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Cinematographer James Laxton on Capturing the Romance of ‘If Beale Street Could Talk,’ Close-Ups, and Errol Morris

Written by on December 31, 2018 

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Continuing their collaboration since their film school days, cinematographer James Laxton and Barry Jenkins once again create one of lushest, most vibrant films of the year with If Beale Street Could Talk. Bringing the world of James Baldwin to the screen, their Harlem is one of bright beauty and swoon-worthy colors, a cacophony of visual delight to match the emotional exuberance of the story’s foundational romantic center. Along with the colorful palette, Laxton’s camera movement is something to behold, particularly in the film’s best scene as Brian Tyree Henry and Stephan James’ characters reconnect over a meal and we feel like we’re another member of the table as the frame gracefully glides back and forth.

We talked with the cinematographer about bringing a vibrant romanticism to the film, how they achieve the Jonathan Demme-esque close-ups, being inspired by Errol Morris, seeing KiKi Layne and Stephan James blossom on set, his favorite cinematography of the year, and more.

The Film Stage: I read James Baldwin’s book before seeing the film and in these apartments, there’s definitely a way this could have been shot where it could have been more play-esque and a little more static, but you breathe a lot of life into these scenes. Could you talk about the setups for those shots and conceiving those apartment shots?

James Laxton: Well, thank you very much, that was definitely a goal for us. Barry and I are always trying to focus on immersive language with the camera, trying to bring the camera within conversations and not have it just be a fly on the wall in a scene but sort of engage with the audience by placing the camera particularly in POV shots or right over the eye-line of someone’s close up. Especially in those scenes with the two families in the same room, where there’s eight different people talking to eight different people, it’s definitely challenging. It’s an amazing scene with some great challenges of course, but definitely something we were, not concerned per say, but we know would be challenging, truly based on how much coverage we knew we needed to get. I think the actors were very patient with us through those couple of days in giving us what we needed to do. It was important to not have the film feel too much like you were reading the novel and more so that you are experiencing the novel, and I think that’s something Barry and I are always sort of obsessed with, trying to bring the audience inside the experience so they can relate to the characters. For example, I’m a white guy from California–I don’t know what it’s like to be Tish and Fonny in that space, but if I can place the camera in a certain way, maybe I can feel like I am experiencing something that culturally I’m not familiar with and that is one reason we try to do our best immerse our audience into those spaces and into those scenes and into those characters.

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From the opening scene, there’s this rush of color. The opening shot reminded me of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. I was curious if you talked about that at all?

I wish, that’s a rad reference. The opening shot and sequences in films for Barry and I are really critical. It’s a time where we get to clue the audience into what the visual vocabulary of the film will be. The opening shot where the camera rotates around and follows them with this big crane movement quickly establishes the patience in which the camera will be moving for the next two hours; more precise, delicate framings and how the light plays within those early scenes. This had a lot to do with how we wanted to establish a certain language that is particular to the film and to the story and allowed us to be creative and sort of present maybe a heightened sense of love and romance.

We interviewed you for Moonlight and you mentioned how you guys had the shared folder of images going back for years that were from Wong Kar-Wai or Claire Denis or photographs, but Barry Jenkins has said that for the references here was just going back to James Baldwin’s descriptions. I was wondering if you could illuminate that process?

I think what he’s talking about there is the sort of literary aspect of it all, coupled with how Mr. Baldwin is so specific at times with a certain jacket or cup or pouch. He can be very descriptive of these environments, and that’s sort of what Barry’s alluding to. Those things don’t particularly reference photography, but Mr. Baldwin’s writing was hugely influential just cinematically as well, but I would say more stemming from this use of language and less from his particularly descriptions of space –that was probably more discussed from a production design or costume design perspective, or maybe even performance. But the way Baldwin writes and speaks had a lot to do with how we wanted to move the camera, the kind of camera we used which was the Alexa 65. A lot of sort of shaping decisions had a lot to do with this novel specifically and even more broadly Mr. Baldwin’s writings and works at large.

I love that there’s so much color in this film. You talked a little bit about that with the opening, but sometimes there can be a bleakness when you’re portraying communities that might not be middle or upper class. Yet in the film, you give this kind of love and life and bring people’s awareness to how much joy there can be along with the hardship. Can you talk a little bit about this from a cinematographer perspective and the kind of awareness you brought to that?

This movie and this book takes on quite a lot of subject. I mean, we’re talking about race relations in the U.S., we’re talking about the prison system, and sexual assault issues, but at the heart of all these things in my mind is the love between Tish and Fonny, and it’s that love connection that seems to be the spine of the story, and the spine of how we viewed every other aspect that the story is discussing. When I think of love and family love or romantic love with Tish and Fonny, it was all about the tones and romantic sensibilities. I think about the iconography of romance that’s in my mind and most likely in a lot of people’s shared visual sensibility. The scene where Tish and Fonny exit the restaurant and have this romantic walk down the road with the umbrella, and the light is sort of backlighting it in this 1950’s cinematic vocabulary, that was very much a part of this depiction of romance of love and affection for one another. I think you see that in the sensuality in their relationship and in the family love, and shared within those scenes of Tish in the family apartment.

So while the movie is about a lot of tragic subjects, I think if we can view that tragedy through a sense of strength and love that the family and characters bring to the story, it’s through that love that all of the other subjects seem to impact me more in a way I can identify with. I mean, I’m a white guy from California. I may not know exactly what it’s like to be black in Harlem in the 1970s, but I do know what love feels like, and I think if we can connect the audiences in that love Fonny and Tish are sharing, and hopefully at some point in our lives we’ve felt that first love that may have meant so much to us, and if we can sort of sense that sensibility, maybe we can empathize at the very least or understand what it’s like to be in Fonny’s shoes or in Tish’s shoes.

Barry Jenkins did an interview with Paul Thomas Anderson and the latter said that since he started his career he’s been trying to do these Jonathan Demme-esque close-ups and Barry Jenkins has done it perfectly in just a few films. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that and what you think of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, and speaking a little about the execution of these shots.

Well, it’s very flattering, as you can imagine. I’m a big PTA fan and have been for a great deal of time. I think the world of his films generally and visually to be pretty spectacular, and I have to say let’s not forget his ability for cutting such powerful and unique close-ups as well. So I’d like to write back to him and say his work is clearly amazing. It’s flattering, I don’t know what else to say about it besides that.

You know, those close-ups are really amazing, and the way they happen, which Barry sort of talked about in that interview, is that they are pretty spontaneous. I think that maybe a reason as to why they might work is that even though they might be quite stylized at times to have a character look into the lens, it isn’t so necessarily so thought out, and it’s just moments where Barry and I realized we’re getting something that is almost like a crescendo of heightened sensibility, where we get sucked into the monitor and you can see our faces six inches from the monitor because we want to be close. And it’s one of those moments where we look each other and decide that this may be deserving of one of those moments and then we end up shooting it, and we take a moment before we move on to make sure we get something like that. I don’t find what we do in those moments to be any more unique than other aspects in our process. Of course we’re not spending six hours on one of those close-ups but maybe 20 minutes or something like that if we’re lucky. It’s hard to know or even discuss what’s going on there but it’s probably just Barry and I–and more simply Barry–just deciding these are moments that can stand up that level of stylization. I think that is something that Barry navigates very well. If it’s a scene or it’s a moment that was maybe not ringing with as much strength, I’m not sure if those moments would work. It’s about realizing what moments can stand up to that level of stylization.

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Speaking of the actors, you mentioned how you used for the prison sequence an Interrotron. Can you talk about your idea to do that and how you were pleased with the results?

Well, those scenes aren’t just brief moments, they are long five or so minute sequences where we’re asking KiKi or Stephan to perform the entirety of the scene into the lens. We realized early on that would be a pretty inappropriate request from a filmmaker to the actors so we had to find some way to still achieve these heightened, visual voices while still getting performances that are as meaningful as they ended up in the film to be. So how to do that, I can’t remember how it exactly it happened but I think Barry and I are aware of how Errol Morris was making documentaries for a long time. I’m not sure if he still is using that system, but he had used it for a very long time, and it felt like what a great tool to bring those performances into those close-ups. It just seemed to be a perfect tool for us to still get a scene with this visual approach.

With Moonlight and this film, it must have been pretty amazing for you to witness all of these new actors to blossom on set. I’m curious about when you first saw or talked to KiKi or Stephan on set.

I’m not a director so it’s a little challenging for me to comment on too much, but my role is unique. I’m not talking to them in the same way Barry is, but even as an observer, watching the process happen with each of those young people, they were sort of embodying these characters where there was a sense that when they walked onto the set, I wasn’t really sure I was watching KiKi anymore. I was watching Tish. It was something they took very seriously and they really cared for the process and it’s just that diligence and that professionalism mixed with a real passion and care for the material. I think I realized quickly that these were going to be some great performances and some really talented people were creating this world with us. It was sort of effervescent. It wasn’t complicated. It wasn’t process driven. It was immediate that these two actors had chemistry very quickly.

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One of my favorite scenes is with Brian Tyree Henry and Stephan over dinner. I haven’t seen a movie in a long time where you feel like you are a part of the conversation, you are just gliding through and you feel like it could have gone on for another hour if you wanted it too. Could you talk about pulling that off?

Man, it was scary. I think that’s a technique that Barry and I have been trying to do for a while. There’s a couple moments of it in Moonlight and I think we finally figured it out, but you know it’s very much all about listening and being in concert with the performance as a camera operator.  I know it’s a technically challenging thing to do. You not only need to be moving the camera in a certain way but you also are reacting and listening almost like another actor or character might be within the scene and to do that you need to be quite sensitive and emotionally available to sort of feel the performance a certain way and engage with the process in a different way that isn’t just technical, but emotional. Just again, listening to the performance, really connecting with Brian, really connecting to Stephan and engaging with them on a much more sort of spiritual level than a cinematographer or camera operator might be used too. It’s asking a lot of everybody and I think in that scene particularly all of these things sort of gelled in a way that I think was perfect or close to it anyway.

There’s two montages that bookend the film. Can you talk about as cinematographer, do you have a say in the visual feel of how those images come across, or do you just see it at the end of the process?

No, I wasn’t involved in choosing what photos go in there. There were a couple of photos in the screenplay, I think Gordon Parks was, and the others were largely found in the post-production process. I love them and the choices they made. They are tragically, tonally powerful, but it wasn’t me behind those choices. I wish I could say I was though. They are really strong choices and just wonderful for the film. But no, that wasn’t part of my role.

I was wondering if there’s any films you’ve seen this season or throughout the year that have impressed you?

I’m guessing you are going to give a lot of the same answers. I mean, Roma is stunning I think. What Cuarón does in that film is just really touching in a way that finds such a human spirit behind the visual choices he’s creating in that film. It’s a piece of work I’m inspired by no doubt about it. I also really love The Favourite. I thought Robbie Ryan’s work was really perfect for that film. The energy that he brings with the movement and lens choices and lighting, it just feels part and parcel to the story and to the energy of the film. So I think those two for me are quite standouts. There are so many more, there are so many more to talk about, but I would say Roma and The Favourite are mine.

If Beale Street Could Talk is now theaters.

Continue: The Best Cinematography of 2018

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