Inside her character’s recently deceased mother’s apartment, Michelle Pfeiffer is barely visible. The room is lit by a single lamp; the light that does find her gives the contours of her face a dim highlight that is as beautiful as it is bleak. In a wide shot, with the camera a good distance from Pfeiffer and the lamp, the same light provides hints of old-style wood panelling and furnishings.
These dark images define “Where Is Kyra,” a moody thriller directed by Andrew Dosunmu, perfectly capture the interior life of Kyra (Pfeiffer) who can’t find work or cash her mother’s checks after nursing her up until to the very moment of her death. Dosunmu, best known for the Sundance-winning breakout “Mother of George,” re-teamed with cinematographer Bradford Young to deliver one of the boldest visual movies of the year. Their process on the new drama provide further proof that Dosunmu and Young are some of the most exciting collaborators in American cinema today.
“You have an actress like Michelle and people are wondering why you aren’t seeing her face – you know who she is and that’s good enough,“ Dosunmu said with a laugh. “I don’t want the audience to be caught up in seeing [a big star] in the emotional uncovering of what was going on. Being destitute creates a lack of light. How do you create the inspiration and the lightness fleeing out of people, fleeing out of people’s mind?”
For Dosunmu, a well-established photographer before becoming a filmmaker, it’s an example of how his films’ poetry is often expressed in a bold use of light. His collaboration with Young goes beyond the normal “delivering the director’s vision,” instead operating as a kind of artistic partnership that involves Young’s voice as much as his technique.
“There’s something about his work, there’s a spirituality to it and what he’s trying to communicate, what he’s trying to create as an artist,” said Dosunma, whom Young — whose other recent credit is “Solo: A Star Wars Story” — calls a mentor as much as a colleague. “Brad got into this because he wanted to use those tools to express something personal for him. He’s very adamant about being on a job or shooting things that he’s able to communicate with his community of filmmakers and beyond, it’s absolutely not necessary for him.”
Since their last collaboration “Mother of George” – which IndieWire recently listed as one of the best 21st century achievements in cinematography – Young has become one of the most recognized and sought after cinematographers in Hollywood, having received an Oscar nomination for his work on “Arrival” and getting a crack at the Star Wars franchise with the upcoming “Solo” spin-off. Nevertheless, he still closely aligns himself with Dosunmu.
Young, an African American, knows people will wonder why he and the Nigerian-born Dosunmu would choose to tell the story of a white woman after their first two collaborations captured the lives of African immigrants in New York City. But to him, the common thread in their stories is forgotten people. Beyond the opportunity to work with Dosunma again, “Kyra” provided a distinctive artistic gamble for Young — to explore the darkness of a lonely character in visual terms.
Having just finished “Arrival,” Young said he was looking for an edgier creative challenge. “I’ll be honest with you,” he said. “My cinematography is not always just an expression of technique, but it’s also about an expression of where I am psychologically. I definitely was trying to break down with ‘Kyra’ – I was trying to create a more apparent antagonistic relationship with the system.”
He had a lot on his mind. “A lots of things happened while I was shooting ‘Arrival’ in South Carolina and Dylann Roof went to a church and killed all those parishioners,” he said, referring to the mass shooting incident in which Roof, a white supremacist, killed nine African Americans in a Charleston church. “I never had time to purge and release that on ‘Arrival,'” Young said. “On ‘Kyra,’ I was able to, because I was working with the right director who would allow me to bring that psychological dissonance to the table. We both were really trying to disrupt the system of how these things get made and help people to see things and how not being able to see gives people hope that something can emerge.”
Dosunmu said the movie was his response to seeing movies play it safe with subject matter and approach. “American cinema at the moment, we are not daring enough,” he said. “It’s really about how successful your movie becomes, or how much box office it makes, and it’s really declining American cinema when you think about the films of [the] seventies. So much of that cinema was daring. As a filmmaker that is first and foremost — are we able to use all the tools of filmmaking?”
Dosunmu said the movie’s low-lit compositions are designed to implore viewer to search each frame for visual information. They looked to Byzantine Era paintings for inspiration more than any particular movie. “The more you see these paintings, the more you discover,” said Dosunmu. “I love when images are constantly revealing themselves to you. It’s not all lit bright and clear. Every time I go back to the museum I discover something about a piece I didn’t know existed and I always wanted to create cinema like that, you fall in love with the frame more and more you watch.”
When Kyra does venture outside in the daylight, the challenge involved creating a bridge between day and night. To accomplish this, Young underexposed the exteriors.
“I didn’t want the whole, ‘I’m trapped in my apartment and I’ve stepped outside,'” said Young. “There’s some inherent release because there’s fresh air and there’s bright light. I wanted it to feel that as a person who’s been inside and arguably making it feel like you wanted to go back inside because it’s more naturally dark.”
This summer, Young will be shooting Netflix’s five-part series “Central Park Five” for another of his close collaborators and friends, director Ava DuVernay, for whom he previously shot “Selma.” Meanwhile, Dosunmu said he’s actively kicking around a bunch of different potential projects for his next film.
Young said he planned to stay close to his roots. “‘Star Wars’ – that’s like a once in as lifetime, unexpected opportunity that you take because it might be space for your voice in there, but it’s not something I even envisioned for myself,” he said. “I still consider myself an independent low budget filmmaker. My collaboration with Andrew is sacred to me. That’s how I regenerate fresh blood cells and stay connected to everything about practice that I consider to be sort of innocent and underdeveloped. That’s a collaboration for life.”
“Where Is Kyra?” is now in limited release.