The Married Couple Behind the Dreamy Feminist Action Film ‘Mayday’

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When the cinematographer Sam Levy and the author and director Karen Cinorre, who at the moment are married forty-somethings, first met — in a film class as undergrads at Brown — he was struck by the truth that “she’d read all these interesting texts about magic, mediums and optical tricks you could play with the camera,” he says. “She was very studious and disciplined about it, and I loved that about her.”

“I was a really curious seeker,” confirms Cinorre, who primarily studied semiotics, physics and dance, but who finally landed in film. “I realized,” she says, “that the palette for filmmaking had so much of what I love — the science, the optics, the movement, the sound,” which together can enact an alchemy all their own. Not that she’s actively thinking about all of those parts as she goes. “For me, you just do it — I’m trying to express something almost in the subconscious,” she says. “It’s like having a divining rod, seeking a way to express the thing you’re feeling.”

Levy, she says, who took to the digital camera in high college, has a distinct and more deliberate method — “he strips film to its most essential and powerful parts” — something that was obvious, and interesting to her, from the start. The pair saved in contact after that first-class together, which was taught by the avant-garde filmmaker and artist Leslie Thornton, and their romance bloomed shortly after they graduated and moved to New York. They married in 2000, simply as they were starting to construct their respective careers. Cinorre edited and produced for Thornton; produced and curated multimedia installations; created movies for opera productions; and labored as a set decorator and as a stylist, most notably for Isabella Rossellini’s experimental “Green Porno” quick film series (2008), in which Cinorre also appears as an amorous snail. All the whereas, she was writing and directing her own shorts. One of them, “Plume” (2010), facilities on a young boy lost in a sandstorm who’s saved by an ostrich, which leaves him caught between the human and animal realms. “My artistic inclinations are to mysterious things — I’m interested in the territory of the sublime,” she says.

At the same time, Levy was making a reputation for himself. He shot music movies for Beck and Vampire Weekend and became a frequent collaborator of Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, serving because the director of images on Baumbach’s “Frances Ha” (2012), shot completely in black and white, and “While We’re Young” (2015) and, later, for Gerwig’s Oscar-winning “Lady Bird” (2017). His lean, naturalistic method belies a meticulous consideration to element that offers the movies he works on a wealthy, lived-in aesthetic. Levy also shot nearly all of Cinorre’s shorts, and the couple would sometimes finish up on the same set for different productions (as was the case with “Green Porno”). “We learned we really loved being on set together, spending 15 hours a day together making things,” says Levy. “When I would get a feature for someone else and leave home, it just reinforced the idea that we should be doing this together.”

In 2018, after an idea of Cinorre’s that had been percolating for over a decade took form — “Sam, who’d seen the script in progress, was the one to point out that it should be a feature,” says Cinorre — they obtained their probability. The story — of what would become “Mayday,” which stars Grace Van Patten, Mia Goth, Havana Rose Liu and Juliette Lewis and hits theaters and all main video-on-demand platforms Friday — follows Ana (Van Patten), a put-upon young waitress who’s transported to a lush and sparsely populated island in a dreamy different world. A warfare is on, but she finds refuge with a band of young ladies led by the seemingly unflappable Marsha (Goth). Soon, Ana learns, the ladies are bent on vengeance against all males, whom they lure to their deaths, usually by impersonating damsels in misery through radio transmissions. In time, although, the feminist revenge fantasy provides way to something else, as Ana involves see herself and her earlier life in a distinct gentle.

Cinorre cites “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865), “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) and the traditional fable of the sirens as reference factors for the story, which, she says, “felt like a bit of a fugue.” To figure out the film’s total aesthetic, which has an appropriately gauzy, hypnotic high quality, the couple looked for visible inspiration together. They went to live dance performances, together with these performed by the Belgian troupe Rosas and the Israeli firm Batsheva, to help obtain a way of grace and kineticism within the film (which has a darkly playful musical number in which Ana dances with a cadre of spry troopers). The couple also browsed the cabinets at Manhattan’s Dashwood Books, looking for photos of ladies in motion, which proved arduous to search out. Still, “a lot of Japanese photographers, like Rinko Kawauchi, spoke to us — something about the mystery and the color,” says Levy, who says his purpose for “Mayday” was to “defy gravity.”

“It’s a big movie for a first feature — it needed a lot of muscle to get off the ground, and it was reassuring to have someone so encouraging,” Cinorre says of working with Levy, which turned out to be as natural as they each anticipated. “The thing I’m always trying to develop with a director is this shorthand for communicating and a visual language,” says Levy. “You kind of have to become the same person — your brains have to meld and you finish each other’s sentences.” This was something he and Cinorre might already do, although the 2 are cautious about sustaining at the very least some boundaries between work and life. “We take what we do so seriously that we have to not take ourselves too seriously,” says Levy. “We’re playful and silly and ridiculous with each other, so then we can bring that energy to set, which makes the process of filmmaking a real joy.”

Hair by Corey Tuttle for Exclusive Artists. Makeup by Pearl Xu

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