ASC Award Nominee Jesse M. Feldman Shares His Creative Approach to Shooting Interview with the Vampire

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Cinematographer Jesse M. Feldman was recently nominated for an American Society of Cinematographers Award for his work on Interview with the Vampire. In this exclusive interview, we got to speak with Jesse about his experience, including his planning process, creating the moody visuals in New Orleans, and his creative approach to shooting. Keep reading to learn more! 

PH: Hi there Jesse! I'd love to learn a little bit more about your background. How did you get into the production world? 

I moved to LA when I was 18 to go to USC, and 6 months later I somehow got a job that I should never have been hired for. My first morning on set as a camera assistant was pulling focus on steadicam for a 35mm music video. After that I got connected with a few non-union crews that let me load and 2nd for them and actually learn about the camera department. I then worked my way up the ladder while finishing a critical studies film degree from USC. After I graduated in 2005, I just had more time to work, and joined the union as an operator in 2007. I was always shooting projects when I could, and then would always shoot the 2nd units or double ups on projects that I would operate on. Eventually that just turned into full time DP work.

PH: Can you share some of your first few projects and some of the lessons you learned working on them? 

Working on countless low budget projects taught me many ways of doing things and many ways of how to not do things. There’s always a way to use the tools your have to get footage that tells the story. If something works, it works and go with it. If something doesn’t work, trust that you can find something else that does work. Know when to change plans quickly if your initial plan doesn’t feel right on the day.

PH: What drew you to work on Interview with the Vampire? How do you select which projects you work on?

The scripts were so solid that it was a no brainer to take this job. I got so excited when I read it for the first time, thinking “Wow, I might actually get to shoot this? Amazing!” The visuals really just popped out of the page for me. I do need to connect with the material for a project to be interesting. I try to look for projects that can be visually strong, and that have other filmmakers involved that want them to be. I also really enjoy working on projects that either push representation of under represented groups or push some kind of positive social change. I do think the types of stories we tell matter in terms of passing on or not passing on certain ideals to future generations.

PH: Can you walk me through your planning process for shooting this project?

The prep for this project was pretty fast, but we managed to plan everything out in ways that usually worked on the day. Unfortunately for end of the prep on my first block I had covid, so I had to prep through zoom and FaceTime. For location scouts, I was looking at satellite maps while someone was there showing me the locations through FaceTime, and talking about where the scene might take place. I’d make a rough lighting plan based on guesses until I was able to go to the locations by myself later and see them in person. I was kept in my apartment in New Orleans for 17 days, and was only let out of quarantine the day of the tech scout. Even though this was far from ideal, the director and I managed to plan everything out pretty well. Luckily I had a normal prep for my second block later in the season. In general, the directors and I would go through the script together, pitching ideas of how to shoot each scene back and forth with each other until we came up with an approach we both liked.

PH: On that note, I'd love to hear how you balance creativity as a cinematographer - especially for a series like this one?

The schedule was very tight to get the quality of work that we all wanted. It was my job to manage and balance speed with quality and make sure that we always kept moving, but also got great footage. It was important that we knew how we wanted to shoot each scene, but also were ready to throw that out the window and discover a new approach if something else presented itself or we had to deal with an unexpected curveball on the day. I think the job of a cinematographer today is a huge balancing act between creating the images that you want to create, while also getting them on a schedule and budget that allows the show to actually get shot.

PH: How did you create the visual, moody visuals of New Orleans? 

Atmosphere/fog was a great friend to us. The genre allowed for us to push the lighting and darkness a bit for our night exteriors, and lean into the tone of the script. Shooting in the French Quarter was tricky because we had to avoid a lot of modern day things, and also had to change out the street lights or turn them off and put our own period lights in front of them. On our backlot (built by the amazing Mara Lepere-Schloop and her crew), we had total control of everything, which really allowed us to get specific with lighting. Ted Rae and his visual fx team did a great job with set extensions in the deep backgrounds that perfectly matched what we shot.

PH: Can you share some of your creative approaches to shooting the series? 

We wanted the show to have a polished classic look. Camera movement was fairly restrained camera a lot of the time- often very slowly creeping to add tension, but also not afraid to move around a lot to add energy when appropriate. The large format led to a large scope feel, and the wider lenses were our work horses for the same reason. The lighting is always motivated, with heavy contrast at times, and mimicked the characters’ emotions of each scene. We tried to keep things natural looking, but also leaned into the fact that a lot of the show is a period piece, and the genre also allowed for some flexing and emphasizing in certain scenes. I never wanted to be afraid of going too dark when the story called for it. We wanted the modern parts of the story to have a very slick, controlled feel, to mimic Louis’ need for control over how the story unfolds.

PH: Since this is an adaptation of the very popular novels, how did you shoot in a way that those who loved the novels feel that familiarity? 

This really came from the scripts. They were so well written, and really embodied the tone of the novels and Anne Rice world. For me, the visuals really came out of the tone and the way it was written. Of course a lot of people know the world from the 1994 movie too, but we wanted this to be a new way of telling this story, and didn’t spent much time getting caught up in how it was portrayed then.

PH: On that same note, how were you able to expand upon this world created in the novels?

 It was very fun to be able to be a bit more in your face with the gay/queer aspects of the story that are a bit more between the lines in the novels. We wanted them to be put out front and center.

PH: What were some of the challenges you encountered? 

Shooting a fast paced schedule for 5 months of almost all nights definitely took its toll on everyone. There were so many night exteriors that we often never got our schedules turned around. We also had two units going for what felt like most of the last month or so of the shoot, so there were a lot of moving parts. Overall, even though I was quarantined with covid for almost all of my prep for my first block, we planned everything out so much that the directors and I were almost always on the same page about what we needed, so it was easy to pivot and make changes as we needed when things inevitably were a little different that we had hoped.

PH: What is some of your go-to equipment you used to make this project come to life? (and why did you choose it?) 

Having all our lighting patched into a dim board was essential to getting the refined look of the show quickly. I also often used battery powered lights to throw somewhere last minute, or has handheld lights that move around or just come in for a specific part of the shot. Our work horse lights were Litemat Spectrums, Fiilex, Astera tubes (often with Lightsocks), Vortex, and Rosco DMG. The camera package was pretty standard, we shot on Arri Alexa Mini LF’s and Panavision Panaspeed lenses. I always have Ergorigs in the package, available for any handheld. I didn’t get to use the Riedel Bolero com system on this job that I usually use, and I definitely missed it!

PH: As with many roles, the ability to adapt is incredibly important. Can you talk me through how you identified the specific needs of each project you work on based on the script, cast and crew involved, and the overall goal for the project? 

Adaptation is definitely paramount. It’s always a compromise between standing by your ideas, but also being budget conscious, and aware of what practically is possible given whatever restrictions there may be. It’s our job to find ways to keep the visuals elevated and never “give up” on them, while still getting material in the can at the end of the each day. I think when you always look back to how each decision serves the story, it becomes easier to prioritize things, or find different ways of getting to the same place. There’s always a solution to every problem. If you have the script burned into your mind, you can make quick last minute decisions that will work to serve the story.

PH: In your opinion, what characteristics/skill set do you need to be a successful DP? 

You need to be technically proficient, but not get caught up in that at the same time. Learn to trust your gut, and if something feels right, follow that feeling. So much of our work is subconscious in terms of how each image tells a story, especially when you get into nuances of lighting and camera work. If you look at an image and feel a certain way, trust that the audience will too. Look for collaborators, I always feel your best work comes out when there is a healthy back and forth. Be open to the best idea coming from somewhere unexpected, but also know when to trust how you want to approach something and fight for it. Be kind to people, and treat everyone with respect.

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