Indiewire recently spoke to the award-winning DP about shooting those two films, his preference for natural light and the stories he cares about most.
You’ve had a busy year — working on two of the most acclaimed films of the year. What do you make of the awards buzz?
The awards thing is always a little weird for me. It’s so foreign to me in a way. But it’s great in the sense that you put so much hard work into it, you just want people to appreciate the artistry so if this a representation of folks’ appreciation for that, then it’s worth it.
But you’re no stranger to awards having won cinematography awards at Sundance. What did that recognition mean to you? And did it lead to any big Hollywood offers?
I always felt like — and I still feel like — Sundance is sort of an imperfect gesture towards American independent film, it’s probably one of the last ones in the sense that it’s a place where people come to celebrate the art form of filmmaking. As a student, it’s something that you don’t really calculate, but when it happens, you’re happy because you know what that stands for, what the Sundance brand means. So it’s an honor to be recognized by your independent filmmaking peers and also the people who sit on the jury are often professionals who represented themselves in a way that’s also very independent and free — artists like cinematographers who consider cinematography an art form and not just a business. That’s great.
But I wouldn’t say that, in spite of winning twice, none of that has ever happened — none of those phone calls from the big Hollywood studio where they say “Will you come shoot our big Hollywood movie?” That’s still a big struggle for me.
I don’t know if that’s going to be a struggle for long.
[laughs] I take it all in stride. I still want to be part of projects that I think could be excellent. Not all the ones are excellent are affiliated with studios. I like having conversations with filmmakers who I’ve liked and studied and admired even before I was working in movies. That’s the big payoff.
You worked with Ava DuVernay before “Selma.” How did you become acquainted and what’s your collaboration like?
Ava and I have friends in common in the independent film circles. That’s how we know each other. That was what initiated our collaboration. She asked me to shoot “I Will Follow,” which was her first feature film. I wasn’t available because I was shooting “Pariah,” but we promised each other that we would try to hook up on something later. We ended up on “Middle of Nowhere” together and obviously, “Selma.” It was very clear from the beginning that this was a person I really wanted to collaborate with because I really respect the fact that she’s so committed to the craft in a real intense way and I felt like I could learn from her. So I was very excited about the possibility of a continued relationship with her and I’m still very excited about our collaboration – which is less about ‘are we going to do the next movie together?’ I sort of feel that that’s a given.
More than anything I’m just excited about what’s become of our collaboration, which is very collaborative in an unspoken way because it’s less about the technique of filmmaking and more about how a filmmaker can generate good cinematography. She’s a very visual person so it’s a pleasure to watch her direct. It’s also a pleasure to be working with someone who is willing to push the boundaries of the art form of cinematography. It’s a very collaborative effort and there’s a lot of call and response and there’s a good amount of back and forth between us. We’ll come into a scene and she’ll say “I’m not sure how I want to do this.”Or “I want to say this in the scene, so how do we do it?” and we’ll workshop the idea and sometimes I can come to the table and say “I’m just not sure. Tell me more about what you’re thinking.” So there’s a lot of conversation. What’s great about those conversations is those conversations aren’t always about the technical aspect of what we do. A conversation about a scene could turn into a conversation about family or a conversation about a particular shot can turn into a conversation about raising children. I don’t have that with everybody so that’s very special. It’s really family. When we make a movie together, I’m making a movie with my sister, my older sister on top of that. I consider myself a person who respects my elders and I’m very humbled by the collaboration. I do listen closely because I know she is wise and has a lot to offer and a lot to teach me and has a lot to say.
How far in advance do you talk about the look of the film with the director? Do you do it while reading the script or on set or both?
It’s both. It’s a living process, you know. It’s not something that expires when we get to set. It’s something that is constantly evolving because you know, movies are unpredictable, the process of making movies is unpredictable. No matter how much we try to take control of the inertia of making movies, it’s sort of an untamed beast. I’m always constantly inspired so I try to leave a lot of air an a lot of room to let the process take hold and show us the way. So I think there’s an equal amount of intense conversation in pre-production where we’re just going through the script and breaking down how we want to tell the story. And there’s an equal amount of intensity when we’re literally on the set in the moment where actors are representing our vision, or Ava’s dream about how she would want the movie to look and feel and move.
What’s really intriguing about the filmmaking process is that I try to approach it from that perspective where I don’t want to be as rigid or dogmatic about knowing exactly what I want to do. Because I don’t think I ever know exactly what I want to do. I just think those things come to me in sort of gradual, slow steps. For me, it’s key that I work with somebody who allows me that room to grow and develop in the moment. It’s great when you have a director that’s also open to that — and both J.C. and Ava are the type of directors that want the moment to just, they want to grow and understand the moment as it reveals itself. Everyone has their own particular perspective on what the moment could be, but when actors take hold of it, everyone is at the mercy of that energy and that’s a beautiful energy.
It doesn’t end with being off set. For me, in color correction, a lot of things come to fruition as well and a lot of things reveal themselves. On both films, our colorists are artists in their own rights. So they have a lot to offer and they allow us to see the film in a way that we may have not necessarily seen it while we were photographing it on set. That’s the beautiful thing about filmmaking. It never dies. It’s a living process. It’s very organic. It just keeps revealing itself and evolving all the way — hopefully, 30 or 40 years form now, we’ll watch the film again and see all of our imperfections but also see how the film lives on because it’s an art form that has that particular infinite energy.
How did you get involved with “A Most Violent Year?” Did J.C. approach you or did someone make that connection?
Yeah, David Lowery gets all the credit for that. J.C. and David ran around for years on the festival circuit so when J.C. was looking for a cinematographer on the project, he talked to David and from what I understand, he said “You should talk to Brad.” J.C. approached me about it and we had some conversations — one where we both brought our look books to the table to show one another how we saw the film and it was great because we both had very similar frames in our book. We both shared two or three frames that were alike, photographs specifically. It just seemed serendipitous that we would be together. Then I didn’t hear from the project for a long time — I went on to shoot Ed Zwick’s new film (“Pawn Sacrifice”) — and after months of not hearing from him, I was hoping I’d get the phone call and then it happened.
With “A Most Violent Year,” did you study films set in New York in the late 70s and early 80s during when the film is set?
No, it’s funny — with both “Selma” and “A Most Violent Year,” we didn’t really look at movies, which is not unusual for me. I’m not really big on referencing movies. At least on these two films, I didn’t reference them. I looked at photographs, which have this potential and this way of being intimate that films find challenging to do. I was hoping I could be more photographic, not even more photojournalistic, but more involved and less removed.
I think films are often removed, they’re technically savvy, but often removed. It’s trying to find that balance of something that’s visual and has scope, but also can be really effective when we want to be intimate and close and intimate with characters. I feel like photographs just do that because people put their guard down and they’re not acting. With “A Most Violent Year,” Jamal Shabazz was my big reference — he’s a photographer from the ’70s and ’80s and early hip-hop New York. You can see the decay of the city in the 1980s in his photographs very well. You could also see how human beings are so resilient and that no matter how the empire is crumbling around them, they find a way to be aesthetic and to adorn themselves in spite of the economic tension. I just felt like the characters in “A Most Violent Year” were all about that. They find a way to be sharp and precise at a time when the city is not sharp and not precise.
What would you say was the biggest technical challenge in shooting “A Most Violent Year?”
The weather. I was hurting, physically hurting. People were like, “How do you feel?” I’m like “I’m hurting” and they’re like “Why you get so emotionally invested?” And I’m like “No, no no, I am emotionally invested, but I’m also in physical pain.” It took a lot to check back in after making that film, mentally, but it took a lot to get my body right again. It was relentless. I’m fearing the winter now because of last year. Technically, the changing weather patterns, it all got worked out later, but when we were doing it, I was so nervous that this film was just going to be all over the place. I’m happy to see it’s found its space to be inconsistent in a good way.
Did you use an Arri Alexa and old anamorphic lenses on both films?
On “A Most Violent Year,” we actually used the Alexa, but we used a set of very new Master Anamorphic. They’re very new. We only had three lenses for the entire film because they hadn’t released all the focal lengths, so we were actually really using some new glass, which was excellent for that film because it just wanted to be so sharp. With “Selma,” the glass is old, but the lenses themselves aren’t actually that old, the housing isn’t old. Those lenses have a very particular patina to them and I just felt like if we weren’t going to shoot “Selma” on film, it needed to be photographed with some slightly vintage glass. They were both photographed anamorphically and I think those two films just benefited from being photographed anamorphically because they needed that horizontal grammar to them.
You’ve shot on both film and digitally. Which do you prefer or does it depend on the project? Do you even have a say in the matter?
[laughs] All of the above! Some films I don’t have any say and then some we do and digital is nice because you can see what you’re getting. But I’m always strategizing and planning which film is going to be the right one where everybody sits at the table and says “You’re right. This has to be shot on film,” but that hasn’t happened yet. It’s no loss to the films that we shot them digitally. Actually, I think it freed us up in some ways that helped the process, helped us see things that we may not have been so certain about. We shot on such a tight schedule that with film, just waiting for dailies, because labs have closed, now you have a couple of days where you don’t see dailies, that can hurt you. The environment where you don’t have all the infraststructure to support shooting on film, it doesn’t allow you to be as responsive to the material like you are when you’re shooting digitally. With these two films, it just helped. It didn’t hurt at all. And I tried to color the films and patina the films in a way that felt filmic anyway. I’m a fan of digital so I’ll take it both ways, but I definitely am a student of film for sure.
You seem to prefer working with natural light.
Yeah, for sure. It’s just the kind of lighting that I feel most comfortable dealing with in narrative for sure. In commercials for sure, I’m a lighter, and something like “Mother of George” was very lit. “Ain’t No Bodies Saints” is lit also, but there are different ways of lighting. If I can’t use available light, then I try to connect with lighting sources that will give me that sort of feeling of naturalism. I just feel there’s a truthfulness to it that these films definitely benefited from. I think if they had been so so stylized, it would have been distracting — especially int he case of “Selma.” That’s just not a film where you want to take liberties with the time and the subject matter. You just want to get people involved, whereas “A Most Violent Year” was a real balance between creating style and the real naturalism of the story. So you can be totally invested in characters.
In “Selma,” there’s a Technocrane shot that gives you an eye-level view of Dr. King and the protesters. How did you decide to use the Technocrane in that scene?
The Technocrane, we used it on all the marches and only on the marches because part of our reasoning behind that, every march had a different way of addressing the use of the tool, but what Ava and I really wanted to do was to show people that these marches were highly organized — not just in the sense of getting people in the same space and moving. “Bloody Sunday” people marched in twos, that was very much on purpose. Structurally these folks were working from a place that we just don’t get a chance to see or talk about. We just assume that people just walk out on the street and get together and just start moving. No, these things are organized. Number one, we’re working around our own innate sensibility of mass movement and mass organization. That’s very primal. That’s very nomadic of us and I think that’s not alien to human form. That’s what we do. That’s what we do best. But then when you add the politics of the time and the moment, what human beings do with their bodies is extrardinary.
So for us the Technocrane allowed us to show how highly organized and highly stylized and highly aesthetic these moments were. Whether it be at the Dallas County Courthouse where you see Dr. King and then you pull back and you see all these people with their hands behind their heads, that would have only been possible because we had the Technocrane and we were able to float over bodies and really reveal how designed those marches were. With “Bloody Sunday,” it was the same thing — the juxtaposition between the regimented militaristic straight line of the police and the regimented unmilitaristic structure of the marchers. Then the final march was just about people being horizontal and taking up as much people as possible so that numbers could influence a change in policy. So the Technocrane helps you reveal – it helped us get above it all so you could see the scale of it. You can’t do that when it’s on your shoulder. We chose that tool very specifically.
Given the politics of this time and this moment, has “Selma” taken on a deeper relevance than you could have anticipated?
I’m not surprised by the response because people are starving. We’re hurting. This is not a joke for us. I think we are thirsty for these kinds of movies because it shows us that we have the power to resist and we have the power to change. What I appreciate about Ava as a filmmaker and this movie, is it’s not a judgement call on whether it’s non-violent resistance or violent resistance, what it’s concerned about is that we resist. So this movie, I think, in a very very tiny way, is bringing light to the fact that Americans don’t know their own history and that we assume that we are enlightened of who we are and that we know ourselves, and we don’t know ourselves. This is why we keep repeating our history and that we can be powerful. We can change our system. We can change the way we operate in a space where we feelour value is only connected to pieces of technology in our hand, but we keep getting violated in real primal brutal ways every day. “Selma” was about middle class folk who put all the distractions down and decided to get organized and fight back. If it highlights anything, it’s that we’ve got to put down our iPhones and put down our iPads and we’ve got to get organized because we’re living in similar times. If you think it’s sort of an abstraction, just talked to John Lewis, he’s a brother who was involved in the movie, who said he’s seeing very similar gestures to what’s happening now to what was happening then. It shows we’ve got a lot of work to do. If anything, if it creates a conversation, then it’s done its job. I know that’s what Ava really wanted – was for us to have a conversation.
Below watch an exclusive featurette about Young’s work on “A Most Violent Year”:
READ MORE: Jessica Chastain on “A Most Violent Year” and Hollywood’s Woman Problem