Nancy Schreiber, ASC: The Enduring Artistry

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CRYSTAL KELLEY, Cinematographer, Local 600 AC, WIM CAMERA DREAM TEAM LEADER – I’m speaking with the great Ms. Nancy Schreiber, ASC. Nancy is a Women In Media Advisory Board Member, and the first woman to be awarded the ASC’s President’s Award. Nancy, thank you! I’m so happy to be conducting this interview with you on behalf of Women In Media.

NANCY SCHREIBER – My pleasure. I love this organization. I was saying earlier to Tema (Women In Media Executive Director and Founder) that I belong to so many women’s groups and I feel it’s important for us to get together to discover and support each other’s strengths and challenges. There hasn’t been an organization to focus on, and serve below-the-line women and people of color, as well as those who are disabled, diverse in age, religious orientation, and gender identity. Tema has done a great job of reaching out to the underrepresented. I’m delighted to be able to serve as part of Women In Media’s continued growth.

CRYSTAL – So, as an Advisory Board Member, what impact would you like to have on Women in Media as an organization?

NANCY – I’d love to get together with younger and mid-career women and gender nonconforming people to encourage them to never give up! Even though there was much talk about equality, with the goal of being fifty-fifty with men by 2020, here we are at the end of 2023! We’re headed in the right direction, but we are nowhere near that goal. We must keep the momentum going.

I love being a cinematographer and a storyteller. I love the comradery on set. Sometimes I feel like the EVEREADY BUNNY, winding myself up over and over again to keep relevant. As far as connecting with the industry, I do want to enlist the vendors that you and I rent and buy from to give concrete support through hosting events and donating equipment and post services.I know that the community will be even more supportive of Women In Media, given their history of successful outcomes.

CRYSTAL – How have you managed sexism, being in a male dominant profession?

NANCY – I’ve had to really avoid looking too closely at perceived sexism. It still goes on, it’s very subtle. Ages ago, I remember one job in Key West, Florida where we were doing recreations from the life of the poet, Wallace Stevens. Production hired the gaffer and the key grip, “good old boys”, actually, (laughs) and I thought, uh oh, this is not going to work. But within an hour during the tech scout, they seemed to lose their skepticism when I showed I knew what I was doing. I had to get over my fears and show confidence. We were quickly buddy-buddy, speaking the same language. Our society deals with sexism, racism, religious intolerance, and all of these issues cannot be changed overnight. There is still a lot of work to do.

CRYSTAL – Yeah that’s true. I’d like to talk about one of your most beautifully shot projects, P VALLEY. I’m a DP myself… I’ve never worked on a show where there’s two DPs. Can you talk a little bit about what it’s like working with another DP on the same show and how do you guys start to plan and figure things out?

NANCY – Really good question. I came on before there was another DP. I started the show with Katori Hall, the showrunner, and Karena Evans, who was the first director and is amazing. She comes out of Drake music videos, and is really inventive and creative. We collaborated on finding the alternating DP. I met Richard Vialet, who Cinematographer Johnny Simmons, ASC gave the thumbs up to.

I really got a good feeling about him. He’s calm, knowledgeable, has a great eye, and I loved working with him. I feel very fortunate, and I think that the styles matched beautifully. We would watch each other’s dailies, just to make sure we were on the same wavelength. We also took a lot of risks with some lenses from Panavision and would have to keep an eye on where some of them didn’t match, at all. They were one of a kind lenses. We were a two camera show, but added a third camera when we shot the pole dancing. Intercutting with three cameras has to be seamless! We would share information.

CRYSTAL – Cool!

NANCY – Production hired Richard early enough, so he could be available for prep, more than is usual on a television series and that was very good in terms of putting our crew together. I had wanted to make sure he was cool with my choices, because I had picked the key grip, the gaffer, and the majority of the camera team. However, the B camera First Assistant was his person. He knew a DIT that was available and interested, so we were able to blend the crew. I was very conscious of hiring diversely. On my camera crew, along with Richard, there were eleven of us and six of the eleven were women. Four were people of color.

CRYSTAL – Nice! Yay Nancy!

NANCY – My key grip, Ray Brown, had been around. He’s president of the union Local 479 in Georgia. He might have been a “good old boy”. But, I did a lot of digging, and got great feedback. You have to cast your crew like you would cast actors, ensuring there will be harmony.

Both of our dolly grips were African-American men. And the key grip’s daughter was a grip and unbelievable. And I kidded our gaffer, Jon Ladd, because at first he had no women on his crew. I said, “you have to hire a woman…you have to”. I worked my way up in the electric department before focusing on cinematography and feel it is a great training ground. Fortunately, an amazing woman named Ellie Evans came on our crew, and she’s now part of Jon’s core crew. I feel very good about that!

CRYSTAL – Sometimes you just need an introduction for men to say, you know, “Hey, this is a good woman to work with”. Women work hard and prove themselves, then those guys say, “Oh ok, let me bring her on to another show that I’m doing”

NANCY – Right.

CRYSTAL – Mmm, hmm. You mentioned lenses when you guys were doing testing for the show. Are there a certain lenses that you like to use and why?

NANCY – We use lenses as if they are diverse film stocks. There’s not one kind that fits all. Sometimes you want sharp modern lenses to fit the subject matter, and sometimes you want a grittier softer look. We didn’t want a clean crisp image because that’s not what the South and this little town in Mississippi was about.

We wanted to use uncoated lenses, which they call “detuned” lenses in the Panavision world. So, Panavision in L.A. sent us various lenses to test and there were three strengths, if you will. There was subtle, medium and extreme detuning. Some of the extreme lenses were REALLY EXTREME and nothing resolved, just went a little too far. So, Richard and I tested. There was a hair and make-up test and a lens test and it was very thorough.

We had a great camera team. I loved the cast and crew and it was just great to be there. We were working at the Tyler Perry Studios. It wasn’t his show but it was an old army base, huge grounds and brand new sound stages. What a pleasure to work in. Everything was clean, so it made working quite wonderful!

We had an amazing production designer, Jeffrey Pratt Gordon, who designed and built an entire strip club. It was very important to Katori that it not be too fancy because the owner, Uncle Clifford, inherited this club which used to be a speakeasy from her grandmother. (Now Uncle Clifford, the pronoun is her, but her name’s Uncle Clifford.)

We had to be very careful in our lighting choices. I remember Katori was really worried about fancy lights up in the grid so we made the modern day LEDs fit into the housing of an old PAR can. If you looked up, it just looked like these funky black fixtures and you didn’t know that everything was DMX controlled.

CRYSTAL – So fun! So why did you guys do that? Why did you rehouse the LED lights into some old PAR cans?

NANCY – Because Katori, the showrunner, would have thought there’s no way Uncle Clifford could ever buy modern lights. Today, modern strip clubs have all the fancy moving lights. We had three of those. We didn’t use them as moving lights because Uncle Clifford would never have been able to afford them. You know, she got hand-me-downs from old theaters and hardware stores. We used moving lights when we didn’t have time to bring ladders onto the stage. We could pan one of these three lights where we wanted it. They did make noise, that was the thing. So sound…

CRYSTAL – There are a lot more women coming up through cinematography, which is great. What advice would you give to those younger women, especially if they feel like they’re not as knowledgeable in one area? And how would you suggest that they be strategic in their career progression?

NANCY – Really good question. I came up through the ranks. For lighting, I was fine. For camera however, I had to teach myself, and hang out at the rental houses and learn more about the mechanics. People should figure out where they are lacking and try to observe on sets, if that’s possible today. Offer one’s help on student films. I did that. I was lucky that I wasn’t a PA all that long. I just took every opportunity I could, in G and E unless it was abusive subject matter. We’ve got to find a way for people to earn a living and yet pursue their dreams because often you can’t earn while you learn or learn while you earn.

There are so many webinars online and rental houses are a great resource. If you don’t know a lot about cameras and lenses, go to somebody’s prep, go to a rental house and say “Can I observe”? There are so many ways to keep your eye attuned. Go to museums. If you can’t go in person, I mean, I followed LACMA and MOMA exhibits online during the pandemic. With all of the streaming services, there is so much content to learn. People just have to keep their skills up, even in mid-career.

CRYSTAL – What would you say to mid-career women, who are wondering if they should really have an agent to get better jobs? I feel like sometimes there’s a block for us to have access or if we don’t have the connections to interview for higher production value jobs.

NANCY – You don’t necessarily need an agent today. however If you have work, and great social media, they will find you. They’re hungry for new talent. But don’t expect them to do all the work for you. You still have to make the contacts and say “what about this, go after that”.

CRYSTAL – Tell us something unusual about yourself.

NANCY – I jumped out of airplanes when I was in my twenties. I can’t believe that they would send us up solo with crummy headsets and no instructor! It’s not like nowadays when they attach you to an experienced instructor. I remember the feeling of crying and laughing at the same time.

Ten of us were sitting on the floor of an empty Beechcraft plane. The pilot would circle until the wind was right so we would land somewhere they could find us, hopefully in the facility’s field. Your turn would come to jump out. You’re standing at the open door and they would, (slap sound) hit you hard on the back and yell, “GO!” If you didn’t jump out the door everybody else would be pissed off, since we would have to go all the way around again and (laughs) so I would jump out. And fortunately my parachute always opened.

I think that sometimes being in the entertainment industry is like jumping without a safety net because we’re freelance. First there was the pandemic, then the strikes. We never know what’s going to happen. I’ve gone through entire decades and decades of my career facing the unknown. But somehow I know something will happen and maybe it won’t be my dream job, but it will be something that I need in life at that time. You really have to learn trust, find a way to not starve, to pay your rent, feed your body and soul, and get good sleep. Sometimes I think, “Wow, I’m jumping out of planes without a parachute”, but there’s always a parachute!

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