Even if you’ve only seen the “BlacKkKlansman” trailer, you know there is an aspect of the film that screams 1970s. From the music to the clothes and hair, to grounding the audience in what it feels like to get swept up the Black Empowerment movement of the time, Spike Lee’s latest film brings the period to life.
In that sense, it should come as no surprise that the movie was shot on 35mm film stock. The conventional wisdom is that shooting on celluloid serves as an instant reference to the feel of films from that era, but that wasn’t the idea here. Cinematographer Chayse Irvin, who worked with Lee for the first time, tested a number of different formats for the project. He rejected the association between 35mm and any moment in time.
“You don’t necessarily want [the audience] to instantly associate an image with something because then that’s giving the spectator an answer,” said Irvin in an interview with IndieWire. “I’m a little bit repulsed by that idea, because to me the mystery of filmmaking is codes and questions, and if you make too easy of associations then instantly it feels slightly contrived. It’s like, ‘This is what we’re transmitting, this is what we’re saying.’”
Irvin doesn’t think like other cinematographers. In talking about his approach to cinematography, he’s more likely to reference the way Miles Davis flipped jazz conventions than anything film-related. And his background isn’t common for someone who shot a film considered an early awards contender: Lee first noticed Irvin’s work from the striking images he created for video artist Kahlil Joseph, the innovative director behind groundbreaking music videos like Beyonce’s “Lemonade,” Flying Lotus’ “Until the Quiet Comes,” and Kendrick Lamar’s “m.a.a.d” short film.
With “BlacKkKlansman,” Irvin made a concerted effort to mix the old with the new – using vintage lenses, but at the same time leaning on the clean, grainless look of modern film stocks and the high-powered scanners used to digitize the celluloid images. While Lee and Irvin looked at films like “The French Connection” to see how early ‘70s movies embraced imperfections – and tried to encompass some of the energy that came from that raw approach to filmmaking – Irvin never added filters, tweaked colors or added grain to manufacture a period-specific image.
“In my mind, the camera and the lens is the window for the spectator to enter the film, and if you layer on top too many filters, then it’s gonna inhibit their ability to see clearly,” said Irvin. “It was our task not necessarily to exactly emulate an aesthetic that would match or mimic the period, more try to find a way to infuse certain techniques that they used back then, but also come at it with the POV that we have now. I think it’s actually a bit of a metaphor for what the film is seeking to do.”
While “BlacKkKlansman” looks to the past, it’s clear that Lee had Donald Trump’s America on his mind — so much so that, after production wrapped, Lee added footage of the white supremacists in Charlottesville and the real-life David Duke (played by Topher Grace in the film). Irvin was an appropriate choice for a project that evolved as Lee was making it.
“I felt like Spike and I came together at a specific time and for a reason,” said Irvin. “My family’s filled with musicians, and they were jazz players. I always go into the project ready to improvise and riff on, and react off certain ideas, and I think that’s what Spike is really great at, too, because he does it the same way.”
David Lee/Focus Features
Irvin’s instinct to constantly adjust and riff served him well on “BlacKkKlansman” He recalled the daily car rides through Manhattan traffic, heading north of the city, where they would recreated ’70s-era Colorado Springs.
“I remember those moments where [Spike] would turn around, he’d be in the front seat and he’d be like, ‘I know the ending. We’re gonna burn a cross.’ Then a week later, ‘I know the ending. We’re gonna go into this thing,’” said Irvin. “He was having these ideas as we were exploring the film, which I thought was great. I’m all about that.”
The cinematographer admitted his interpretation of the film itself shifted throughout production. When he first read the script, based on real-life events surrounding the violent racism of the Ku Klux Klan, he saw a much darker film. That changed during an on-set rehearsal of a scene filled with racist dialogue.
“I was sitting next to Spike, and he would just be rolling over, laughing so hard. He just found it so funny,” said Irvin. “Then I changed my view. He’s just such a provocateur. He has a unique sense of humor, and I was catching on to that. So I started adjusting my style, and adjusting my choices to accommodate what was happening from a day-to-day perspective.”
David Lee/Focus Features
For most cinematographers, who like to talk about their overarching visual plan for a particular film, making such tonal adjustments mid-stream would be a major deal. Irvin, however, admitted that he put far less of a premium on a single visual approach to a narrative and preferred to allow himself to stay in the moment on set. In the case of “BlacKkKlansman,” that meant reacting to what was happening as Lee rehearsed and set the blocking with his cast.
“That was the boldest decision that was made, that we’re just gonna walk onto set each day thinking that everything is open,” said Irvin. “I didn’t necessarily think of continuity, and I was changing the look of the film on a day-to-day basis. I flashed, with the camera flasher, several scenes, and it was my idea, originally, to do that for the whole film, but I stopped after the first week because I felt like it was something different.”
Irvin’s big break before “BlacKkKlansman” was shooting for Joseph, whose work has transcended the music video form, mixing documentary with narrative, often becoming short films and/or museum installations. Irvin sought out Joseph through mutual acquaintances, sensing an artistic kinship. He ultimately found a like-minded collaborator who set him free on “Lemonade,” Sampha’s “Process” (a 37-minute film about ancestry to accompany the album and won the Camerimage award for Best Cinematography), and “M.A.A.D” (a portrait of Los Angeles that was shot for rapper Kendrick Lamar, which eventually became a double-screen installation at MOCA).
“When I first started working with Kahlil, it was frustrating because we’d have these really long conversations about a particular ideal, or referencing a very old image of an ancient ceremonial Chinese thing,” said Irvin. “At the end of the conversation, we’d be like, ‘It’s like this, but it’s not like that.’ So you leave the conversation being like, “I have no idea what we’re doing,” which is a different approach. Working with him, it was making sure you don’t know what you’re doing so when you’re out there, it’s actually just you. It makes you really vulnerable and open to something new.”