“I Was Drawn to Harlem as a Character and How Gentrification Was Also an Antagonist”: DP Eric Yue on A Thousand and One
A.V. Rockwell’s feature debut A Thousand and One begins with Inez (Teyana Taylor) migrating between shelters during an intensely hot summer in ’90s-era New York City. Her 6-year-old son Terry is in foster care, and she makes the bold decision to kidnap him and discreetly live together again in Harlem. Years pass, and Terry (Josiah Cross) has grown into a shy but precocious teenager. However, the secret that the Inez has kept for a decade threatens to be revealed, meaning that the life she has built with her son could crumble at any moment.
Cinematographer Eric Yue talks about how he approached the film’s shoot, including his and Rockwell’s shared Queens heritage, capturing distinct NYC decades and the films that inspired A Thousand and One‘s visual style.
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?
Yue: I received a text from Kevin Rowe who manages A.V. and my close friend David Raboy. David spoke highly of me after working together on his debut feature The Giant and many other films, and she felt the work that we did together was bold and wanted her film to embody a similar boldness. Later I was sent the script and deck and saw the potential in the project which was so rich in ideas and referenced things that I was already interested in. A.V. and I are both from Queens, so there was a shared perspective in the way we envisioned and remembered ‘the city’ growing up.
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?
Yue: I was drawn to Harlem as a character and how gentrification was also an antagonist. I wanted to articulate that feeling while also creating a look that felt naturalistic and real. The distinction between time periods was also important to the story of Inez. We created a language that was expressionistic through the lens selection, light quality, filtration, and camera movement. It moves from a handheld camera, vibrant reds and hard light in the first act – to a static camera, melancholic blues and indirect light in the final act to reflect the interior struggles of Inez and Terry. As they grow more and more distant from one another the visual grammar reflects their reality and becomes colder and darker.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Yue: Once In Harlem by Katsu Naito is a book that A.V. referred to often. Naito is a Japanese street photographer that moved to Harlem and documented the neighborhood and various people he encountered throughout the ’80s and ’90s. That book became a guiding light for us because it captured the heart of a neighborhood through the eyes of someone that was slowly getting to know it. A.V. had a lot of references of street photography and films that were made during the ’90s in New York. A lot of these images were production design elements to look out for – a certain kind of storefront or a street that spoke to the conditions of living and socio-economic shifts between the Guiliani and Bloomberg era.
One film that I had in mind was Edward Yang’s film Taipei Story. I love how the photography captures Taiwan’s modernization and the urban alienation that comes with it. The buildings and logos dwarf the characters as they stare out at a city of glass and mirrors. In A Thousand and One there is a shot where Older Terry is on a payphone in front of a half-demolished building which is partly inspired by Yang’s film.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Yue: Shooting in New York City during the summer is not easy but it gave the film a sense of urgency and realism that matched the spirit of the story. The hardest was shooting at Inez’ apartment, which was a 2-bedroom apartment in Harlem for ten days. The heat and the unpredictability of weather in a small space can be claustrophobic. It was also a challenge to make the ground floor apartment look as if it were on the 10th floor. We ended up bouncing big lights from outside the windows trying to maintain the look of day and used green screens for the shots where we would see outside.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Yue: We used two Arri Alexa Minis generously provided by Panavision. I had originally proposed shooting the ’90s section on 35mm and digital for the 2000s section, but for budgetary reasons we could not make that happen.
We shot the film with two sets of lenses; Panavision Super Speeds and Panavision Primos. We shot the ’90s section with Super Speeds wide open with a filter that adds a bit of glow to make a warmer and grainier image. The 2000s section was photographed with Primos without filtration at T2.8 or higher which produces a cooler, sharper and crisper image. I wanted to use lensing to subtly find a temporal and emotional arc in the characters and their distance.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Yue: One interesting challenge that A.V. presented to me was that she did not want to use practical lights (meaning lamps or artificial lighting sources) which means that everything had to feel as if it were coming from the window. This lent itself to images with lots of contrast and bright sources that engulf the characters. We bounced 9k HMIs into Ultrabounces and cut it with various layers of diffusion to maintain the continuity of daytime. In some scenes in the 2000s we used mirror boards covered in clear tape, emulating the way the sunlight hits skyscrapers back onto the streets in a warped refracted shape. I wanted to suggest the encroaching presence of glass to acknowledge its material implication in gentrification.
A lot of the film utilizes natural light and we wanted to feel the summer heat in the ’90s, so we shot in direct high noon sun, which I am normally hesitant to do. Towards the second half of the film in the 2000s, we shot most of it in indirect light, in the shade of a building or in the early evening to give that section its own identity and style. The neutral colors became richer and the contrast of the image is much more manageable.
Film Title: A Thousand and One
Camera: Arri Alexa Mini
Lenses: Panavision Super Speeds & Primos
Lighting: M90s, M40s, M18s, Astera Titans, Litemat Spectrums,
Processing: Mikey Rossiter @ Rare Medium (Show LUT)
Color Grading: Maxine Gervais @ Picture Shop (Finishing)