Guild cinematographer Yorick Le Saux captures the “big dreams/big world” of Greta Gerwig’s new version of Little Women – a radical take on the classic novel.
By Elle Schneider / Photos by Wilson Webb, SMPSP
Fresh off the Oscar-nominated coming-of-age phenomenon Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig already knew what she wanted to direct as her next film: a script she had been hired to write years earlier, based on a novel that was formative to her youth. Written by Louisa May Alcott, and originally published in two volumes (at the behest of Alcott’s publisher) in 1868 and 1869, Little Women is the classic story of the four March sisters – Jo, Amy, Meg, and Beth, all coming of age in Concord, Massachusetts during this nation’s Civil War. A pinnacle of American literature, Little Women had already been adapted for film and television more than a dozen times, so Gerwig knew she needed a fresh approach. That included dividing the story into two distinct periods – childhood and adulthood – adding a new angle to the narrative, and putting a sort of “rock and roll” spin on the typical women’s period film, with the help of what the writer/director describes as a “dream team” of collaborators.
That team included Local 600 Director of Photography Yorick Le Saux, whose previous work for writer/directors like Jim Jarmusch, Luca Guadagnino, and Olivier Assayas struck the perfect balance of Gerwig’s intent. “I love [Le Saux’s] total embrace of beauty,” she relates. “Some [DPs] are frightened to make something beautiful because there’s a concern it’s not coming off as critically minded.” And it wasn’t just Le Saux’s stunning photography that captured Gerwig’s attention. “I Am Love [directed by Guadagnino] is so beautiful you can almost taste it,” she adds. “But there’s also this restlessness behind the camera – you always feel movement. I wanted that movement in this story. I wanted to move away from that static, idyllic period film we’re used to, especially when we’re watching young women in a rural setting. The combination of the frenetic looseness of [Assayas’] Carlos with the sweeping beauty of I Am Love was exactly what I was looking for in Little Women.”
When the two initially met to discuss the film, Le Saux says they were speaking the same visual language. “I told her I can feel the energy of these four girls, especially in childhood,” he recalls. “And that it was important not to be too clean with the framing.” They watched numerous films (including many by Francois Truffaut) to figure out a shooting style that would make each frame come alive, while still feeling true to the period. They narrowed in on lightness of movement, and not trying to make scenes feel overcomposed. This allowed Le Saux to take risks, like shooting wide open on Cooke s4s and embracing highlights, “and that’s what we were expecting every day to happen on set,” he says.
Changing audience expectations of a period film also meant a strong collaboration among Gerwig, Le Saux, and other department heads, including Oscar-winning (and six-time Oscar-nominated) Costume Designer Jacqueline Durran, whose period-film credits include Darkest Hour, Mr. Turner, Atonement, and Pride and Prejudice, and two-time Oscar-nominated Production Designer Jess Gonchor (known for his work with the Coen brothers), especially in such set pieces as the three balls that occur at pivotal points in the story.
“I was quite keen for these to be distinct,” says Durran, “as ornate ballroom scenes can often bleed into one another.” The Christmas ball, where Jo March and Theodore “Laurie” Lawrence, the sisters’ charismatic neighbor, meet for the first time, “is Christmas in the country,” Durran adds. “It’s a local dance without the sophistication of the pastel ball, and the pastel ball doesn’t have the sophistication of the European ball.”
For Gerwig to highlight costumes or locations in these scenes often meant eliminating lights that might, for example, be captured in a wide shot. Le Saux says the balls were a “classic” balancing act of what could be elevated without sacrificing something else to make sure each scene stood out as unique and identifiable.
Gonchor, who originally planned to be a lighting designer, says his background in theater encourages a close relationship with the cinematographer. “As [soon] as I build a set or go to the location, I’m like, ‘Where is the light coming from? Where’s the window? What’s the source?’” he shares. To fulfill Gerwig’s plan of slightly “pushed realism,” Gonchor and Le Saux worked together to create motivated, unique light in a world that would only have been lit by fireplace or candlelight, even going so far as to build quarter-inch models of the New York street scenes to plan intricate camera angles and movement. “Even the natural lighting was different between Massachusetts and New York, having taller buildings in New York, and not being able to see the sunlight as much as in Massachusetts,” Gonchor recounts.
Locations and photography intertwined to move Little Women beyond what has been seen in other adaptations, both in its depiction of the bustling lower Manhattan publishing world, and the contrasting rural life of Concord. Much of the film was shot on a large property in Massachusetts, where the exterior of the March house could be built on location opposite what would become the stately Lawrence mansion.
“In all the other adaptations, [the characters] could not see one house from the other,” Gonchor observes. Having both homes within eyesight and being able to show that geography on camera gave Le Saux and Gerwig flexibility in shooting exteriors. To have the camera hold on moments for longer periods, allowing scenes to breathe, helps to immerse the audience in the space, instead of chopping the world into separate, isolated locales. Over more than a dozen scouting trips, Gonchor says, “we spent a lot of time in different periods of light, and went back to [the March] house walking around as it developed.” The property also doubled for several locations, including a crumbling carriage house repurposed for Amy’s Paris painting studio, which allowed Gonchor to create an environment that was more unique than just gilded molding and columns. The space “had beautiful light with all those doors that were for the horses and carriages,” he notes. “Some rooms light better than others, and that one just lit up beautifully.”
The fresh approach to visuals extended into hair, makeup, and wardrobe, conversations in which Le Saux was deeply involved. “Sometimes [period pieces are] too dead,” he says. “You can see a hairdresser was finishing the actress one second before ‘action.’ We wanted the opposite look – hair moving in the light because the photographs from that period all show the women with long, messy hair, moving everywhere.” Gerwig’s idea was to remove the barrier between the audience and the characters that often plagues static period films and step into their world, whether through movement, production design, or costume. “We want to be in that room with those girls and experience things just as they are,” Le Saux describes.
Durran searched through Victorian references, photography and painting, for images of bohemians and artists – people who were out of the ordinary. “The Alcotts are a radical family,” she says, “and I tried to work out how that would have looked. There are rules about Victorian costume that you’re told everyone followed, but then you wonder whether they did. Louisa May Alcott herself ran long distance! It’s hard to believe she would have worn a corset and all those skirts running a marathon. Starting with the Victorian reference, I then made a leap of imagination to think about how these radical women would have lived.”
Gerwig, Durran, and the actresses discussed in depth how each of their characters would have accepted or rejected period norms. A color palette was also established for each March sister that followed them through the narrative. “The vibrant red of Jo in her youth is reduced to a red neck scarf when she’s older,” says Gerwig, and “the deep purple of Meg, when she’s a girl, is then just a lighter, more grayed-out purple.” These colors were determined by a scene in the novel when the girls’ mother, Marmee, gifts them books on Christmas day.
Establishing differences between the dual timelines (without being heavy-handed) was key to centering the audience in the story. Gerwig says she wanted the scenes of childhood “to feel swirly,” like the movement of youth. “To make it this moving, breathing, dancing thing,” she continues, “we’d block out precise movements for everyone to catch one person from another coming into a room. We were trying to choreograph so that the camera was a dancer in the space.” For the “present” timeline, characters were more isolated, frontal, proper, static. “Not everybody in the frame is moving everywhere,” Le Saux explains.
Another subtle rule was keeping as many of the four sisters in the shot as possible in the “past,” filling the frame with that much-desired energy. Steadicam was used sparingly with Le Saux preferring a more simple, old-school approach, such as handheld, or laying down dance floor and moving to dolly for more precision. “I prefer to use older tools,” he shares, “and even after, in the DI suite, it was just simple printer lights and not many Power Windows.”
A combination of filters, including the Varicon, was used to set the look for each period. Those included “this golden warmth of youth,” says Gerwig of the past scenes, “and not doing much to the present, because, in contrast to this golden past, it would inevitably look colder.” Le Saux adds that in keeping with a simple approach to color grading, “we liked the cold shadow and warm skin,” for the present look. Color naturally extended to Gerwig’s discussions with Durran and Gonchor, noting that everything “should look more vibrant” when the girls are children. “I wanted it to feel almost like a Vincente Minelli movie – Meet Me In St. Louis or Gigi,” she says. “Saturated, and almost even more in memory. And the colors of adulthood were more muted, more grown and ‘appropriate.’”
While light and color were key to each timeline, shooting 35-mm film ARRICAM provided that important third element – texture – potentially missing from digital capture. Le Saux’s goal was “to play, like a sculptor with glaze, to destroy the negative, to go into low light or high light, and not be afraid to underexpose or overexpose because there is always something interesting in that moment,” he describes. Le Saux used 500 ASA Kodak stock for both interiors and exteriors, embracing the challenges that would bring. “I picked the 500 to get more grain, and it’s a stock that I know very well,” he adds. Further work to create texture was done in post. “At the lab I pushed the development one stop. I was playing with the negative, and trying to get the matière to show up on screen.”
“It’s almost like we wanted it to feel like a painting that was breathing,” adds Gerwig, “but without it being so effortful – with film we got that feeling right away. And also it felt right because film is a photochemical process; they had that in 1861. We didn’t have moving images yet, but it felt like it was a little more spiritually close to the time period.”
Using film also helped convey the scope of the ambitious, colorful lives of the March girls, who, as writers, actors, painters, and musicians, altered the typical Victorian feminine ideal. (Alcott based the characters on her own sisters.) Hence, Gonchor tried to highlight a more feminine touch in the artistic scenes, particularly Amy’s studio, to show a contrast with the more masculine art world of the time. “There’s a lot of that in the movie, just figuring out what could be male-dominated and what could be female-dominated,” he notes.
“The Alcotts were part of an artistic community,” Durran informs. “[And the characters] talk a lot about money, and the lack of power that women had, and about the poverty that the Alcotts were living with, and how money was an issue,” she continues. “Greta was inspirational in this regard, and thoroughly researched everything. She had so many insights into the Alcotts. Each woman represented a valid choice. Jo is the protagonist, and a character creative women can identify with. She’s a 19th-century person who becomes a successful writer, and it becomes her story. But it’s really about the four women and their unique choices.”
The March attic, which was built on a stage along with the rest of the home’s interior, was the girls’ creative nerve center. “It was their creative outlet and workspace,” Gonchor describes. “Jo had her place in there…a little cozy corner to curl up in and write. It was a warm environment, where they could dream.” The way it was designed, the space could evolve to feel closed, open, empty, full, dark, or light depending on the time period. “We did a lot of experimenting with the size of the March house, and the textures of the wallpaper,” he adds.
The March house façade was built only a few miles from – and was visually based on – the real house in which Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women. “We tried to make it seem like it was rough times, but they were making the best of it,” Gonchor concludes. “And then once we went inside, we wanted it to be like opening up a jewel box. A wooden jewel box that’s dusty on the outside, but open and lively on the inside. It’s warmth. It’s velvet. It’s color. It’s hope.”