Jay Keitel is a Los Angeles based cinematographer who showcases his expertise in a variety of diverse projects from television series, short films, music videos, and commercials. Most recently, Jay has lensed Amy Seimetz’s psychodrama thriller She Dies Tomorrow, which premiered recently at SXSW and was even nominated for the Adam Yauch Hörnblowér Award (awarded “in honor of a filmmaker whose work strives to be wholly its own, without regard for norms or desire to conform”). She Dies Tomorrow follows Amy, who wakes up convinced she is going to die tomorrow. As her delusions of her certain death intensify, they seemingly become contagious to those around her. Amy and her family’s life spiral out of control and into madness as they try to cope with the overbearing worry they will die tomorrow. We spoke with Jay Keitel about his experience working on the film.
Nerds and Beyond: Our audience is mostly fans rather than industry insiders. How would you explain your role as a cinematographer on set and in the pre- and post- production process?
Jay Keitel: I’m sort of parenting what the film looks like, guiding it through pre-production, production, post-production. Basically you’re taking care of the image and making sure nothing harms that. Kind of like you’re taking care of a loved one or something. It’s a friend or child you’re watching over.
Nerds and Beyond: This is your second film with director Amy Seimetz after her directorial debut Sun Don’t Shine. What was the process like collaborating with her again to achieve the visual look of She Dies Tomorrow?
Jay Keitel: Amy talks to me about some of the deeper aspects of what she was communicating with the script, specifically Kate’s character. She gave me some examples of moments of what she was thinking about, visual cues about what Kate would be doing. We started this process before the script was finished. And then based on that conversation I gathered some of my photographs and ideas that resonated with me that I thought she would also dig. I also did some camera test and showed her what I was thinking. In this way we arrived at some choices about how the film should look and feel. I really appreciate being brought in during the writing process because it’s easier to talk with the director about what they’re wanting or what they’re searching for and gives me more time to think about what the film could be. That’s one thing that makes working with Amy special.
Nerds and Beyond: The film’s tone is very unsettling, and the visuals are a big part of creating that sense of unease. When you and Amy Seimetz were discussing the way the film would be shot, what strategies did you both want to implement to create that dread in the viewer?
Jay Keitel: We talked about looking past walls, keeping the camera still, implementing different lighting techniques to draw out different parts of the character of Kate, and slightly unusual camera angles, higher or lower than normal points of view. We were strategic in mixing those still angles with handheld work. And playing with focus – it lets the character come in and out. You’re withholding information, which creates some anticipation and tension. Like for instance when Kate is crawling towards the camera, and we can’t see her clearly.
Nerds and Beyond: Lighting design is so important to this film, with strong colored lights used in so many scenes. What was the process of achieving that effect like on set, and what did you hope the audience would feel watching it on screen?
Jay Keitel: It was all about choosing the right lighting unit and the right placement for those units without needing a lighting board operator, which was beyond our budget constraints. We chose the color and the way the light flashes based on each character’s state of mind. Apart from that I really wanted there to be the feeling of color motion picture film that’s been corrected in the lab – meaning if you would shoot a tungsten stock outside and then correct it to appear normal and vice versa on the interior scenes. For me it presents a duality in the image and there are these dualities in Kate’s character as she’s fluctuating between emotions. I used a lot of warm tungsten light fixtures for daytime scenes and a lot of cool daytime fixtures for nighttime scenes, which is a counter-intuitive and unexpected way to go. This created a color contrast which reflected what was going on with the characters internally.
Nerds and Beyond: Another thing I had noticed was it did not look like there was much computer editing done to the visuals of the film. What effect were you looking to achieve using such a wide variety of cameras and lenses alongside practical effects?
Jay Keitel: I always love doing as much as possible in camera to create anything that goes into a movie. I think if you start with real tangible things it will feel better on screen, more personal. And each element required different ways of capturing it to make the most of what that element is. For those abstract images, we used things like food coloring, oil, glycerin, even things out of Amy’s refrigerator. Depending on where we were emotionally in the film the abstract shots would either be softer or sharper or more opaque or more translucent. That called for different equipment, so we could have a range of subtlety.
Nerds and Beyond: Did any other films influence your work on She Dies Tomorrow?
Jay Keitel: In the back of my mind I think Possession was an influence and also The American Friend, for me personally.
Nerds and Beyond: When did you know you wanted to become a cinematographer? Who were your inspirations when you were first starting out?
Jay Keitel: I think I really knew after about the 50th time I saw Blade Runner. And also seeing Wim Wenders’ early films. I was and still am inspired by Robby Mueller’s work. And also Agnes Godard.
Nerds and Beyond: Your previous work includes the STARZ show The Girlfriend Experience and a variety of other shorts and full-length features. Do you approach shooting full length movies differently in comparison to TV shows or short films?
Jay Keitel: I think my process is the same no matter what I’m working on. I read the script, I listen to music I think connects with the script in some way to me personally and then I take still photos to explore some visual ideas and colors. And then I compile images to make a mood board. After that I read the script again and write down whatever some to me in terms of specific visuals. Reviewing all these things I can start to make choices about how to tell the story, along with input from the
Nerds and Beyond: I read that you are also an accomplished still photographer alongside working as a cinematographer. How does that influence your work in general and this film in particular?
Jay Keitel: When I take photographs I’m a primary artist, and so I’m not thinking about how the images will connect to anyone else, just myself. So it’s more like pure ideas or a pure form of expression. It’s not related to a story. And so I can come back and look at those and be inspired by them to tell someone else’s story. Sometimes you’ll do something in a photograph and think about how you can reproduce that in a narrative. I get ideas taking photographs that I wouldn’t get otherwise.
Nerds and Beyond: Do you have any advice for anyone looking to pursue a career as a cinematographer?
Jay Keitel: Shoot as much as you can but also work on knowing who you are and aesthetically what resonates with you personally and really cultivate that sense. And watch a lot of films.
Our thanks to Jay Keitel for taking the time to speak with us! If you are interested in following more of Jay’s work you can check out his IMDb or his website. She Dies Tomorrow is out now, and you can check out the trailer below!