Katori Hall's new STARZ series, based on empowering black women in the Delta, is reinventing Film Noir for a new generation.
by Valentina Valentini / Photos by Jessica Miglio, SMPSP / STARZ (unless otherwise stated)
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 who escapes a turbulent past. Fall pulls up her boot straps – or in this case, her plateau heels – to start a new life. And although she has no plan per se, her quick wit and determination indicate that better times are ahead.
P-Valley Creator / Showrunner Katori Hall shares some characteristics with Autumn Night – strength, ingenuity, creativity in survival. But unlike the character she created, this newbie doesn't do anything on the fly on TV. When Hall's theater production Pussy Valley, which ran at the Mixed Blood Theater in Minneapolis in 2015, was to be made into a series, Hall immersed himself in the language of cinema – editing, cinematography and production design. Then she hired a team of filmmakers whose approach to visual storytelling would help illuminate the complexity of the characters in P-Valley – a group of different colored people whose problems outside of their beloved strip club The Pynk were only due to the many power games be surpassed within the venue.
Hall's changing directors of photography were a study of contrasts. Nancy Schreiber, ASC, started as a skylight in New York City in the 1980s and made dozens 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, shot indie -Features and music videos, including 9 rides for Oscar winner Matthew Cherry. The diverse camera team consisted of more than 50 percent women and colored people (and other departments, such as Key Grip Ray Brown's longstanding team, were equally involved).
Production designer Jeffrey Pratt Gordon, a veteran of John Waters' films in Baltimore, was synchronized with his showrunner except for the color of a character's toothbrush. All eight episodes were directed by a woman, five of whom were colored women. They shot at the Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta.
While inclusiveness was built into the fabric of P-Valley, So the instruction was to tell the story from the perspective of the young women who call The Pynk at 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 also didn't want to take advantage of what the dancers looked like in front of the camera, but at the same time I didn't want to wear children's gloves on what we saw on stage. These dancers are proud and powerful, and I thought photography should support this. Schreiber adds: “In this club we wanted to show these women a power element. Yes, we also shot the POV of the audience of the dance, 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 opposition to the challenging life they had off stage. "
One of the goals of the P-Valley team was to create a new kind of cinematic noir. Hall was enthusiastic about the noir genre and cited black-and-white films such as The Maltese Falcon and Sunset Boulevard as influences. And while the contrast between light and dark has always fascinated them, the male focus of the genre and the stereotypical roles (think of Porter or housemaid) given to black characters haven't.
“Dark shadows tend to have a negative connotation,” Hall says, “so I was interested in turning the use of darkness upside down to see sharp contrast and shadow as a space of freedom. The black stories were rarely treated with this heightened aesthetic, so I wanted to show this improved visual story. "
Hall says that dark or potentially dangerous worlds like those found in their Mississippi Delta often look like documentaries. She wanted P-Valley to look more like classic Hollywood cinema, and impressed her team that there should be a flow in every scene. She called the look for the show "Delta Noir" and asked her team to take on bold colors and dark shadows, as they do in modern neo-noir films such as 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 detectives / hunters and where men are hunted."
A-camera / Steadicam operator Dave Chameides, SOC, with Whom Schreiber has been working for decades and whom she praises for his versatility and incredible instinct when shooting movement and dance, says: “We tried not to make a TV show that could be so formulaic. We never chose a particular type of recording. Many scenes were played at once, and we got the full license not to make any coverage if that was for the story. Our great screenplay supervisor Amber Harley has been instrumental in making 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 that they have outside 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, strength and kinship that they share on and off the stage. "
Hall worked closely with Episode 1 director Karena Evans, best known for her expressive Drake music videos. From the many visual cues that Hall contained in her script, Evans created a 130-page look book that became a show bible. “In our very first conversation,” Evans recalls, “Katori explained how Delta Noir picks up on the organizational principles of traditional film noir and works on it. Somehow I knew exactly what she meant and could easily see the world she imagined. "
Evans says because Delta Noir is specific to the Mississippi strip club culture, she explored deep shadow play and high contrast, with characters moving in and out of light bags. Green was used sparingly (due to Hall's aversion), while pink and blue not only matched the club's name, but also improved the reflectivity and luminosity of black skin tones. "I talked to Richard and Nancy about not using hard light for black actors and using a lot of diffusion," Hall adds. “I think there is a myth that you have to hit black people, especially in dark places, with a lot of light to see them. And we welcomed the fact that it is okay for black people to be in dark rooms. It's okay if they get in and out of light, in and out of shadows. And that became a kind of rule. "
For a scene in episode 2, in which the character Lil Murda (J. Alphonse Nicholson) sits in Uncle Clifford's (Nicco Annan) car at night, Hall wanted to see Lil Murda's face only after his voice was heard and he moved forward. "You do bad service to blacks by overexposing them," recalls Schreiber, quoting Bradford Young, ASC's advice years ago. “The spectrum of the skin tones of our actors was so nuanced and diverse. It was important to show this beautiful range of depth and tone when we photographed our cast.
"There was also a tendency to overpower actors in film and television," she adds, "but our embrace of the natural glow produced wonderful variations in sound. P-Valley is also in the hot south, where people sweat and no one has air conditioning. "
The chief lighting technician Jon Ladd was significantly involved Vialet and Schreiber offer a variety of color options for lighting. Since Hall's mandate for the club was both slim and difficult, Ladd's challenge was to get the most modern lighting while maintaining the weathered look of the club's stage lighting instruments. "This was a 1950s Mediterranean juke joint that became a stylish striped strip club," explains Ladd. "We knew that RGBA LEDs were needed for the design of our colors and for quick access, but we had to figure out how to camouflage them in front of the camera so that they appear as old, shabby lights."
Before ordering these units, Schreiber and Vialet provided the producers with a show-and-tell of the devices, "so that Katori knows that we are getting closer to the reality of Uncle Clifford's economic situation," added Schreiber. Ladd's team hid Astera AX10 in empty par-can cases and used Eustr Source Four Series 2 Lustr-Ellipsoidale – since ellipsoidals have been used in theaters and music venues since their inception in the 1930s. They scattered these lights around the club, many to illuminate the stage in zones, with the AX10's 45-degree diffusion panels for front lighting and ETC Lustr 2s for back lighting. For the pole of the main stage, they used the lustrs as front lights to make a dancer jump out. When it came to architectural sights, Ladd Lustr used 2s, which also helped to direct the light on the patrons without having to put handle gear in the ceiling.
"We didn't use any moving lighting effects in the club except for one spotlight in the last episode," Ladd continues. “Katori, Nancy, Richard, and I all agreed that we didn't want the television audience to ask, 'Where did this run-down strip club get all these chic lights from? & # 39; We have four moveable lights attached to the ceiling to use them as stationary lights that we could adjust without bringing in ladders and elevators or removing the extras from the floor. That meant they had to be hidden from the camera. That's why 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 each side of the stage. "
The Pynk is the epicenter of the P valley and its interior was built entirely on stage. It was difficult to find a building that worked outside of the club. Production designer Gordon knew that "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 backlot of Tyler Perry Studios, which should 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 the building previously belonged to,” says Gordon, a local from Georgia. "It had to feel like it had been there for generations. The design had to be in line with the history of the south. Maybe it started out as a cotton mill. There was a big cotton motif in this story and I wanted to be subtle refer to 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 has the power? Who is in control? Who surrenders? "
"Backstage we can pull back the curtain and find out who the women are," he adds. "It is raw and not presented for the show. It is also a place of sisterhood, a reflection of self, love and arguments. A place where one can face true reality. The ground floor, on the other hand, offers fantasy light "Smoke, mirror. It's a place of hope and acceptance, a place where you can get lost for a short time."
Mirrors are a camera team's nightmare, of course, but Gordon says he enjoyed the day he showed Chameides how he built the eight stage mirrors on gimbals that can be rotated in any direction. Gordon says that he builds with the greatest possible awareness of the needs of the camera department and designs a plexiglass floor that can be used to take special recordings 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 customized with the anti-flare coating removed because “we wanted torches and broken pictures to make them less sterile and polished overall hold, ”says Vialet. "But the torches also helped promote the imagination that Uncle Clifford and these dancers sell."
The lenses were decoated to different degrees (subtle, medium and extreme) with PV standard primes. Schreiber and Vialet were interested in the soft feel of the vintage glass and the unique aberrations that are typical of the no-coats. “Because of the way of decoating and the fact that some of them were carried out decades ago, there were a number of different personalities among the no-coats,” says Alan Newcomb, 1st AC of A-Camera. “Guy McVicker and Ye Woo Kim from Panavision helped us add Ultra Speed primes and highly detuned Primo zooms to our no-coat range to cover us in situations where the properties of the no-coats are one-way for which they didn't work the scene, whether it was to achieve a cleaner look where the no-coats were too intense, like windows in the frame, or a more intense flare, especially with the Ultra Speeds. "
There is a mysterious beginning of the autumn night story. represented by flashbacks peppered in each episode. Schreiber and Vialet wanted to make sure these scenes felt different from the ones in The Pynk, so they structured a cool palette and used a powerful arsenal of eclectic glass, including spot and strip diopters as filters, sometimes paired with a lens baby.
For the first look back in Episode 1, in which Autumn tries to escape a violent man, Schreiber used a broken diopter that McVicker had found that she combined with a # 1 White ProMist filter, smoke, and slow motion to mysteriously break the violence to keep. During a flashback in Vialet's Episode 2, in which Autumn sifted through a suitcase after a flood, he had Newcomb use a strip diopter to create a broken, broken feeling. “With memory, we often have difficulty remembering details. In other cases we try desperately to forget, ”adds Vialet. "That's exactly what we wanted with the flashback scenes."
The Paradise Room, a place for high-end customers deep in The Pynk, was another example of visual free thinking. Gordon had spoken to Hall about the cotton motif and its story for the blacks in the south, so he designed a wallpaper that would tell the story.
"I thought it was important no matter how much the audience thought about it," explains the designer. "This can also give the actors visual cues." The wallpaper showed Mississippi river boats, cotton flowers, plantation houses, masters on horses and other icons from the slave era. First Gordon put strippers on the fields as silhouettes instead of slaves, but then turned them into huge silhouettes of black strippers on the wallpaper. "It was the idea of power and control," he continues. "The toile wallpaper fades into the background while the dancers' silhouettes are on top."
Gordon worked with Ladd to create a storm cloud on the ceiling with Astera tubes that could change mood depending on the scene, and antebellum-style lighting. He worked with Set Decorator Javed Noorullah to design a seating area for the guests that looked like a glowing cotton cloud. For this they used a translucent chair body made of fluffy cotton with Ladd recessed lights that could change their color. While Hall wanted to keep the room blue, Vialet was worried about a tip and the tendency to look too much like black light. As a counter, he placed a hint of orange behind Gordon's plantation pillars in the corners of the room to create a contrast.
Historically, women's bodies have been in the media hyper-sexualized, especially for black women. The Pynk is of course a strip club and sexuality is its existence and trade; but Hall, Schreiber and Vialet wanted to resist the idea that the images of the dancers' bodies should be strictly sexual. Pole dance is extremely strict, with dancers who have bruises, falls, slips, and persistent skin burns from the metal on a typical work day, and P-Valley makes a huge contribution to showing this harsh reality.
"The story was written from the experience of a woman," concludes Hall, "so the narrative centers on the journey of a woman who frames the show with a female gaze." That meant Hall didn't want the camera to rest on bodies; it could "cherish and love a woman's body" as she describes, but there has never been a free frame or cut body. The camera would see the shape of every woman as a whole, integrated into the figure's POV and thus into her experience.
"The women in our series are welcomed for their strength, dignity and empowerment when working the floor and poles," says Schreiber. “These are not the androgynous, ultra-thin models in advertising. These are real women with beautifully defined muscles and curves. "
Schreiber recalls the first time they filmed Mercedes (Brandee Evans), the top stripper at The Pynk: “The entire crew held their breath as they climbed the pole, turned their bodies and turned to the ceiling, and then fell dramatically to the ground splits. Even with loud music, there was an audible gasp from extras and crew members. I doubt Production was happy that it crossed the line – we had body doubles to ensure the safety of our main characters. Brandee has been a dancer for years, of course, and rehearsed on the pole for months before production even started. 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
Cameraman: 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-camera operator: Janice min
B-camera 1. AC: Brian DeCroce
B-camera 2nd alternating current: 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