“This Film Is Really a Poem in a Lot of Ways”: DP Laura Valladao on Fremont
In Fremont, writer-director Babak Jalali’s latest film, Afghan refugee and former U.S. Army translator Donya (Anaita Wali Zada) finds herself working at a fortune cookie factory in the Bay Area. She’s been having trouble sleeping, and her restlessness prompts her to send a message to the world through a uniquely sweet vessel.
DP Laura Valladao tells Filmmaker about shooting the sumptuous black and white film.
See all responses to our annual Sundance cinematographer interviews here.
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
Valladao: Initially I was recommended for the project because I grew up in the Bay Area, have an intimate connection to the place, and occasionally work as a local there. In my first meeting with director Babak Jalali, it was clear that our visions for the film were aligned and each of our individual processes and sensibilities would compliment each other well.
Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?
Valladao: The tone of the film is so specific and unique, I felt it immediately reading the script and in conversations with Babak. It’s banal and heartbreaking but also beautiful and often very very funny. It was important that the cinematography lent itself to this, sometimes utilizing long static shots, giving the audience space to laugh or digest. Other times, utilizing lens flares and handheld work to create feelings of breath or even levity. I wanted to be concise with each frame. Some entire scenes are played out in one and I loved the challenge of getting it right. To me this film is really a poem in a lot of ways.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, or photography, or something else?
Valladao: During prep and while I’m pitching on a film I always do a deep dive for references. Babak and I sent images and films back and forth from our first meeting up into our first day of shooting. I love this dialogue of images. Some of our favorites were photographers like Antanas Sutkus, Shelby Lee Adams, Graciela Turbide; and films like Stranger Than Paradise, Damnation, and Malcolm and Marie. Costume Designer Caroline Sebastian brought ideas and references to the table as well which influenced the cinematography in a major way. I remember at one point, Caroline had an epiphany about Donya’s wardrobe — “she’s a Rohmer girl!” — and something clicked for me, getting a little closer to the tone and visual language we were approaching.
Inspired by our references and eager to explore how they might apply to the world of the film, during prep, I shot a series of black and white photos in and around the city of Fremont, which Producer Sudnya Shroff put up in the production office for the team to draw inspiration from.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Valladao: It’s almost always time. You never quite have enough time, no matter how many prep or shoot days you have, no matter the budget. I was able to do a good number of light studies during prep for this shoot, which really helped me to understand the nuances of how available light behaved at each location and enabled us to work quickly and efficiently.
When it’s possible, I find light studies to be invaluable, especially at the indie scope. I often use a sun tracker app as well, but nothing compares to knowing just how a shadow will move and change, when the sun will reflect off of a nearby building, or even that there is a tendency for cloud cover to roll in in the afternoon in a specific microclimate.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Valladao: We shot on the ALEXA Mini for reliability and ease of use in many shooting situations. We knew we wanted lenses with just a touch of softness and bloom, while having enough sharpness and contrast to resolve nicely in the black and white image. The Cooke Speed Panchros did exactly this. They were versatile enough to perform well in situations with direct sun and large windows as well as create some poetic lens flares when the moment called for them. These lenses can vary from lens set to lens set and I really fell in love with our set from Videofax in San Francisco. The TLS rehouse gave us the magic of vintage glass with the speed and reliability of modern housing, which was essential as we were often switching between sticks and handheld within a setup.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Valladao: In general, I am a big fan of a “light the space” approach to prioritize flexibility in performances, but also because to me it often looks the most natural. I like to use shapes and textures that exist in the space to cut light whenever possible, it just feels authentic to me. Because of the black and white look for Fremont, it was important to me that our approach to lighting struck a cord between naturalistic and classically striking without becoming too stylized or film noir. Leaning on the mise-en-scène to do the heavy lifting in terms of creating depth and contrast allowed Gaffer Matt Stouppe and I to avoid aggressive backlights (for the most part). We lit to our in-camera LUTS as well as our meters. After camera tests, we agreed to key at exposure for daytime interiors, one stop under for night interiors with lights on, and 2 stops under for night interiors with lights off. It was important that the times of day were consistent throughout the film because the audience would not have the visual cue of color. We explored lighting with different color temperatures and hues to make sure we had an understanding of all the tools available to us to augment our black and white image. In the end we decided to keep our colors as naturalistic as possible in order to allow the actors to feel most grounded in the space.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Valladao: The scenes in and around the mechanic shop were actually quite tricky from a cinematography perspective and ended up being some of my favorites. Because of the direction that the location is positioned, the way the light changes throughout the day is very apparent and rarely ideal for the blocking and angles we’d need for our scenes, especially because we revisit the location several times throughout the film. We’d have bright, direct sun outside, falling on the white cement building, and a dark garage interior, with actors moving back and forth between the two continuously. I spent a good amount of time in prep parked across the street from the location doing light studies. Based on the information that I gathered, for the first scene at the mechanic shop, Key Grip Ryan Moore and I made a plan to extend the amount of usable light using silks, bounce, and mirrors. For the final scene of the film, we opted to shoot later in the day when the location was backlit — this scene is handheld and we follow Donya from the front of the building, through the garage, emerging in the backyard. For this shot, AC Will Dauel performed a sneaky little iris pull, Gaffer Matt Stouppe brought up the ambience in the garage as much as possible as well as building more practicals into the space. I love the way this shot turned out, the direction of the sun and the movement of the trees just feels so fitting to me.
While the shooting LUTS we built did not have the latitude to hold the highlights and shadows in these tricky lighting situations, I used my meter and the waveform, so I knew we’d have all the information we needed going into post.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Valladao: I am always a fan of getting the image as close as possible to the look you want in camera because this is the footage that the editor and director will be working with in post. We made a handful of in camera shooting LUTS based on my favorite still photography film stocks which we used on set. Colorist Mikey Rossiter understood what we were going for and really took it to the next level in the grade.
Film Title: Fremont
Camera: Alexa Mini
Lenses: Cooke Speed Panchros
Lighting: The sun.