Mike Eley, Director of Photography for HBO's Grey Gardens, and his excellent work, were profiled in the May 2009 issue of American Cinematographer. (The text in these scans is small, but still fairly legible!)
We have a transcription of the article now! See below.
From American Cinematographer, by Joan Oppenheimer, on May 2009
Production Slate: Ties that Bind
New York Eccentrics
Were it not for the Jackie Kennedy connection, few people outside of East Hampton, Long Island would have ever heard of Grey Gardens or the two women who lived there, Edith "Big Edie" Bouvier Beale and her daughter "Little Edie", the former First Lady's aunt and cousin, respectively, lived for 20 years, seemingly unperturbed, in total squalor, in what had once been an elegant mansion. When county health inspectors arrived in 1971, they had to literally wade through two decades' worth of garbage—mounds of discarded food cans, empty ice cream cartons, cat feces, old newspapers and other detritus of daily life that had never been cleaned up and all concealed the floor. The electricity had been turn off years earlier, and overgrown vines covered the windows, squeezing out the sunlight.
By the time Albert and David Maysles began shooting their documentary Grey Gardens in 1973, Jacqueline Kennedy had already paid to have the estate cleaned and repaired. The film elevated the Beales to cult status but made no attempt to offer insight into their odd personalities. The new telefilm Grey Gardens, which had its premiere on HBO last month, takes a different approach, going back to the 1930s, when mother (Jessica Lange) and daughter (Drew Barrymore) enjoyed a privileged and extravagant lifestyle. British cinematographer Mike Eley describes the film as "a kind of love story" between the two women.
In 1936, Little Edie was a carefree teenager who dreamed of becoming an actress. Her mother, an impulsive free spirit who fancied herself a singer, loved to throw parties. "That's when their life was at its peak," says Eley, speaking by phone from London. "They had money, a glamorous lifestyle and this tremendous sense of optimism. [Director] Michael Sucsy and I wanted to capture the feeling of the bright young Bohemians of the '30s."
That translated into rich, lustrous colors and textures, a sense of airiness and openness (achieved with wide lenses and deep focus) and a house awash with sunlight. The film was show in and around Toronto, where a facade of the house was built in a meadow, interiors were shot at Toronto Centre Stages. The two-story set was constructed as a self-contained unit and treated as a practical location. The first level comprised a central foyer, a living room, dining room, conservatory, a garden that led to the conservatory, and stairs leading from the foyer to the upstairs. The partial second floor consisted of the landing at the top of the stairs, a hallway and a bedroom, which had the set's only breakaway wall. A couple of brief scenes were filmed in a real house not far from where the facade was erected.
"The house is the third character in the film, and goes on its own journey of deterioration," says Eley, whose credits include the documentary feature Touching the Void (AC March '04) and the telefilm Jane Eyre, for which he earned an Emmy nomination. He ruefully recalls how cramped the production was. "We were begging, borrowing and stealing equipment and stage space because two much bigger projects, The Incredible Hulk and The Time Traveler's Wife were there at the same time. In terms of building and dressing the set, we were literally dealing in feet and inches, especially when it cam to the floor space outside the house walls, where [production designer] Kalina Ivanov had to fit bushes and other foliage."
Nor was there much room for lights. About 60 space lights, all on dimmers, and a smaller number of 10K and 20K Fresnel lamps were hung around the perimeter of the set from the overhead gantries. "We also affixed a 20K and a 10K to a scaffold bar outside the window at the top of the stairs to suggest sunlight coming through windows on that side of the house," recalls Eley. "The bar could be swung several feet in either direction to reflect the arc of the sun's movement across the southern sky. That was one of our most important lamps because not only did it illuminate the lading, but it also spilled light down the stairs and into the foyer."
The light hitting the front of the house was softer, reflecting its northern exposure. On the stage floor outside the downstairs windows, Eley mixed 5Ks, 10Ks and Nine-lights, all bouncing into silk. "Whatever bit of floor didn't have a lamp or frame had some kind of shrub or small tree to sell the idea of the garden," he says. Chicken coops fitted with tungsten bulbs were attached above and outside the windows, then angled back in. A cyclorama encircling a portion of the set was frontlit with pan cams overhead and clean 5Ks [wired to dimmers and Nine-lights on the floor.
Most of the only illumination inside the house during the 1930s scenes came from practicals, although for night scenes, Eley sometimes hid a few China balls behind the furniture. Also, sections of the living-room ceiling were occasionally removed to accommodate a Kino Flo or Cimera.
Eley shot Grey Gardens in 3-perf Super 35mm, framin for 1Ex9. Describing himself as "an Arri man from way back in my documentary days," he oped for the Arricam System, Cooke S4 primes, and an Angeniuex Optima 24 290 mm zoom lens, which was used sparingly. He favored 27mm and 32mm primes in the house in order to show as much of the set as possible.
He filmed the picture on three Fuji Etema negatives, 500T 8783, 250T 8553 and 400T 8583. Deluxe Toronto handled the processing and produced DVD dailies and a few 35mm dailies. The filmmakers were not certain of the post path when filming began—in the end, a digital intermediate was done—so Eley "did most things in-camera," he recalls. "I used a Varicon to lighten the shadows for almost all of the 1930s materials, and I used some Schneider Classic Soft filters on the two leads. I didn't want too many things in front of the lens, however, because of the Varicon."
Much of the 1930s portion of Grey Gardens plays out in long, fluid tracking shots. "We kept the camera moving, and I had a fantastic operator, Michael Carella," notes Eley. "My entire crew was from Toronto, and they were all great: gaffer Franco Tate, key grip Bob Harper, dolly grip Owen Smith and focus puller Vanessa Ireson."
Despite her mother's protestations, Little Edie leaves home and spends several years in Manhattan, working as a model and trying to launch her acting career. While there, she begins an affair with a married man (Daniel Baldwin). Eley notes that this section contains one of his favorite shots. "Drew and Daniel are in bed at the Barbizon Hotel [a set built onstage], and the camera is outside the window and dollies forward. There was no glass on the window, and the lens goes right into the room. We added some wind so the curtains wafted a bit in the early-morning breeze. There was a TransLite of Manhattan behind the camera that's reflected in the mirror [above the bed]."
When Little Edie's parents learn of her affair, they force her to return to Grey Gardens. It's 1952, and Big Edie has become even more eccentric and controlling. Little Edie feels like a prisoner, and the stress causes her hair to fall out in chunks. Late one night, in a moment of despair and hysteria, she runs downstairs, grabs a pair of scissors and starts hacking away at her hair. "That was a tricky scene," admits Eley. "It's the middle of the night, and all the lights are off. I needed to play against something so that when Little Edie rushes past the windows, she would be slightly silhouetted. We angled a 5K outside each window that just washed across the curtains, and we had two 2-boot Kinos inside the dining room, down by the table where she finds the scissors. It's an unmotivated source, but it brought the detail we needed to the wallpaper and table."
As time goes on and the rubbish starts piling up, the camera moves become more ragged, and by the 1970s, the camera is completely handheld. For these scenes, Eley pushed the 8573 one stop. (He pushed it 1 1/2 stops for the final sequence, which shows Little Edie performing in a cabaret.) The interior of the house darkens as vegetation covers the windows and the electricity is shut off. "We made sure there was always a bit of broken clapboard or window where a shaft of light could come through," says Eley. "We moved our exterior sources closer and upped the intensity to compensate, and we put dust into the air so the shafts of light could catch the mustiness of the rooms. I particularly like the scenes where the front door is open, revealing more of the dark interior. That sold it well, I thought."
By the time the Maysleses enter the picture, in 1973, Big Edie is spending most of her time in her bedroom, and a good portion of the brothers' documentary is filmed there. "The brothers shot 16mm, and I pushed to shoot those scenes on 16mm, but that didn't pan out, so we shot on 35mm and degraded it in the DI, says Eley, who worked on the digital grade at Modern VideoFilm with colorist Gregg Garvin.
The emotional turning point in the film comes during an argument between mother and daughter that flares up after they see the Maysleses' documentary. "Little Edie realizes her mother is once again manipulating her emotionally, and decides to fight back. Drew comes in close to the camera, in focus, and we experience her epiphany with her before racking focus back to Jessica," says Eley. "In the 10 minutes they are arguing, it goes from dusk to night. We dimmed our space lights down incrementally until it was dark. One of the women is always in front of a window, so the audience can feel and see the light going." In frustration and pain, Little Edie runs to the nearby beach. Hours later, she returns home and reconciles with her mother. "It's a real moment of discovery for Little Edie," says Eley. "That's when the love story between mother and daughter comes good."