Interestingly, Bradford used a similar visual strategy for Ava DuVernay‘s Martin Luther King biopic and J.C. Chandor‘s heating-oil gangster drama by juxtaposing a sense of beauty with grit. For “Selma,” DuVernay wanted a Kodachrome look inspired by Look photographer Paul Fusco (best known for covering the RFK funeral train procession). For “A Most Violent Year,” Chandor and Bradford were inspired by photographer Jamel Shabazz, who captured the vibrant youth culture amid the decay of the Bronx and Brooklyn in the ’70s.
The Oscar-snubbed David Oyelowo is so uncanny as King that even Young was taken by surprise when he showed up for the screen test. They’ve now worked together three times, including “Violent Year,” in which Oyelowo plays the charming yet disarming DA.
“I had to switch gears for ‘Selma’ because David didn’t resemble himself,” Young continues. “During the screen test, it was so apparent that he looked like King. Top light lends itself to creative iconography. When he’s smoking on the porch, the profile shot is one of the best representations of King. David brought the weight gain and the things that he does with his mouth and his eyebrows. I think all we had to do was accentuate that delicately and it would bring a certain gravity to it. People would have some sort of visceral connection and some sort of cerebral connection with his performance.”
And yet it’s the crumbling marriage between the Kings (Carmen Ejogo plays Coretta Scott King) that underscores the biggest emotional toll on MLK’s life. “One of the things that I realized that highlights the mastery of Ava as a filmmaker is after the scene where Coretta is presented with the sex tape. Look at his posture. He’s not the same after that. It’s not about him dealing with the overwhelming inevitability of death. The trauma at that point is that he really wants to be a good father and a good partner. And he’s imperfect like everybody else. That was a weighty thing for him to carry around as he’s trying to lead this movement. Top lighting again helped accentuate the fact that he became more contemplative.”
In contrast to how troubling and threatening the South was at the time, Young filmed the Selma march with dignity. “A lot of those sweeping, techno-crane shots and symmetrical frames show how organized and hopeful the protesters were in light of the encroaching threat.”
Young lives for those moments when you build character arc into lighting. In “Violent Year,” his favorite space to shoot in was the DA’s office. It was top lit, of course (both films were shot digitally with the Alexa), but it was such a long conversation with people spread out across the room. “So it was back to sort of a dogmatic fundamental of making films, which is more nerve-wracking in one sense but satisfying when you feel that you’ve made it work.
“We had two cameras and we just shot on two sides of the desk. We let what happened happen and we just made sure we were on top of the eye lines. It’s funny, but there was a certain regiment around how we executed those scenes. It’s a fine balance of telling the story but not being so conscious of all the bits of pieces when lighting.”
Another instance of building character arc through atmospheric lighting occurred in Isaac’s office. “I think we were really trying to visualize a digression there,” Young recalls. “It starts out as the common office space with a little bit of flair. And after he’s asked to give guns to the drivers, we turned off all the lights in the room. From then on, he sits in raw, natural light.”
However, the biggest challenge was the 59th Street Bridge shootout and extended chase from the streets of Manhattan into the subway, recalling, of course, the intense verite force of Billy Friedkin’s Oscar-winning “The French Connection.”
“You want it to feel like a legitimate action sequence but not off the charts — a little clumsy and imperfect,” Young insists. “There were not enough days but we were making it feel real…embedded truthfulness.”
“Embedded truthfulness” could well be Young’s moniker.