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Moral History

The filmmakers behind Yes, God, Yes recount their journey to bring the feature to fruition.

In the early aughts, in a small Iowa town, Alice — a student at the local Catholic high school — enjoys watching Titanic and testing her knowledge of movie titles with word scrambles played in online chat rooms. When one of her internet encounters takes an unexpected turn, she suddenly discovers there’s pleasure to be had in pleasuring oneself. Soon thereafter, she attends a four-day Catholic retreat, where she struggles to reconcile her nascent urges with the prospect of eternal judgment. 

Written and directed by Karen Maine, the coming-of-age comedy Yes, God, Yes stars Natalia Dyer (of Stranger Things fame) as Alice. The feature's depiction of growing up Catholic was inspired by Maine's own experiences. "When we were shooting these things I hadn't seen since I was 15, I had a few moments where I was like, 'This is freaking me out,'" she reflects. "But that was a good thing. We were trying to recreate it.”

Prior to shooting the movie, Maine and producers Katie Cordeal and Colleen Hammond made an 11-minute short adapted from a portion of the feature’s screenplay. Serving as a proof of concept, the short marked the first producing credits for Cordeal and Hammond, and the first time in the director’s chair for Maine, who had previously served as a writer on the short and feature versions of director Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child. Cinematographer Todd Antonio Somodevilla was behind the camera for the short Yes, God, Yes, after which, Maine says, “There was no question that Todd was going to be the DP for the feature.”

Aided by a joint Panavision and Light Iron grant awarded at the 2017 Tribeca Film Institute’s TFI Network industry market, the filmmakers shot the feature with a camera and lens package that included two Alexa Minis and a set of Primo primes prepped out of Panavision Atlanta, and for the final grade they partnered with senior colorist Sean Dunckley at Light Iron New York. Panavision recently caught up with Maine, Somodevilla, Cordeal, Hammond and Dunckley to discuss their collaboration on the feature, which is available now in virtual cinemas and on VOD and digital. 

Panavision: How did the original short film come about? 

Colleen Hammond (producer): Karen’s an old friend of mine, and she came to me with the script for the feature in early 2015, I want to say. As soon as I read it, I knew Katie would love it as much as I did. So I looped her in and we started to make the short as a proof of concept for the feature. 

Katie Cordeal (producer): Colleen and I both went to all-girls Catholic high schools, and we went on a retreat like the one that’s in the feature, too, so it definitely resonated with us. A couple years went by, and we were super-motivated, but we weren’t able to get it off the ground; we were trying to get traction with financing and finding our director. So we ended up personally financing the short, with Karen directing — which obviously we should have done from the get-go because she’s a natural director and it’s her story to begin with. 

Karen Maine (writer, director): I just assumed when I started writing this that I would just be the writer, because I’d never directed anything. I was showing the feature script to a lot of friends who are directors, and one of them thankfully was like, ‘I’m not going to direct this. You should direct this.’ It literally hadn’t even crossed my mind. And then she said, ‘The first thing I do as a director when I get a script I haven’t written is find a way to make it my own.’ And that filled me with fear — I didn’t want someone to come in and do that. I ran it by Katie and Colleen, and thankfully they were like, ‘Yeah. Okay.’ So we did the short as a proof of concept for the feature, and people really connected with it, which was wonderful. It just exploded online. 

How did Todd get involved with the short?

Maine: We have a mutual friend, Gary Gardner.

Todd Antonio Somodevilla (cinematographer): I shot a movie for Gary called The Nymphets. And then I got a call one day out of the blue from Katie, and she said, ‘Hey, we’re shooting a short film, would you be interested?’ She sent me the script, and I thought it was brilliant. 

At what point was Natalia cast for the short? 

Hammond: Two days before we started shooting! [Laughs.]

Cordeal: From when we decided that ‘this is how much money we have to make this short, let’s just do it,’ to when we shot, it was three weeks. It was really quick, and finding Alice was our number one thing to make it happen. Stranger Things came out around that same time, and we just blindly emailed Natalia. She was a big fan of Obvious Child, she liked the short script that Karen had written, she just happened to be in New York at the time, and she said ‘yes’ right away.

Following the success of the short, you received the first Panavision and Light Iron grant to be awarded through the Tribeca Film Institute. What did that process entail?

Hammond: The Tribeca Film Institute has a program called TFI Network during the Tribeca Film Festival in April. We applied to be part of the network [in 2017], and then we had 50 meetings in like 2 and a half days that were set up for us. One of those meetings was with Terra Bliss and Megan Marquis from Panavision and Light Iron [respectively]. We had a great conversation, and they were really excited about the project. 

Maine: They mentioned this grant, but we thought we would have to apply later. But actually everyone they met with was being considered. When they announced that we had won, we were all so excited. We had no idea!

Cordeal: It was at the festival’s awards ceremony. Everyone had champagne, and I know all of our champagne just flew out.

Hammond: I think I even saw a tear in Katie’s eye.

Cordeal: Oh my gosh, I definitely was tearing up. It was so big to have those early believers in our film. Even then, years had gone by, and we had put so much energy and we had so much belief in this thing, and we just needed people to believe in us. Tribeca did, and then Panavision and Light Iron. It was unreal. 

Maine: That proved to be everything. With a small indie like this and our insane shooting schedule, we just wouldn’t have been able to end up with such an amazing looking film without the grant. It completely changed everything for the better. It was the first amount of capital that we had to fund the film, and things just snowballed from there. 

Somodevilla: It was definitely a double-take moment when they told me. I hadn’t even realized that there was the possibility of that. I have a longstanding relationship with Panavision, and they treated us like royalty for Yes, God, Yes.

Principal photography on the feature then began in February 2018. What led to the decision to shoot in Georgia?

Cordeal: We were planning originally to shoot in upstate New York, which is super indie friendly, but because of schedules — specifically Stranger Things — we had to shoot it in February. And with so many exterior shots, being in upstate New York in February just wasn’t going to work, so we went down to Georgia, which ended up being great. 

Hammond: We had a really short shoot. We found our window with Stranger Things and made it work in 16 or 17 days. Luckily we had two cameras, which is the only way we were able to do that. It would have never been possible if we only had one camera. 

As you developed your visual approach for the feature, were there any references you looked at and discussed?

Maine: The first one that jumps to mind is Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s film Mustang, about five sisters growing up in a really strict household. I love that film. One of the big things is that Alice [in Yes, God, Yes] doesn’t say a lot, so we needed to find ways to show what she was thinking. A lot of that comes from Natalia’s performance, of course, but Todd and I talked a lot about how we could frame things to convey what she’s thinking, which was really fun and interesting to collaborate on. 

Somodevilla: The film is a character piece, so we wanted to see Natalia and be with her, and not have anything interfering with that relationship, so viewers would be able to attach themselves to her quickly. The way that we decided to cover things, the attempt was to find a balance between making the shot about Alice, but not making every shot a close-up. It was about incorporating the environment but keeping the emphasis on Alice, because it’s all about her reaction to the environments. There are so many scenes where she’s just reacting to this absurdity that’s happening around her, and it feels like she’s the only one who can actually think straight. 

Maine: A lot of what is on the page and on screen is ridiculous, and Todd and I used the visual element of it to ground things a little more. We wanted it to be muted and not too loud. Even the colors are very naturalistic, earthy tones. 

Somodevilla: Another reference that came up was [Paul Thomas Anderson’s] Phantom Thread for color and the shadows. With our camerawork and our composition, as Karen just said, it was a ‘grounding’ element for what we experienced in reality but a lot of people will see as something absurd — I did an episcopal version of youth camp, by the way, so I’ve experienced similar things. But we didn’t want it to feel crunchy or punchy. We wanted it softer than that. 

In both the short and the feature, there’s a subtle handheld approach with the camera that lends a sense of intimacy and immediacy and helps the audience feel very present in this space with Alice.

Maine: Another visual we discussed was [Marielle Heller’s] The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which also has a handheld effect and again is similar subject matter, although visually it’s doing a lot of different things. I remember in the short, Todd had a tennis ball that he put between the camera and the tripod to give that effect. Am I giving away your secret?

Somodevilla: Hey now, trade secrets! [Laughs.] No, there are lots of different techniques to be able to do the ‘locked-off handheld’ shots and keep the weight off your body. Jason Hawkins was our A-camera operator on the feature. He was like a human tripod. He could make it as steady or as fluid as we wanted. And then our B operator and 2nd-unit DP was Kyle Anido. There were lots of times when we would say, ‘Kyle, just go out and get some beautiful establishing stuff around the campus,’ and he would come back with the most gorgeous stuff.

You were shooting with customized Primo primes?

Somodevilla: Thanks to the incredible support of Panavision’s Marni Zimmerman and Robert Presley, I was able to shoot a test with several varieties of customized Primos, and Karen and I discussed which ones we liked. One of the effects you can get from some of these customized lenses is a soft flaring or ‘milking’ of the ‘shadow areas,’ whether the softness occurs solely due to the manipulation of the coating or because of its reaction to a relatively bright source of light, like a window. What was interesting was that from this same set of lenses, you could get a different veiling or flaring from the 35mm than you did from, for instance, the 65mm. So we got to play around with that; sometimes I would choose a specific lens for the scene based on what I knew it would do in the shadows due to the customization. The 35mm was a really nice go-to — it had more of an effect from bright sources — and we were on the 50mm a lot as well. And then sometimes I thought, ‘Ooh, maybe that was a little bit too much,’ and then we got into the DI and Sean just brilliantly blended it right in with everything else. 

Was there a particular T-stop you tried to maintain? 

Somodevilla: It was around a T2-2.8-ish where everything was feeling proper, where you’ve got emphasis on the focus but the falloff isn’t extreme, and you don’t feel like you’re in a world of bokeh all the time. You’re paying attention to the character who’s in focus, but you feel the world around them. That seemed like the perfect formula for Alice. 

Were you shooting cross-coverage with your two cameras?

Maine: When we could do that we definitely would, because time was not on our side. But oftentimes we’d get two sizes on one person at the same time, and then we’d do the same for the reverse. And sometimes we didn’t really need the second camera, but we could get a fun second angle anyway, and we ended up using quite a bit of that stuff. It was really a dream once we got into the edit to have all the coverage that we did. We wouldn’t have been able to do it without that second camera. 

Somodevilla: Not in 16 days! [Laughs.]

Once the movie was edited, you then did the final grade at Light Iron in the fall of 2018?

Hammond: Yes. As a first-time feature producer, post production was the biggest unknown aspect for me — it’s a bit of a new language. But the whole team at Light Iron was amazing. Everyone we dealt with was incredibly supportive and excited about the project and would take the extra time to answer our questions. And we had our very first test screening in New York at the Light Iron office, which was also a big deal for us. 

Was there anything in particular you focused on during the color grading?

Maine: Like Todd said earlier, I didn’t want to do anything too visually distracting. I wanted it to feel natural and grounded and based in reality. I was just trying to keep the focus on Natalia and what she was going through. Honestly it was my first time in a color-correction room, and most of my time I just spent going, ‘Whoah! I had no idea that you could do all this!’ But I remember Todd being concerned about the sun during the shoot, and that made me concerned because I didn’t really understand what could happen later. [Laughs.]

Somodevilla: Oh, I’m sorry! 

Maine: No, no, the weather was really annoying, and we obviously shot a lot of things outside. But I think we got pretty lucky in the end. And Sean was amazing. I talked to Sean about what I wanted from the film and what was important to me, and then we worked together on that. 

Sean Dunckley (colorist): We started to brainstorm looks and ideas based on what Karen was attached to through the images she was already seeing in dailies. Karen and Todd explained that they liked where they were going, but they also brought up some cinematic references, like Phantom Thread. So I started to triangulate that: This is what they shot on and they like, these are the reference points that they’re noting. So we developed our own language and started building towards this rich, soft image.

Somodevilla: The soft approach was kind of baked-in from the beginning via the lenses and our shooting LUT. We were very happy with how it was looking coming out of the camera, which of course is ideal.

Dunckley: Absolutely. It can be a tricky thing if a director loves the image in dailies and it’s not really the intended image, but you guys already had something great-looking, so my job was to help take it to the next level without scaring people away from it. That was the process we went about, pushing things a little bit further to get a little bit more of a cinematic touch on it, which you’re able to do when you’re going shot by shot. When you’re dropping a LUT over the entire show, that’s a little harder. 

Todd, were you able to be present for the final grade?

Somodevilla: The color session ended up happening at the same time that I was DP’ing some episodes of Season 2 of the TV show Happy!, so I wasn’t able to be physically present the whole session. So it was extremely nice having Sean as my eyes and ears when I wasn’t able to be there. And when I came in to review the work, I had very few notes. In general it was just typical DP stuff: ‘Make this darker, make that darker.’ [Laughs.]

Dunckley: This is just a testament to Karen and Todd’s working relationship, that they had the same vision going into the project, they were able to establish a base that was 80 percent there in the dailies, and then nobody changed course. We just kept going in that creative direction. 

After these years of working on Yes, God, Yes, what’s it like to be sharing your movie with audiences now, in the midst of a pandemic?

Hammond: I think all indie filmmakers dream of having the theatrical release, but we’re just really excited to finally have it out in the world. It’s been a very long journey for us. And I think it’ll be a really nice distraction when people need a little escape and to laugh. 

Cordeal: Sometimes I look back at emails from like 2015, when the three of us were talking about this script that was called something completely different, and I just think about how much we’ve learned along the way and how cool it is that this story is out there. I know for every indie filmmaker these journeys are very long, but it’s really great that we finally get to share it with the world. I’m really proud of it. 

Somodevilla: I felt really inspired being there and working with Karen and everybody involved. All the things that you can deal with on an indie budget piled on, but the team that we had, we just kept moving forward. That’s another part of filmmaking that I love, is the collaboration, the teamwork, everybody pulling together to reach this goal. It was like this budding being that we got to help grow into a full visual story. 

Maine: It’s my baby — actually, I hate that analogy. It’s my ex-husband, who won’t get out of the house. [Laughs.] I’m stealing that from Alfonso Cuarón; I don’t want to take credit for it. But it’s true. I had a very long, tumultuous relationship with Yes, God, Yes, but I look back fondly. I learned so much, and the cast and crew were so amazing and collaborative. I mean, it’s changed my life.

All images courtesy of the filmmakers.