When the cinematographer Sam Levy and the writer and director Karen Cinorre, who are now married forty-somethings, first met — in a film class as undergrads at Brown — he was struck by the fact that “she’d read all these interesting texts about magic, mediums and optical tricks you could play with the camera,” he says. “She was very studious and disciplined about it, and I loved that about her.”
“I was a really curious seeker,” confirms Cinorre, who primarily studied semiotics, physics and dance, but who ultimately landed in film. “I realized,” she says, “that the palette for filmmaking had so much of what I love — the science, the optics, the movement, the sound,” which together can enact an alchemy all their own. Not that she’s actively thinking about all of these elements as she goes. “For me, you just do it — I’m trying to express something almost in the subconscious,” she says. “It’s like having a divining rod, seeking a way to express the thing you’re feeling.”
Levy, she says, who took to the camera in high school, has a different and more deliberate approach — “he strips film to its most essential and powerful parts” — something that was apparent, and fascinating to her, from the start. The pair kept in touch after that first class together, which was taught by the avant-garde filmmaker and artist Leslie Thornton, and their romance bloomed shortly after they graduated and moved to New York. They married in 2000, just as they were beginning to build their respective careers. Cinorre edited and produced for Thornton; produced and curated multimedia installations; created films for opera productions; and worked as a set decorator and as a stylist, most notably for Isabella Rossellini’s experimental “Green Porno” short film series (2008), in which Cinorre also appears as an amorous snail. All the while, she was writing and directing her own shorts. One of them, “Plume” (2010), centers on a young boy lost in a sandstorm who is saved by an ostrich, which leaves him caught between the human and animal realms. “My artistic inclinations are to mysterious things — I’m interested in the territory of the sublime,” she says.
At the same time, Levy was making a name for himself. He shot music videos for Beck and Vampire Weekend and became a frequent collaborator of Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, serving as the director of photography on Baumbach’s “Frances Ha” (2012), shot entirely in black and white, and “While We’re Young” (2015) and, later, for Gerwig’s Oscar-winning “Lady Bird” (2017). His lean, naturalistic approach belies a meticulous attention to detail that gives the films he works on a rich, lived-in aesthetic. Levy also shot nearly all of Cinorre’s shorts, and the couple would occasionally end up on the same set for other productions (as was the case with “Green Porno”). “We learned we really loved being on set together, spending 15 hours a day together making things,” says Levy. “When I would get a feature for someone else and leave home, it just reinforced the idea that we should be doing this together.”
In 2018, after an idea of Cinorre’s that had been percolating for over a decade took shape — “Sam, who’d seen the script in progress, was the one to point out that it should be a feature,” says Cinorre — they got their chance. The story — of what would become “Mayday,” which stars Grace Van Patten, Mia Goth, Havana Rose Liu and Juliette Lewis and hits theaters and all major video-on-demand platforms Friday — follows Ana (Van Patten), a put-upon young waitress who is transported to a lush and sparsely populated island in a dreamy other world. A war is on, but she finds refuge with a band of young women led by the seemingly unflappable Marsha (Goth). Soon, Ana learns, the women are bent on vengeance against all men, whom they lure to their deaths, often by impersonating damsels in distress via radio transmissions. In time, though, the feminist revenge fantasy gives way to something else, as Ana comes to see herself and her previous life in a different light.
Cinorre cites “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865), “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) and the ancient myth of the sirens as reference points for the story, which, she says, “felt like a bit of a fugue.” To figure out the film’s overall aesthetic, which has an appropriately gauzy, hypnotic quality, the couple searched for visual inspiration together. They went to live dance performances, including those done by the Belgian troupe Rosas and the Israeli company Batsheva, to help achieve a sense of grace and kineticism in the film (which has a darkly playful musical number in which Ana dances with a cadre of spry soldiers). The couple also browsed the shelves at Manhattan’s Dashwood Books, looking for images of women in action, which proved hard to find. Still, “a lot of Japanese photographers, like Rinko Kawauchi, spoke to us — something about the mystery and the color,” says Levy, who says his aim for “Mayday” was to “defy gravity.”
“It’s a big movie for a first feature — it needed a lot of muscle to get off the ground, and it was reassuring to have someone so encouraging,” Cinorre says of working with Levy, which turned out to be as natural as they both expected. “The thing I’m always trying to develop with a director is this shorthand for communicating and a visual language,” says Levy. “You kind of have to become the same person — your brains have to meld and you finish each other’s sentences.” This was something he and Cinorre could already do, though the two are careful about maintaining at least some boundaries between work and life. “We take what we do so seriously that we have to not take ourselves too seriously,” says Levy. “We’re playful and silly and ridiculous with each other, so then we can bring that energy to set, which makes the process of filmmaking a real joy.”
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