How Can the Camera Show Love? Cinematographer James Laxton on Shooting If Beale Street Could Talk
Cinematographer James Laxton’s latest project, If Beale Street Could Talk, marks a further step in his collaboration with director Barry Jenkins. Based on the novel by James Baldwin, it follows a troubled romance between Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) in the New York City of the early 1970s.
If Beale Street Could Talk screened at the closing night celebration at the recent Camerimage Festival, where
Laxton had a packed schedule. He participated in a two-part panel,”The Language of Cinema Is Image,” conducted a four-hour Arri Master Class on large-format digital capture, presented a Creative Light Experts roundtable, and took part in the Polish Films Competition jury. He spoke with Filmmaker at the Opera Nova in Bydgoszcz, Poland.
Filmmaker: Moonlight, your previous film with Barry Jenkins, was so dreamlike and elliptical, almost experimental in its structure and at times its visual approach. How would you describe what you were trying to do with If Beale Street Could Talk?
Laxton: I think I know what you mean by that. In Moonlight the tone is a bit wild. It’s a coming-of-age story where someone’s going through quite turbulent times, and I think the camerawork is in reference to that. With Beale Street, the story is about many things, but at its core is this idea of love, and how that’s shared romantically or between family members within the story. We wanted to reflect the novel as well in terms of the pacing and the way in which Baldwin writes. That’s also has been influential for us. Beale Street I think references some different emotional threads than Moonlight, and we wanted the language to be a bit more precise and sort of patient with its choices — the language by which we moved the camera or lit scenes.
Filmmaker: That was a choice that you and Barry made together.
Laxton: Yeah, exactly. It’s funny, because Barry and I go back so far, our conversations are complex. They’re never simple or clear. Our communication is loose, undefined. Yet our nature and our history together — we both read Baldwin, not just Beale Street but his writing in general — clearly informed our approach to the idea of love and how it’s expressed visually. It’s like we decided that almost effortlessly the camera would be a bit more patient and precise.
Filmmaker: Well how do you show love through a camera?
Laxton: Love comes out in a few ways on screen in Beale Street. The color palette is one way. My associations with love begin in my family, as a child. I think about living rooms and bedrooms and kitchens and dining areas where my family sat to eat, a warm space where we sat to talk about life. I grew up within these sort of lamp-lit spaces with warm hues. I can’t speak for Barry, and I can’t speak for the production designer [Mark Friedberg], but in terms of my associations with what family love feels like, it’s warm and lamp-lit. That’s how I approached some of the lamp colors and what the rooms felt like.
Moving past palette I would say camera movement also played a role in terms of defining love within that cinematic language. The shot of Tish and Fonny walking down the street in the rain, the camera’s pushing behind them as they slowly walk from the restaurant and share this intimate moment with each other. That shot’s greatly influenced from romantic American films of the 1940s. I think I’m using some kind of subconscious memories that I have of watching those films. I think they come into the psyche of filmgoers. They put a context to that moment in a way that comes from the history of film. They influenced how the camera moved.
Filmmaker: There’s a universality of images.
Laxton: That we all share. Exactly.
Filmmaker: But you put a personal stamp on it.
Laxton: Well, it’s how I interpret it, of course. It’s not like this is yours or this is someone else’s interpretation, but it’s how I think of the context by which I’d like to see that scene play. I think that’s the role of the cinematographer, honestly — to provide context for a story. It’s like setting the stage for a theater play. I think about camera movement and light in reference to putting the story, putting these characters, inside a visual context by which we sort of associate them through our own past experiences. How my own personal life growing up will find its way onto screen in movies like Beale Street.
Filmmaker: But you also have to make sure that the film is taking place in a New York City that actually exists. And you’re using locations that have not been seen in movies because this experience hasn’t been shown in movies.
Laxton: Yeah, it was really, really important for us to set this movie in Harlem and to shoot there, not have some other place stand in for it. I mean that was critical, obviously. Barry and I and the rest of the crew, you know we don’t always make realistic choices, but we intend to make truthful ones. I think there’s a distinction between the two.
Filmmaker: Fonny has an unusual apartment that’s somewhere in the West Village.
Laxton: That was actually created on a stage in Yonkers. Again, that’s taking it from the novel itself. It’s a basement apartment, a subterranean apartment. That was important for the novel.
How light plays through those basement apartments was something I talked about a lot with production designer Mark Friedberg. Mark is from New York, and he very much knows how the spaces in the movie look. For example, there’s a wall in the back of that apartment, and we would place a certain kind of light on it based on our imagination of how high that apartment building might have been. At what time of day light would have played on that back wall, which otherwise would be in shade. On set we tried to make sure we were making light choices that might clue the audience in and bring them into that sort of truthful storytelling that we needed to pay attention to.
This is my first collaboration with Mark, and Barry’s as well. Mark fell into our friendship and our working relationships quite effortlessly. He’s one of the real unsung heroes of Beale Street. I think his work is some of the strongest I’ve ever seen.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about the other apartment scenes early in the movie, with Tish’s family? There was a strong sense of mood, atmosphere. The camera felt like a comforting presence.
Laxton: The way Berry and I use the camera is to try to place it inside the scenes, to try to bring the audience into those spaces. And I think this is where Mark’s production design and the way we lit, in combination with the costume design and how the actors use the space worked well. The hope is the camera provides the audience with the ability to feel like they’re in those rooms and feel like they’re part of that family.
This story, with its race relations in the US, with the prison system being problematic, in all sorts of other things — if we could view it through the lens of love, have that be a shared experience, it would be a vehicle by which our audiences can empathize with every other aspect of the story. You know I’m a white male. I don’t experience the world the way Fonny and Tish experience the world. But if I can understand how their love feels, I can at the very least try to understand how their experience might affect me personally. I don’t mean to say I’ll ever understand it as much as they do. But at least I can sort of get a glimpse into their space, into that world, and hopefully walk away from the film with a bit more understanding of what it’s like to be black in America.
Filmmaker: You’re using the term love, but it’s more than that. In this film and in Moonlight you and Barry show viewers real people. We may have prejudices about larger themes and issues, but once we see people as individuals, and not symbols, they are harder to dismiss.
Laxton: I think that’s clearly a goal for Barry and me. We go back to this idea of immersiveness and why we choose the camera to not just be an observer but a participant of those moments. This is exactly why we try to place and move the camera in those ways for audiences who may not understand what it’s like to be Tish and Fonny or to be Little Chiron in Moonlight, to try to see them as more rounded characters and more genuine experiences.
Filmmaker: Once you understand someone, it’s harder to hate them.
Laxton: Absolutely. I mean I don’t want to get too political, but this is a problem we have in America. We have a way of delineating what world I’m a part of and what is not a part of my world. And if we can blur those lines, connect all those spaces, I would hope we would be better off as a culture. We have a lot to work on, clearly. And if I’m going to be an artist and a participant and a collaborator in filmmaking, it’s my role to find ways to impact audiences in ways that I think are important.
Filmmaker: On Moonlight you largely went with one camera. Was it the same for Beale Street?
Laxton: For Beale Street I believe for 10 of 35 days we had two cameras. So the majority the film was a one-camera show. However, for some scenes it felt really important to have two. Like those early scenes where we had two families in one apartment. There’s a lot of dialogue and a lot of eyelines and I think there’s eight characters on camera. And it’s not just two or three of those eight talking to one another — everyone’s talking to everybody. The dialogue is being thrown around the room from one side to the other. We had to make sure we got all of those different eyelines so the editors had the right material to make those scenes function properly. To do that with one camera might have been asking too much of those actors.
Also the prison scenes, the conversations between Tish and Fonny. Those were so emotional and intense. I think the choice to have two cameras in those moments was to make sure to be on both characters. We just felt like there was just too much intensity to miss one side or the other. The prison scenes were shot on a stage as well, built by Mark Friedberg up in Yonkers. I believe we had back-to-back days for the prison scenes, a two-day period where we did all four of those scenes. Which is asking a lot of KiKi and Steph, I mean they really had to deliver a great deal of emotion in those days.
One thing that’s unique about those prison scenes, and specifically the shots where they are looking directly into the lens, which they did in two of the four scenes, we used two Interrotron systems. I remember discovering them through how Errol Morris does his documentaries.
So the way we did those, we took the feed from one camera, let’s say it was on KiKi. We put that video signal through the Interrotron on Stephan. So they were able to perform to one another simultaneously while still looking into the lens.
You know when you’re asking an actor or an actress to look into lens to perform, it’s quite challenging, especially for emotional scenes. So this was a way we found to give them something to respond to while also looking into our lens.
Filmmaker: How do you capture the novel’s period, from the late ’60s to early ’70s, accurately?
Laxton: Costumes and production design are huge, they are responsible for almost all of it. But in terms of the choices a cinematographer can make, there are a couple of important ones. I would say paying close attention to color, what color of light there would be, say for street lights in the 1970s. That’s something we researched, making sure we were making appropriate choices.
Another factor is the choice of lenses. We shot this film on some new lenses, the DNA, made by Arri. They’re only a couple of years old. However, they have characteristics that are sort of vintage. They felt perfect for us for a couple reasons. Their vintage sensibility took us back to the ’70s, but they’re also quite sharp and new, which is a more modern feeling. So going back to this idea of contextualizing story through cinematography, the reason why we chose them was largely because while the movie is about the ’70s, the issues that are being discussed and the challenges that Tish and Fonny are going through are still very much part of today’s issues. While the movie takes place in the ’70s, we didn’t want it to look like it was made in the ’70s, we wanted to look at the story from a prism of today as well.
Filmmaker: So did that affect how you thought of set-ups and camera movements?
Laxton: One way to allude to the period is to make choices that I think in our mind we associate with that period. The ’70s were a really wild time in US cinema. I feel like there were two distinct vision. You can point to films like The Godfather, where the camera has a different language than John Cassavetes’s films. So it was sort of going through a bit of a transition. That late ’60s, early ’70s visual vocabulary — I think that’s sort of where the movement and the visual choices here stemmed from.
Filmmaker: At the panel last night people were pointing out your references to In the Mood for Love. Do you feel you incorporated some of that film’s imagery of desire and longing and love?
Laxton: Definitely. Certain films or photos or paintings that meant something to me, I associate them with different emotions, whether it’s love or hate or whatever. Those are clearly ways in which I think about story when I’m reading a script or when I’m talking to a director. I can’t help but reference that, it’s just kind of part and parcel to being a cinematographer. It’s how our personal voice guides us through choices.
Filmmaker: Do you feel a responsibility to protect actors when they’re vulnerable?
Laxton: The relationship between actor and cinematographer is a unique one. We’re not the directors and I don’t by any means want to suggest that actors look to us for direction because they don’t. But there is a certain dynamic that happens between the two positions that I find wonderful. The way I view it is to think it’s like a support system. I try to give them space to express themselves.
You know, give them their exposure and contrast and lighting generally, but also give them space physically. I tend for example to bring as little equipment as I can just to sort of not pin them in. Barry and I talk a lot about being open to a new idea that might come about. When in the middle of a scene or in rehearsal, an actor wants to make a different choice, I don’t want to say, no I don’t think I can do that for you. That way you’re going to help them perform and help the story be told in a more impactful way.
Filmmaker: What about deeply emotional moments where you have to be very close to the performer?
Laxton: When I think about that, I think there’s an energy that we all exude when we walk into a space. It’s important to be self-aware enough to where you understand what you bring into a space. When there’s an emotional, intimate scene let’s say with Tish and Fonny in Beale Street, it’s important for me to be respectful and to let them know that I’m not here to take advantage of them in their vulnerable moment. If there’s something about a physicality that they want hidden or presented in a certain way, I want to make sure that I’m being sensitive to that. And if someone’s in a vulnerable position, a deep emotional state or possibly an intimate one, it’s having the emotional integrity and intellect to be able to recognize that, or recognize how they may want you to help them through this moment.
It’s something I think about and take very seriously. I’m sort of trying to curate a tone on the set, let’s say with my crew. Which can sometimes be intimidating. On Beale Street there are moments where we needed to ask people to make extra space and walk off set. I think there are a few times where I was the only one in the room. And it’s important for that moment for the actors to recognize that I’m here to support them. Clearly a director, specifically Berry here, has a great deal of ability in that regard. You know he definitely provides a kind of trust on the set, and I think that if you’re an actor and you walk onto a Barry Jenkins set, you can feel that.
Filmmaker: One of the key scenes in the film is a long encounter between Fonny and Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), a friend who just got out of prison. It is an emotional roller-coaster with a devastating pay-off. Can you talk about shooting it?
Laxton: You know it’s really quite a simple scene in many ways. It’s just two men at a table talking. But there’s something that Brian brings to that scene, such an emotional integrity in what he performs.
Talking about it, my mind went to the scene in Moonlight at the diner between those two characters. Both are just at a table, two people talking to each other, something quite simple. Yet all four of those performers found the way to connect with each other with such an intensity — it clearly comes on screen.
You know our camera isn’t doing anything a great deal differently in both those places, it’s almost just shot/reverse shot in those scenes. In Beale Street we do kind of pan back and forth at times. I guess we do actually pan back and forth a little I think in Moonlight too. But nothing is complicated, just some panning back and forth that moves a certain way with certain rhythm that hopefully provides a bit of a intensity and a bit of drama.
Filmmaker: I’m going to contradict you a little bit. The scene works first from the insightful writing, the dialogue and the concept of Daniel’s character, and the exceptional acting. He has a certain swaggering persona at the start of the scene, and by the end he has to strip that all away and reveal the fear lurking underneath. But you have to structure the scene to build to that point without tipping your hand too soon.
Laxton: So there’s a couple things I can say in regards to that. There’s a time transition that happens. We begin with afternoon light pointing through from the front of the basement apartment. We then go into this twilight where it gets quite dim. The lights inside the space, the lamps kind of take on a different value. We end at night when they’re at the dinner table sharing a meal.
But it’s that middle portion in twilight, that’s where it gets quite tense between the two characters. And so lighting plays a role in terms of how the day is transitioning into a more dramatic place between them. So that’s supporting the emotional value that I think we’re talking about here. And in terms of the camera placement and tempo, yes we have the camera panning slowly between the two characters as if it’s a sort of a ghost-like perspective witnessing this moment between the two characters.
Also I remember distinctly the choice of where the camera racks focus to the foreground and captures Daniel’s performance quite close to the lens for that moment where he’s kind of becoming quite emotional and talking about that last experience he had in prison. I think it’s those two things, first the light shifting, finding a way into a bit of a conflict between the cool blue light coming from the front of the place and the lamps that are warm in the in the apartment, they kind of meld together on Brian’s face. Then I think in combination with the camera movement and specifically that rack focus to the foreground at the very end, I think it’s sort of pulling on you and digging into your emotional core as an audience member.
Filmmaker: So did you rehearse that with him, did you both realize there was a specific moment to rack focus?
Laxton: Honestly, I think that rack focus was something that was probably discovered on the day, in the moment. We shot Beale Street on the Alexa 65, a large-format camera. You get a much more shallow depth of field than you would with a Super 35 sensor, or 35mm film if you’re shooting film. It’s what helps that rack focus to the foreground on Brian to be as dramatic as it is. The format and how shallow the depth of field is bring the audience close to Brian in such an intimate way. It’s immersive.
Filmmaker: It was a powerful moment. And it’s structured from so many different parts.
Laxton: I’ll give Barry a lot of credit here in that regard. He’s a filmmaker who uses every aspect of the craft in his arsenal. He uses each of these disciplines to great effect, and we all tune in with each other. The music from Nicholas Britell, Mark’s production design, the costume design by Caroline Eselin. You know we all sort of share in that. Oh and I need to mention the editors too, Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders.
We talk about editing all the time. What would stylized editing do to the mise-en-scène? I mean the editing in that scene with Stephan and Brian is quite spectacular. You know it’s almost where they didn’t cut in that scene that is the powerful choice. They really deserve a lot of credit for that.