The last time I saw Halyna, she asked me, as she always did, “What’s happening with your projects?” And I knew which ones she meant. Not the documentaries (boring camerawork) but the ones that involved the most complex, creative and wild shots. She wanted to discuss my dream film that I’ve been crafting ever since I met her, a musical sci-fi crafted partially on a stage set representing the cosmos, where stars are personified as live actors.
For many, the idea may sound far-fetched, but for Halyna it was exactly what she wanted to work on, and she had more ideas for how to shoot it than I could even begin to count.
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She even sometimes compelled me to come up with ideas for the express purpose of making beautiful shots, even before the concept was developed. She’d plan things out. Because I came out of the visual art world, where one can construct a shot and then work a story around it, rather than the other way around, as in narrative, she loved each and every visual idea, and that was when things would really fly. She pushed me into so many places with my own work. We didn’t need a narrative, or almost anything, to make something cool, as long as she was figuring out how to shoot it.
In between the work I was doing on “Circus of Books” (my documentary on Netflix about my parents’ legendary businesses), I would be working on any number of creative projects with Halyna. And I realize now, she was working with me when she was in-between her big projects too.
A few years ago, she discovered a spot where a house was going to be built, but for now was just a gray, concrete foundation. Anyone else would have seen this spot as a bare, boring wall and driven right past it, but Halyna saw it for the rich tones that the concrete would offer when it absorbed the natural daylight. She saw how tall the wall went without any obstructions, and she saw how much depth she would have to work with, if she put a camera there and had me make something to film.
For months, she would remind me that soon a construction company would likely put a house on that spot, and it would be gone. So finally, I came up with an idea. I recruited two of my dancer friends to do an improvisation wearing costumes with elaborate headdresses I had made, and before long we were up at 4 a.m. to pull off this shoot.
I am dumbstruck that I’m sitting here writing about her in the past tense. I hope her son will one day know that she put as much passion into her work as she did into raising him. She loved him fiercely. To be a mom and a cinematographer is no small feat. I am devastated that he won’t get to grow up to spend time with the woman I came to admire so much as my friend. But I am so proud to have worked with her, and that my own body of work is a testament to her great and abiding talent, one which was unique and profound. And she was very much just at the beginning.
Rachel Mason is an artist and Emmy-nominated writer. She co-wrote and directed the 2019 Netflix original documentary “Circus of Books,” based on her own life growing up as the child of pornographers who owned the West Hollywood gay bookstore Circus of Books.
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