The opening moments of Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool catch Annette Bening as a woman on the edge. She plays a late career Gloria Grahame, in what is a beautiful film about Grahame's love affair with Liverpudlian Peter Turner (Jamie Bell). We join her in the midst of a pre-show make-up routine. It's a routine we assume she's performed a thousand times, and shot in extreme close up, we peer through the objects used to apply her mask. This is a fragile woman, caught alone in a moment of vulnerability, burnt by a lifetime on stage and summoning the last of her strength to will herself forward. We immediately understand that this is where she creates the illusion that everything is fine, and the halcyon days of her past might not be as distant as they seem.
In these early beats of the film, her entire character is sketched through the cinematography by Director of Photography Ula Pontikos. It's clear that the camera sympathizes with our protagonist. "We cut a series of acrylic shapes to place in front of the lens, masking off areas of the frame,” says Pontikos. “And this obstructs the viewer's introduction to Gloria. She's revealed slowly, and we become onlookers to what is a very personal moment. I think of it as if we're spending a little time with her before she allows us into her story." Ula's own story and route to cinematography began in Poland, in a homemade darkroom alongside her father, developing pictures of his voyages with the merchant navy. Now living in London, her credits include a string of recent cult British features as well as TV, including Andrew Haigh's Weekend and Hong Khaou's Lilting, for which she won Best Cinematography after its Sundance premiere.
Uncomfortable with the title 'Director of Photography', Ula notes “that in the UK we were called Lighting Cameramen” but whether it's this, DOP or Cinematographer, it's still a field made up of only 9% women. So, I ask what she considers the job description: “As a DOP there are three departments to head up – lighting, camera, and grip, (grips control any camera movement). In Film Stars I was also operating, which is something I love, especially on a film like this, where you need to get to know and build trust with the actors to film with the level of intimacy the story requires. When talking over the project initially with Paul (McGuigan, the Director) and producers Barbara Broccoli and Colin Vaines, this was a key preference for them along with our use of back-projection.”
Shot in the UK despite large sections set in the US, Ula and Paul circumnavigated this problem using back-projection, itself a clever nod to Gloria Grahame's own era of film. As a technique from a bygone time though, this wasn't an easy decision. “Everybody advised us to go with green screen, but as our lighting plan was so specific and we wanted to create an environment for the actors to respond to, it was something we persevered with. Eventually, with Lester Dunton onboard and Stephan Lange's beautiful plate shots, we got what we were after.”
It is this approach that gives Film Stars it's unique look, with the light almost becoming a secondary character as Ula explains: “The story spans three years, you have the present day, Liverpool '81, and then the memory of their relationship before this. It was important that each had their own reality, with our lighting reflecting the nostalgia of memory and the progression of their relationship. So, when they're in the full flight of their love and visiting LA, then living in New York, we're embracing the brightness and sunshine of LA and a golden sheen in New York. Our Liverpool, on the other hand, lives under a sodium glow, from artificial street lighting, rather than radiating under sunlight as their relationship had previously. To me memory is golden, and I spent a lot of time lighting with different sunshine in mind.”
At the heart of Film Stars there's a confidence and the beauty of its visual language and talking with Ula, you immediately get a sense of her clarity of thought and the process with which she breaks down each element. It's a skill you can imagine honed across each project, even from her first break into the industry as a camera trainee on Dirty Pretty Things with Chris Menges: “I was lucky, as a student I was passionate, obsessive to learn everything and rarely accepting no for an answer, and when they were prepping for Dirty Pretty Things and looking for a trainee, I just happened to be there.' Whether luck was at play you can still hear the determination: “I never had a plan B or C, it was more that you just stop imagining doing anything else and then you're asking for more, looking for the next shoot to get onto.”
When I ask about whether there is a difference in how men and women work that justifies the lack of representation of women in her field, Ula is clear. “Absolutely not,” elaborating, “you can only speak for yourself, but I want to be defined by the job I do and my passion for it, this is how I work and I'm sure all my contemporaries do likewise. I've always worked on projects that champion diversity in storytelling, and it's great to now see so many changes gathering momentum. Rachel Morrison being nominated this year [for an Oscar in Cinematography] was obviously fantastic.” As a woman in charge of what is usually a male-dominated camera crew, she takes a similarly practical approach to any challenges in the ranks. “Being on set is tough, it consumes your life and in that sort of atmosphere, conflict is inevitable from time to time. For me, it's about keeping focus on the job and being direct. Occasionally you need to talk something through with someone – most frustrations are usually understandable and quickly resolved if you're upfront and sincere. If there's an issue it's just important to address it quickly and know that not everything is always straightforward.”
And her advice for the next generation? “Passion is everything obviously, I love film and bringing a story to life, but this isn't an easy industry to get into and survive in, so you have to have that euphoria when you see something like Julia Ducournau's Raw to then take into your next shoot.”