When he premiered “Lovers Rock” — one chapter in his five-part anthology series “Small Axe” — at the 2020 New York Film Festival, Steve McQueen was surprised that so many in the audience were crying in reaction to his film about a 1979 house party.
“That was the amazing thing, that people responded and reacted to that in such an emotional way,” said McQueen. “It was a celebration of all the senses, and I think that was pretty amazing that abstraction of the narrative through color and movement could be celebrated in that way.”
When McQueen and his “Small Axe” cinematographer Shabier Kirchner were on the Toolkit podcast, the director gave his young DP a great deal of the credit. According to McQueen, in the “Lovers Rock” script, whole dance sequences were given simple two-sentence descriptions. The key was creating a real mood and atmosphere on set with the ensemble cast, and then to let his young DP rip.
“It was in a lot of ways about interpreting the mode with a camera, and I think what Shabier has is a tremendous sense of balance,” explained McQueen. “You can throw him in the middle of something, like we did in the protest scenes in ‘Mangrove,’ and you’re there. Therefore when you have someone with that ability, you can really move and go for it. There’s no difference between people in the frame and the person holding the camera.”
Kirchner made the comparison to being a jazz musician, knowing that as he operated the camera he would need to go from point A to point B, but how he got there was more about feeling the moment and playing off the dancing cast. What McQueen loved about the dance scenes was it was about a Black cinematographer and Black cast “vibing off one another,” adding “as director, the less I do, the better I am as a director.”
The jazz improvisation analogy went far beyond operating the camera for Kirchner, it also applied to how he adjusted light and color off the costumes of designer Jacqueline Durran. In an adjacent room, the cinematographer had a team on light boards who he would speak to over headphones and, as his camera moved from character to character and costume to costume, the team constantly adjusted the lighting scheme.
“As the party would go on, we had the ability to play the light against the costume, and that was something that was happening real-time as the song evolved,” said Kirchner. “It was basically a conversation between light and costume. Every moment, the lights are constantly changing.”
Watch Kirchner and McQueen break down how they filmed the “Lovers Rock” dance scenes in the video below:
Overall, the warm, colorful, and welcoming light of the “Lovers Rock” dance floor played into Kirchner’s larger lighting scheme for the “Small Axe” anthology as a whole. The dance floor inside the house is one of the few moments and spaces in the series that is not invaded by white people and the institutional structures discriminating against London’s West Indian community.
“One of the big things for me, was here was an instance where night-time is the sacred place, the special and welcoming place, and daytime and daylight is this oppressive thing,” said Kirchner. “You can notice throughout the series, this oppressive daylight, being the white light that is constantly trying to invade this space.”
Also while on the podcast, the “Small Axe” director and his cinematographer got into the visual language of “Mangrove,” and McQueen’s autobiographical story in “Education,” which led to a standoff (the director refusing to give in) about shooting that chapter in 16mm. To hear the full conversation, subscribe below:
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, and Stitcher. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.