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Shutter Angles

Conversations with DPs, directors and below-the-line crew by Matt Mulcahey

“I’ve Never Had a Director Give Me a GIF as a Reference Before”: DP Cristina Dunlap on American Fiction

Jeffrey Wright and Sterling K. Brown in American Fiction (courtesy of Orion Pictures)

Music videos have been good to Cristina Dunlap.

As a photography-obsessed high schooler, a chance meeting landed the L.A. native a gig shooting stills on a music video. It happened to be for Death Cab for Cutie, leading to a run of jobs with influential directors like Hiro Murai and Ace Norton.

After working her way up to the role of cinematographer, a Coldplay video collaboration with Dakota Johnson led to Dunlap shooting a pair of features starring the actress, Am I OK? and Cha Cha Real Smooth, both of which premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

A music video connection also led Dunlap to her latest project, American Fiction. The assistant of the film’s writer-director Cord Jefferson had previously worked with Dunlap on video sets and brought her to Jefferson’s attention as a candidate to lens his directorial debut.

The film stars Jeffrey Wright as an author struggling to sell his latest novel because publishers don’t view it as “black enough.” Wright purges his frustration by spite-penning a new book pandering to the trauma porn stereotypes he loathes, only to have that pseudonymous novel become a best seller.

Filmmaker: There’s a line in your bio that says, “Tenth generation Californian and first generation filmmaker.” Is there a story behind that?

Dunlap: I was in film school at USC and this researcher contacted me and said, “I’m working on a book called West of Eden and we’d love to interview you.” I was like, “I’m a college student. I haven’t done anything with my life yet. I don’t know why you’d want to interview me.” And they said, “Your family’s is the furthest generation we’ve been able to find.” I never knew that, because my dad’s parents died when he was an infant. We knew our family had long roots in California, but we didn’t know how far back they went. It turned out I was actually living four blocks away from a graveyard that my great, great, great, great grandfather was buried in, and he had died in a gun battle on Main and Fourth Street in 1904. She sent me the news article and it was just crazy. He got into a gunfight and died on a pool table in the middle of a wedding. It was straight out of a movie.

Filmmaker: Your path to becoming a first-generation filmmaker started pretty early. You were one of those kids making movies on the family video camera growing up. I read that you still have your first still camera. When did you get that?

Dunlap: My mom had a camera from when she was younger, and I found it in the garage one day and cleaned it up. I was probably in middle school, maybe around 14 years old. The light meter didn’t work on it, but I think that helped me later on because I had to learn to expose without it. I would shoot tests and bracket to see, you know, if I shoot an F5.6 compared to an F11, what’s it going to look like? I was also lucky that there was still a dark room in my high school where I could go play around with developing things. 

Filmmaker: So, you graduate high school and that summer you get a job working as a set photographer on music videos?

Dunlap: I was actually still in high school. (laughs) I was hanging out in Venice Beach and met someone at a friend’s house, like my friend’s older cousin’s friend, who told us he was a director. I said, “Oh, I’m a photographer.” He was looking for someone to come take free photos, and I was excited about the opportunity, so I didn’t tell anyone how old I was. I showed up on set and shot it all on slide film, because that’s what we shot with in high school, so people could critique our work in class. I showed up to set and the band was Death Cab for Cutie.

Filmmaker: Were they already a known band at that point?

Dunlap: Yeah, they were just starting to hit big. I had definitely heard of them, and I was very nervous.

Filmmaker: I guess the photos came out okay since you were invited to do more. 

Dunlap: Well, I gave them the slides and they passed them to the label and the label was like, “What are these? Why did you shoot on this?” And I had to make up a story about why it was cool to shoot positives instead of negatives because you get richer colors. They were like, “Okay, but next time shoot it on negatives.” (laughs) That director had me back and I started working with this crew of filmmakers. I don’t think anybody knew how old I was until one day they asked me to stop and get cigarettes for the director on the way to set and I had to tell them I couldn’t. I worked with that group of filmmakers for years, people like Hiro Murai and Ace Norton—a lot of different people in this collective that I met just sort of working for different producers.

After high school I went to Santa Monica Community College for two years, because I knew I wanted to transfer to film school and knew I wasn’t going to be able to afford film school unless I did all my general electives somewhere else. And, honestly, I probably wouldn’t have gotten in [right out of high school] because I was too busy running around making films with my friends and not studying for math tests. So, I went to community college for two years, two days a week, and worked all the other days that I had off with whoever would let me on their set. I did painting and art department, did crafty, helped run cables with the electrics—whatever anyone would let me do. But it was that first day on that Death Cab for Cutie shoot that I learned what a DP was and realized that was what I wanted to do. I was like, “Oh, they get a bigger camera and they get to move it around and there’s all these lights.” I was hooked the second I saw that job.

Filmmaker: And during that time, you’re writing down lighting overhead diagrams and just trying to learn whatever you can.

Dunlap: Yeah, exactly. I didn’t usually want to go straight to the DP because I was nervous, but I would talk to their crew. I worked as a production manager for a long time, so the crew would be putting in their lighting orders with me and I would ask why they used certain lights. I met a lot of really incredible gaffers and key grips. I would look at how they were using things on set and kept a little lighting journal so that I could look back at it when I needed to figure out how to light something if anyone ever gave me the opportunity.

Filmmaker: For American Fiction, one of the references Cord gave you was this GIF of David Robinson, the retired basketball player, at a game and an old white lady stands up in front of him and completely blocks him out of the shot. I had never seen it before, but it’s pretty funny.

Dunlap: Cord told me that he saw that GIF on Twitter a long time ago, and he just kept thinking about it when he was thinking about the movie and how it’s a metaphor for the entire film. I don’t know that he intended for us to use it visually, but when we were blocking the scene where Issa Rae [reads an excerpt from her character’s novel at the Massachusetts Festival of Books] and we’re seeing Jeffrey’s reaction in the audience, it was absolutely the perfect moment to use that shot. It’s Jeffrey’s character watching everything he’s up against and everything he finds irksome about the book world unfold before his eyes, then a white woman stands up and completely obscures him and take over the frame with wild applause. I’ve never had a director give me a GIF as a reference before, but that shot ended up being one of the most talked about in the movie.

Filmmaker: Tell me about choosing the Tribe7 Blackwings for the film.

Dunlap: We were shooting on the Alexa Mini LF, so I wanted to use full frame lenses. I had used those on a few commercials before, and I really liked the look of them and the way they rendered skin tones. The fall off on those lenses is really beautiful and filmic. So, Cord and I went to the camera house together, and we did a little lens test, just me and him and our assistant cameraperson. We looked at a lot of different options, and he really liked the Blackwings as well. I don’t believe we had 100 percent decided that we were going to shoot in the 2.35 aspect ratio yet, but I knew that even if we did, I didn’t want to shoot on anamorphic. There’s a right place and time for them, but in a story like this, anamorphic would have been distracting and maybe pulled you out of the frame because there’s so much bending and the flares are very in your face. I wanted something more subtle, where people could really fall into the story and get lost in the movie.

Filmmaker: Those lenses come in different tunings. Which did you go with?

Dunlap: We went with the T tuning, which is sort of in the middle. Honestly, it was the only tuning option available to us at the rental house. If they had only had one of the crazier tunings, I might’ve gone with different lenses, but the T-tuned set worked perfectly for us. 

Filmmaker: Part of the naming gimmick of those Tribe7 lenses is that all the focal lengths end in 7. Were there a few of them that became the hero lenses for this movie?

Dunlap: I loved the 47mm and we used it quite a bit. It compressed [the background] enough to have a nice fall off, but it was also wide enough to hold more than one person in our 2.35 aspect ratio. 

Filmmaker: They’re pretty fast lenses. What stop did you tend to shoot at? 

Dunlap: I like to be pretty wide open. We lived in the T2 to T2.8 realm.

Filmmaker: Almost the entire movie takes place either in Boston or on the coast at the family’s beach house. Did you shoot most of the movie on location or did you do any builds?

Dunlap: Everything was on location. Scituate is the town where we ended up shooting the beach house. Our producer, Ben LeClair, actually grew up there. The beach house that we shot in was one that our location manager found on Airbnb or something that was for rent. When we were scouting it, a woman walked by who recognized Ben and it was actually one of his middle school or high school art teachers. Her and her husband owned the house and recognized him. They were able to talk to the neighbors and get us the house right across the street to be Coraline’s house [Wright’s love interest, played by Erika Alexander], so we could actually shoot the proximity of the two houses practically.

Filmmaker: The beach house interiors seem like they would been challenging, especially in that parlor room with the piano. You have these dark wood walls and a room full of windows to balance.

Dunlap: When we were scouting, everyone fell in love with that house and I was the only one who did not, because the ceilings were quite low and the walls were very dark wood. I knew that we wanted to be able to see the ocean through the windows, but metering inside was at a .8 and outside was like an F64. I just didn’t know how we were going to make it work because we were shooting very quickly, but my G&E team was incredible. They were dragging every HMI we had in the truck down the beach and moving them from window to window so we could look in certain directions and then turn around and look in another. That location ended up being the right choice for the film because there was a lot of tragedy that had occurred in this beach house and the dark wood allowed you to still feel the warmth of the family, but then there’s this cool daylight spilling in as well.

Filmmaker: With this being a 26-day shoot, were there situations where you were just grabbing some corner of another location for a quick scene? I was thinking about the bit that takes place on the talk show with all the purple light.

Dunlap: That was actually our last day of shooting in Boston. We’d been trying to find a place to shoot The Kenya Dunston Show. We wanted to shoot it with a full audience and a theater, and it just wasn’t going to fit in the schedule. So, we decided to just shoot her [without the audience]. We found, like, a TV broadcast studio out in Boston for that. A good example of what you’re talking about, though, is all the phone conversations that Jeffrey has with the other [book award] judges. [All the different people on the call] were shot in this one location where we would just find a corner and turn it into someone’s home office. The production designer was amazing at finding us little nooks and crannies and making them work.

Filmmaker: I don’t usually like to ask people to repeat stories I’ve already read about, but I’m going to make an exception because I want to hear from you about the scene where an actor unexpectedly arrived on set with an eye patch, and you had to ditch your entire lighting plan. To set it up for people, it’s when Wright’s character Monk first begins work on his new book and two of the characters appear in front of him, reciting the dialogue.

Dunlap: Yeah, one of the actors had scratched his cornea. He was in a lot of pain, but he still wanted to push through. Our plan had been to start that scene sort of dim and smoky. Then, when Monk tells this character to go into a sob story about his broken interiority, we wanted all the lights to come down and for a spotlight to come up on that character and to get really dramatic with it. But we found out that putting a light on someone with a scratched cornea is just about the worst thing you can do to them. So, we threw that plan out the window and decided to just sort of change it up with the camera movement and make it feel a little more floaty [instead of using the lighting cue to transition]. I think it ended up working for the better. Had we gone into the spotlight, it may have been a little too stylistic and taken people out of the film. Sometimes things work out for the best, even if you think it’s going to be a problem in the moment.

Filmmaker: There seems to be a difference in the warmth of the scenes with Monk and his family—basically scenes where he can be his more authentic self—compared to the scenes in the literary world, which are cooler or more neutral light.

Dunlap: Exactly. I talked a lot about color palettes with Cord and Jonathan Guggenheim, our production designer. We wanted the family to feel like this rich tapestry of color and a life well lived. Even though there’s a lot of drama and tragedy in the family and challenges like you have in any family, there’s still a lot of love there. Then in these other spaces where people want to change who Monk is and want something from him and he’s having to sort of abandon himself, I wanted to introduce a cooler color palette.

Filmmaker: You mentioned before opting to shoot 2.35. You use that ratio effectively to isolate Monk in the frame. I’m thinking of that shot at the wedding where the camera pulls back along the porch. passing through all these people dancing, and lands on an over-the-shoulder of Monk by himself, watching away from the crowd.

Dunlap: Originally, we had imagined that scene bathed in this blue light and were going to shoot at blue hour. As it happens on a film, you run out of time, and it got a little too dark too fast for the take that we ended up using, but we still got that nice blue light from the bug zappers on the porch. Then we pull back through the family and everyone’s having fun, even Monk’s mom, and everyone is sort of coming together, and then there’s Jeffrey removing himself from the situation, isolated away from everybody. There’s also a physical representation of his loneliness across the street with Coraline’s house, which is empty and the lights are off. I think it’s a big moment of reckoning for Monk in the film. 

Because we were shooting so fast and Cord and I wanted there to be a jazziness to the camera movement, we’re often flowing through people and whip panning and revealing someone else or pushing past someone. We wanted the camera to constantly be moving, but there’s a steadiness to it. We never wanted it to feel chaotic or loose, because Monk is so composed and tightly wound. I wanted to always feel like there was a sense of control, except for in two moments, both times with his mother. She’s one of the only things that can make him actually lose composure and show his internal world to the outside. 

Filmmaker: When I saw the film my expectations were really based entirely on the trailer, which mainly highlights the satirical elements. It’s a funny movie, but it’s also strong just as a dramatic character piece centered around Monk’s family.

Dunlap: Yeah, I think that’s what is so brilliant about Cord’s screenplay and also [Percival Everett’s novel that served as the source material]. There is this satire of the kinds of stories that people will fund about black lives, but then Cord is able to weave in the antithesis of that with this beautiful family story that’s just about normal people living their lives and all of the difficulties that come with being in a family.

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