Women in a war fantasyland: ‘MAYDAY’ cinematographer captures post-trauma in metaphysical thriller

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

In Karen Cinorre’s inventive action fantasy film Mayday, audiences are picked up in a familiar modern world and dropped into a dreamlike one, seemingly set during World War II.

In the film, we meet young Ana (Grace Van Patten of Nine Perfect Strangers), whose life has been marred by violence. Following a horrific incident at work, Ana discovers an Alice in Wonderland-like portal that transports her to a rugged coastline. There, she joins a female army (including Mia Goth, Soko and Havana Rose Liu) engaged in a never-ending war with men. Though Ana finds strength within this new alternate reality, she realizes that she may not be the soldier they want her to be.

Mayday sees Cinorre’s colloborating with cinematographer Sam Levy (Lady Bird and an upcoming Greg Mottola project), who also happens to be her husband. Mr. Levy shot the film in Croatia, capturing scenic seaside cliffs and atmospheric woods.

Fresh Fiction recently chatted with Mr. Levy by phone to discuss some of Mayday’s behind-the-scenes moments, the symbolism and action of the work, and how it all compares and contrasts to shooting films with overlapping dialogue.

Mia Goth, Grace Van Patten, Soko, and Havana Rose Liu in MAYDAY, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo by Tjaša Kalkan. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The following is a transcript of an interview conducted on September 15. Some of the questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Preston Barta: Something that I’ve long admired about your work is how perfectly you marry style, form and content. Whether it’s Mayday, Mistress America, Lady Bird, Maggie’s Plan, or Wendy and Lucy, your films have a look that matches the feelings I get from the story and characters. How do you seamlessly pull those three elements together?

Sam Levy: “Because film is a visual medium, it combines so many disciplines. But when it comes down to it, it begins and ends with the quality of the script. We can deviate up to a point, but only so much. For Mayday, [Cinorre] really did create something unique that I had never seen before. I was very excited about bringing it to life. One of the reasons it was so exciting is because it’s a very organically visual story. You can just see it on the page. The first time I got on set with Juliette Lewis [who stars in the film as a character named June], she said, ‘This script is so visual,’ and it’s true. Usually, you have to put the story over the form and beauty. Mayday is the kind of story that interestingly blends the form and content.”

Because there’s so much that can be read on the characters’ faces and within the environments they’re in, were there any greater truths that gave you more perspective?

“Ultimately, Mayday is about not giving up on life when life is difficult. It’s about a survivor who has gone through incredible hardship. But no matter what, she wants to survive. I think that’s a universal theme that many people can relate to. We all have pain in our lives. And it can be humbling when you go through emotional or physical pain.”

“This is an action film when it comes down to it. Ana uses hand-to-hand combat actions, becoming a sniper, riding motorcycles, and swimming in the ocean as tools to overcome the difficulties in her life. In any of those other movies you mentioned, a lot of the characters do have difficulties they need to overcome. Still, I’ve never worked on anything where the protagonist rises to the occasion in quite this way.”

Juliette Lewis in MAYDAY, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo by Tjaša Kalkan. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Some have called this film a fantasy movie, even though the fantasy world where these characters go doesn’t feature anything that is too much of a stretch of our own reality. That said, was there anything about this alternate place that caused you to unlock a creativity within yourself that you didn’t know existed before?

“It’s funny that you say that because I never really thought about Mayday being a fantasy. The fact is I’ve never done a movie that had this much action or explosions in it. What was revealed to me was that all of that stuff is like any other action filmed in a movie. It’s just like shooting a conversation in Frances Ha, robbing a store in Wendy and Lucy, or Saoirse Ronan running around the streets of Sacramento in Lady Bird. Plotting out how to stage an explosion on a submarine or throwing Grace Van Patten into the middle of the ocean and swimming in a storm sequence is all very familiar to what I’m trying to say. That was a great, amazing surprise.”

There are some aspects to this film that are a little easier to assign meaning to than others. For instance, the manner in which Ana passes from one world to the next is something that can be stewed on and interpreted in different ways, such as passing through hellfire to find truth. Or, maybe I’m thinking too much about it. Whatever the meaning may be, do you and Ms. Cinorre know every aspect of your film, or would you ever dangle anything out there that you don’t understand but you find fascinating?

“Yes. This is the part where she looks into the oven and is transported to the ocean? Yeah. I’ve asked [Cinorre] about it a lot because it’s completely her idea and creation. I would direct you to look at some of [Cinorre’s] short films because many of these devices are things she’s already done. Like the oven that Ana passes through, that’s something [Cinorre] put into a student film. It’s on her website (karencinorre.com). It’s the first film she made, which I didn’t shoot. There are only a few things she made that I didn’t shoot. We met in college.”

“You see [Cinorre], herself, in the film. She opens an oven, and she gazes into it. This is a moment that she has been examining for years. I kind of intuitively understand. We both love watching dance, and we see a lot of dance here in New York, where we live. And a lot of it is just the physical act of opening an oven and gazing into it is fascinating to both of us.”

“I am always thinking about how the tempo of a sequence is going to play? What it actually means is not important in a way. But it’s another one of these things that we don’t talk about that much when we’re making it. Now, I’ve definitely asked [Cinorre], ‘What does it mean when she goes into the oven?’ And the fact is, it means whatever the viewer wants it to. And that’s really the truth. There’s nothing she’s told me outside of this conversation that is a secret, or that she doesn’t want people to know, or that I’m withholding. It’s just a very physical act that, hopefully, people are engaged in the progression of movement, the way you would be when you go to see dance.”

Before I ask about shooting overlapping dialogue, I wanted to focus briefly on parallel imagery. For example, a shot of a wedding cake topper at the film’s beginning has a full circle moment by the end. They are the details that can be easily missed, but they can produce very profound moments for the audience if you catch them.

“I’m so glad you picked up on that, I have to say. Honestly, it’s written exactly as you see it. There’s a bride on a cake. She’s kind of split in two. Max, who is the pastry chef, is really furious about the problem. But the deeper meaning of it is to highlight the intense pain in this story. It speaks to the characters’ pain that the bride topper is split. That’s my interpretation of it.”

Now, before we end, I have to ask about shooting concurrent conversations in film. It’s when characters are all speaking at once and the viewer and camera are bouncing around like a true conversation would.

“I love doing that. I love it because it’s not obvious. Most movies and television shows never do that. They always chicken out. The best possible example of this is Robert Altman. Almost every Altman movie features overlapping dialogue. It’s really straightforward. You just need to think through the scenes and beats and figure out whether or not they need to play out in wider shots.”

“Mistress America has a ton of overlapping dialogue. A lot of it plays out in single tracks that are choreographed around people’s movements. And that is probably my favorite way to do it. But sometimes, that’s not appropriate. The dialogue may fall flat, and you need different pieces to accentuate the rhythm.”

“I always ask directors, ‘Hey, how do you feel about overlapping some of these?’ Just kind of what happens in life. People don’t always wait for someone else to finish talking. And it’s just really fun.”

“It’s tricky for sound, though. I think Altman and his sound team developed a special recording mixer machine to add more tracks to isolate all the dialogue.”

“There wasn’t a call for that with Mayday. There’s significantly more visual storytelling in Mayday than lots of the other things I’ve done. A little less dialogue and more story told through action.”

Mayday is now playing in select theaters and available to rent or purchase at home on demand.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.