There’s a wealth of taboo subjects in our industry, but family life especially manages to stay pretty deep in the shadows, even more so than the rare public discourses on sexism, racism and ageism. It’s a topic most filmmakers don’t venture into for a variety of reasons, but maybe most of all because the success rate of keeping a family together in this industry is scarily low. Sometimes it seems like families and filmmaking are at direct odds with each other.
Coming up on two years of this column, I thought maybe it was time to get other DPs to start talking. And why not about our kids? Can we have careers and fulfilling family lives?
I met many closed doors while approaching some of my DP heroes with this question. Not to be discouraged, I reached out to some of my peers. To my pleasant surprise, a couple of my favorite new-school shooters were game to jump into the deep end with me. These are uncharted waters; there’s no manual for how to do this. But the sincerity and vulnerability I experienced talking with these DPs was inspiring, to say the least. It made me realize we’re a community, and that by shining a light on these issues we stand a small chance to help each other. So, with any luck, this could be the first interview in a series on this topic.
If you’ve seen Arrival, you’ve only just scratched the surface of Bradford Young’s deep and beautiful body of work. One of 2009’s 25 New Faces of Film, his IMDb reads like a short list of some of the most important indies of the past 10 years — films like Pariah, Middle of Nowhere and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Most recently, he’s been shooting Lord/Miller and Ron Howard’s new Star Wars/Han Solo film.
Young is a brilliant shooter — but, more important, he’s a brilliant soul. He’s on an inspired trajectory and very much in the thick of navigating a successful career and raising a family.
Filmmaker: Were you and your wife Steph always planning on having kids?
Young: No. We had been together for almost 17 years, 13 of those years with no kids. That tells you a lot. My wife had an interesting declaration: If kids were going to get in the way of what we had, we probably shouldn’t have kids. Then a month later she was pregnant, and that was kind of our declaration to each other. We could have been all right without them, but now I can’t imagine life without them. Such a joy.
Filmmaker: I think that happens — before you have them, you can’t quite see it.
Young: For both of us, it was that professional thing. It was about making sure there was consistency with our practice. She was going to midwifery school, and I was trying to figure out the cinematography thing. It just didn’t seem feasible.
Filmmaker: Then the universe steps in and says, “Tough. You guys are going to figure this out.”
Young: That’s right.
Filmmaker: When you found out she was pregnant, did you both have to plan or adjust your work expectations around the pregnancy?
Young: I was pretty clear. My whole life I’ve been around great men: uncles, cousins, my father, my grandfathers. But I also come from a family where men haven’t always been present. So, I turned down a lot of jobs. After [my first son] Olukai came, I didn’t go back for a couple of months. With Ayodele, the same thing. It took some adjusting and planning — obviously, fiscally you’ve got to get it all together at home, which is where commercials helped to stack some cheese until the baby came. [As for Steph] she’s been in and out of practice since the boys were born, It’s hard to say on her behalf if she’ll go back. It’s beautiful because you have a partner that’s willing to give up everything to take care of the kids but also it makes me feel extremely guilty, you know what I mean?
And I may be jumping the gun a little bit, but after bringing children into the world — in particular, raising black boys — I really had to be much more picky about the kind of material I try to unpack. The socialization process is real, especially with young children of color. You’ve got to be really careful about the images that you show them. I want to make sure that I don’t have any agency in something that could be problematic, you know?
Filmmaker: I can’t deny that as soon as we had Jackie, immediately our world shifted, our values shifted. All of a sudden, it wasn’t just about the work anymore. How has having kids impacted the jobs that you take?
Young: It’s the only determinate, to be honest with you. First, broadly, you just say, “Well, I’m not taking any job that’s either going to keep me away from my family for a certain amount of time or is inconvenient to travel with the family to.” You also then have to check what the circumstances are like. How many plane tickets do you get? What does the per diem look like? It’s not just about my wife and me loosely flowing and doing whatever — there’s real hand-to-mouth stuff we didn’t have to think about before. Then, there’s the whole content thing. Now, in a way, my legacy is all tied up in this work. Are my kids going to be proud of me 20 years from now when they look at the work I’ve done? Are they going to say mom and dad talked one thing at home, but their work doesn’t reflect that? That’s a big concern for both my wife and me. And the third level, which is maybe the most important: Working on movies is therapy; it’s healing for me. I’m unpacking so much of my own history in the work that I choose because I’ve got to be able to see myself in the film. If I don’t see myself, my children, my partnership with my wife in the script, then I’m not messing with it. I have to be real specific. With Arrival, all I was doing for Louise’s memories was just literally using the camera as I would have used it to shoot my own kids. That material spoke to me so deeply because it was about parents questioning the mortality of their children, or bearing witness to the mortality of their children, and then how that reflects on your own vision of mortality itself. I could clearly draw a bridge between who I am and those characters in the film.
Filmmaker: What are the conversations like with Steph when you guys are deciding what your next project’s going to be? How involved is she in that conversation?
Young: It’s way more deep than it was before. Before it was, “Hey, I got a script, I like it, I think I’m going to shoot it.”
Filmmaker: “See you later!”
Young: Now, it’s, “Well, what’s it about? Is it worth your while? How do we have to manage expectations if you take this job?” We both have to negotiate all of that because it’s so tied into being a present, involved, loving, caring parent. If it’s just redundant, if it’s doing something I’ve already done before, it’s not worth anything. I’ll be unhappy, and I try not to bring any of that home because, you know, children read vibes. They have a lens on that. They know what’s going on. So, it’s a whole family negotiation. And now that Olu is four, we feel like he has a right to hear the scenario. It’s like, “Hey, Olu, this is what’s going on, and would you be interested in going?” If he says no, that’s something to consider.
Filmmaker: When you take a job, you’re actually also signing up Steph to work twice as hard, so it’s got to be mutual.
Young: As much as I preach, “Oh, I understand, I know what’s going on at home, I’m so in tune,” some days I’m not really in tune, man, because I just can’t be. The one thing I try to do is ask the question: How can I be helpful? Can I work an extra four hours so I can help provide something for Steph to make the process of raising the boys a lot easier? Sometimes, it’s not about anything other than keeping your word. Like, when you wrap, don’t be hanging around. Get in the car and come home, so [Steph] can do her thing. Right now, three days a week she goes out and takes care of herself, and I’ve got to make sure I’m in the car on time so I can get [home] by eight and she can head off and do her business. If the baby’s not down when I get there, she’s got to hand it off. It’s romantic on one level and then there’s another level — it’s just real.
Filmmaker: Something that both Laurie and I struggle with on every single job is this: You come back after three months of being away and without even really thinking about it we’ve created a life where I’m basically optional. Laurie can’t design a life that requires me because then she would fail when I’m gone. And when I come home, I’m trying to insert myself into a family that in some ways logistically doesn’t need me. It needs me emotionally, but it doesn’t need me on a day-to-day basis. That re-entry is tough. How do you deal with that?
Young: To be honest with you, I’m glad to hear that you have the same experience I do. I’m really good at coming in and disrupting the ecosystem because I’m only thinking about myself. It’s like that whole thing about managing expectations. I’m sitting somewhere for weeks on a job, and all I’m thinking about is this whole romantic notion of, “I’m going to walk in the house, and my kids are going to run across the room and jump in my arms, and my wife is going to bring me a big fat kiss and we’re going to have the most beautiful make-out session later.” That’s just not real, man. I’ve tried to get better about it, but it’s still really hard. It’s just time and patience. Even when we didn’t have kids, she used to say, “Every time you come back you have to get to know me again.”
Filmmaker: If you get another job like Han Solo, and you’re in another country for a year, do you think you guys would just pick up and Olu would continue school in a different country? Or do you think once he’s in grade school that Steph would want to keep him just in one place?
Young: I won’t do another one like [Han Solo] for a long time. Hopefully, the next time we do this, we’ll still be able to all pick up and go, but it would be after he had an extended period of time in one place. We picked a school back home that would allow that flexibility.
Filmmaker: Has there been a particular movie, or particular opportunity, that you ultimately turned down on behalf of your family or your kids?
Young: You’re going to make me call one out. Yeah, there’s an unnamed movie out right now that I wish I had done, but I couldn’t do it. The baby was coming, and I chose to be around. Then, as soon as that period of being around was over, I was going to go right into prepping [Han Solo]. But, the rest of them, man, the rest of them were just like, whatever. I mean, they were hard when they were looking at me right in the face but, you know, when you get a little distance from them …
Filmmaker: I think when you don’t know what your next job’s going to be, that movie in front of you has way more weight than maybe it should. And, in a way, turning those projects down when you know it’s the right choice for your family is such a weight off your shoulders.
Young: It’s definitely a little easier to say no, but still not that easy.
Filmmaker: It’s inspiring that this generation — you, and a lot of our peers — are aiming for something that just a handful of people in this business have gotten their heads around: pursuing a career — I like your word, “practice” — in filmmaking without completely destroying something that’s so important to us, our family. It’s a worthy struggle.