The Female Cinematographers of Neon Demon, Creed, and Dope Discuss Their Experiences in a Male-Dominated Field

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Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson

Over the last year, there have been a number of encouraging conversations about diversity in Hollywood, including one about the dearth of female directors. But even as progress is made regarding the women calling the shots, a remarkable fact still stands: No woman has ever been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. The cinematographer — also known as the director of photography, and one of the most important roles in a film's production — remains an overwhelmingly male field, with only 2 percent (!) of the top 250 highest-grossing films of 2013, for instance, featuring female DPs.

While the new movie from Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon, has divided critics (to say the least), the one thing everyone does agree on is the beauty of the visuals, which come courtesy of DP Natasha Braier. Vulture spoke to Braier and two other prominent female DPs, Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler, Creed) and Rachel Morrison (Fruitvale Station, Cake, Dope), about the challenges, opportunities, and absurdity of being a woman in cinematography.

These interviews, which have been condensed and edited, were conducted individually.

How did you get started as a DP?

Alberti: I came to this country from the deep south of France when I was 19. I had been to the movies twice in my life, and there was no TV in my house growing up. I arrived in New York, and then traveled around the States for three years taking pictures. Eventually, after I came back to New York, a friend asked me to be a photographer on an X-rated movie — it paid $75 a day, which was a good rate, and I shot on 35 mm. That was my entrance into that world.

Afterward, I started to shoot docs, and parallel to that, I met Christine Vachon and Todd Haynes, who gave me my first fiction film, Poison. It was very controversial because it was about a gay man in jail — that put me on the map. I was associated with good movies. I tell people that I mentor: "Do a good job on a good film and you’re on the map. Do a great job on a bad movie and not very many people will think of you."

Braier: I started doing black-and-white photography when I was 17 — I had my dark room and everything. At some point I understood there was something called director of photography in the movies, and I thought oh, that could be really interesting. So I went to film school.

Morrison: I kind of grew up with a camera in my hand. When I was studying photography I became interested in conflict photojournalism, and that got me interested in lighting. Then I realized there was this amazing thing called cinematography where you could kind of tell more complete stories photographing for film. So I ended up going to AFI grad school for that.

At that point, how aware were you of being a woman in a male-dominated field?

Alberti: One of my first films was Zebrahead. I remember the producer asking me, “Can you handle the big lights?” And I thought, Do I want to be sarcastic, or do I want the job? So I said, "I don’t handle the big lights, I just tell big men where to put the big lights and they do it."

Braier: I didn’t know so much at the time — I was too young, too naïve, and I didn’t have family that worked in the film industry. My parents were always very supportive and believed that I was talented in different forms of art, because that’s what my teachers would say. So I never felt that it was weird to be a woman, even if there were only 2 percent of women who were doing my job.

It was only through the process that I learned I was a bit of a black sheep, in a way. I did my master's for three years in England. They only take six people at the National Film School in each specialty, and that year cinematography had four women and two guys. They told us it was a very strange record or something. It was only then that I realized that it was rare.

Morrison: I mean, yes, I found that I was the exception, not the rule. But I have to say that for a long time I felt like that was actually kind of a good thing, because I stood out. I really never saw it as a deficit — I always saw it as a positive, in a way. In an industry that's so oversaturated, being different is usually a good thing.

Do things seem to be changing on that front?

Alberti: I think women have made progress in cinematography, contrary to women directors, who I think have regressed. There are many more women cinematographers than when I started. Creed was my first studio movie in 35 mm, and I was approved — on a boxing movie! Ryan Coogler pushed for me. Fifteen years ago, that probably wouldn’t have happened. It’s moving forward very slowly, but it is moving forward, whereas I would say with women directors, it’s moving backwards.

Braier: I never really experienced being a woman as a handicap, though of course I am aware that it is harder to get the jobs than it would be if I were a guy. But I never really experienced it firsthand, like, oh, because I’m a woman I suffered this indignation or that. But it’s now, being 40, that I’ve realized the price that you pay as a woman for doing this job, and I’ve realized why there aren’t so many women who’ve arrived where I’ve arrived at my job.

What is that price?

Braier: If your personal life includes having children, you don’t have a lot of time, which means you have to make choices. By the time you get established and you can relax a bit more and you can take more time off, maybe you’re in your 40s, like me. I always decided I had such an exciting life and career and that was always the priority for me, and it’s only now that I’m 40 and have a great career that I could afford to have kids and take a sabbatical and then come back and keep doing the kind of work that I want to do with the same artistic and economic quality. But it took so much work to get to this point and have that luxury. And compared to a lot of other women, I arrived here relatively faster, so what happens if it takes you five or ten more years? Then you can’t have a family.

How have family considerations affected the way you've approached your job?

Alberti: At the beginning of my career, I shot a lot more documentaries because I liked the adventure, and probably also because it was easier, and still is easier, for women DPs to shoot documentary than it is to shoot fiction. I have a 22-year-old son, and when my son was born I made a decision to raise him. My husband and I took turns working, and it’s easier to raise a kid in the documentary world, where you go away for 2 weeks or 3 weeks rather than the months that you spend on a feature. That was and still is much more open to women DPs than the world of fiction.

Morrison: Having a family is a compromise on some level, but it's so incredibly worth it. It actually informs the work that I do as a DP. But obviously not being able to shoot Creed [ed. note: Morrison worked with Coogler on Fruitvale Station] because I was having a baby was huge — on a career level that was, I wouldn't say disastrous, but it's going to take a little longer to get where I was going, which will happen, no doubt.

I also think that as a DP that shoots from an emotional place, I'm so much more informed now. I feel like my senses are heightened on some level, and I feel like that's only going to translate to better imagery and make my work stronger in its entirety, because of higher stakes. I think back on some movies that I've shot, Cake being probably the primary example — a movie about a woman who's lost her son — if I were to shoot that now, I would shoot it so incredibly differently because of what that might mean to me. I really do believe that the experience of having a child is going to actually make me a much better cinematographer.

Braier: I’m on planes most of the time, and every job is in a different country. If I want to do the jobs that I love and work with people like Nic or Lynne Ramsey or Claudia Llosa and follow my heart in every project and do the things that I want to do with the artistic content and the messages that I want to tell — I’m constantly on planes around the world. I’m mainly a gypsy, and if I have a kid, how am I going to do it? How do you juggle that? That’s the reality of cinematographers: we all juggle a lot! The guys all juggle a lot, and the wives stay at home with the kids. Every couple has a way of negotiating and trying to make it work, but usually the fathers are quite absent.

How different does it seem to be for a female cinematographer to pursue a family than a male one?

Morrison: Everybody has to make compromises if they're going to have a family, and it's not just about being female. It means choosing your away jobs a little bit more carefully, and it means your partner making sacrifices. I'm very fortunate that my partner is taking time off so that she can travel with us and the baby can come with me. Obviously, when he goes to school, that's going to change. But I also think that if family is something you want to do, you can't let your career get in the way of it.

Braier: A lot of men are having a family in their 30s and it’s okay, because there is a mother with the kid somewhere, and maybe they’re not so present, they come in and out. But for a woman it’s totally different — you can’t really do that. Some may have partners who can be more able to support them, but still, it’s complicated. It’s not just the film industry — the whole society is not really designed for women to have a successful career that absorbs a lot of time and to have a family as well. If we want to go and do the cool jobs and have the positions of power that are mostly reserved for men in society, we can if we are capable and working hard. But if you also want to have the other aspect of womanhood, motherhood and family, then it gets tricky.

Does it feel like the mostly male crews who have worked with mostly male DPs treat you differently as a woman?

Alberti: Male crews know that women cinematographers are here to stay, and there will be more of us. If they’re professionals, they behave as such. But maybe five years ago, I would interview a gaffer and he’d be like, Don’t worry, little lady, I’ll take care of it. Okay, you’re dismissed!

The only difference I’ve really noticed is that people are going to hug you and kiss you more than they would a man. But I always start a movie by being very firm and very hard and very, very serious, and then I can relax a little more once I’ve gained respect. That’s part of the job — you have to earn the respect of your crew. As important as it is to learn the techniques of cinematography, you also have to learn how to deal with the movie set, with show business. I came up with a cinematographer who is very talented, but she was never quite able to handle everything else you have to do — dealing with the producer and the crew and the time frame that you have to follow. Directing, you have to learn that, too, but it’s different. The director on the movie is the artist, and I’m there to support her or him with my technique and knowledge and artistic eye.

Braier: There is a difference, for sure. I was lucky to always find and choose the right people to work with in my crew, so 99 percent of the time I’ve had very good experiences in terms of being a woman and being respected by the men that are working for me. But there is something very interesting to analyze, which is that film sets are kind of army-like: there are things that have to work for the machinery to work. We’re all under the paradigm of time-is-money, and influenced by the pursuit of efficiency.

In that structure, of course, it’s easier to embody the authority — the DP is one of the main captains of the ship — when you are a man, because it’s more natural in that kind of society that the leader is a man, and that the leadership is being practiced from that masculine energy. When you are a woman, the hardest thing for me was to learn how to embody my leadership from my femininity and not try to imitate how the men were doing it. A guy can get away with just giving orders, but a woman cannot really give orders to men, since half of the men have mommy issues and aren't going to like it. They’re not very good at receiving orders from a bossy woman and you don’t want to be a bossy woman. It’s a horrible energy when you’re trying to dominate the masculine.

So you have to learn as a woman how to be a leader as a woman, not try to be a man. That’s tricky. It’s not tricky because it’s our natural being and we should know, but in this society we don’t know because this is a patriarchal society. You don’t see as many examples of that in life, and you have to figure out all by yourself.

I imagine these things aren't discussed too much within the industry.

Braier: It’s interesting, because for the first decade of being a DP, when people would ask me about being a female cinematographer, I would be like, what? What is this question? But the more that women like me keep doing what we do, the more role models there are for other women.

Having said that, I was not looking up to any woman as I was making my career. I never thought about it that way. And if I had been thinking that way, I would’ve been like, well, there they are, but there are only two or three!

Morrison: I’m really, really looking forward to the day that I'm getting called to do stories about my work, and not about the experience of being a female DP. For a long time I kind of avoided the conversation altogether, and then I saw what an effect the dialogue was having, particularly with regard to female directors. I really feel like there's this very pronounced and pertinent change that one can actually register happening, and it was sort of this wake-up call that if we don't have the conversation then nothing is going to change.

What do you think needs to happen to create an environment in which more women become DPs?

Alberti: It is progressing — that’s my feeling. Especially with indie filmmakers and movies made on smaller budgets. But there do need to be more studio films featuring women DPs. We just need to keep on fighting, and keep on working maybe a little bit harder than men. But I’m optimistic.

Braier: There are things that have to do with the structure, but they’re a much bigger problem in society. At least 60 percent of women, if not more, will also need to have a family to feel complete. Do we want those women to have a voice in the film industry? If we want those voices, how do we do it so that they can be mothers and also tell their stories in the film industry?

It’s a matter of hours — how many hours are we shooting, are we shooting on location or are we shooting at home, is there a day care where the mothers on set can leave their kids? But that way of thinking goes against the time-is-money paradigm that I don’t see it happening, because in the film industry you have budgets and you are trying to make the best out of the budget, and I don’t see some really cool women producers saying, okay, we’re going to spend $300,000 on a little day care. I don’t see anyone interested in investing in all the changes that you need for that to happen.

Morrison: I do feel incredibly optimistic that that shift is taking place, and that it really is just a matter of time. I think people like to have role models and they like to see that it's a path they can take, since a lot of us didn't necessarily have that. We just sort of had to forge our own way. But there was a time when you said the word doctor and people pictured a man, and that just isn't the case anymore. Hopefully within ten years, when you say DP, there's not this assumption that that means a burly dude.