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Snake Eyes

BLACK SNAKE MOAN.

This article is part of Filmmaker’s Sundance 2007 Special Coverage.

In Black Snake Moan Christina Ricci plays Rae, a nymphomaniac wracked by vivid memories and dreams of being sexually abused during her childhood. Also in Craig Brewer’s follow-up to his Sundance-hit Hustle and Flow is Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Lazarus, a God-fearing farmer who picks at his guitar, sings blues songs about sin, and, after a chance encounter, attempts to oversee Rae’s salvation.

Some filmmakers might have taken the success they had with a film like Hustle and Flow and hightailed it straight to the world of the Hollywood mainstream. Not Brewer. Shooting again in Memphis, Tennessee, he’s made a film as provocative in its exploration of sexual politics as his previous was in playing with the racial stereotypes of the gangsta’ rap world. And, furthering his bold combination of realism and Southern melodrama, he’s also continued his collaboration with d.p. Amy Vincent, ASC.

BLACK SNAKE MOAN.

After reading the script, Vincent says she envisioned a story about love, redemption and the uncertainty of not knowing what was going to happen next. “Part of the electricity is a tactile feeling that Rae could explode at any minute and lunge after people like a dog guarding her home,” Brewer comments.

During early preproduction, Brewer gave Vincent DVDs of Southern gothic films like Bad Georgia Road and Baby Doll to serve as visual references. “We were like a family,” Vincent observes. “Everybody contributed ideas to discussions about the visual style during preproduction. Scott [Bomar] came in one day and put a book from Fat Possum Records on the table. It was a collection of biographies and photos of North Mississippi Blues musicians. Craig got everybody involved in the discussion, including [producer] Stephanie Allain, [production designer] Keith Burns, [editor] Billy Fox and myself. I could see Craig listening and absorbing ideas.”

The production team first scouted juke joints to find an ideal dark bar to serve as the setting for Lazarus’ encounter with Rae. When they found it, Burns suggested spray painting the bottle lights red, a choice that inspired additional color selections in the film, including the further use of red light in a scene where Jackson sings “Stagger Lee.”

Other primary locations included interiors and the exterior of a farmhouse where Lazarus lives, and an expansive field of wavering soybeans with woods in the background. The farmhouse sets were designed so they could be moved from a soundstage to a small shack in the middle of the soybean field.

Brewer had Vincent by his side during rehearsals with Jackson and Ricci in spaces that were the same dimensions as the sets where they were planning to shoot. She offered suggestions about where wild walls, windows, doors and props should be placed to allow for flexibility in lighting and camera movement.

Rather than nailing the actors down to hitting marks, Brewer wanted to give them the freedom to follow their instincts. The rehearsals gave him and Vincent a sense of what the actors were going to do, so they could anticipate their actions and plan to light and move the cameras accordingly.

Brewer made an early decision to frame Black Snake Moan in a wide screen format. Vincent suggested shooting in Super 35 rather than anamorphic format to take advantage of the more flexible choice of “fast” spherical lenses, with one proviso: the guarantee of a budget for a digital intermediate.

Brewer covered the action with two cameras. The A camera, a Panaflex Platinum, was generally on a master shot, and the B camera, a Panaflex G2, was usually on a tighter shot. Vincent carried a full set of Primo prime lenses and 4:1 and 11:1 zooms, and she generally chose the prime lenses because their focal lengths were more specific.

Most images were recorded on the 500-speed Kodak VISION2 5218 film, which provided flexibility for them to reach deep into the darkest shadows and brightest highlights the same way the human eye would perceive those images. Brighter daylight exteriors were recorded on the 100-speed Kodak VISION2 5212 color negative.

Brewer limited coverage of dialogue and song scenes to no more than two takes unless an actor or an actress wanted another shot. He says, “Artists don’t paint multiple canvases and decide which one they like best later. That drains everyone’s energy, and it creates too many options in editing. If something didn’t work, we could do a reshoot.”

Vincent concurs, “Craig came to the set extremely well prepared, and he expected the same from everybody. In the first couple days of shooting, we realized getting the shots in one or two takes really worked for this film. It stepped up everybody’s game.”

Brewer rarely spent time in a video village with the exception of some music numbers when two cameras were rolling. He was usually standing with Vincent next to the camera in direct contact with the cast. Some bigger sequences were storyboarded, but Brewer generally preferred running and gunning shots that were designed in the moment.

He cites a visual transition that occurred in the juke joint from the first song that Lazarus plays early in the evening to the last one at three a.m. By the end, everyone had been dancing and sweating for hours. There is a close-up shot of Ricci on the dance floor. He asked for an adjustment from shooting at 24 frames per second to 120, resulting in a few seconds of slow-motion imagery.

FotoKem Film & Video in Burbank, California did both the front-end lab work and the DI. The conformed negative was scanned at 2K resolution. Vincent and Brewer had worked with DI colorist Walter Volpatto on Hustle & Flow, so he was also in tune with their tastes. They used digital color timing to add painterly accents to some shots. For example, in a scene where Rae and Lazarus are in the field of soybeans, the sunset painted a pink edge to the film on the horizon behind Rae. They created a matching pink edge on the horizon behind Lazarus in DI. After the DI was completed, the timed digital file was recorded directly onto intermediate film used to generate release prints in 2.4:1 aspect ratio.

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