Bradford Young’s filmography remains slim, but the work displayed in his repertoire — among them Pariah, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Selma, A Most Violent Year — impresses to the point that his involvement has become something of a qualitative promise. The praise has continued with his latest feature, Arrival, an effort that marks something of a breakthrough: along with being his first sci-fi feature, it’s Young’s foray into thoroughly contemporary environments.
While at the Camerimage International Film Festival, we sat down for a long, surprisingly personal conversation in which Young reveals his personal philosophies, creative insecurities, and the many steps that go into creating an image for Denis Villeneuve. The entire process was a total pleasure.
The Film Stage: In preparing for this interview, I found that many asked about the novelty of shooting a sci-fi movie after devoting your career to dramas. One aspect of this that I haven’t seen addressed is shooting a thoroughly contemporary movie. Your two most prominent jobs, Selma and A Most Violent Year, are period pieces, and Arrival is a film filled with screens, effects, and so on. I’m curious what your thoughts were going into the film, and if there was a need to find your footing.
Bradford Young: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m going to start with that, because that’s the one I feel like I can speak on best — part of the reason is that I haven’t thought about it much. Yeah, it’s strange. Making films in real time holds you accountable in a way that period pieces just don’t. You know what I mean? What they do is make you think of yourself in a particular way. With Arrival, it’s these notions of mortality in a contemporary society that obviously affect me in a real, palpable way. Raising children in America; that hit me in a really palpable way. Raising black boys in America; that hit me in a real sort of palpable way. So because I have to wrestle with knowing what’s happening in real time, the setting in which we parallax on is like settings that we live in now. We know them. We smell them. We’re not augmenting the environment. We’re actually shooting in the environment that we exist in.
But, also, the nuance of story resonated with me in such an intense way because the film is exploring ideas that could potentially affect my children. You know what I mean? Could potentially affect my relationship to my children. It’s not about the potential, or my grandparents’ agency and my contemporary liberation, or their attempt to create a structure of liberation for us in the future. This is, like, a projection on my children. You know what I mean? This is a potential conversation that I have to have with my children. In that way, I think what it did — without even knowing it; I’m kind of free styling a little bit as I answer, because I’m thinking about it deeply — was, I had my guard up a little bit. It makes you a little guarded, because you always have to oscillate and figure out how much DNA you give to every project, right? So if you give everything, how do you survive? We all are trying to figure out how much we give at certain points.
This is one of those films where, in order to make it really expressive, you have to give everything. It makes it harder when you’re photographing real time — when you’re photographing in real space, when you’re photographing in contemporary environments — because there’s so much more present. There’s no allegory, there’s no mythology, there’s no projection, there’s no ability to let imagination lead everything. This is one where you have to face the monster. You have to face the alien. You have to face what makes real life and contemporary society joyous and difficult for us. I never thought about it when I was doing it, and I don’t think I even really came up with a way to prepare for it. I think the main, overarching theme for us, and especially for Denis, is this idea of truthfulness.
For me, this is the first time I got really invested in perspective. I think that’s really important for contemporary films to be effective: the perspective is important, because you want the audience to feel like they’re in a world that they know. So, to prepare for that, I decided to remind myself that this is Louise’s film. That’s not something I have to do… I tried it on Selma. It was this idea that Martin Luther King is leading us. A Most Violent Year was a little more objective; it was us observing the life and time of this couple, and this very strange environment. This is the one where it’s like, I’m with Louise. We’re with her on the journey. And, again, because it’s a contemporary film, that Louise character is somebody you know — it’s somebody you can put your hand on. You turn the camera and there are probably three or four Louises on your set, you know? With something like Selma, you turn around and there is no Martin Luther King, you know? It’s us imagining what it would’ve been like to be there with him.
So I think, yeah, it requires a certain level of rigor and a certain level of discipline in order to make it feel truthful. That was a big conversation that Denis had with me from the beginning. It was like: “I don’t want an overly aesthetic film. I want the film to be only as beautiful as Louise will let it be.” For a cinematographer, that’s either a nightmare [Laughs] or a benefit. For me, it really helped me grow.
I was interested by the level of visibility that’s allowed by the lighting in interior environments.
The first moment where it really stood out was in her classroom, which doesn’t feel like a normal college classroom — it feels so from her perspective with the top-down lighting.
The top-down light. Yeah, yeah.
Is something such as that conceived of from the start? That seems like the kind of thing you’d be having a conversation about.
I think it’s that balance between the mundane — which is what the film is all about. It’s about this ordinary life, and I think that’s one of those examples where you examine the ordinary, right? It’s about a teacher. But then you look at the structural reality of the classroom: that thing — those wavy lines, those curly lines — had to mirror, in some way, things that we would experience later, so you take that liberty to slide that sort of thing in there, and then that creates a more interesting frame and a more interesting tension, because then it’s not just, like, a squared-off environment with a few seats. It actually has some structural thing there that tells a story. That’s one of those moments where you just say, “Yeah, we can just turn on those lights and make it a regular classroom,” but there’s a feeling. There’s a melancholy in her life, and the lighting in this moment — and the lighting in every moment until we get to this ship — has to be evocative of that.
I could have just turned on every light, because that would’ve been real, and that would’ve been what a college classroom looks like, but then I don’t think you’re telling story — and I think the whole idea is for us to continue telling Louise’s story. So, yeah, I just felt like I had to drape her in light that would be indicative of her psychology, indicative of a woman that… for instance, the college classroom is such a good example. We just learned that she’s experienced great loss in her life. It doesn’t matter how many lights are turned on. You know what I mean? Your perspective on life is very myopic, so let’s let the lighting be evocative of that. I think you see that, too, in the university: she walks across a college campus that is totally, 100% empty. Not a single soul. She walks through a cafeteria that is totally, 100% empty. Not a single soul. She’s in her office and this mysterious figure shows up at her door, and you can’t see his face. He sits down, and you still don’t see his face. She’s backlit. It’s all these things that probably don’t happen in real time. You see somebody’s face in another way, but you just take those small liberties to, again, be encased in her dilemma.
Do you have an idea for how long it takes to conceptualize those sorts of things? How long those conversations of a) “that strategy will convey this,” and b) figuring out the tools you need.
It’s interesting, because I feel like, with us, my process with Denis was a little different… well, not “different.” I mean, I guess it’s sort of like my lighting process with a lot of directors, which is: prep is really busy, so you don’t have time to talk about all the nuances and details ahead of time; then, somehow, most times, you’re kind of reluctant to talk about it because actors determine so much. You don’t have an actor with you on a scout, or you don’t have an actor with you in the storyboarding sessions. You board a basic idea, but you can never talk about the nuance of how it’s going to happen until you see what actors will do on the day.
I’ll give you the other example where you really plan: in the case of her office, we showed up and it was just a regular office — but, on the day, when you see the way Forest Whitaker enters the doorway, you say to yourself, “Okay, this is a moment where we can create another level of mystery, another level of anxiety, in what would be another ordinary, procedural conversation between two human beings.” So then you see what the actors did and you say, “Okay. We probably shouldn’t see his face much, but, when he sits down, let’s make sure that the lighting is doing this.” Those are the things you worked out on the day, in real time. Because you’ve done so much homework in terms of talking about the film in other ways — like, “Our film is about this, but we still don’t know what that means visually,” or, “Our film is about this, but we still don’t know what that means in terms of sound” — but you still have been inoculated with an idea, and so you just trust that, because we’re all working towards this idea, that what we suggest on the day doesn’t betray that, and everything else is just adding what I would call “grace notes” to those moments.
For something like when he shows up at the house for the first time, that’s playing. That’s like, he shows up in the helicopter; for a split second, hopefully, the audience thinks that it’s an alien spacecraft. Right? He opens the door. You don’t see his face. You only hear his voice. You know it’s him, because you’ve seen him in the scene before, but he becomes alien. And then she gets in the helicopter that’s got some weird proximity to the house, she gets on the spaceship, and the spaceship is totally an environment that we haven’t experienced before. The lighting, the awkward seating arrangement — it feels like you’re sitting in the belly of an animal.
All these things are very much Denis Villeneuve ways of making a film, ways of telling story. Those are those moments where you really plan it out. When she comes down the steps and the whole house is lit by this singular, bright light, it could be the spaceship. You realize it’s not; it’s just the general. These things, you create the counterintuitive relationship with audience by giving a lot but really planning it out. Those are those moments you just don’t want to freestyle because you are trying to say something very specific.
You speak of being in conversation with other departments. I’m always very curious about a cinematographer’s relationship to computer-generated effects — lighting and “photographing” that. In the post-production, what’s your level of involvement in supervising visual effects and ensuring that it’s properly orchestrated?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Of course. I wish I had more input, and I think that I didn’t have enough input on this film, and I’m sure I would’ve had more input. There was opportunity for me to have one, but circumstances didn’t always allow me to do that. But I wish I could’ve been more involved, and I actually think that, if this is a platform to say anything, I encourage — especially young — cinematographers to be more involved. We were actually lucky that we shot a film that had a very particular visual style and a very particular optical reality that the visual effects had to marry themselves to, because to do it any other way would betray everything else the film was trying to do.
That was not an easy process for us to get to. It’s never easy when you have visual effects-heavy films, because every human being has their own artistic preference, taste. This is a collaborative process — everybody comes in with their notions of what is and what isn’t — so it requires a lot of compromise. But what it also does is require all of us to be on the same page in terms of what this film has to look like, what is has to feel like, so it’s a big tug of war. It’s a healthy tug of war because, ultimately, you end up getting what you want. I think, with this film, what I really respect about it is that the visual effects are anchored in a real, honest appeal to show humanity in the foreground in a very particular way.
So when you see the spaceship, we don’t rack-focus to a film that exists already; we actually see it through the lens, the perspective, of Louise — and the whole film is about her perspective, anyway, so you can’t go look at the ship and it becomes a movie where we’re looking at the ship. It has to be Louise’s perspective on the ship. That requires a lot of reminding. It requires people to be uncomfortable, sometimes, with how milky the blacks are, the kind of lens you’re using, how hard things are falling off. Or, on the day, instead of giving people an hour late on trackers, you just say, “The light’s good, we’re going to go out in the field, and we’re going to go shoot the shot,” and you’ve just got to figure out where you put the ship later. That’s always difficult for visual-effects artists, but it’s sort of the nature of the necessity of the kinds of films that I would hope to continue to make. But, all in all, yeah: I think it’s important for cinematographers to be a key… not even a key element, but an important part in the conversation of where visual effects in the film go.
At yesterday’s press conference, you talked about reading the screenplay as a lover of literature. I wonder how, for you, working in a visual medium might bring a connecting point with your love of the written word.
[Laughs] It’s interesting, man, because it’s kind of like… honestly, I really don’t see a connection between the literature I love and the films that I’m making, because I don’t really feel like there’s been a strong bridge, and I think we’ve tried to do it over and over again — but I always feel like when we try to adhere, in film, to the original literature, we betray the cinema. So I never felt like once I’ve consumed the literature — meaning the script — I have to obey the literature when I’m responding to it as a cinematographer. I have to actually throw the literature away. All that is, for me, is just bits and pieces of the potential. The really, fully realized potential is when I switch off the lover of reading, which is a very new phenomenon in my life, loving to read. I wasn’t always, like, a lover of reading books. It took me until later in my life to be like, “Oh, I really see the power of literature and reading.”
I always knew reading was important, but loving and reading books — reading a piece of imaginative fiction — that came later in my life, because I really wanted to help embellish my practice as a cinematographer, and I realized literature can really help me do that. Imagination, mythology, allegory, the breaking of time and space. Literature has its own narrative optics. Literature is so superior because what it does is ignite the mind’s eye, which is essentially the starting block of all cinematography — the mind’s eye. All we’re trying to do is put onscreen what your mind saw. Literature has the ability to show you nothing, visually, but ignite the mind’s eye. As much as those things are dependent on one another, I, at some point, have to break it in half — put one away to ignite the next one. Once I’ve read the script once or twice and I get it, I never go back to it. I barely even read the sides on set. I get the sides and go, “Okay. I remember what that scene’s about,” and I say, “Okay. I’ve thought about it for a while. Hopefully, I can make some suggestions to make the scene be this way, visually.”
So, yeah, there’s a bridge, but break the bridge at some point and really let the cinematography be its own journey and let the reading of the script be its own journey. That’s why, when I get the script, I don’t try to read it as a cinematographer; I just try to read it as a person that loves story. I like different kinds of stories; I like stories that have all types of challenging structure. Also, too, the script doesn’t have to tell me everything. If I just read every script for what it was on the paper, I wouldn’t shoot anything. I read it as a script and I know that the voice of the director is not in there. It’s hard to put the voice of the director in the written page. Directors take horrible written material and turn it into incredible visual material all the time, so I really believe that the script’s good, but Denis Villeneuve is a master. I know what he can possibly do to a good script. And I’m not saying that script was less-than-good. It’s just that material and director are two different things, just like the cinematography and the literature.
You’ve expressed a desire to work with Villeneuve, who’s gained a particular attention for his collaborations with cinematographers, most prominently Roger Deakins. Watching his films, what did you detect in the director-cinematographer balance that ignited a response?
That’s interesting. When I got really introduced to his work, I was in the middle of one of my early collaborations with Andrew Dosunmu, when I was doing Restless City; then we went on to do Mother George, and now we did a new film that’s not out yet. Andrew is a photographer. He’s a filmmaker, but he’s a photographer by trade. One of the things he said to me before was, “Listen: I’m a visual storyteller. I’m telling stories through cinema. Cinema is a medium of moving pictures. You’ve still got to make pictures. You still have to make things look good; they still have to say something visually.”
I was in the middle of my first film with Andrew when he said that to me, so when I saw Polytechnique, it clicked to me in a real… it may not have done it a few months later or a year later, but because I was in the middle of my collaboration with him when I saw Denis’ work, I said, “Okay. This is the kind of filmmaker that’s deeply concerned and connected to story. No question about it.” He’s also a visual storyteller, and I think that’s what makes a collaboration with Denis Villeneuve fruitful — is that he really, truly understands the importance of visual storytelling. He’s not going to let the visual storytelling undermine the story. He’s not going to let it undermine what he needs from actors. But he expects the people he’s collaborating with visually to show up with an idea. Like, “What’s your idea? How do you want to tell the story visually? I don’t want you to be overly conceptualized, but I want to know: what’s the difference? How are you going to bring feeling to the story visually?” I think that’s what we’re bearing witness to, and I think that’s why he’s collaborating with the cinematographers that he’s picking.
I’ve only had one collaboration with him — hopefully I’ll have more — but I think that’s why he’s with Roger: Roger is a visual storyteller. It’s undeniable. It’s undeniable that he’s going to bring a certain gravity, a certain gravitas to the way he photographs and shoots your film. I think that’s what you’re bearing witness to when you see his films. It’s what Andrew reminded me of: he still knows that you’ve still got to make pictures. It’s a visual medium, and I think you lose sight of that sometimes because we’ve forgotten that it’s a fair balance of everything — it’s a fair balance of what the actors bring, what the sound designer brings. Jóhann Jóhannsson is key. He’s a key, key collaborator. It’s what production designers brings. Patrice Vermette brings something very specific that I have to live up to, that I have to anchor the visual style in. He creates a real structural reality that you have to put your camera into. I think, in the Denis Villeneuve world, everybody’s expected to bring something.
You said something yesterday about lacking confidence in your work. I think you’re certainly a real up-and-comer who people are excited to hear about, and you talk about the work with a real knowledge and assurance. Is there something that does give you confidence in the work, even if there’s some overarching self-doubt? When you watch the movies, can you say, “I did that well,” or do you notice commonalities?
I mean, not as much as I would like to. [Laughs] You know what I mean? The goal is to get to that point where I can sit down through one of my films from beginning to end and actually not leave the theater.
That’s something you do?
It’s hard for me to watch the film.
I mean, you probably see it a lot.
I see it a lot, yeah, but I can watch movies a hundred times over. My wife will tell you I’m famous for watching Apocalypse Now or The Assassination of Jesse James every other month. There’s ones I could watch forever. I’ll say this: I think one of the things I feel very confident about is that I know the way I see is anchored in something that’s real to me. My way of seeing things isn’t a manufactured, artificial way of seeing. I used to be very insecure about my way of seeing, and I worked very hard to become more secure about my way of seeing. What helped me be really secure, in its own way — and in a perfect way — is that my way of seeing comes from my origin story. You know what I mean?
It’s not somebody else’s notion of how I should see. I didn’t read it in a book; it wasn’t taught to me in a classroom. One of my professors at Howard gave me an idea. He said, “How is your grandmother’s house lit?” I check into that, and then you find your voice. That is what I’m invested in. He changed my whole pedagogy in engaging a film; he changed the way I see cinema. He really changed my life as a visual storyteller — as a human being. He ignited my desire to be a storyteller, and so one thing I’m confident about, in the 20 years I’ve been with him, the one thing he’s pushed open the door for me to realize is that, when you anchor your visual-storytelling capacity in the familiar — the things that are right under your nose — then you’re on your journey, and the journey’s a lifelong journey. But you’re on your journey. That part, I feel like I’ve worked out.
The one part I’m not always confident about is, did I do my due diligence to fully execute what was in my mind’s eye? Like any artist, you say, “I could do better. I could’ve done something different.” [Laughs] It’s just not easy for me to bear witness to the things that I feel like didn’t work. I know that’s more maturity than anything. I’m still a young man doing this, so I’m hoping, at some point, I’ll have that… it’s like when I saw Amour for the first time. It’s like, I love Se7en. You know what I mean? I love the way The Immigrant looks. I love… Darius is, like, a strong visual presence. Strong. Amour was so delicate. It was telling of his life, now. It was more a mapping of where he and Haneke had something in common: age, growing old, love, dependence, loss, life without your loved one, the mortality of your loved one. I saw them in that film, and that’s the reason why the film is so powerful. I see two aging men contemplating their love affairs with the partners who they really care about, and questioning losing them. I saw a cinematographer secure in his vision.
It doesn’t have to be Se7en. It can be Amour. You know what I mean? You didn’t turn that on and say, “Oh, Darius Khondji shot this?” There’s no, like, familiar thing there that makes us feel that way, but there is some sensitivity under there that’s very indicative of Darius’ work. I’m just using it as an example. If I stay true to my voice, at some point, I’ll be able to sit and feel a particular way about my material that I don’t have the maturity to deal with it now. That’s the hard work for me: growing. Between A Most Violent Year and Arrival and Selma, those are the three films where, for the first time, I’m bearing witness to my own maturity as a filmmaker. A Most Violent Year is the first film that actually sat in the theater and watched. I had no intention to. I said, “I will watch the first five minutes at AFI Fest,” and I stayed for the whole thing. I was… I had seen the film so many times, but I hadn’t seen it. That’s the first time that I actually really saw it, for all that it’s worth. Selma was such a difficult process, making that film, that, when it came out, I couldn’t see it past that. I saw a celebration of a collaboration with my very dear friend, but it was such a hard film to make and it took so many other people to remind me that I should revisit it — and when I revisited it, I realized that we were actually trying some really important things.
It’s hard to realize that in the moment. It’s hard to see it on the screen in the DI. But we have time. Time is our friend with art. When you revisit it, you see things, and I saw maturity there. With Arrival, it reminds me to be present for my children; it reminds me to be present for my partner. As much as I feel like, “I’m always present for my family,” or whatever, this film really reminded me: be present. Seriously: be present. I couldn’t get that in the DI; I can’t get that when I’m making the film. I think I’m getting aspects, but it’s hard for me to see that. When I see the film now, even coming in on screenings and looking at a few scenes, the sum of all parts teaches me so much. It’s more a celebration, for me, of Patrice, of Jóhann, of Denis. It’s a celebration of people that came together, held hands for six months, and really created a utopia around an idea, around a story — and a story that is actually trying to say something, trying to do something to the audience. It just requires a certain level of maturity. Again, every filmmaker I’ve mentioned is older than me. They’ve been forged and scorched in life.
How old are you?
39. But all those filmmakers, they’re in their ‘40s. They’ve had lives, professional lives, before. They have life. Me, I’m still small in careers. I’ve got young kids. I’m still trying to figure it all out. These are people who are living life. Of course they’ve got to teach me something — they’ve lived. So I want to get to the point where I’m like… I’m trying it on Han Solo — to actually go to the dailies, sit, stay calm, watch, make the changes. Usually I would run. “I don’t want to see what happened yesterday!” But now I’m trying to.
Arrival is now in wide release.