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Emotional Exploration: Cinematographer Natasha Braier on Shooting Alma Har’el’s Honey Boy

Natasha Braier and Alma Har'el on the set of Honey Boy

Knowing that Alma Har’el worked in a fluid, in-the-moment fashion, and that dancing with the actors in the scene was key to the story, DP Natasha Braier started prep by going through the script and asking the director for each scene, “Describe the scene with a feeling.” During prep and while shooting, Braier always wanted to root the camera in the emotions of each scene. In her previous work on films like The Neon Demon and The Milk of Sorrow, Braier tapped into her ability to capture human experience with stylized camera work and expressive lighting. We discussed how she crafted a way to illuminate and follow the actors in real time and the excitement of making a project rooted in identity, both of the characters on screen and the creators behind it. 

Filmmaker: What was it that drew you to Alma and Honey Boy?

Braier: When Alma contacted me for Honey Boy I didn’t know who she was. I watched her documentary, Bombay Beach, and I was so moved by the story and her approach as a filmmaker. It was completely emotionally driven. Plus, she operated the camera by herself and did everything herself. There was something really strong [about] her connection with the people and how she was portraying them—very visceral. I feel like every decision she made was made completely from the stomach. So, I immediately got excited. And then, of course, she told me about Shia, that he had written the script while in rehab, and so it transpired that the film was some sort of film therapy process. My parents are both shrinks, so therapy and the rehabilitation process and healing have been a very important part of my life, as well. I found it fascinating, the idea of combining those two tools. When Alma told me all that stuff about Shia writing the script but also playing his father, I was super intrigued about that, too. He was going to now, as a Method actor, channel the person who really created all of these wounds in his childhood and in his life. I said, “Wow, that’s going to be a hell of a journey.”

Filmmaker: And I think this is a culmination for someone like Shia, making a film that is so personal and is a kind of therapy, but can you think back to your first film? Is there a through line of any kind from that film to this one?

Braier: My first film was Glue, and I studied in Argentina in school with my husband at the time [Alexis Dos Santos], who was the director. It was based on his childhood in a little village in Patagonia, the South of Argentina. He wrote a proposal and sent it to a festival in the Netherlands, where they were giving money for development for scripts in third world countries [The Hubert Bals fund at the International Film Festival Rotterdam]. He won, so they gave him $15,000 to develop the script. And we took that money and went to Argentina, to his mother’s house, bought a video camera and shot the movie. It was about his childhood and teenage years—a dysfunctional family drama, sexual awakening and hormones and all of those things that go on. Then, there was my personal story. Probably from the beginning, without being so aware of it, I’ve always been very interested in subjects of identity. Probably because of my parents being shrinks, and also my dad writes a lot of books on psychoanalysis, and he’s also obsessed with the theme of identity. When I was 18, I migrated with my family from Argentina to Europe. We lived in Spain, then I moved to England to study film and lived there for 10 years. Then, I moved here [to LA]. So, I think the theme of identity is very strong to me. 

I think that the way Alma works is very different and unconventional. I think it’s part doc, part therapy and part dreamscape. 

Filmmaker: So, what were the conversations and the preparation given some of her “unconventional” ways of making a film? 

Braier: We talked about her previous film, and knowing that Shia was going to need multiple takes and sometimes be very triggered or very emotional, it was sometimes very hard to imagine how the process was gonna be. And we didn’t have a lot of time for prep. We ended up talking about concepts for each scene. We went through the script together, and I just asked her for every scene, “What is really important about the scene?” Or, “What is the essence of the scene?” “If you had to describe the scene with a feeling, what was the feeling?” I think we just nailed some emotional pathways in which we knew, OK, this scene is about judgment. Or, this scene is about trying to reach out and the other person goes further back. This scene is about lying. We just had a really, really clear concept for each scene. And then, we just talked in general about ways of approaching [the shooting]—we didn’t really create a specific storyboard or anything. We were going to follow Shia’s lead most of the time and dance around him. 

Filmmaker: You shot at Pink Motel, where I almost shot a film, but you guys dressed it completely differently. How did you work with that location so as to give Shia and Noah as much freedom as they had?

Braier: It was very fortunate [that we could] change the color palette—get rid of the pink and make it a little more masculine. We had all of these references from the rodeo poster, so we were inspired by that color palette. We wanted somehow, subliminally, to [evoke] that world—the glorious past that [Shia’s] father had, the one time when he was somebody, and was successful, and how that’s his identity. It was hard to find a hotel that had the geography, and when we found that place, except for the pink, everything was perfect. It had that dreamy quality Alma is very interested in. At night, we could use the excuse of the neon signs to light the space with a bit of color and make it even dreamier, so that the scenes with [Noah Jupe and FKA Twigs], while they are part of the reality of the film, could have a bit of fantasy, like magic moments.

I had to be ready for Shia to move around. Sometimes, we had a scene that was supposed to be all in a room with the door closed, so you could shoot that scene anytime. But then Shia would come, and they would rehearse, and he would decide that during the scene he was going to come in and out of the room. That would make sense for his character, and it would create emotional tension, but we would be like, “You can’t do that! It’s supposed to be 7:00 PM, you just got back from work, we’re shooting in midafternoon and you are going to see the sun is glowing outside.” So, I learned on the first few days of the shoot that I had to be very, very clever and be prepared for a lot of options. We had to adapt the schedule and know when we were not going to be able to be self-contained in the room in the middle of the day, and when we couldn’t shoot outside, and we had to find ways to be able to do [a scene] outside if it was needed. And even though I had a small lighting package, I had to be also very clever to distribute [the lights] in the space so that I would be ready for any kind of situation.

I didn’t want to do 360-degree lighting that is very flat, where you can see the faces in any direction, like directors who improvise with actors have to do. I knew Alma wanted emotion in the lighting and didn’t want it to look flat, either. So, I put all my lights on wireless controls. All the practical lighting in the room was made with LEDs, and everything was wireless. So, I was by my monitor, I had an operator who I was directing via the headset system, and I had on my monitor a set of dimmer boards. I would remotely just dim the lights up or down depending on where the actors were positioning themselves. We would have an idea of what might happen—try to get in Shia’s head, you know?—and then prepare for a few options. He would come into the room; sometimes there would be a rehearsal, and sometimes he would come in and be like, “OK, let’s start.” Whatever was the situation, whether it was a rehearsal or the first take, I would just look at what was happening, guide my camera operator and at the same time DJ the lights. If he ended up standing against a wall, I would use a specific practical as the key light and dim down the other ones to fill. It was really challenging because every second you had to be making decisions. 

Filmmaker: I loved that you didn’t use different lenses for the contemporary scenes with Lucas Hedges. At first I thought, maybe the film is going to have the present shot differently than the past. I’d love to hear a little bit about that choice. 

Braier: Originally, we talked about using different lenses. Originally, the movie was chronological, and you had the childhood, then you were jumping to the Transformers scene that now opens the movie. And from then on, you saw Lucas. We talked about different treatments, we tested different lenses, and we decided to use spherical lenses for the childhood and anamorphic lenses for the adult Shia. That made a lot of sense for the childhood [scenes] on an aesthetic level—how would we get these actors to interact with each other in an [anamorphic ] frame—but also in terms of practicalities because we had a lot of night scenes in the hotel and not a lot of money for lights, so we had to open up [the aperture] more. We thought that the handheld was going to get crazy with Shia in the hotel, and we needed close focus and an [approach] that was more versatile and practical than what anamorphic demands. So, we made that decision. Then, we started shooting with Lucas with the anamorphic lens, and of course, Alma fell in love with them. They were the same lenses that I used on Gloria Bell and Neon Demon, and they are so beautiful. 

When it came to the moments where we started shooting with Shia and Noah, and we had to switch lenses, we put them on, and the magic wasn’t there. We were like, “Oh, we don’t want to use different lenses! We love the anamorphic.” So, I talked to the producer and said, “I’m going to need a little bit of additional lighting for the exteriors and the motel because, you know, I need four times more light. But I think I can make it work for all the rest.” They understood and said, “OK, let’s do it.” As soon as we started to shoot the childhood, you know how it is: You don’t know your movie no matter how much you think about it for 10 years before you shoot it. It’s only when you start shooting that the soul of the movie emerges, and it’s like its own thing, right? So, when we started to shoot with Shia and Noah, then we really started to see the movie. [Those scenes are] really the core of the movie, I think. Lucas [deals with] the consequences of all that stuff. And when we started to [shoot the childhood scenes], we immediately suspected, Alma and I, that in the edits she was going to break it all up and it was not going to be chronological anymore. So then, it became a very good choice to have kept the same lenses.

That was when we realized the beauty of the story. It’s like therapy, when they tell you about your adult self and then this little child you have to take care of. In a way, the movie is edited now for me [so that] the little child and the adult are living at the same time. The adult is trying to live his life in a better way, trying to come to terms with his childhood. And this kid is there, just as alive as the adult, and the kid is always going to be there. We are all living these parallel realities at the same time—all the layers of who we are and what happened to us in life. I thought it was really great that everything has the same texture, and that you don’t really have a clear transition from the past to present that tells the audience, “Hey, now we’re in the texture no. 2 just to make it easy for you.” So, I tried to do that with the lighting, too—I tried to use the different lights [according to] what was better for the scene, not the separation of child and adult.

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