Blending Comedy and Melancholy for HBO's Crashing

Sam Levy’s calling card features distinctive films like Frances Ha, While We’re Young and Wendy and Lucy. On his latest project, HBO’s Crashing, Levy’s deft touch with the human condition also came in handy. The series centers on a stand-up comedian Pete Holmes as he struggles to make it in New York City. As a cinematographer who began his career in NYC, Levy could relate.

“Pete is a deeply funny man and there is levity to the material, but it’s also melancholic,” says Levy. “We wanted the photography to be cinematic, to help the show sing. Shooting on film with Panavision glass allowed us to tease out this glowing, golden image that was perfect for the character and the story.”

Crashing is the brainchild of creator-star Holmes and Judd Apatow, who executive-produced and directed two episodes. Eric Steelberg, ASC handled camera duties on the pilot, and Levy shot the subsequent five episodes. Mark Schwartzbard handled the final two chapters.

Panavision New York supported Levy through the shoot. “They would always say, ‘Just tell us what you need and don’t worry about it, we’ll work it out,’” says Levy. “And they always did. The production was streamlined. We were economical with gear so we could move easily between locations.”

New York locations make up many of the settings, but production designer Amy Williams built a replica of the main comedy club on a stage. Interiors fall off to an inky blackness in the dingy locale, lending the images heft. The film stock was KODAK 500T 5219. The lens package included XL2 Primo Primes, Primo Zooms and Panavision Primo Compact Zooms.

Today’s digital sensors have driven a trend toward older glass. But in testing, Levy found his way to a different approach. “I tested many of Panavision’s older lenses, but the Primos put the image in the right place to capture the melancholy while maintaining a classic feeling. It all coalesced – the Primo glass, the Kodak emulsion – it just felt right. It’s very friendly and gentle, and Judd really responded intuitively to the roll-off from tack sharp to out of focus.

“Panavision lens specialist Guy McVicker was extremely helpful,” Levy adds. “Having a conversation with Guy is like taking a master class. We looked at a lot of amazing glass, representing years of research and optics. But we didn’t need old glass to elevate this feeling of melancholy into something engaging to watch.”

Often, older lenses are chosen because of their flare characteristics. “Lens flare is nice when it’s thoughtfully handled,” Levy explains. “But combined with 4K or 6K sensors, some of the older glass will flare highlights to such a degree that it’s difficult for me to concentrate on what’s happening in the story to the characters. The benefit of shooting film is that you’re already in a place where flares are softer with less punch. The Primos are not designed to flare aggressively and I loved that for crafting the shots on Crashing. I wanted it to look sensational, but I wanted to keep the viewer engaged. When there’s a moment of levity, the viewer needs to be able to laugh with Pete.”

Apatow’s smashing success as a filmmaker is attributed in part to his skill at improvisation. “So much of the humor comes spontaneously,” says Levy. “A lot of the fun of shooting Crashing came from capturing those performances – but at the same time, really keeping our foot on the gas. That meant keeping the frame dynamic, and keeping the choreography and the blocking lively. I was always trying to make room for the improvisation to be physical and not just verbal.

“I always felt very trusted by Judd, and I trusted him,” Levy concludes. “We both have great faith in the photochemical process. Shooting on film was a requirement of Judd’s and an enormous draw for me.”