Lights, Camera, Women! – An Interview with Adrienne Wagner

Hi Adrienne – thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about your experience working as a director of photography (AKA “DP,” AKA “cinematographer”) as a woman in a traditionally male-dominated industry.

For those of our readers who might not be familiar with the job, what exactly do you, as a director of photography, do? And what do you enjoy most about it?

Technically the DP is the person who oversees the camera department and is responsible for making both artistic and technical decisions for how a film (video) looks. Sometimes cinematography is described as “painting with light,” which I really like. It’s all about making all of the fine decisions that all come together to create how a scene presents itself (in terms of style, shadow, intensity, etc.).

I think I mostly fell in love with the combination of creativity and technicality. Really good DPs can look at a scene and tell you a lighting ratio or a bunch of numbers or a lens or a lighting diagram that can explain technically why it looks a certain way. An audience can look at that same scene and tell you “this makes me sad,” or “this is uncomfortable,” and they don’t really know why, they just know how it makes them feel. There’s something very unique and powerful about being able to visually create something that can evoke a specific emotion.

Who or what inspired you to become a filmmaker and, specifically, a director of photography?

I didn’t plan on being a filmmaker when I first started college. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and I actually started as a nursing major (that lasted 2 weeks), then an English major (a semester). I think I then switched to journalism (which I had done a lot of in high school), and then in my third semester of college I eventually fell into a department called “Communication & Culture” at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN. They offered a lot of classes about public rhetoric, how communication impacts society and society impacts communication. As I progressed through those programs, I became very fascinated in the film theory classes.

I took “Propaganda in Film” in my fourth semester of college, which really dove into how World War II was affected by government-commissioned films. I was really intrigued by how film could change public perception (for good or evil, I suppose), and so I continued to take a lot of classes that looked at how gender, race, geography, etc. are portrayed in the media, and how that exposure can change or challenge or (mis)represent society. It clicked shortly after that, that perhaps I too might want to dive into actually making films as a career instead of just studying them. That summer (midway through my undergrad) I took my introduction to filmmaking class and added a second major in “Media Production.” My first college “film” was a short documentary in my fifth semester on the drag queen community in Bloomington, IN.

When talking about who inspired me in terms of style and just general intrigue into filmmaking, the answer is definitely Wes Anderson. When I first watched The Royal Tenenbaums in high school, the credits rolled and then I started it over. The symmetry and the color pallets were very striking to me.

Who has helped contribute to your success and how?

The three people who have contributed most to my success would be my grandpa Bob, my younger cousins, and my professor (and actor/director/producer/superhuman) Robby Benson.

I spent a lot of my very young years with my grandparents after preschool and things like that. My grandpa is the greatest storyteller I know. I spent countless hours listening to him tell me real elaborate pieces of his history, and I think it helped to trigger the desire in me to tell stories, too. I actually made a short film about him in 2015.

When I was in middle school I borrowed the old camcorder that my dad used to film my soccer games and started making short movies with my brother and two cousins who lived next door. I was the oldest of us four and took on most of the roles including camerawoman, director, often writer, occasionally extra. I was incredibly bossy, but they all went along with it for years, entertaining my ridiculous scripts and making sets in our basement all summer long. I still have a lot of these movies, and though they really are terrible, you can tell that we all really enjoyed making them, and it was something really special to my youth.

Robby Benson (‘80s heartthrob, and also voice of the Beast in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast), was my professor the last year of my undergraduate career. I’m sure he taught me a lot technically about filmmaking, but what I really took away from Robby was how to be a respectful, decent, vulnerable human being in the process of creating a film. I think the process of making a movie can get so intense that people put their decency on the back burner to “get the shot at any cost.” Before I met Robby I was convinced that the lifestyle and stereotypes of Hollywood and movie-making wasn’t going to work out for me. I had strongly considered going on another path. Robby gave me the confidence boost that I needed to really commit myself to the craft. He showed me that you can be a filmmaker and a good person simultaneously.

Did you have any formal training or did you learn on the job?

I have a degree in Media Production from Indiana University, but I honestly spent most of that time focusing on editing/post-production and film theory. It wasn’t until after college that I really started to try to understand and get into cinematography. I’d say I’ve learned more about camera stuff in the past two years on my own than I did all through undergrad. I shot my own short film at the end of college without really knowing what I was doing, and then when I moved to Portland after school, a guy I knew needed a second cameraperson for a project. After that was when I really started to dive deeper into practicing cinematography myself. I still edit a ton, and don’t feel the need to lock myself into one specific sector of film production just yet.

Being that you come to us from the other side of the country, how do your experiences on the West Coast compare to your experiences on the East Coast so far?

I’ve been very fortunate to have lived in places in the past that were generally quite accepting and progressive (and often those sorts of communities tend to promote the arts). Bloomington (where I did undergrad) is like a tiny pocket of progress within the generally conservative state of Indiana. Portland, OR, where I moved after school is sort of known for its “weirdness,” or general liberal nature with pretty much everything. Pittsburgh is the farthest east that I’ve ever lived (though people often tell me “that’s not the East Coast”). The transition has been difficult in some aspects, but I think Pittsburgh has a lot to offer and I’m looking forward to finding more of the hidden pockets in the city that are worth exploring.

Have you faced any challenges in the industry specific to being a woman of the LGBTQ community?

I think that women in general (not just of the LGBTQ variety) have more challenges thrown at them in this business. You can look at statistics and know immediately that the film industry is male-dominated (like a lot of things), and I definitely don’t think that’s because women aren’t as talented.

I will say, it was at my second gig in Pittsburgh in which I felt the most uncomfortable that I’d ever felt while working on a project. Different sets have different dynamics – crews can develop a sort of language sometimes. With this group, the words “gay” and “fag” and the like were being tossed around as synonyms for “stupid” and “lame.” I hadn’t really experienced that sort of language since I was in high school, and it made me uncomfortable being there. It wasn’t directed at me personally (and honestly wasn’t really said in a malicious way), but it certainly created a barrier between me and the rest of the crew. Crews will break for lunch and talk about their wives or kids and whatnot, and I didn’t feel like I could talk about my girlfriend in the same way without everyone getting quiet. I’ve certainly acted “straight” to get jobs before, and that can be really troubling for me. On one hand, often just replacing “he” for “she” and “boyfriend” for “girlfriend” can make the day much less awkward. At the same time, I think by doing that I’m somewhat betraying myself and the LGBTQ community. I also find that I’m very distracted at the job, as I’m worried more about accidentally using the wrong pronoun instead of which lens to use. As someone who is at the start of trying to establish myself in the film world, especially having just relocated to a place where I don’t know anyone (a much more conservative place than I am used to), I am still trying to figure out how to best deal with this.

By definition, we all learn from the mistakes that we make. In that light, what would you consider your greatest professional failure, and what did you learn from it?

I would say technically speaking, my biggest mistake is having not double-checked my camera when I was first starting out and shooting everything one day at an unintentional (incorrect) frame rate. My camera had been switched over for another project and I hadn’t changed it back. I always double-check settings now. It’s a must. It can be a bit tedious at first to really dig deep and learn your equipment, but no matter how incredible the acting, framing, audio, lighting, etc. might be in a take – if it’s not recorded correctly, it’s worthless. If the battery dies in the middle, a card fills, the frame-rate is wrong – that’s on you.

Non-technically, I think not believing in myself has occasionally come back to haunt me. Being relatively fresh to the “real world” and being a woman and dealing with anxiety causes me to keep quiet sometimes when I know something is incorrect or could be done better or I have a more interesting approach worth trying. A lot of that has improved with time and getting more experience under my belt. My dad always tells me to “Fail forward, fast.” I think there’s a lot to be said from learning by doing. I’m constantly working to challenge myself and to remember that with each mess-up comes new knowledge. I would also say that 99% of the time, if it’s me personally making the mistake, I never make that same mistake again. Reading about someone making a mistake just doesn’t have the same effect.

Do you have any parting advice for aspiring female filmmakers, especially female directors of photography?

More than once I’ve been getting to know who I’m going to be working with, and have been asked either 1) “Oh, which character are you playing?” or 2) “Oh, are you the make-up girl?” It’s never said in any sort of degrading way, I just think that there’s a lack of representation in women leading technical crew roles, and a lot of times people just assume the girl on set isn’t going to be the DP. It’s frustrating, but I always have a nice laugh when I head over to the camera. I like to think that over time people will learn to stop making assumptions like that altogether. I know countless men who can apply make-up a thousand times better than me. There are no roles on a film crew that need to be gendered. The sooner people can learn that, the sooner we start to see the best work being done by the best people.

There have been a few advancements for women cinematographers – most recently what comes to mind is a newly designed Easy-Rig that was created for women’s bodies. It’s a good start at tackling a giant arsenal of equipment that was built for large hands and broad shoulders. I hope to see trends like this continue so women are encouraged (and like, you know, physically able) to take on more of these roles.

I think the biggest thing that women have to remember (in any business, really) is that your opinion and your knowledge and your ideas are valuable. There are a lot of big personalities in filmmaking that can think they know everything, and sometimes it feels impossible to get a word in. A lot have probably never been challenged by a woman. It’s easy to put your head down, do the minimum for your role, and move on to the next gig. My advice – don’t. Challenge yourself not just creatively, but socially within the crew. Challenge them to recognize your potential. Have thick skin, but don’t take too much shit. Be confident in yourself and let your work speak for itself. Filmmaking is a lot of hustling. For better or worse, I think women just have to hustle a bit harder.

What’s the best way for folks to see your work and get in touch with you?

I have a website with more information about me and my portfolio at AdrienneWagner.com. I freelance full time and am always looking for new folks to collaborate with.

Is there anything you wanted to say or comment on that we haven’t covered?

I want to point out that when I first met you, Paul, you almost immediately shared that I was the first female DP you had ever worked with after spending years in the business. I could feel your excitement in our conversation, and I left the set encouraged to keep going, because for all of the assholes who continue to hire the man over the woman, every day there are more and more people like you who recognize the importance of growing the female presence in the film industry, and actually took the time to get a female’s perspective to share with the world.

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