Awards Daily chats with Insecure Director of Photography Ava Berkofsky about her Emmy-nominated episode “Lowkey Lost.”
Insecure DP Ava Berkofsky is up against fellow Insecure DP Kira Kelly at the Emmys, but even if Kelly wins, it’s still a win for Berkofsky, who directed Kelly’s nominated episode, “Lowkey Happy.”
“As the DP of the show, I got to push the visual language [in that episode], because from the inside out, I got to tell the story visually exactly the way I wanted to,” said Berkofsky, “and that was a really exciting thing to be able to do, and then to go into 410 and get to do it with the showrunner, I feel like we ended the season really strong.”
Insecure Season 4 did end really strong in Berkofsky’s nominated episode “Lowkey Lost”—although maybe not for the characters on the show, with Issa (Issa Rae) learning that Lawrence (Jay Ellis) got Condola (Christina Elmore) pregnant and Molly (Yvonne Orji) and Andrew (Alexander Hodge) breaking up.
I loved chatting with Berkofsky about what the look of the show says about its characters, what decisions go into a season finale, and how they did that big reveal toward the end of the episode.
Awards Daily: One thing I always say about the look of Insecure is that it doesn’t look like any other depiction of LA I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t always look sunny and glitzy. Is that something you’re cognizant of?
Ava Berkofsky: Oh, yeah. We’re trying to show LA as a real “lived place. Specifically South LA is not a place that gets enough attention. It’s not what we think of when we think of LA. We just wanted to show these real neighborhoods and real locations where real people live, the beauty of the side of LA you don’t usually get to see in the movies or on TV. We really prioritize making LA a character in the show. Our showrunners really care about the city. I’m always trying to think of ways to incorporate the environment into whatever story we’re telling.
AD: You’re nominated for the season finale, “Lowkey Lost.” Do you feel any stylistic pressure when it comes to shooting finales? Do you go above and beyond compared to other episodes? Do you make choices that are a little bit bolder and different? What kind of choices go into a season finale?
AB: That’s a really interesting question. This season, the finale was directed by Prentice Penny, who’s one of the showrunners. So we really wanted to push the look and try to make an episode that encapsulates and has fun with everything that’s happened in the season. So much happens in such a short amount of time, that we were really cognizant of the way the visual language changes in each part of the story. In the part where they’re searching for their friend, we have the camera on the move and have a handheld feel. Later, when the characters are having a very serious conversation, we cross-cut between two conversations to make them feel connected and related. And then at the end, it lands in a really emotional place, so we really made an effort to give the audience a catharsis; it was handheld with our characters, with Issa having a moment on her balcony.
AD: I love that scene with Issa alone on the balcony. I don’t know that we’ve really seen her alone like that before. She raps in the bathroom during her alone moments, but this is something a little more serious.
AB: Thank you.
AD: I also love the scene where Nathan (Kendrick Sampson) and Issa talk behind the barber shop, the way it’s shot. He’s being candid with her, but it’s lit in a very dark way. What was the idea behind this?
AB: They’re in this space that has all of this potential and they’re having this very real moment where they’re talking about what’s happened between them, where they are now and in the future. I really wanted it to feel different. I wanted to really go dark with it and let this moment of possibility happen in this space that’s not finished and doesn’t feel finished. The lights aren’t done. The windows are tapered over. I wanted to go moody with it and let them have that space of potential and a little more mystery, a little more tone.
AD: In the episode, as you mentioned before, the friends go to search for Tiffany, from day to night. How do you show the passage of time and how did you film those sequences so that it felt so real?
AB: We figured out, between Prentice and I, when did the sun go down. There’s a certain kind of reality to it; you have to decide when sunset happened, and then shoot accordingly. When they first got to the movie theater, it was afternoon. After they talked to the bartender, it’s late afternoon. Then they get to the taco place, and it’s now become night. We established a reality of what time in the afternoon the whole thing started and then went backwards from there. We wanted it to feel like it was one long run-on sentence between all of them.
AD: You’re building a timeline for Tiffany the way they are. I want to talk about the scenes with Molly and Andrew; there’s more space in the beginning. We’re looking at them from far away. Then during their breakup scene, it’s tighter. What other choices did you make to give us insight into these characters, especially Molly?
AB: Molly has a hard time being vulnerable, and I think this is the most vulnerable we’ve ever seen her in this scene. As a DP, I just wanted to keep it natural, so that you can really feel the daylight and it doesn’t feel synthetic. All we did was cross the lines from the front to back and that signifies a shift in the conversation. It’s a really simple thing to do, but it’s very effective to show when in a conversation when people have turned a corner. And so between that and going in tighter, it gave the scene enough room to move forward.
AD: Since we have two romantic relationships coming apart in this episode, what decisions did you make to show Lawrence and Issa in the beginning of the episode versus the end, happy versus broken?
AB: At the end, the framing is really specific. Because in that conversation, we’re learning about Condola being pregnant at the same time as Issa, and actually that conversation is cross-cut with where Lawrence finds out as well. We were very conscious of shooting both of those scenes, the one between Lawrence/Condola and Lawrence/Issa, with the same screen direction. So you could take a shot of Lawrence, where he’s looking at Condola and then cut to a shot of Lawrence looking at Issa, and it’s the same frame. He’s looking in the same direction, it’s the same size, so he could kind of be in two places at once. He’s learning the information in one scene and then he’s passing it to Issa in the next scene, so they’re both receiving this information at the same time in the episode. That was something Prentice and I talked about beforehand, and it was making sure we got that right, because we obviously shot them at different times.
AD: It works so well. That sequence is so exceptionally edited and shot. Did you have to work closely with the editor in deciding how the shots will look when they are pieced together?
AB: On this one, as the DP, I worked it out with Prentice and then Prentice worked it out with the editor. And the editor is our longtime editor who I already have a relationship with. So knowing what Prentice wanted, I knew he’d be able to communicate it both ways. As long as we give the editor what he needs to execute, I know that it’ll get done. He’s [Mark Sadlek] pretty amazing. And then ending the season with Issa and Molly coming back together, and getting to shoot that scene at that restaurant felt very full circle, and I liked the way the season ended with that relationship.
All seasons of Insecure are streaming on HBOMaxx.