In Conversation With Swiss Japanese Filmmaker Caroline Mariko Stucky

Given the number of amazing women I get to chat with on a regular basis, I keep telling myself that founding WMF was perhaps the best thing that happened to me. How else, sitting in the southern tip of India could I possibly know of this talented DP across the ocean? Caroline and I worked on a project together, but I was part of a remote team here in India, while she was the DP in NY where the principal footage was shot. In this interview, Caroline talks about her experience working in the US, the films she’s made and the company she has founded with two other women that aim to bring down the gender disparity in the industry. Read on…

Caroline and Richa Rudola Photo by Snigdha Kapoor

1 – Could you tell a bit about yourself, your childhood and your aspiration of making films?

I was born in Switzerland. My father is Swiss and my mother is Japanese. We moved to Bangkok when I was about one year old until I was six. We then came back to Switzerland where I lived until I was twenty. During those years, besides going to school, I was a serious competitive swimmer and watched a lot of movies, thanks to my uncle who gave me all the Charlie Chaplin VHS tapes and a movie pass to see all the big American blockbusters in movie theaters. I think that’s how I started growing my love for films. At age 17, my dad gave me a camcorder and I started making short films about the people around me. Showing them to my family and friends was very gratifying. Growing up, I was speaking four languages (French, Japanese, English and German) and I found that the visual language of filmmaking resonated the most with me. 

2 – Being from a multicultural background with parents from Switzerland and Japan, how much of your current work symbolises, or takes from your roots? Or do you see yourself more of an American when it comes to films?

As a cinematographer, my multicultural background might be more subtle to the eye than when I write or direct. What I mean is, when I am behind the camera working for a director, I think my background helps to shape a certain perspective that comes from my roots and experiences. As a writer/director, it directly influences the themes of my stories; identity, communication, and empathy. As I was saying, I grew up watching only American movies because the only movies showing in my hometown in Switzerland were Hollywood blockbusters; I have a huge, life-long love affair with mainstream American cinema and American culture. But especially now, it’s easy to watch movies from all around the world, and because I understand more than ever it’s important to represent all ethnic groups and genders, I focus more on subjects that are closer to who I am. 

3 – You’ve done a significant amount of work as a cinematographer, collaborating with multiple-award-winning directors, if you were to quote one or two as challenging shoots, what would they be? And why?

I’d say so far, the biggest challenge has been budget. I often have to make the most out of nothing. In some ways, I am grateful for those experiences because it has forced me to think outside the box and learn things that you don’t necessarily learn when you have everything served to you on a golden platter. But I do see myself work faster when the budget is bigger, and therefore I have more time to be more creative. 

4 – When you direct, do you always wear the cinematographer hat? Does it help or hinder with your directorial decisions?

I’ve only DPed my own films for financial reasons or because I had a clear idea in mind and knew it was easier if I did it myself. I prefer to work with another DP when it’s possible, so I can focus on the other aspects of directing. It’s great to see how someone else sees a scene and what they can bring to the table, and of course, I love any opportunity to learn new tricks from my colleagues.

5 – You recently finished filming an Indian indie short film called ‘The Seal’, how was your experience working on the topic that is raised in the film, what was your prime takeaway from the film?

The topic in the film is very sensitive–we feel it is very important to talk about. It was my first time filming a story about child abuse and healing from those traumas. I think it was great that Richa, the writer/director, started by showing me her first film “Fresh Blood” to help me understand her approach and her storytelling style. There isn’t a lot of dialogue, everything is visual. We talked a lot about using color to symbolize where the main character stands; we played a lot with composition as well. For example, Sheetal, the main character, always looks frame left during most of the film because she is trapped in her past and can’t move on. It’s only after the climax of the film that she starts looking right, into the future. 

Aside from working on such an important story, I’d say the prime takeaway from the film was what it was like to work with that incredibly talented and hard-working crew that happens to be 95% women. I know it’s a little cliché to say this, but I couldn’t be prouder to be part of this film because it was made by people I so deeply cherish and respect.

6 – Working with male and female directors, what has been the core difference for you? Has there been any difference at all?

I’d say it’s case by case. I worked with difficult male and female directors and also amazing male and female directors. The only thing I’d point out is that maybe I worked slightly more often with female directors. When I was starting out in earnest, five years ago, I noticed that male directors always ended up hiring a male cinematographer. In many cases, they may have been a better fit for the project than I would have been at the time, but I found it was interesting nevertheless. Male directors do still hire female cinematographers less frequently. But things are changing, which is great. I think having a diverse crew can only make your project better.

7 – Could you tell us about the feature film you wrapped in May? What was it about, did you also write/shoot it?

Last May, I wrapped a feature film called “Solomon”. It is co-written by J.B. Armstrong and Michael Alberstadt, and directed by J.B. Armstrong. It’s about a struggling young white writer and a retired black psychiatrist who form an unlikely friendship in the midst of Detroit’s changing demographics and culture. This was another cast and crew that were amazing across the board, as well as very diverse. I was so happy every day to go on set and see such a mixed crew work hand in hand to make this story about race come to life.

8 – What is your favourite gear? Do you like exploring/experimenting with constantly changing technologies?

I own the Sony FS7 and I really enjoy how versatile it is but I truly believe that each project deserves its own gear. I don’t always like to film with the same camera and lenses because I like each project to look different and have a different vibe. It’s easier to film with the same gear all the time–you know it like the back of your hand–but it’s also fun to see different images come out in the viewfinder. It also forces you to update your knowledge of the new gear and what you can do with the new technology. I often think about how I’d like a menu to be or what settings or features would be great in a camera and would love to develop something someday.

9 – Tell us about the production company you are about to start, could this be another feather in your cap as a producer?

Color Wheel Studios Founders

Becky Yee (Head of Production/Photographer), Sarah Krusen (Head of Post-Production/Editor), and I (Concept Development/Cinematographer) are starting a production company called “Color Wheel Studios”. We mainly want to work for female-centric products, brands, and companies. We also want women to have a voice, not only in front of the camera but also behind the camera, to bring their experiences, knowledge, and perspective as women into the production world. We all believe in even gender distribution in the workplace in general but our focus for this production company is to showcase women’s work in main roles; we can, and it’s time for the world to see it. 

10 – What are your plans for the future?

Outside of CWS, I am working on my first feature film as a director and developing a sci-fi series. I just want to keep making movies with my friends and meet new people!

11 – Anything else you wish to add?

You can find the highlights of my work on my website: www.carolinemarikostucky.com

Instagram @carolinemarikofilms

Facebook @carolinemarikofilms

Vimeo: Caroline Mariko Films

Color Wheel Studios website: www.colorwheelstudios.com