Following her work as director of photography on Sam Feder‘s groundbreaking documentary Disclosure, Ava Benjamin Shorr has now lensed the dynamic and stirring four-part LGBTQ+ civil rights docu-series Equal, which premieres on HBO on Thursday October 22nd. Her work on the series saw her collaborate with directors Stephen Kijak and Kimberly Reed to create visually stunning and emotionally potent sequences where actors such as Alexandra Grey, Keiynan Lonsdale, Scott Turner Schofield, and Samira Wiley channel LGBTQ+ figures from the past, interwoven with rare archive film footage, audio and photographs. Emmy-winner Billy Porter injects his infectious passion into the series and helps tie together nearly a century of queer history, while firing us up to continue to fight for our rights.
Ava was included on a list of “Mind Blowing Women Cinematographers” by actor and director Emmy Rossum, and was awarded an ASC Vision Mentorship with Mudbound and Black Panther cinematographer Rachel Morrison. She was director of photography on the narrative feature Gossamer Folds, and away from movies she has shot projects for the likes of Nike, Amazon, Vice, and The New York Times. Ava is herself the subject of the beautiful and touching documentary short Ava & Bianca alongside her friend and fellow cinematographer Bianca Cline, who like Ava, also happens to be trans and from a Mormon family. They were both DPs on the short, directed by Rachel Fleit.
Ahead of the launch of Equal on HBO Max, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Ava Benjamin Shorr about why she was drawn to work on the series and the impact it had on her, her approach to cinematography, discovering the story of trans pioneer Jack Starr, and what she admires about Todd Haynes’ queer classic Carol.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Before we get on to your work on Equal, I wondered if you could give us an insight into how you first got interested in cameras and filmmaking. What sparked that for you?
Ava Benjamin Shorr: “Well, I saw A Clockwork Orange when I was a freshman in high school and I think that was the first time that a movie really did something to me that I couldn’t ignore. It just kind of ignited something and I became pretty interested in it after that. So I took film classes in high school, then I went to film school for college and just continued to work on it. It just became one of those lifelong pursuits and hobbies that turned into a career. My whole life revolves around it now.”
What was the draw for you of working on Equal?
“With the LGBT history projects that I’ve worked on over the past few years what always seems to move me, no matter how much I already know, is that this history is pretty much hidden and it’s not taught anywhere. So I think that as a queer person, wherever you are on the spectrum, it can be really hard to sort of orient yourself in time and to know that you’re not the only one that exists. So it’s always a really emotional experience to work on these projects. You do get a sense that you’re bringing these stories and these people to a wider audience, because otherwise they might be relegated to textbooks or some sort of article online. I think to work on these bigger projects where there’s studio backing behind them and you’re able to really flex your creative muscles is amazing. It’s a deeply emotional experience to recreate these people from the past that are kind of mysteries to you and to other queer and trans people.”
I think sometimes in documentaries that use recreations in their traditional form it can be a bit jarring when we’re watching archive footage and then suddenly we get a recreation, but that’s not the case here, I think they’re done so well in Equal. In terms of the look of those sequences where we see actors take on the persona of these historic LGBTQ+ figures, what were some of your guiding principles?
“In the look-book that I got pretty early on there were references in it from pretty much the past 100 years of queer art. There was stuff in there from the 1970s and 80s, and there was some more modern stuff too. There were also reference photos from the teens and 1920s and 1930s. So it was a conversation between the showrunner, Stephen Kijak, and myself about whether we wanted to create these specific looks for each decade, or whether we wanted to unify the periods around one particular look. I think because we were dealing with so much archival stuff we thought that it might be nice to not be as wild with some of the looks that we were doing. Stephen and I are both really into Todd Hayne’s Carol. It’s probably one of my favourite movies, and that’s where we took a lot of inspiration for the colour palette from, as well as the tone and the atmosphere of that movie, which is very sensual. There’s kind of a voyeuristic aspect to it too and in a lot of these sequences in Equal the queer people are sort of being spied upon or they’re looking at each other because they’re not quite out yet, or they haven’t disclosed their status to people. So a lot of voyeurism does kind of play into these early stories too.”
In the short film Ava and Bianca, that you appear in and were co-DP on, I was really interested to hear you talking about your work as a cinematographer. You said that ‘oftentimes you light from memory’ and spoke about the ‘alchemical thing that happens between lenses and lighting and emotion’, and I actually haven’t really heard other cinematographers articulate that non-technical aspect of their work in that way. That sense of their being a marriage between the intuitive, emotional and the technical. How would you describe your own approach to cinematography?
“I’ve always shot stuff myself and over time I’ve become more of a cinematographer in the sense of learning how to make things beautiful. I think that as a DP it’s really easy to rest on what you know and to make things look beautiful because that’s what people ask of you a lot of the time and what they expect. But I think what’s just as important is having an open mind to what the script and the story ask for. I think there’s a lot of incredible films and filmmakers whose images I wouldn’t say are going to get thousands and thousands of likes on Instagram, but the the way that the images are put together in sequence, or even just the energy that emanates from the actors and the camera movement, supersedes all aesthetic perfection that you may try and build into an image. I think that you’re constantly reinventing yourself as a cinematographer. Obviously you have your own taste and judgment, but your primary job is to work with the director and to build a tone. So I think you have to just stay really open and perceptive and vulnerable to what your emotions are, but also what the emotions of the characters are, and even the emotions of the director and how they’re connected.”
You mentioned Stephen Kijak who is the showrunner on Equal, but could you give me an insight into collaborating with Kimberly Reed, who directed the trans history focused second episode in the series?
“Kim was in New York for a lot of this, so it’s kind of funny because there was a lot of remote prep even before the pandemic began. But we met at Sundance for a preliminary meeting to talk about the show. I think what was really interesting is that all directors come with a different set of experiences and lots of different backgrounds; some directors were photographers, some were academics, some are philosophers, or psychologists in their own way. Kim is really interesting because the way that she described the history of trans people for her episode was on a very large, cosmic scale in this kind of heady way, but I also felt like I could distill it down to how the whole process was going to feel. And honestly I still think when I watch that episode that it does have this feeling of all of these disparate people charging forward and all building on a momentum to somewhere. In episode two, where Christine Jorgensen walks down the flight of stairs off the plane and there’s the flash photography being taken of her and it’s very invasive, that’s one of the things that I feel most proud of that I’ve shot so far in my career. I’m usually super critical of everything I do and it’s never really good enough, but when I watch Christine Jorgensen walk off the airplane in our recreation it just really hits me in a way that I think is deeper than just, ‘Oh this is a cool shot.’ Revealing Christine Jorgensen in this way right at the climax of the episode just hit me in a very deeply emotional way that I wasn’t really expecting when I saw the episode and that makes me really proud of it because it’s not just pretty, but narratively I think that does something really strong.”
I find the whole series extremely moving and I loved the entire Christine Jorgensen sequence. I imagine she is someone who you were already aware of, but I wondered if there was a story that you discovered through your work on Equal that particularly resonated with you or that you found particularly moving?
“I think my favourite story which was new to me was Jack Starr. I had known about some of the other early American trans pioneers that were in the script, but Jack Starr I’d never heard about and there’s such a mythology around him. It felt so fun to tell the story and to learn about someone who I think was living their life in the way that they wanted to regardless of what everyone else did or how many times they got arrested. They were dating women, consistently dressing as a man and changing their name all the time. It reminded me of the movie I’m Not There about Bob Dylan, this character creating their own mythology about themselves. It’s really cool that there were trans people out there doing that and just saying ‘fuck you’ to the societal norms that were established at that time and just doing what they wanted. It gives me a lot of inner strength to know about that because it’s getting a little scary right now, but I do know that no matter how bad it gets you won’t lose that thing that’s most important to you.”
Lastly, what’s your favourite LGBTQ+ either film, TV series, play, book, music, artwork, musical, opera or person, something or someone who has had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
“One movie that really spoke to me when I first saw it was Todd Haynes’ Carol. I think it’s visually perfect, it’s just so beautiful and it’s so intoxicating to look at. You just feel every feeling. Another film that was really startling to me when I saw it was Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin. It’s interesting how well someone can tell a trans story without really meaning to do it, but I feel like that’s kind of what happened with that movie. It tells, I think, a trans narrative in a way that I haven’t seen a lot of explicitly trans movies do. I also personally really like Rhys Ernst’s Adam. I think that movie is kind of genius. I know it got a lot of attention for probably the wrong reasons when it came out, but I think it is really smart. In the way that it showcased certain scenes it’s kind of the inverse of the trans experience. I could identify with some of those scenes more than with say Transparent or something where it’s actually about trans people. Something like Adam, where this whole thing is kind of inverted, meant that there was kind of this weird sort of distance like I was watching someone else go through what I went through, but instead of me being the outsider they’re the outsider, and I think it’s so smart in the way it approaches it. I think about the movie all the time.”
By James Kleinmann
The four-part historical LGBTQ+ civil rights docu-series Equal premieres Thursday October 22nd on HBO Max.
Equal is playing now as part of NewFest’s virtual festival. Wednesday October 21st at 6pm ET there will be a special conversation – PANEL: HBO Max’s EQUAL: An Intergenerational Celebration of LGBTQ+ Icons featuring the directors and select cast. For more details head to the official NewFest website.
For more on Ava Benjamin Shorr head to her official website and follow her on Instagram @ava.benjamins.