Over the last several years, Jody Lee Lipes has become one of the most sought-after cinematographers in the New York independent film scene. He’s been the go-to cinematographer for Borderline Films, a collective formed by fellow NYU film school alums Antonio Campos, Sean Durkin, and Josh Mond, shooting Campos’ Afterschool and Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. He also photographed Lena Dunham’s directorial debut, Tiny Furniture, which led to consistent work on Dunham HBO show Girls and his first major studio job on Trainwreck, the upcoming comedy by Girls producer Judd Apatow. Though Lipes also directed a couple of episodes of Girls, his primary interest as a director so far has been in portraits of artists at work, including Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be The Same and NY Export: Opus Jazz, which he co-directed with Henry Joost. The latter project, about a collaboration between Jerome Robbins and the New York City Ballet, led to Lipes’ excellent new documentary Ballet 422, which goes behind the scenes at the prestigious company. Lipes’ subject is dancer-turned-choreographer Justin Peck, a 25-year-old dancer who’s given just two short months to stage the company’s 422nd original ballet.
Lipes talked to The Dissolve about Peck’s remarkable confidence and focus, his interest in process over backstage drama, and the importance of staying in the moment.
The Dissolve: How did you settle on Justin Peck as a subject? What interested you about him?
Jody Lee Lipes: Well, [New York City Ballet director of media projects] Ellen [Bar] was moderating a discussion with Justin at the Guggenheim a couple of years ago, and I was there watching because Ellen is my wife. I was just there to support her, but I wound up really impressed by Justin. The way he talked about his work was really refreshing and clear, and I was really impressed with watching him work with one of the dancers in that ballet that he was there to discuss. He just sort of went up on stage with her, and corrected her after she danced. He didn’t change any of the steps, but he changed the intention of what she was doing, and it really dramatically changed the feeling of what she was performing. And that impressed me a lot. I’m definitely not a ballet expert, but it was like night and day watching her dance before and after he spoke to her. It reminded me of watching a really masterful filmmaker talking to a veteran actor. That process really translated to what I’m used to watching, filmmaking, into choreography. I didn’t really know that that’s how it could be, and Justin seemed totally unaware that there were 200 people watching him. He was just having a very direct conversation with Tiler [Peck], who was the dancer. He didn’t really seem to care that anybody else was there. I think as a documentary subject, that’s really attractive to me, just someone who appears like they won’t change who they are for the camera. And I liked his youth, too. At the time, I think he was 24 years old.
The Dissolve: One thing that struck me about Justin is that he goes against who the choreographer of the popular imagination might be, which is a more tempestuous, like Malcolm McDowell in The Company. Was that part of his appeal for you, too?
Lipes: Yeah. Though Malcolm McDowell is older than Justin, so who knows what will happen in time? Part of what’s interesting for me about this film is Justin’s youth, and the fact that he’s in this position. He’s at the top of his field in terms of the company he’s working with, but it’s still one of the first times he’s ever [choreographed a ballet], and he’s still learning how to do it. I think one way people can do that is by being difficult and angry, and sort of turning their insecurities on other people, but I think Justin does the total opposite. He’s young, and maybe in 20 years, he’ll be like an angry guy who yells at everybody. [Laughs.] But it seems like he’s really focused and calm, and willing to say when he doesn’t understand something or needs help with something, which takes a lot of confidence. A lot of people don’t have that. I’d argue Malcolm McDowell’s [character] is that way from a lack of confidence, or feeling like he’s not in control. But I think Justin really is in control.
The Dissolve: What kind of preparation did you need to do to get the footage you wanted? What was your game plan heading in?
Lipes: I really didn’t have one. I just knew that I wanted to show Justin working, and I wanted to see as much of that as I could and show as much of that process as I could. And so I think it was all about making Justin comfortable, and feel like he had a say in what was happening. And if I was preventing him from doing his work, he could tell me to stop, which never happened. But I just wanted to let him to know that that was okay. And I wanted to be present as much as I could and react to what I saw.
The Dissolve: So you were composing on the fly? There are some shots in the film that are very striking and formal, but they were things that just occurred to you in the moment?
Lipes: It sounds a little cheesy or grandiose, but I think shooting vérité is like improvising a little bit, or like jazz, as opposed to orchestral music, which would be more comparable to a big studio movie. I think it’s all about, for me, being calm and very patient, and waiting, and knowing that things will happen. You just have to wait for the thing to happen, and the once it happens, you can put on your more grammatical cap and ask, “Okay, what are the other parts of this that I need to be able to put this together formally so that moment will be part of a scene?” That’s kind of how I think about it. I try not to think about it for a long time and be patient, and hopefully it comes together. I got to meet Albert Maysles one time, and he told me something that I’ll never forget, which was, “If you miss something when you’re shooting vérité, it will always happen again, and it will be better the next time it happens.” I think that’s a great philosophy even if it’s not true, because it makes you calmer. You’re not constantly fishing around trying to find something. You just wait. That’s the key.
The Dissolve: The film is very rigorously process-oriented, and shuts out the narratives you might expect from a behind-the-scenes documentary. Were there subplots or events that you avoided, or that you left on the cutting room floor?
Lipes: Not really. Saela Davis, the editor, along with Anna Rose Holmer and Ellen Bar, our producers, all decided what this film was together, and it was a very collaborative process. I think ultimately what we decided is that it’s about the work, and that’s all its about. It’s just about process from A to B to C to D, not people screaming at each other. It’s hard to make a film that’s interesting without that conflict, which is what 99 percent of films rely on. We knew that a challenge going in was to make it move forward and not feel meandering or static. One of the first discussions that the Saela and I had was like, “There’s no conflict here, so how do you make a film without conflict?” That was a big part of the editorial process for us.
The Dissolve: In terms of tension, it seems like time was what you had. The performance had to be ready in two months. First of all, is two months an unusual timeframe for an original ballet like this one?
Lipes: It was a very rushed timeframe. Basically, what happened is that there was another choreographer who was going to do a ballet with the New York City Ballet, and he had to drop out at the last second. And so Justin replaced him. It was a very condensed timeframe, and having that ticking clock was a huge benefit, and I think one of the major factors that allowed us to make a purely vérité film that moves on its own. In terms of the conflict and tension and how that comes into play, I think that a lot of that stuff is very subtle and very underneath the surface. I feel like that’s the tone for that kind of creative work. Everyone’s just striving for perfection all the time. But it’s sort of impossible to get there. And people are trying really hard and there’s just this tension underneath.
The Dissolve: How did you come to the decision about how much of the actual performance we would see?
Lipes: We all agreed the film was about work and working, and not necessarily the celebration of the completed version of that work. I think there’s another factor, in that ballet on a stage is meant to be seen in a theater, and shooting ballet on a stage, especially when it’s an actual live performance, where you can put the camera is limited, and it’s not entertaining and it’s not good and it’s boring. We all knew that if we forced [the performance] in, it wouldn’t be very engaging, but you also don’t want to feel like you’re robbing the audience of that moment. That was one of the hardest things about editing, the question of how much you actually put in so the audience doesn’t feel robbed. And then how much is too much that it’s just boring. So we did a few test screenings, and got a lot of reactions from people, and I feel like we found a good balance of feeling like you were there, but not forcing the viewer to watch this creation in a less than ideal way.
The Dissolve: During that first performance, you spend a lot of time on Justin’s face as he’s watching the show. Watching him watching things seems like a primary fascination in this movie.
Jody Lee Lipes: I think focus is something that really interests me. I think that when people are really, really engaged in the work that they’re doing, it reveals a lot about them. They don’t feel watched in the same way that Justin didn’t feel watched when I first saw him working at the Guggenheim with Tyler. It’s kind of like if someone sees someone running down the street with a gun. The way a person reacts to that is not in a way where they feel watched. They’re just thinking about that thing in front of them. And I think it’s fascinating to watch someone who’s let their guard down. The first time I really noticed that was something that intrigued me was when I was working on a movie called Palindromes, which is a Todd Solondz film that I was an intern on when I was in college. I was responsible for moving Todd Solondz’s monitor around. And so I would just sit next to him during takes, and he was so engaged with what he was doing that he literally mouthed the words of the actors during takes. I just remember thinking, “Wow, I want to put a camera right on top of that monitor and just shoot Todd’s face,” because that person is not thinking about the people around them or where they are. They’re totally engrossed by their own work, and that’s fascinating to me.