Cinematography: <I>Little Women</I>
Issue: November/December 2019

Cinematography: Little Women

Based on the literary classic by Louisa May Alcott, Little Women is the latest offering from Oscar-nominated writer/director Greta Gerwig ( Lady Bird). The film, which is set for release in theaters on Christmas Day, offers viewers Gerwig’s interpretation of the popular novel with a bit of a modern twist.

The story of Little Women unfolds as the author’s alter ego, Jo March, reflects back and forth on her fictional life. Gerwig’s take of the beloved March sisters — four young women, Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth March, portrayed by stars Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, with Timothée Chalamet as their neighbor Laurie, Laura Dern as Marmee and Meryl Streep as Aunt March — is captured on Arricam ST cameras and shot on location in various locations throughout Massachusetts.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, DP Yorick Le Saux ( High Life, Pesonal Shopper) discusses shooting the film, its challenges and working with Gerwig.

What was your initial thought about making a new film based on the classic novel?

“Yes, for me, being French, I don't know so much about Louisa May Alcott. I know the movie with Katherine Hepburn when I was a kid, and I haven't seen the ‘94 version, or any other version. So, really, I was interested in working with Greta. I saw Lady Bird and really loved it and also love her as an actress, so it was really more about working with her than the film itself.”

What was your understanding of what Greta Gerwig was looking for with regard to the cinematography?

“One of our first conversations about the movie was in more general terms — how to approach a period movie with a new way of doing it and trying to be a bit more modern. The script was really modernized, about Jo, the writer, the power of women, how she doesn’t want to be married. It was really the story about the four sisters and, within that, about their childhood and being all together, doing fun things together and then when they are older and a little more realistic. So, in the script, there are two time periods and we go back and forth throughout the film — their childhood and the present.”

What was behind the decision to shoot in 35mm?

“The first big decision was to shoot in 35 mm and not in digital, to enjoy the grain, the texture of the movie, the skin tones and play with all of that. I think production was more confident with us shooting in digital, but we really pushed to shoot in 35 mm.”

What was the overall look and feel Greta wanted to convey?

“Well, again, there were the two different time periods. So, for the shots we did in the past, it’s the four sisters together in the house. There were long shots, wide shots with all the girls and the mother, with a moving camera, not super precise. When they are in the present, they're separate and more alone, each sister in her own world, so the camera is more still, more precise, and a frame, one by one, instead of having the long shots with everyone inside the frame.”

You said one of the reasons why you wanted to work on the film was to work with Greta Gerwig — can you discuss that relationship? 

“Right from the first phone call, I felt that we really connected and were on the same page together. We shared the same ideas about cinema. So the first phone cool was really good. I was surprised that we connected so quickly. Then, during the shoot, she worked more with the actors and I was focused on things like lighting and other production concerns. But the language and connection we had established during the prep was strong, and so even though we were less connected during the shoot itself, we were still sharing the same language.

“Greta is a great actress and that’s why the actors are so important to her. This was about getting the balance right and it was important that we succeeded together, to capture the intimacy, and the actors’ interpretations and still end up with a nice, big painting of the period.” 

How would you describe the shoot itself?

“It was a difficult shoot — because there were a lot of locations and we were trying to establish a sense of time passing. We had some summer shoots, Autumn shoots and winter shoots, and so it was really difficult to organized the schedule so that there wouldn’t be leaves on the trees or we would have good location for when it snowed or we would be able to show the girls outside playing in the summer. Plus, there were always six or seven actors in every scene — the four girls, the mother, the friends, and it’s always more difficult to organize sequences when you have 10 people in a scene. You need to show 10 points of view, instead of an intimate scene where you have one or two.” 

Any scenes in particular that you are most pleased with how they turned out?

“Yes, there are two or three sequences on a beach. I remember the sequence was originally to take place in a garden, but we were unable to shoot it there because of the schedule of the actors.  When they were all available, there were no more leaves on the trees and the grass was all muddy, so it was impossible to organize a picnic sequence. We were worried about how we can shoot the summer picnic. Then, we decided to do it from the beach. It was already the end of October and we needed a nice blue sky, but we succeeded to have this nice weather. It was really the only day of sun and not too cold out. So, I’m really happy with the beach sequence and that we were able to find the idea to shoot the picnic scene on the beach instead of the garden with snow around.”

Did the film turn out the way you hoped it would?

“Yes, for sure. I’ve seen the film many times because I color timed it, but not the final version, with all the sound and music. What I’m really happy with is the back and forth with the two time lines that we cross many times throughout the movie. Greta does a lot of skipping between the past and present and it really works. It brings a new aspect to the story. She modernized the storytelling with that and with the power of women and the lives they could have. I think the film is really good and what she did with the ending is so intelligent. It’s really smart.”