We recently spoke with Ludovica Isidori, the cinematographer of the upcoming thriller film Sanctuary starring Christopher Abbott and Margaret Qualley, which recently premiered at TIFF.
IndieWire described the film as "A sharp and silly and deliriously romantic single-location saga about a hotel chain heir who’s blackmailed by his long-time dominatrix," while Variety described it as "a terrifically nasty thriller about seizing control, over others and over oneself."
PH: Hi there Ludovica! I'd love to learn a little bit more about your background. How did you get into the production world?
Ludovica Isidori: I guess it was through life itself, and a combination of seemingly fortuitous decisions made along the way. I have always loved cinema and the way it explores the human experience, but I was never that kid who owned a camera and started shooting when she was 5 years old. I come from a family of doctors and was about to start Med school when I decided to change my direction completely. I wanted to try something new, something challenging: a path of my own. At first, it was a bachelor’s in media studies that led me to spending a year abroad, studying in Amsterdam, where I got introduced to some video production courses and lots of stories of people from all over the world.
Then I got a master’s degree in cinema and television studies in Milano. During those years, I played behind the camera for a few “homemade” short movies. I also met one of my mentors, the photography curator Franesco Zanot, who taught me the aesthetic and philosophical rules behind photography, and who pointed out America for me.
Lastly, after a turbulent year during which I lost my stepfather and my life as I knew it, there was America What started as an escape from a life that could no longer nourish me, led me to the doors of the American Film Institute (AFI), where my pursuit of cinematography started, again.
I have read or heard somewhere that life often learns to thrive in desolate places and my two years at AFI were that place. It was strenuous to learn an art form in such a competitive environment and ruthless city, all while keeping together the broken parts of my identity, heart, and self esteem. But my survival instinct turned the anguish into strength, the self destruction into self preservation, and channeled my most profound and ancient resources towards becoming a cinematographer.
PH: Can you share some of your first few projects? How did you "break into" the industry?
Ludovica Isidori: I am not sure I can pinpoint a moment when I “broke into the industry.” To be honest, I have been questioning whether or not such a moment even exists, or if it's just an imaginary place, a label created to fulfill our needs for tangible goals. What I can identify though, are some chapters and projects in my life that felt like steps towards a more fruitful career (financially, spiritually and artistically).
The first one happened before AFI, before America was even on my radar. It was during the summer before I graduated from my master’s degree, when I was still living in Italy. I decided, with a couple of friends, to shoot a short documentary about kids with autism. The opportunity came along thanks to my mother. She is a Neuropsychiatrist for children and young adults, and since she had worked with autism her whole life, she talked to me about the possibility of making a project about it. At that time, she and her team were organizing a summer school for young kids with autism not far from my hometown, so she introduced my team and I to some of the families, who agreed to be part of the documentary.
Having her as a point of contact was a great privilege since it allowed me to build a lasting trust with the families in a very short period of time. Even though I was still quite inexperienced as a filmmaker and as a young human being, I learned that I could bridge that gap by channeling grace and focusing on the subjects. Instead of focusing on my inexperience, I delivered an honest and intimate portrayal of the subjects. Thanks to those weeks spent with the kids and their families, I quickly realized that what was asked of us, as filmmakers, storytellers, as writers of the final product (which could be manipulated so easily and in so many ways), was to be graceful and gentle with the subject matter. But most of all, it was about being available to change the narrative we had in mind and being open to listen to and witness what was unfolding in front of us.
I remember having multiple conversations over “authorial ethics” with my team, arguing about which boundaries were ok to be pushed and which weren’t, or how far could we go in shaping the narrative, despite or in regards to what was the actuality of the lives we were capturing. We were young, full of self confidence and big ideas, feeling like we knew everything, while also being so unaware of the weight life could bring. While that project didn’t bring fame or success (it screened at a few festivals, but it was never a hit internationally), it still brought so much growth and awareness to me. It raised questions about the responsibility of making a movie, of giving visibility to a subject, of drawing a line between what is ‘real ' and what is sensational or, at least, “interesting”. How do we decide what and how to portray something on screen? How do we preserve our style and signature over a project, but without demystifying the subject? What makes a good and ethical filmmaker?
Then there was Test Pattern, my first cinematic love. It was my second feature, but the first to my heart. It happened a few years after AFI, after many short movies and a couple of halfhearted experiences. Shooting Test Pattern was life changing for so many reasons, but above all, it made me feel like a DP, and it was treated with so much respect and love by everyone involved. It made me really understand the power of cinema, not only for the audience who would watch it, but for the people involved in it. Test Pattern embodied everything I love about movies and why I want to make them: the preparation, the team, the subject, the care, so often left behind in this world of indie-under-budget productions. It was a gem, made by the strength and devotion of its director, Shatara Michelle Ford, and producer Pin Chiun-Liu, but also of everyone who worked on it.
PH: What drew you to work on Sanctuary? How do you select which projects you work on?
Ludovica Isidori: Sanctuary was one of the most exciting scripts I’d read in a while. It was sexy, fast-paced and intriguing. It was relatable and deeply dark, like only secret fantasies can be. It was fucked up, but also tender and profound. It was the portrayal of every relationship I have experienced (and all the ones I wish I did), but with just two characters and 90 minutes. But what really dragged me into it was Zach Wigon, the director. He is a visionary, a rare talent, an exquisite human and an extraordinary mind. It is hard to describe him, as I don't know the English language well enough to be able to describe the vastness and contagiousness of his vision and his being. He is what cinema needs, what every department head, actor and audience should be fortunate enough to get: a courageous and uncompromising young director, with an unlimited love for cinema, a never ending knowledge of it, and yet, a complete selflessness. I cannot express how exuberant I felt when he told me that he wanted ME on his side for the project. I had this rush of energy and joy running down my body, as I started envisioning the film, and Zach’s lavish plan for it, right away. I had to make this movie and I wanted to make it with him.
That is a huge part of what I look for in the projects I take on: a group of like-minded dreamers I can play with and grow alongside, who are not afraid to occupy uncomfortable spaces or
question themselves. Companions willing to share their doubts, their power and their hopes. When I make a movie I want to explore, understand, and eventually expand someone else’s dream.
Lastly, I look for stories that I want to watch, both as an audience member and behind the camera. Narratives that push me out of my comfort zone, topics that require me to study, investigate and travel (not only physically), and a character’s journeys that shifts my own ground, that asks me to explore my own thoughts and renegotiate my sense of self. My desire is to be able to access, through a movie, hidden parts of me I wouldn't be able to otherwise, and to gain a little knowledge, a bit of courage, and a renewed sense of audacity after every movie I make.
PH: Can you walk me through your planning process for shooting Sanctuary?
Ludovica Isidori: Sanctuary is a story about love, and like every love story, it is a story about power and control. It’s an emotional journey, a complex dance between two people, that features solos and pas de deux, all in less than 24 hours. For the same reasons, Sanctuary could have been just another “two-people in a room” type of movie but instead, we tried to create a full 360-degree experience, to transform it from “another Covid movie” into a journey. To achieve that, we used three main tools: camera language, lighting design, and a very attentive use of colors, particularly in the different rooms.
With camera moves, we wanted to highlight the complex relation of the two characters and to visually portray all the nuances and the shifts that happened between them without losing focus on the essence of the movie. We designed a precise camera language that changed, from room to room, from chapter to chapter, going from static to claustrophobic frames, to energetic whip pans, without ever taking attention away from the brilliant performances of the two actors. I primarily designed the lighting with an attention to what would be plausible for the location, but at the same time, I needed for it to be malleable, capable of progressing and evolving with the relationship between Hal and Rebecca. I wanted the lighting to be able to mutate as the space shifts and as their roles twist and turn, creating a design that can leave the realism behind in order to focus on its empathic resonance and power.
PH: I'd love to hear about the organic approach to shooting and photographic in-camera “trick or stunts” you took with this project.
Ludovica Isidori: I wouldn’t say there were a lot of stunts per se in Sanctuary, but there were definitely a few in-camera struggles and a couple of occasions in which furniture had to be broken. In addition, there were some lighting tricks that had to be carefully discussed and planned. I am referring to practical sources that, while they had to be used as a source of lighting, they also had to be thrown against a wall and smashed at some point in the film.
Its success was all thanks to the meticulous work of the art department, especially of John Arnos and Amber Thrane, and the numerous pre production meetings Zach and I had with them. Precision was the key to success. We had to identify which lamp should crash and where, which piece of the bed could snap if pushed and pulled hard enough, which mirror could break into little pieces in order to leak lights into the next scene. And to do that, we needed to map the movie shot by shot. That’s the reason why Zach and I went to visit the set so many times during prepro—to discuss the blocking and pre-visualize the shots with the help of apps. The plan had to be precise in order for the actors to replicate the action while also performing. We staged everything in the right corner of the room and time in the movie so when the lighting shifts it would be narratively relevant, but also manageable for me.
To do that there is only one way: prep prep and prep. And I know that is what every filmmaker ever says, but it is true. You have to do prep as thoroughly as you can, even if it means overtime work or extra sessions during your day off. My suggestions would be to just make sure you get some good NY pizza at the end of it.
PH: Let's talk a bit about the elaborate and complex camera work used to punctuate the shift in power dynamics between the two lead characters of the film. What was that like? How did you approach that?
Ludovica Isidori: I cannot take the full credit for it because Zach had a very elaborate idea around the visual language for the movie. I take pride in what we achieved with it and how the camera took turns between highlighting the performances and revealing subtleties to the audience that were, at times, discordant to the dialogue.
The biggest incertitude for me was to find a balance between the idea of a movie and the actual movie. As I said, by the time we spoke, Zach had a clear rhythm for the movie in mind, with an urgent succession of beats and blockings. What we had to refine together was identifying which passages were essential to the movie, which needed to be shaped, and which ones were pure formalism. By spending hours and hours rehearsing with friends and blocking through the app, we discovered what the essence and the soul of the movie was and what belonged to its style. I believe it is in the little creaks that a good movie is made, in its imperceptible shifts. For such a powerful, visual movie, it was a very delicate process to differentiate the two realms.
I think that is what drew Zach and I even closer together was that he had a powerful and meticulous idea of a scene, while I brought in quiet suggestions, not only about the blocking, but about the surroundings. What should the camera reveal and what should it hide, while tracking along with a character? I think that is what “lensing” is all about: selecting imperceptibly what the audience is allowed to see and when they are not aware of it. Doing that in deliberate ways can echo into the characters’ emotional state, resembling their hyper focus and alertness, or it can wink at the audience, presenting them with information even the characters are not aware of.
PH: You also transformed a single-location shoot into a full 360-degree experience through whip pans and slow and precise dollies. Did that present any challenges? How did you navigate this?
Ludovica Isidori: Did it present any challenge? A lot of them. The first one on the list is lighting. I wanted to make sure that the lighting was plausible for the space while also specific to the scenes and the different tones they embodied. I had to make sure that in pivotal moments the camera could see the eyes of the characters, while avoiding making it look staged or placed. I had to do a lot of that while placing sources in blind spaces so that the camera could not see them during their 360 moves.
In doing that, my main resources were the use of practical sources and blocking, plus the 2:4:0 aspect ratio that gave me some room at the top and bottom of the frame.
In terms of practical sources, that was the result of a long conversation and a great collaboration with the production design team. We discussed lamp shapes and shades in order to project the right intensity and color. We talked about which fixtures could be integrated in the design of the space (we built the set) and which corners could be a blind spot, in order to hide the stands or the flags I needed to create and shape the lighting.
But also we determined where to place the practicals that would have to be destroyed, so that when it happened, the dark areas they left behind were still consistent with my lighting plan, or manageable. This could be close to a window, so for further scenes I could light the characters from outside, or they were next to a mirror, so once on the floor they could project a “satellite” of broken glass all over the walls.
The second element that helped a lot was blocking: I have mentioned before how much time and effort Zach and I spent in mapping out every scene, every movement, of both actors and
the camera. We had to combine the narrative behind the actors’ moves and spatial choices, with an extremely detailed camera language. We wanted to modulate the rhythm of the movie through the camera language, to create tension and stillness, so that every encounter between Rebecca and Hal would feel discordant, then tender, and everytime a bit unexpected. We also wanted the space to unfold slowly and for the camera to expose it in accordance with the emotional state of the characters. That’s why certain chapters of the movie are punctuated by subtle, imperceptible dolly movies, while others are articulated by extravagant gimbal shots and eager 360 steadicam shots.
PH: Can you describe how you were able to capture the tension and sensuality between the two leads through strategic still shots?
Ludovica Isidori: First, I would like to say that I was so fortunate to be working with Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbot. The range of emotions they portrayed was revolutionary. The quality of their performances is not only stellar, but nuanced and electric. All I had to do was listen through the camera. What was demanding was interlacing visually-driven beats with quiescent scenes to fully grasp the essence of the movie, and therefore intuit when to be louder and when to leave the camera behind.
I don’t like when the cinematography or the camera work of a movie takes so much space that there is nothing left for the actors to inhabit. While I know this could sound like a controversial statement for a movie that is visually very self aware, I also believe that Zach and I were very careful, and hopefully smart, in knowing when to step back and just let the performances strike.
That is all it takes to identify where those undeniable moments are, so the actors can have space to bring to life their insight. Place the camera close enough that by looking into it your heart sinks a little and your breath gets shorter when your eyes are on the viewfinder. Add a bit of lighting or a hint of color that echoes the emotional quality of the performance, and just let them pierce the lens. That’s all.
PH: How did you modify the lighting in realistic ways to echo the changes the two characters go through as the film progresses?
Ludovica Isidori: Lighting was not an easy task in this movie. Firstly, even though we were on a stage, which gave me the opportunity to incorporate certain fixtures into the design of the space, the lighting had to be plausible for the location (a hotel suite), while also being able to modulate throughout the course of the movie. Secondly, the camera language had a few 360-degree steadicam moves and a couple of rotating, upside-down shots, which dictated where some of the sources could and could not be. Lastly, there were a few pivotal moments in the movie during which the characters had to crash a few lamps. The third point turned out to be an advantage for the lighting design, given that certain practicals had to be smashed, and I could progressively expand the shadows and increase the contrasts as the characters descended into their own darkness and feverish journey.
The question then became where to put those “breakable” fixtures. If a room was mainly lit by ceiling and floor lamps and all of a sudden 80% of those sources were broken, how could I justify a light on the character? Blocking became a key factor in answering that question: while working with Zach, we had to envision where a character would perform their action while being able to be reached by some form of lighting. And it wasn’t just about physics or believability—it had to be relevant to the tone of the scene.
So as the world inside began to get darker, more sinister, more claustrophobic, the outside world started to pollute the interior more aggressively and in unpredictable ways. What at the beginning felt like a pristine, rigid, stage-like world, could now morph into something unexpected. The blue of the night sky could be now a distorting force, now a tender duvet for an intimate scene in the living room, while hints of acid green (from a hypothetical neon sign across the street) could punctuate the nightmare taking place inside the bedroom.
Juxtaposition of colors began to suggest meanings underneath the spoken words, to unveil more about the characters than what they were allowing each other to see. Realism became secondary to the empathic power of lighting.
There is one of my favorite scenes—a sex scene with very little sex—that is a wonderful example of that. While the two characters are inhabiting the same space, their CUs are apparently contradictory in their lighting. She is warmth, she is danger, she lives in reds, while he is lit by a blue shift, maybe the moon, more likely the color of the abyss, of the underworld, underwater, where you can get so comfortable that you forget to breathe and you die in oblivion.
And yet, a blue glimmer is in her frame, while a hint of red in his, almost whispering to us that their universes do not exist, but co-exist.
PH: In your opinion, what is one of the most essential characteristics of a great DP?
Ludovica Isidori: Intuition, curiosity, audacity, and resilience. To also be able to listen, to see the urgency in order to explore other people's minds. The desire to surprise yourself. To push boundaries. Infinite love for stories. An overall appreciation for the human experience. Empathy.
PH: Would you like to share any upcoming projects?
Ludovica Isidori: I am shooting a movie in Pakistan as we speak. I cannot reveal too much about it, but it has been pretty incredible to work here. It is a very different world compared to America. It is not punctual or as strictly organized as America, but the inventiveness and warmth of people is quite astonishing. And the movie is going to be a little gem. It has a unique voice and that is going to be heard soon.
Aside from that, I am interviewing for a few projects in 2023 and hoping to book the next movie. There are so many good scripts out there I cannot wait to shoot!
Lastly, I would love to start shooting some commercials here and there. Breaking into that world has proved to be very very hard, but now that I have a one-year-old, it would be a privilege to be able to alternate between long features that require me to stay away for months, and shorter jobs that allow me to still make a living while also spending some time with my kid. Putting my wish out there in the universe (and with your readers!)