Katori Hall's new STARZ series, based on their empowerment of black women in the Delta, reinvents film noir for a new generation.
by Valentina Valentini / Photos by Jessica Miglio, SMPSP / STARZ (unless otherwise noted)
In the first episode of P-Valley – a new drama on STARZ that follows strip club dancers in the Mississippi Delta – we meet Autumn Night (Elarica Johnson), a young woman escaping a turbulent past. Autumn pulls up on her boot straps – or in this case on her platform heels – to start a new life. And while she has no plan per se, her quick wit and determination suggest that better times are ahead.
P-Valley Creator / Showrunner Katori Hall shares some character traits with Autumn Night – strength, ingenuity, creativity in survival. But unlike the character she created, this newbie on TV doesn't do anything on the fly. When Hall's theatrical production Pussy Valley, which ran at the Mixed Blood Theater in Minneapolis in 2015, was to be turned into a series, Hall immersed itself in the language of cinema – editing, cinematography and production design. She then hired a team of filmmakers whose approach to visual storytelling would help shed light on the complexity of the characters in P-Valley – a group of diverse colored people whose problems outside of their beloved strip club, The Pynk, were only due to the many power games are exceeded within the venue.
Hall's changing directors of photography were a study of contrasts. Nancy Schreiber, ASC, started out as a gaffer in New York City in the 1980s, making dozen of music videos, including black artists like Aretha Franklin and Kool Moe Dee, while Richard Vialet, a younger black filmmaker who was born in the Virgin Islands, made indie -Features and music videos including 9 rides for Oscar winner Matthew Cherry. The diverse camera team was more than 50 percent women and black (and other departments, like Key Grip's long-time Ray Brown team, were equally involved).
Production designer Jeffrey Pratt Gordon, a veteran of John Waters' films in Baltimore, was dubbed his showrunner except for the color of a character's toothbrush. All eight episodes were directed by a woman, five of which were women of color. They were shooting at the Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta.
While inclusivity has been built into the fabric of P-Valley, Such was the instruction to tell the story from the perspective of the young women who call The Pynk home. "During our interview, Katori had questions about how to avoid the male gaze," says Vialet. “She wanted to avoid exploitation, and I totally agreed. I didn't want to take advantage of how the dancers looked in front of the camera either, but at the same time I didn't want to treat what we saw on stage with children's gloves. These dancers are proud and powerful, and I felt photography should support that. "Schreiber adds:" In this club we wanted to show these women an element of power. Yes, we did the POV of the audience of the dance too, but it was never overtly sexual. We wanted the dance to be shown in all its sportiness and beauty. Again, the power these women had when they were on stage had to be shown in stark contrast to the challenging lives they had outside the stage. "
One of the goals of the P-Valley team was to create a new kind of cinematic noir. Hall was passionate about the noir genre, citing black and white films like The Maltese Falcon and Sunset Boulevard as influences. And while the contrast of light and dark has always intrigued her, the male focus of the genre and the stereotypical roles (think, porter or housemaid) given to black characters haven't done so.
“Dark shadows tend to have negative connotations,” shares Hall, “so I was interested in turning the use of darkness upside down to see sharp contrast and shadows as a space of freedom. Black stories were rarely treated with this enhanced aesthetic so I wanted to show this enhanced visual story. "
Hall says that gloomy or potentially dangerous worlds such as those found in her Mississippi Delta often look like what they do in documentaries. She wanted P-Valley to be more like classic Hollywood cinema and impressed her team that there should be a flow in every scene. She named the look for the show "Delta Noir" and challenged her team to adopt bold colors and dark shadows like those used in modern neo-noir films like Drive, Zodiac, Devil in a Blue Dress and No Country for Old Men are seen. "The visual divide is a reflection of the world women live in and the magic of the stage," adds Hall. "I wanted a lot of color and I also wanted to see the tropics of the noir through the eyes of women, where they are the detectives / hunters and the men are hunted."
A camera / steadicam operator Dave Chameides, SOC, with Whom Schreiber has worked for decades and whom she praises for his versatility and incredible instinct in shooting movement and dance, says: “We tried not to make a TV show that can be so formulaic. We never chose a particular type of recording. Many scenes were played at once, and we were given a full license not to do any reporting if that served the story. Our great script supervisor Amber Harley was instrumental in helping these decisions. "
B-camera operator Janice Min, whose operational credits include the Emmy Award-winning House of Cards, says, "The show is about empowering women, their sensuality and their struggles as a family that comes together at The Pynk, and also about the family ties they have outside of the club. As part of the overall vision that Katori, Nancy and Richard had, I wanted my frames to represent this dichotomy of strength and vulnerability and create a fluidity in their sensuality, power and kinship that they share on and off the stage. "
Hall worked closely with Episode 1 director Karena Evans, who is known for her expressive Drake music videos. From the many visual cues that Hall contained in her script, Evans created a 130-page lookbook that became the show Bible. “In our very first conversation,” recalls Evans, “Katori explained how Delta Noir takes and is working on the organizational principles of traditional film noir. Somehow I knew exactly what she meant and could easily see the world she was imagining. "
Evans says that because Delta Noir is specific to Mississippi strip club culture, she explored deep shadow play and high contrast with characters moving in and out of pockets of light. Green was used sparingly (due to an aversion to reverberation) while pink and blue not only matched the club's name, but also enhanced the reflectivity and luminosity of black skin tones. “I spoke with Richard and Nancy about not using hard light for black actors and using a lot of diffusion,” adds Hall. “I think there is this myth that you have to meet black people with a lot of light, especially in dark places, to see them. And we welcomed the fact that blacks are okay with being in dark rooms. It's okay for them to get in and out of light, in and out of shade. And that became a kind of rule. "
For a scene in Episode 2 where the character Lil Murda (J. Alphonse Nicholson) sits in Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan's) car at night, Hall didn't want to see Lil Murda's face until his voice was heard and he moved forward. "You are doing blacks a disservice if you overexposing them," recalls Schreiber, quoting Bradford Young, the ASC council years ago. “The spectrum of skin tones of our actors was so nuanced and varied. It was important to show that beautiful range of depth and tone when we photograph our cast.
“There was also a tendency to over-powder actors in film and television,” she adds, “but our embrace of natural glow produced wonderful variations in sound. Also, P-Valley is in the hot south, where people sweat and no one has air conditioning. "
The chief lighting technician Jon Ladd was instrumental Vialet and Schreiber offer a variety of color options for lighting. Since Hall's mandate for the club was both slim and crude, Ladd's challenge was to source state-of-the-art lighting while maintaining the weathered look of the club's stage lighting instruments. "This was a 1950s southern juke joint that turned into a stylish striped strip club," explains Ladd. "We knew RGBA LEDs were needed for our colors to be designed and for quick access, but we had to figure out how to camouflage them in front of the camera so they appear like old, shabby lights."
Schreiber and Vialet gave producers a show-and-tell of the equipment prior to ordering these units, "so Katori knows that we are getting closer to the realities of Uncle Clifford's economic situation," added Schreiber. Ladd's team hid Astera AX10s in empty par-can cases and used Eustr Source Four Series 2 Lustr ellipsoidals – since ellipsoidals had been used in theaters and music venues since their creation in the 1930s. They scattered those lights around the club, many to light the stage in zones, with the AX10's 45 degree diffusion discs for front light and ETC Lustr 2s for back light. For the main stage pole, they used the Lustrs as a front light to make a dancer jump out. When it came to architectural landmarks, Ladd used Lustr 2s, which also helped direct the light onto the patrons without having to put handle equipment in the ceiling.
"We didn't use any moving lighting in the club other than a spotlight in the last episode," continues Ladd. “Katori, Nancy, Richard and I agreed that we didn't want the television audience to wonder, 'Where did this run down strip club get all these fancy lights? & # 39; We put four moving lights on the ceiling to use as stationary lights that we could adjust without having to put in ladders and elevators or move the extras off the floor. That meant they had to be hidden from the camera. So we used the smallest moving lights on the market – two ROBE Robin Pointes and two Clay Paky Sharpys – strategically placed in the ceiling, one on either side of the stage. "
The Pynk is the epicenter of the P Valley and its interior was built entirely on the stage. It proved difficult to find a building that would work outside of the club. Production designer Gordon knew he wanted "a building that was on the wrong side of the tracks deep in the Mississippi Delta," but he drove around with location scout Ekundayo Donegan for weeks before discovering a crumbling, mold-infested building – of-code structure on the Tyler Perry Studios backlot that was supposed to be demolished within a few weeks.
"The most important thing for me was to build a sense of history into the place and a backstory of the characters who owned the building before," said Gordon, a Georgia local. "It had to feel like it had been there for generations. The design had to be in tune with the history of the South. Maybe it started life as a cotton mill. There's a big cotton motif in that story, and I wanted to subtly." reference this story, which of course cannot be viewed without the context of slavery. "
Gordon says a strip club is a complex environment that raises questions like, “Who is in power? Who is in control? Who surrenders? "
“Backstage, we can pull the curtain back and find out who the women are,” he adds. "It's raw and not presented for the show. It's also a place of sisterhood, a reflection of self, love and argument. A place to face true reality. The first floor, on the other hand, has fantasy light , Smoke, mirrors. It's a place of hope and acceptance, a place where you can get lost for a short time. "
Mirrors are a camera crew's nightmare, of course, but Gordon says he enjoyed the day he got to show Chameides how he built the eight stage mirrors on gimbals that rotate in any direction. Gordon says he's built with the greatest awareness of the needs of the camera department and designs a plexiglass floor that can be used to take specialty shots under the stage and look up at the dancers.
In The Pynk, Schreiber and Vialet used a trio of ALEXA MINIs paired with vintage Panavision lenses that were fitted with the anti-flare coating removed because “we wanted to get flares and broken images to make them less sterile and polished overall hold, ”says Vialet. "But the torches also helped spark the imagination that Uncle Clifford and these dancers are selling."
The lenses were decoated to varying degrees (subtle, medium and extreme) with PV Standard Primes. Schreiber and Vialet were interested in the soft feel of the vintage glass and in the unique aberrations that are typical of the no-coats. "Because of the nature of the stripping process and the fact that some of them were done decades ago, there were a number of different personalities among the no-coats," describes Alan Newcomb, 1st AC of A-Camera. "Panavision's Guy McVicker and Ye Woo Kim helped us add ultra-speed primes and highly detuned primo-zooms to our no-coat range to cover us in situations where the no-coat properties go in one direction They didn't work for the scene, whether it was to get a cleaner look where the no-coats were too intense, like windows in the frame, or a more intense flare, especially at the ultra speeds. "
There is a mysterious beginning to the fall night story. represented by flashbacks that are peppered in each episode. Schreiber and Vialet wanted to make sure these scenes felt different to the ones in The Pynk, so they structured a cool palette and used a hefty arsenal of eclectic glass, including spot and strip diopter filters, sometimes paired with a lens baby.
For the first recap in Episode 1, in which Autumn tries to escape a violent man, Schreiber used a broken diopter that McVicker found and that she combined with a No. 1 White ProMist filter, smoke, and slow motion to remove the violence keep mysterious. During a flashback to Vialet's episode 2, in which Autumn ransacked a suitcase after a flood, he had Newcomb use a stripe diopter to create a broken, broken feel. “With our memory we often have difficulty remembering details. In other cases we are desperate to forget, ”adds Vialet. "That's exactly what we wanted with the flashback scenes."
The Paradise Room, a place for high-end customers deep inside The Pynk, was another example of visual free thinking. Gordon had spoken to Hall about the cotton theme and its story for the blacks in the south, so he designed a wallpaper that would tell that story.
“I thought it was important, no matter how much the audience thought of it,” explains the designer. "Something like that can also give the actors visual cues." The wallpaper featured Mississippi river boats, cotton blossoms, plantation houses, masters on horses, and other icons from the slave era. At first Gordon put strippers as silhouettes instead of slaves on the fields, but then turned them into huge silhouettes of black strippers on the toilet wallpaper. "It was the idea of power and control," he continues. "The toile wallpaper fades into the background while the silhouettes of the dancers are on top."
Gordon worked with Ladd to create a storm cloud on the ceiling using astera tubes that could change the mood depending on the scene, as well as antebellum-style lighting. He worked with Set Decorator Javed Noorullah to design a seating area for the guests that looked like a glowing cloud of cotton using a translucent chair body made of fluffy cotton with built-in ladd lights that could change color. While Hall wanted to keep the room blue, Vialet was concerned about tips and the tendency to look too black light. As a counter, he put a touch of orange behind Gordon's plantation columns in the corners of the room to create a contrast.
Historically, women's bodies have been in the media hyper-sexualized, even more so with black women. The Pynk is a strip club, of course, and sexuality is its stock and trade; but Hall, Schreiber and Vialet wanted to defend themselves against the idea that the images of the dancers' bodies had to be strictly sexual. Pole dancing is extremely rigorous as dancers experience bruises, falls, slips, and persistent skin burns from the metal on a typical work day, and P-Valley goes a tremendous part in showing this harsh reality.
"The story is written from a woman's experience," concludes Hall, "so at the heart of the narrative is the journey of a woman who (frames) the show through a female gaze." That meant Hall didn't want the camera lingering on bodies; it might "appreciate and love a woman's body," as she describes it, but there was never a gratuitous frame or a dissected body. The camera would see the shape of each woman as a whole, integrated into the POV of the character and thus into her experience.
"The women in our series are welcomed for their strength, dignity and empowerment in working the floor and poles," says Schreiber. “These are not the androgynous, ultra-thin models in advertising. These are real women with nicely defined muscles and curves. "
Schreiber remembers the first time they filmed Mercedes (Brandee Evans), the OG stripper at The Pynk: “The entire crew held their breath as she climbed the pole, twisted her body and turned toward the ceiling and then fell dramatically to the ground splits. Even with loud music, an audible gasping could be heard from extras and crew members. I doubt Production was happy to see it pushed the envelope – we had body doubles to keep our leading actors safe. Brandee has been a dancer for years, of course, and rehearsed on the pole for months before production even began. She was more than capable of handling such athletic maneuvers; and like everyone connected to this groundbreaking show, it was inspiring to see it in action. "
Local 600 camera team: P-Valley
Cinematographer: Nancy Schreiber, ASC, Richard Vialet
A camera / steadicam operator: Dave Chameides, SOC
A-Camera 1. AC: Alan Newcomb
A-Camera 2. AC: Callie Moore
B-cameraman: Janice min
B-Camera 1. AC: Brian DeCroce
B-Camera 2. AC: Nubia Rahim
DIT: Chris Ratledge
Loader: Erin Strickland
Utility: Chandra Sudtelgte
Still photographers: Jessica Miglio, SMPSP, Tina Rowden, Erika Doss, Eliza Morse and Kyle Kaplan