“The Flash Frames are Like Magic — You Can Almost Smell Them in the Film”: DP Andrew Dunn on Shooting Lee Daniels’s The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Musician Billie Holiday’s troubled life has been the inspiration for many films, including the biopic Lady Sings the Blues, starring Diana Ross. In The United States vs. Billie Holiday, director Lee Daniels takes a different tact, tying the singer’s troubles to a Federal vendetta against her song “Strange Fruit.”
Anchored by Andra Day’s remarkable performance as Holiday, the movie offers a vivid account of Black culture from WWII to the singer’s death in 1959. Holiday’s brutal childhood, the pervasive discrimination she experienced, and a milieu that romanticized drugs all contributed to an addiction that landed her in prison.
This is cinematographer Andrew Dunn’s fourth collaboration with Daniels, after their work on Precious, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and episodes of the Empire series. Dunn spoke with Filmmaker via Skype from his home in western England.
“My father was a big fan of Billie Holiday,” he said. “I grew up listening to her on Sunday mornings. Growing up in North London I didn’t know the details of her life, just the music. When Lee mentioned a few years ago that we might do this, I thought of my father, who had passed.”
Dunn described his collaboration with Daniels as a symbiosis. “Lee’s very visual, he has these ideas that fire our imaginations, and he allows us to run with them.”
Holiday was shot on film in Montreal, which according to Dunn had some of the feel of New York City. Since the script detailed how Holiday lived her life, many of the scenes were at night. Dunn and his team could underlight exteriors to disguise the Montreal locations.
“I’ve just been shooting a film in London that’s set in New York,” he said. “One thing I’ve learned is to tell the story with confidence. The audience wants to be told stories, they’re like kids going to sleep at night. Give them a few hints and cues that it’s New York, and they’ll believe it because they want to believe it.”
Dunn used Panaflexes with anamorphic lenses, up to three cameras at a time for some musical sequences. He started out with 200 ASA tungsten stock, but found it too hard, with too much contrast. Switching to Kodak 5219, a 500 ASA tungsten stock captured the look of Holiday’s world at night.
“We had those lenses tweaked and finessed to the way we wanted them to look,” he said. “There is a human aspect with film I always try to capture. You hope to get it with digital but I think film is more natural. The goal for me is to immerse the audience in Billie’s space. You dive in and everything out of that will feel natural.”
The cinematographer also used a clockwork Bolex 16mm for some sequences. “If you start playing with the trigger, it will jump cut,” he said. “The flash frames are like magic — you can almost smell them in the film.”
The production relied on visual effects to replicate some of the story’s larger venues, like Carnegie Hall, and to embellish a scene where Holiday walks through a neon-lit Times Square. But for the most part Dunn tried to find practical solutions to capturing the period.
Two extended shots proved difficult. In one, Holiday’s Jimmy Fletcher (played by Trevante Rhodes) shoots up for the first time, then finds himself accompanying Holiday as a child walking through the bordello where her mother worked.
“The kids in that scene had never acted before,” Dunn said. “Lee Daniels finds people, like he found Gabourey Sidibe for Precious, and knows how to encourage them.” After lighting the location, Daniels and Dunn choreographed the scene with the performers and Steadicam operator Yoann Malnati. “It becomes easy if you put everything in the right place,” Dunn said. “The more you do this, the older you get, it doesn’t necessarily become ‘easy,’ but you see the things you need to do further away. It’s like driving a car — when you’re a kid, you don’t see something until it’s upon you and it’s too late.”
The second long take follows Holiday from her tour bus in the Deep South to the stage of Carnegie Hall. During the sequence she witnesses a lynching, sees traumatized children, wanders through a sharecropper’s shack where in different rooms she replays her drug use, and steps into a spotlight to sing “Strange Fruit.”
“The first problem was to find a shack adjacent to where we staged the lynching, one where we could use both the exterior and interior,” Dunn explained. “We had Yoann on the Steadicam again, and Andra sort of pushes him inside the shack.” Dunn remembered a limited space to construct the maze Holiday encounters. His team built lighting rigs on four ceilings, with harsh lights alternating with softer practicals to emulate daylight for the kitchen and den. Set designers built the Carnegie Hall stage entrance in the shack. A 2k light worked as the spotlight Holiday encounters as she strides out to her audience.
Daniels and Dunn studied several films as references, including Sidney Lumet’s Lady Sings the Blues. A technique in La Vie en Rose helped show them how they could shift time periods within a single shot. And for a scene in the Club Ebony, where Holiday returns to live performing after losing her cabaret license, they watched Faces.
“We studied Cassavetes a lot,” Dunn said. “For the Club Ebony shots, we kept looking at the footage from Faces, even on the set. Lee had a playback of some of the scenes from the film because the camera operators didn’t have the privilege of all the prep time Lee and I had. I could show them images because sometimes I can’t describe the scenes I want.”
At the heart of the movie are Holiday’s songs, “Strange Fruit” but also “All of Me” and her other standards. Day prerecorded the musical tracks before the shoot, although she sang one song so well on the set they decided to go with it. Dunn said that he and Daniels did not storyboard or shot-list the songs — “We don’t shoot by numbers.” Instead, he credited a team that included first AC Dany Racine, gaffer Eames Gagnon, key grip David Dinel, and operators like Malnati and Sylvaine Dufaux for building an environment that enable Day to perform at her best.
“The ego of the camera can so often be at fault,” Dunn said. “You’re imposing something on the performers. What you want to do is respect the privilege of being there at that time.”
And yet the camera often seems to be taking part in the song with Day. Crane shots circle around her, echoing the lyrics she is singing. Close ups of her hands, her shoulders, her hair feel like caresses.
“Andra is so extraordinary that to even talk about her now, fourteen months later, I feel tingles down my neck,” Dunn said. “She was oblivious to us and yet the lens allows you to get within the character. As a singer she has an affinity with the audience, and she found a way to use that same affinity through this technology. She somehow knew how to perform to this creature.”
Daniels employs dissolves and elaborate montages throughout the movie, sometimes layering four or five images on top of each other. Dunn referred to them as musical beats rather than predesigned sequences.
“There’s a shot of Billie in jail, mopping the floor,” he said. “I think that was the very last day of shooting. We used that image as a base for the montage. We planned the shots we took, found some others. By giving [editor] Jay Rabinowitz these notes, these beats, he could put them together in a sort of musical form, weave a tapestry in an imaginative way.”
Dunn also credited Daniels’ creativity. “When we were shooting Billie on stage, I might find a shot of her hands,” he explained. “But Lee would then tell Andra, ‘Do something with your hands’ while we were shooting. So there’s all this technology there, but it’s still organic. You’re allowed the freedom within that structure to find what you need.”