We recently spoke with Julia Swain, the Director of Photography for the highly anticipated films Scrambled and The Wrath of Becky, as well as Allie Leone, the Production Designer for The Wrath of Becky. Both films premiered at the upcoming SXSW film festival, making this a pivotal time in their careers.
PH: Hi there Julia! Can you share your production background? How did you get into cinematography?
Julia Swain: I have always been interested in filmmaking and never really pursued anything else. I loved making films when I was growing up and quickly realized that having the camera in my hands was where I wanted to be when it came to the process. When I went to study filmmaking, I fell into the cinematographer role on other students’ projects. Imagemaking has always been so fascinating — capturing moments in time and translating human emotion with light and camera. It’s the best job in the world.
PH: Can you share some of your first few projects?
Julia Swain: At the start, it was a lot of short films. I dove into narrative work as soon as I could. I wasn’t one to do spec commercials as I knew narrative would be a longer journey, so I focused on building that portfolio right away. Some of the first projects of which I was really proud were music videos that incorporated narrative arcs including one for Grace Vanderwaal that I shot with my friend Blythe Thomas. I did a series of music videos for Saro that were really fun and visual and a bunch of short films to keep my narrative work going, while working my way to feature films.
PH: What drew you to work on both Scrambled and The Wrath of Becky?
Julia Swain: Both Scrambled and The Wrath of Becky were great scripts with great filmmakers attached, so they were both easy to say yes to shoot. I felt so much for the characters while reading them and wanted to be a part of telling each story. They were also both different genres that I knew would be creatively fulfilling in different ways but ultimately it was the scripts and people behind them that drew me to them.
PH: What was your creative process? How did you infuse your own creativity and personality on screen?
Julia Swain: I am adamant on every project, no matter how short or long, about having very detailed prep - organized shot lists for each day, lighting diagrams for bigger setups. I want to deeply understand what is in my director’s head for the film and work to accomplish what they’re after. In terms of infusing my own creativity, I do think a lot of it is by feeling. Although the prep is there and can be understood by all department heads, I always try to leave room for changing the plan. I’m not referring to the logistical curveballs you and your team have to be able to pivot, though the heavy prep helps prepare for those inevitable events too. I’m referring to the feeling when the actors step in front of your lens and run the scene and then, you suddenly realize you should put the camera somewhere you hadn’t thought of or use a lens you hadn’t planned on using. The power of performance leaves you feeling a lot, and so I think it’s important to afford the opportunity to dictate some of your choices on the day.
PH: Speaking of creativity, how do you continue to push creative boundaries for your projects?
Julia Swain: I am always pushing myself, learning from each film before the present one. I do believe that we all get much more comfortable breaking all the “rules” as we shoot more. On every project, I do everything that I can to ensure that we get what we intend to i.e., what the director wants to achieve visually, and I am less and less afraid of doing things differently with light and camera — but my choices are always rooted in the material and what I feel is most authentic for each project.
PH: How did it feel to have two different films from two different genres being displayed at SXSW?
Julia Swain: I felt really grateful to be back at SXSW after having a film there in 2020 when COVID cancelled the festival last minute. It was devastating. I was excited to have another chance to attend and celebrate the hard work these teams put into this films.
PH: On that note, can you talk about how the creative process and experience differed between these two?
Julia Swain: Scrambled is very much modern day Los Angeles as we know it, while The Wrath of Becky, although it addresses themes of our modern day, is a bit more fantastical and fast moving with stunts and SFX . I think the biggest difference was that on Scrambled, my director was in every scene and not watching monitor as each take happened live. And on Becky, I had not one but two directors at monitor at all times. On both films, but perhaps more-so on Scrambled, I was reminded of how much we cinematographers bring to our directors and the trust that goes into this job. I had not worked with Leah or Matt and Suzanne before, so we not only had to prep and make a whole movie together, we had to form trust pretty quickly.
PH: What types of challenges did you encounter, and how did you navigate them?
Julia Swain: As with any project, both Scrambled and The Wrath of Becky had challenges that no one could predict - both lost locations during shooting that were scheduled ahead, and we had to scout during production for others. Filmmaking is constant creative problem solving. Both films were also relatively small and had very fast schedules. I had to really know the scripts in and out, the constantly changing schedules and what I was capable of with my crew size on each considering both had so many locations. Scrambled had more locations with more frequent long dialogue scenes, whereas The Wrath of Becky had a lot of stunts and SFX. We had a stunt team and an armorer and had to carve out time to get all of those sequences covered properly and safely.
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?
Julia Swain: My job is all about creating a safe space for the actors, director and other department heads. I have to be on schedule, to work within the production’s resources, and to tell the story with light and camera. Scrambled was a script that beautifully married humor and emotion. It affected me similarly to so many films that I loved — Jonathan Levine’s 50/50, Jason Reitman’s Juno, Tully. I didn’t want it to look flat and uninteresting in its visuals but I knew it had to feel real like these did — similarly to how the humor and emotion play out in the script, I wanted to create something both commercial and rooted in realism. I wanted it to fully capture Leah McKendrick’s character Nellie’s journey and allow us to root for her. As the cinematographer, Scrambled was all about understanding Nellie and it was pure joy to witness Leah effortlessly capture our hearts in front of the lens with her profound performance.
The Wrath of Becky bounces between the point of view of Becky and the antagonists with a style that is very fluid and fast. We had a lot of exterior scenes and unpredictable weather, so scheduling was something about which 1st AD Alex Burstein and I had to constantly strategize. The goal was for audiences to invest in Becky’s character and feel for her and all that she has lost — all of which was made quite easy by the incredible Lulu Wilson. We wanted to take audiences on a thrilling ride. It’s another film that balances comedy and drama, while also making us feel how high the stakes are.
PH: Can you share any of your upcoming projects?
Julia Swain: I wish I could — reading scripts and prepping some exciting features I am excited to share with audiences.
PH: Hi Allie! Can you describe a bit about your professional history and how you got into the field of production design?
Allie Leone: I studied film and communications in college, which gave me an introduction to the craft. I was very fortunate to work with wonderful mentors, particularly Monica Mayorga & Griffin Clark, who taught me so much and really helped me hone my skills.
Years ago, as a new designer, I had some directors take a chance on me, all of whom I still work with today. I had the opportunity to work on projects that expanded my boundaries. With a lot of determination and hard work --the projects just keep getting better and better.
PH: How do you go about selecting a project to work on? Do you have a certain criteria you follow?
Allie Leone: I love being approached with any new project. For me, the wheels start turning immediately and I begin coming up with ideas, breaking it down, imagining the space- that's my favorite part. I do a lot of commercial work, which I really love because you typically have the budget to allow your creativity to run full speed ahead. But I feel very passionate about narrative. I love thinking about characters, creating a space that reflects that, and their development throughout a film. And of course, the script is a major factor in deciding on a project. I read it once as an audience to get a feel for it and then again from a design standpoint. I look for projects that push me to try new things, for elements that would lend themselves to interesting visuals, and overall a story that I enjoy.
PH: How did you become involved with The Wrath of Becky?
Allie Leone: I had worked with one of the Line Producers, Derek Rubin, on another narrative project and he called me to see if I would be interested in The Wrath of Becky. I read the script and had a call with Suzanne Coote & Matt Angel soon after. We hit it off immediately and I was really happy to be a part of the project. They were just wonderful to collaborate with.
PH: Can you talk me through your pre-production mindset when constructing the design for this project?
Allie Leone: I love creating moodboards, it allows me to think about the characters, spaces, and the overall aesthetic. I knew that we would be shooting at locations, so my mind didn’t go straight to creating builds and entire sets. I thought about what I envisioned the locations to be and looked at loads of options that our locations scout had found. Ultimately we landed on some really great ones.
Matt & Suz and I talked a lot about the characters, color palettes, and overall aesthetic. They trusted my vision and let me run with it, which was wonderful. My Set Decorator, Alyssa Franks, was the first person to start prepping on my team, she has great taste and did a fantastic job creating the worlds with me.
PH: What was it like collaborating with the crew including Julia?
Allie Leone: I was fortunate enough to get my dream team for the project. I had been working with most of my art crew for years and a couple of people were new to me - each person had their own strengths and unique skill set to bring to the art department. Everyone on set joked that we were their favorite department. We all worked really well together and I feel extremely proud of them.
The entire crew was really wonderful and there was a lot of teamwork across all of the departments. I worked closely with Costume Designer- Elena Lark, we chatted a lot about color, style, and about Becky’s transformation in the film.
Working with Julia was a fantastic experience, she is such a phenomenal Cinematographer. We also talked a lot about color palette, use of practicals, and overall tone. Julia and I were able to work really well together to create room for camera & lighting in sometimes tight locations, have the sets make sense for blocking and stunts, and also look good on camera. We sort of figured out our rhythm.
I think all of us were able to create some really beautiful work together.
PH: Can you dive deep into some of the interior and exterior sets you specifically had to create? Where did your inspiration come from?
Allie Leone: The foster home location was a really fun one to design. We amped up the cheesiness, I got a kick out of the characters and I wanted their space to reflect them, saying a lot without many words (aside from “Live, Laugh, & Love”). We used a pastel palette for the bedroom set, which we didn’t use anywhere else in the film, so it really popped.
For Daryl’s location, we were shooting there for a good portion of the film so I wanted it to maintain visual interest and reflect who this character was as a person. He has an interesting backstory and is a somewhat cerebral villain, so we tried to bring elements into that location that reflected that.
My inspiration came from conversations that I had with Matt & Suz, talking through the characters, research that I had done, and unfortunately for Daryl and his crew- current events.
PH: Did you encounter any challenges from a design perspective?
Allie Leone: Designing strictly in location spaces presents its own set of challenges being that it is more rigid and although we can alter things, there was a limit at these particular locations.
The Wrath of Becky is a super bloody film and since we were shooting at actual locations, we needed to constantly come up with solutions to get the gore that we needed without causing any damages. We didn't spare any gore- and we also didn't get any homeowner complaints.
It was also definitely challenging to design the villain’s home, to try to think of their mindset and what their space would be like- when you feel so opposed to that character and their beliefs.
Without getting into any details about specific kills that could be a spoiler- there were a lot of stunts and SFX in this film, some of which were more challenging than others. To achieve them, there were various moving parts that involved different departments. Corey Pierno is an amazing Stunt Coordinator and Brian Schuley is a great SFX Supervisor. Collaborating with them and oftentimes- our amazing Prop Master, Taylor Robinson, made all of the stunts & SFX seamless.
PH: What's a big focus for you this year (personally or professionally)?
Allie Leone: My focus for this next year is to continue bringing more interesting narrative stories to life and designing visually interesting commercial work. I don’t like to think of things in terms of specific genres, I prefer to go with projects that seem like a good fit- in the sense of the content, script, the crew, and the overall vision. Great directors are so important, when you have that, anything is achievable.
I also hope to continue traveling, which I draw a lot of inspiration from. I often travel with my partner, Joshua Echevarria. Over the ten years that we have been together, we’ve been fortunate enough to visit some amazing places. He’s a DP and we talk a lot about ideas when traveling but also in our everyday routine- over breakfast in the morning and before bed.I think my experience as a production designer and his as a cinematographer really helped to expand each other's perspective. It really is a special relationship that propels us both forward.
PH: Can you share any upcoming projects you have in the works?
Allie Leone: The next shoot that I have coming up in a few weeks is a narrative project that consists of an all female cast and predominantly female crew, which is very important to me.The film sort of lives in a video game universe which has been really fun to prepare for and will be exciting to see on screen. Aside from that, I have a few upcoming commercials and I’m looking for the next exciting project that comes my way!
Image courtesy of BoulderLight Pictures