By James Fanizza, October 2017 Issue.
Jennifer Arnold and Patti Lee have a lot to celebrate: They’re both making their mark on the film industry in Hollywood, they’ve just released their sixth film together as a director and cinematographer duo and they’ve on the verge of celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary.
In an industry where only 2 percent of all cinematographers are women and about 7 percent are women directors, it’s not easy for two queer women to rise to the top of their game and still stay together.
So, when this dynamic duo wrapped their sixth project together – with Arnold as director and Lee as cinematographer – Echo caught up with them to find out more about the industry, their lives off set and their latest film, Fat Camp.
Echo: What about the story Fat Camp drew you to it?
Arnold: When I read Fat Camp, I laughed out loud from the first pages. It was unlike anything I’d ever directed before and I was dying to do comedy. It’s a very in-your-face movie.
Lee: The shoot was hard. We wished we had more money, more time and more extras!
Echo: What was filming like and what was it like to work with Vivica A. Fox?
Arnold: But working with Vivica A. Fox was a dream. She’s so funny and such a pro. She elevated every scene and made my job easy. She’s a legend, what’s not to love? I hope I get to work with her again soon!
Echo: A director/cinematographer relationship is a very close one that requires a lot of communication and understanding and the same goes for a domestic relationship. What makes you both such a great pair?
Arnold: This was our first film together since A Small Act. A Small Act was a really tough one to shoot. Because it’s a documentary there was almost no control of the schedule. We filmed when real life events happened. I wanted to shoot everything 24/7. Patti wanted to be more reasonable. We also edited in our house. Our living room was filled with interns. We needed recovery time after that experience. Fat Camp wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t being created from our living room! That was better for us.
Lee: We have a shorthand from doing so many projects together. Whether it’s a look or a small gesture I know what Jen’s thinking. In life and on set our communication tends to be good. No matter what we’re dealing with we have each other’s backs.
Echo: Is there any crossover between your home life and life on set? Do you bring your work home with you or leave it at set? And how about vice versa - do you bring squabbles or things from home with you on set?
Arnold: What squabbles? We’ve been together 17 years and we’ve never had a fight (that’s a lie). We have one rule – no production talk in bed. I drive Patti crazy wanting to prep all the time. I like to be really prepared, but I try to be respectful – though I’m not great at it.
Lee: I like being prepared too, but I also like to sleep.
Echo: How important is it for you to share LGBTQ stories on the big screen?
Lee: I think we’re all excited to see stories that reflect ourselves – for me that includes Asian characters and LGBTQ characters. I appreciate a story that feels authentic and true. We live in Los Angeles, a city filled with so many different types of people. I want films that reflect all of us.
Echo: Do you feel that there is anything lacking in terms of LGBTQ representation in Hollywood?
Arnold: There are a lot of different types of LGBTQ people and they’re not all on screen. But it feels like Hollywood is finally starting to change. For example, Lena Waithe’s character on “Master Of None” feels like someone I would I know in real life but I haven’t seen a lot of on film and TV. Silas Howard, who is trans, is directing on Transparent. When more queer people are telling stories, representation changes. I’m excited about the direction we’re going right now.
Echo: Is there a particular direction or trend you’d like to see LGBTQ-focused stories start to move toward?
Arnold: Hmmmm, I think a great trend would be if Patti and I were directing and shooting way more of them!
Lee: Yes! We’re ready for more jobs together.
Echo: Do you find that attitudes have changed toward female cinematographers (DPs) and directors? Are there still hurdles that you have to jump that your male counterparts don’t necessarily have to?
Lee: There aren’t a lot of women DPs working on network television, which is what I do most of the year. There are more now than in the past and some of us are on very high profile projects. Still, only 2 percent of working DPs are women, so yes, there are hurdles for sure. But I’ve been very lucky to have worked with some amazing directors and producers who have been very supportive.
Arnold: I found the biggest obstacle was getting representation when I was starting out. Most of my guy friends locked in agents quickly, which meant they were in a pipeline and being put up for jobs. I’ve often had to create my own opportunities. But things are changing right now and there’s a big push for women directors. It does feel like the opportunities are opening up.
Echo: Jennifer, do you feel you bring a particular voice to your films that others don’t?
Arnold: I always bring heart to my stories. I can’t seem to help it. Even Fat Camp, which is raunchy, has touching moments. For me, film is about understanding one another. I look for moments to expose something human in the characters, even if I’m doing it with a dick joke (as was the case in Fat Camp).
Echo: Patti, do you feel you have a particular gaze that you bring to your projects that sets you apart from other DPs?
Lee: I like it when shots have more than one purpose. Cinematography creates mood, reflects on a character’s frame of mind and shows relationships. I do all that but like to keep it as simple as possible. Shots shouldn’t be distracting unless you’re trying to disrupt the scene. I also like to make sure the actors have freedom to move around, which means lighting areas more than making someone hit a specific mark. Creating free space for the magic to happen is something I believe in. I love my job.
Echo: What’s next for you both?
Lee: I’m doing two sitcoms: “Superior Donuts” and “By The Book.” Both are on CBS this fall.
Arnold: I’m also doing network television this fall. I’m mostly focused on comedy, but have a few dramatic ideas in the works. I tend to juggle multiple projects. I mix genre and format all the time.
Fat Camp, starring Chris Redd, Anabelle Acosta, Michael Cienfuegos, Mel Rodriguez and Vivica A. Fox, is available on Netflix and VOD. For more information, visit facebook.com/fatcampmovie.