mm black-and-white, the film takes place in a single location and was shot in chronological order. In order to create a dynamic visual language with minimal elements, the D.P. was deeply involved in selecting the home, a modern, glass walled structure in Carmel, Calif., designed by architect Jonathan Feldman and known as the Caterpillar House.
Rév dissects some of the most significant aspects behind the project’s aesthetics in this awards contender film, from his love for using film over digital to how every decision was in service of the actors’ performances — even more than in previous outings with Levinson.
How shooting on film guided the aesthetic
We had already a lot of restrictions due to the coronavirus, so we wanted to elevate this and make it somehow a movie experience. One of the elements of that is the stock itself. It gives a cinematic feeling to watch something shot on film. With digital, you have to create everything from scratch. But with film, you automatically have a certain kind of aesthetic in your hands. Of course, logistically speaking it’s a more complicated process and it requires more equipment, sometimes more lighting, maybe a little more care too.
The technical circumstances partly created the aesthetic of “Malcolm & Marie.” The fact that it wasn’t very sensitive stock meant you had to use less diffused, more direct light. The fact that it’s black-and-white also makes your lighting totally different. Shooting on film stock will automatically push you towards classic filmmaking and you have to create each and every shot. You’re not lighting a set or a space and then you move around and tweak your lights a little bit. You really have to properly light every setup. By default, shooting on stock shapes your aesthetic. Of course, you make your own personal decisions within that, but choosing to shoot on film narrowed them down. We shot the last two episodes of “Euphoria” on film and I think we will continue doing that for season two. We enjoyed these two episodes so much that there’s no turning back.
On shooting the opening sequence multiple times over several days
At the very beginning there’s the wide shot of the car arriving and then as they enter the house there are a couple of shots setting the mood. And then we go into this long shot of Malcolm’s rant bragging about how successful the movie was and you can see that Marie is very annoyed with him. We shot a version of that scene the first day, but it wasn’t what ended up in the movie. We went into this movie thinking it would be all shot on a dolly and very elegantly composed and connected between the two of them, and so we shot the first day with that idea in our mind. But we went back and looked at it we felt it was a little too rigid or a little too beautiful. It didn’t feel right so we decided not to use it.
So the next day we started all over again and we tried to be more flexible. We used hand-held camera. We were going after them, really chasing the actors down keeping them in close-ups. Then we decided, “Yeah, this is just the opposite of it, but it’s still not the perfect way to approach the scene.” So on the third day, we thought we would continue on to the next scene. But there was just one shot we wanted to pick up that connected the bathroom to the living room. When Sam looked at that shot, he said, “Why don’t we keep the whole scene in this one shot? Let’s at least give it a try.” This was at the end of the day and the sun was coming up, so we didn’t have a lot of time. We did four takes and the fourth take is what made it into the movie.
On the emotional bathtub scene
That’s the most static part of the movie. It’s two close-ups of Zendaya, plus a wide shot of her and three close-ups plus a medium shot of John David Washington. So it’s really minimal and we were barely moving with the camera. Those are the small but important decisions to make. Where do you put the camera? Is it on the eye-line? Are you a little lower than her eye line? Are you a little higher? Is it more like more Malcolm’s perspective or you were more with her perspective on her eye level? These are all decisions that seem but really affect the scene when they’re talking for 20 minutes in those close-ups. It’s an extremely delicate part of our work.
That’s the most diffused, softest slide we used in the whole movie. There was a huge window next to the bathtub and we used that as a huge diffusion. It was a bounced light through multiple layers of diffusion and that created that kind of soft light on their faces. I thought it was good to see every little detail of their faces. With the water, we didn’t want it to be transparent. We didn’t want it to show Z’s body at the time. We didn’t want to not because we were shy, but we didn’t want it to distract from what was important in that moment. We had to haze the water up a little bit and that created nice reflections on top of it. That’s something that you have to refresh all the time.