Natasha Braier is the cinematographer you call when you want a bold and visually ambitious look on an indie budget. From the fashion photography-meets-noir of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Neon Demon,” to the strong colors in Sebastián Lelio’s “Gloria Bell,” to the hypnotic black-and-white water imagery of Lynne Ramsay’s short “Swimmer,” Braier finds a way to paint with the kinds of stylized strokes associated with films at 10 times the budget.
Director Alma Har’el wanted that for “Honey Boy,” but she also wanted the freedom that she had when shooting her documentaries “Bombay Beach” and “LoveTrue.”
“Alma really wanted me to bring my lighting approach, which is always quite moody, and driven by emotion, and somewhat poetic,” said Braier. “She also wanted me [to light] for 360 degrees, so that they are free and they can do whatever. So she wanted the best of both worlds. She was like, ‘I want them to be free. I want this to be a documentary, and I can capture anything. But I want it to look like your movies.’ So, okay, so how do we do this?”
A 19-day shoot in Los Angeles on a $3.5 million budget was already a stretch, even by Braier’s standards. But even that didn’t address the film’s big obstacle, the biggest by far that Braier has faced in her low-budget, art-house filmmaking career: The Shia Factor.
As has been well documented since “Honey Boy” premiered at Sundance in January, the film was written by actor Shia LaBeouf while he was in court-mandated rehab. While in therapy, LaBeouf reached back to his painful days as a child actor when he paid his alcoholic and abusive father to be his minder during production. In “Honey Boy,” LaBeouf would play his father, while actor Noah Jupe played a version of his 12-year old self. The very act of making the film and playing his father was in itself a form of therapy: LaBeouf was still very much in the throes of addressing the trauma that had brought him to his lowest point, a trauma he has equated to PTSD.
Courtesy of Amazon Studios
“We couldn’t organize very much,” said Braier. “A lot of things have to dance around his process on the day, which is beyond being a method actor. It’s really channeling, more than acting, and it’s being in the skin of the person that created the biggest wounds in his childhood, that are still hurting a lot and make him who he is. It’s like a very sophisticated type of therapy that costs $3.5 million.”
As the daughter of two Freudian psychologists, Braier was sensitive to LaBeouf’s experience. It helped draw her to the project, but it also ran counter to the way she works. “I’ve done fiction films. I’ve done documentaries, and I’ve done lots of kinds of therapies,” said Braier. “So I am familiar with all these processes, but not all of them blend in together.”
Braier likes the compare her indie filmmaking process to playing chess, where strategy is based on time and money.
“It’s closer to an industry than an art,” said Braier. “A painter can paint, and then go and have a coffee, and then sit and observe, and come tomorrow add more yellow to the yellow that he put there yesterday. In filmmaking, the crew all learn to say, ‘You have the yellow paint today, and then we’re going to give it back, because we’re renting it, and then tomorrow you have the blue, and if you forgot to do some yellow, like you can rent it again.’ It works in a completely different way, which is not very organic and it doesn’t allow for that kind of creative process. You have to do a lot of planning before, and then in the shoot you have to execute that planning; and the less money and less time you have, the more you’re playing that chess game of planning before.”
With LaBeouf, Braier could only plan up to certain point. Once production began, she realized they would not even have the actor on set for any sort of preparation — no rehearsals, not even to block the scene to figure out the staging.
“We could plan that we were going to do a specific scene on a day, but we couldn’t know if he was going to be in the room that we decided, or he would decide to do it somewhere else,” said Braier. And if LaBeouf did enter the room they picked, they had no clue where he would go in that room. “Normally I would be like, ‘Hey, he’s going to be by the bed and the kid is going to be by the door, so that’s the lighting that I’m going to prepare. So when they come in, it’s ready for that.’” But that’s not how things worked on “Honey Boy.”
Braier and the crew didn’t know when the actor would emerge from his dressing room and enter the space. “He would be coming from the dressing room, already all the emotion built up, and he will be like, ‘Roll, roll, roll,’ as he’s getting into the set.” Further complicating matters, “We’d have to be ready to capture whatever happens the first time. Usually, that would be it.” In other words, only one take.
[Editor’s Note: Often on “Honey Boy” they would keep cameras rolling and go again (“back to one”) quickly, and do a different version within the same take while LaBeouf was still in character.]
To top it all off, the crew couldn’t be on set. They needed to be out of sight. Sound and lighting would need to be adjusted remotely, or after LaBeouf exited the set. Braier became very conscientious of who LaBeouf saw while shooting. When they needed a second camera operator, which was often, they used Har’el, who was very much going on the emotional, therapeutic journey with LeBeouf.
“He’s triggered by men, and his father, who he’s portraying, it’s like a kind of very concrete type of energy, of masculine energy,” said Braier. “And so normally you would imagine that grips and electrics are also strong guys that are very masculine. So they can, even if they are not abusers, they could really trigger Shia. So ideally he would have wanted a whole group to be female.”
What little money Braier had in her equipment budget went toward LED lights with wireless dimmers. She and her crew had to become method actors themselves, putting themselves in LaBeouf’s shoes and asking where he was most likely to go in that dramatic moment, while planning for all possibilities.
“I somewhat designed the lights to look like they were practical lights, but it was mostly LED lighting,” said Braier. “I distributed [the lights] like in a chess game, in different areas of the room, thinking, ‘If he ends up at the TV, then he’s going to get this light. If he ends up by the mirror, then this is going to play.’”
Braier would station herself in a nearby tent with a monitor, a headset, and the dimmers. “I would direct the operator through the headsets, and then I would see what’s going on, where he’s positioning him, and slowly I will dim, like a DJ,” said Braier. “I will dim this light. ‘Oh, he’s by the window. Okay, I’m going to put this one off, this is going to be the key. You know, I don’t need the TV on.’”
Possibly the most difficult aspect was Braier would often get one shot. Second takes were rare; so were alternate angles, unless they were captured by a second camera. In one of the film’s most dramatic scenes, LaBeouf’s character returns drunk and high to the motel room where he lives with his son. He vomits in the bathroom, then has an extremely raw and revealing conversation with his son.
Amazon Studios / screencap
“We had one take, which was the first one he did, which was a wide shot,” said Braier. “He did the whole thing. And then he couldn’t do it anymore. And we broke for lunch. And then I said, ‘We have to get a close-up of him. This is the most important moment of the film. The scene is like five minutes.’”
The one shot they had was over Jupe’s shoulder. Braier knew the extended emotional roller-coaster of a scene needed the very different emotional note and perspective of a close-up. LaBeouf agreed to do it once more after lunch.
“When [Shia] finished, he was crying, and Alma was crying, and I was crying, and everyone was crying,” said Braier. And I was like, “Okay, should we break and do it again in half an hour?” And Alma was like, “I can’t ask him to do it again. He can’t. This is too much, you know?'”
Braier settled into the unpredictable ride. “This was the nature of the beast. I had to learn how to service his process as much as possible,” said Braier. “And that was in a way, my main responsibility. Also, you know, as the daughter of two shrinks, understanding the therapeutic value of the whole thing, I was really, really respectful to all of that. And I could see the healing possibilities of every day, and every scene that we were doing. It was really moving, really emotional.”