Camerimage: Cinematographer on "Immersive" Quality of Closing Night Film 'If Beale Street Could Talk'

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK  James Baldwin Birthday Teaser Screen Shot-H 2018
Annapurna Pictures/YouTube

Director Barry Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton wanted to give If Beale Street Could Talk an immersive quality — something that was on display Saturday night, when it’s a closing-night film at Camerimage.

During the cinematography film festival in Bydgoszcz, Poland, Laxton told The Hollywood Reporter that the film’s language started with the words from the James Baldwin novel — a '70s Harlem-set love story that follows Tish, whose fiancee, Fonny, is arrested for a crime he did not commit. "It's a delicate balance, where he combines a lot of strength and a lot of nuances for subtlety. I think it works well in Barry’s language as a director," he explains. 

That informed Laxton's visual style as well as camera choice — an ARRI Alexa 65 large-format, 6K camera with a wide dynamic range. "It was a format that effortlessly went to that strength and subtlety of Baldwin’s language," he said, adding that he moved the camera in a way that was "more subtle and structured than Moonlight," their previous collaboration, which won an Oscar for best picture and earned Laxton an Oscar nomination for cinematography.

For Beale Street, Laxton said he also took inspiration from period still photography of New York, as photographed by Roy DeCarava, Jack Garofalo and Camilo Jose Vergara. Using ARRI Prime DNA lenses, Laxton says, "It was a bit about trying to hint at the era, but not have it feel like it's a film from the '70s. The issues of the film, more broadly, could be effortlessly applied to today--the prison system, racism in the United States."

"It's also a great deal about love. For us the language of love was very important," he adds, saying that if the larger issues could be "seen through that lens, we'd find a way to have audiences see these issues though a bit more empathy that the news and our political climate might project."

In some key scenes, he used close-ups of the actors delivering their lines directly into the camera. "It’s about that immersiveness and ability to put the camera within conversations, so that audiences can really feel connected to the moment you are sharing. As opposed to just watching it, you hopefully feel like you are a part of it," Laxton said.

To get these emotive shots, he used for the first time a device called an Interrotron, a teleprompter-like device that Errol Morris has used for documentary interviews. "It's placed in front of the camera lens but instead of having words that you read on the screen, you project someone's face on the screen," he explains, noting that for instance in the jail scenes when Tish and Fonny are talking with each other "they are looking directly at the lens, they are also looking at the other actor as well. We shot them simultaneously so they could engage with each other and react to one another.”

For Laxton, a favorite scene is one during which Tish and Fonny are looking at what they plan to be their first apartment. It’s shot with a Steadicam, and as Fonny describes where furniture would go in their future apartment, "the camera drifts off of him and Fonny sort of narratives the camera moves--it pans 360-degrees around the room. It's a beautiful scene about their young love and it speaks to how we moved the camera by taking cues from the story, in this case, the dialogue,” he says.

This scene was shot on location in a Brooklyn apartment, with mostly natural light. "We tend to move the camera quite a lot, that can be challenging [for lighting]," Laxton says. "We planned in great detail where the sun would rise and set. We found an East-facing window that would carry the sun almost the entry day."

The story is told in the present tense--with Fonny in jail--but with frequent flashbacks. Laxton used camera movement in a subtle way to differentiate this periods of time. "When we are in the past with the two of them, the language is a little more romantic, and we are moving the camera in more graceful, sweeping ways," he says. "In the present tense scenes, it's more structured with less movement. When we are moving the camera, it's a bit more tension filling."

If Beale Street Could Talk was made on a fast 35-day shoot schedule, mostly in New York plus a handful of days in the Dominican Republic (rather than what was intended to be location days in Puerto Rico, before Hurricane Maria). Next, Laxton is reteaming with Jenkins on The Underground Railroad, an Amazon limited series.