I’ve had directors, showrunners, TV hosts, production designers, bloggers, and of course actors, (among other nefarious types) visit my little slice of cyberspace heaven, but today is special.
Today we welcome my first cinematographer. Like me, Maya Bankovic is a visionary who sees the world with a unique lens, both figuratively and literally. Unlike me, Maya has been ridiculously-successful. On the surface she is an award-winning Director of Photography based in Toronto, Canada.
Below the surface and beyond her list of impressive credits, Maya is one of those souls who can walk between worlds and apply her experiences to her
chosen fated vocation. This woman could take a margarine commercial and turn it into an Oscar-nominated short. You can see some examples of her vision here.
From indie films to documentaries to CBC’s game-changing sitcom Workin’ Moms to Below Her Mouth, Maya’s body of work is a testament to her range and remarkable talents. What is Below Her Mouth, you ask?
Why, it’s only one of the moxiest (yes, that’s a word) and sexiest dramas of all time, directed by Canadian and Niagara Falls-born April Mullen (let’s hear it for my hometown!). Below Her Mouth tells the story of an unexpected romance between two women whose passionate connection changes their lives forever.
Not only is this film a cut above the usual fare, not only does Maya’s cinematic touch make this film an experience rather than a few hours spent in a theater, it’s a film shot with an entirely female crew, that tells an actual story.
How many films do that these days?
Talent attracts talent and Maya Bankovic sweats talent so it makes sense that she works with the best to produce the best
product experience. (Yes, I truly paint with words.) I could go on, but in this case I don’t need to. Maya’s words and the examples of her work I’ve included, speak for themselves.
So let’s let the lady “speak” shall we?
ONE) What’s the best thing about being the bridge between the subject matter and its intended audience?
I really believe there can be a strong undercurrent of a cinematographer’s energy behind the shots they capture, but it really only happens when they are fully giving themselves to the moment.
When the conditions on set are right for that I really do feel like a bridge, or a portal or a filter, communicating my experience of the scene to the audience on an energetic level. Visually, this becomes the gaze behind the scene, and especially with handheld or improvised camerawork you infuse the project with your own instincts and your points of interest in a very real way.
It can be stressful knowing that people will only get to see what I choose to capture, and you cross your fingers that the director feels you captured both the information and the feeling they were after. Lighting-wise, a cinematographer has the power to direct people’s focus to what we want them to see or notice. It’s not only about making things look beautiful or cool or interesting. A lot of my focus goes towards where I’m hoping to draw the eye.
TWO) Your roots are in experimental filmmaking and documentary; do you find so-called mainstream work tedious, merely a way to pay the bills?
Even as I’m branching out into larger projects with much more mainstream appeal and more resources, it’s been all the more empowering because I still choose projects that I can get behind on a personal level. Ever since I was a kid, to me filmmaking and TV has been about the communication of ideas.
I still love playing around with cinematography in an experimental way, and oftentimes such playfulness isn’t called for on projects with a more familiar aesthetic, but as I get older it’s becoming more important to me that I align myself with people who are attempting to tell unspoken or underrepresented stories using louder channels. From there, I always find a way to fit my style in and make it my own. It’s almost impossible not to.
I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to stay away from the paying-the-bills mentality, which of course meant making lifestyle choices that suited that decision, but I’ve always been okay with that because I simply enjoyed shooting those projects. They brought me joy and kept me going. And an old professor of mine once said, “Do you what you love and the money will come.”
I knew it was just a matter of time before the mainstream would shift to include these narratives and make space for people like me and the filmmakers I work with. We used to just exist on the fringes, and perhaps there was more room for experimentation on the screen there, but the culture is gradually changing and making room for bolder storytelling and narratives that used to be considered niche. As for documentary, I think the ability to be adaptable and spontaneous is always a bonus for any cinematographer so I’ll always be grateful for having that background.
THREE) Workin’ Moms has quickly become an historic Canadian TV production, launching CBC into the present; can you share a particularly-thrilling moment from this season?
The bear scene in the pilot was thrilling to shoot, but not because of the bear.
When we shot the reverse on Catherine, for which the bear wasn’t even present, I was at the monitor and completely blown away by the level of vulnerability, elation, ferocity and just sheer emotion she brought. I get chills just thinking about it. I laugh and cry along with Catherine every time I see that scene – it evokes the same enormous swelling of emotions in me every single time. Real catharsis. It was one of those moments on set when I just knew we were making something very, very special.
Also, I know that bear was probably expensive, but the stakes that it set for that scene was well worth it.
Do yourself a tremendous favor: Watch this featurette and be forever changed.
FOUR) Actors can sometimes improvise and hopefully enhance the script; is that at all possible with cinematography or does it lead to a showdown with an irate director?
I’m lucky because I’ve mostly worked with directors who are open to seeing what a cinematographer can offer them in the moment. This is more typical on handheld scenes. And most directors seem more concerned with camera than with lighting, so coverage style is where you can really see how much leeway you have with a director. That improvisation is another reason why I loved the indie and documentary world so much, and always will. There’s room for that stuff on set when you don’t have time and money dictating the schedule to the minute.
I also love working with Steadicam operators who can really immerse themselves in a moment for the same reason. It just feels like they’re giving you a gift when they do an unexpected but totally appropriate little move or adjustment based on what the actors are doing. I just love it when people are allowing themselves to bring their own feelings to a shot!
There’s another side of me that loves a good game plan though, so it’s got to be a balance. Ideally a project has a nice mix. When a director wants a very particular dolly move knowing exactly how a shot will cut with another, for example, I find that very exciting.
FIVE) What can you tell us about your experience shooting Below Her Mouth?
Below Her Mouth was my biggest film budget-wise and my first time working with a very established production company, so I thought it would feel like a totally different professional and artistic ballgame.
I didn’t expect it to feel as personal as it did until I met the producers, writer and director. From my very first interview we were already getting into very personal conversations about love and desire, and how the aesthetics of the film might reflect how we all felt about those things. So I was relieved to discover about myself that once the camera’s rolling and I’m working with people who do it from the heart, the essence of filmmaking is always there and I can easily ignore the scope of a project.
As DPs, we don’t need to get bogged down by the apparatus. You can be in the moment on any set as long as you’re tuned in, regardless of the convoy outside on the sidewalk. That was liberating. I’m also happy it was a handheld movie, because that tends to be when I feel most invested as a DP/operator. I find it creates a more intimate space between me, the director and the actors, which was obviously important for a film like this one.
As an operator, you’re reacting and anticipating an actor’s next moves all day, so you’re energetically kind of tethered and it creates a closeness that feels almost timeless. When you’ve shared that energy with someone I kind of think it lasts forever. It will always be special. It also just felt really good to be shooting a brave and bold love story with a team of people who were unapologetically giving so much of themselves and their own experiences.
I also loved all of the vivid colours that our director April pushed me to use!
Films should challenge our perceptions and maybe even our values – Below Her Mouth succeeds on every level.
All right, I’m knackered from this one! Maya is an amazing guest and so I thank her – and you, of course – for being here.
See you in the lobby, kids…