If Beale Street Could Talk DP James Laxton on Using the Large Format Alexa 65 Freely for Barry Jenkins’ Period Romance

Director Barry Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton have enjoyed a meteoric rise through the industry together, from collaborating on shorts in film school in Florida, through Jenkins’ debut Medicine for Melancholy and 2017’s Best Picture Winner Moonlight (which also garnered Laxton his first Oscar nomination), and now If Beale Street Could Talk.

The scale is considerably enlarged for their latest—the production included hundreds of extras and the camera of choice is the intimidating Alexa 65 (which also turned heads in Roma)—but the feeling evoked remains intimate. Juxtaposing Steadicam long takes with fluid camera moves, against static closeups of the characters, Beale Street maintains a deep warmth for the love story at its heart. MovieMaker spoke with Laxton about his working relationship with Jenkins’ over the years and how they ensured their first period piece would reflect 1970s Harlem while also examining issues that are still relevant today.

Caleb Hammond, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How has your working process with Barry evolved in pre-production with your conversations?

James Laxton (JL): I can point to many moments on the set of Beale Street, where I recall making some very similar choices from the process of making films with Barry in film school. When you learn a craft together the way Barry and I have when filmmaking from zero to now, you develop a certain dialect and language by which you express, and we continue to express ourselves in that way, in the way we speak visually. Obviously, our first film Medicine for Melancholy was a much different approach in terms of development, pre-production, and the tools we had at our disposal. All of these processes shifted quite dramatically and now a lot more of the creative processes are completed in the development process, in discussing ideas and developing a much more nuanced, specific, and subtle visual language.

Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (KiKi Layne) share a moment in Harlem. Image courtesy of Annapurna Pictures.

MM: How did shooting on the Alexa 65 affect your choices, with camera movement and still frames?

JL: The Alexa 65 is a large format camera. It has a gate that’s larger than super 35mm which a lot of digital cameras are sized to. We chose this largely because so much of what Barry and I talk about and try to implement in making choices for visuals has to do with making the experience immersive. It’s something that comes up constantly in conversations, “Where’s the camera positioned in accordance to a particular character’s perspective?” The Alexa 65 presents so much more depth and three dimensionality than a 35mm camera does, and it became an obvious tool that lent itself so well to our vernacular. When you have the ability to play with depth, which is what happens when you get into large format photography, so much more immersiveness is infused into the image, and you feel that much closer to a subject.

MM: It reminded me of The Master, which was shot on 70mm but utilizes a lot of close-ups—the opposite of what you might think to do with such a large format.

JL: It’s really interesting you say that because I remember thinking about The Master a lot when thinking about the Alexa 65. As an audience member I remember not quite understanding why The Master relied so much on close-ups with a format that traditionally stays wider to see more. And then when you get your hands on that thing and understand how a close up feels so much more powerful, it immediately struck me. It’s funny that I was initially so confused by the choices but, again, when you see the images that come out of these large format cameras, there’s a certain power to a close up that just doesn’t exist with 35mm photography. It feels so intimate and so powerful that it’s hard not to dive into.

MM: Is this your first film shot in a period that isn’t contemporary? Did that affect your planning process or intimidate you at all?

JL: Moonlight is somewhat non-contemporary as well but it’s a much more recent past than Beale Street. It’s fair to say that, yes, this is our first period piece. It was something that I was slightly apprehensive about in pre-production—knowing how Barry and I really love to move the camera around spaces and see so much of our environment. Our environment has such a heavy influence on how we make choices as filmmakers. I was nervous about how we could make the world we envisioned fit into corners of rooms or how to film one street corner and not look the other way because there’s a Walgreens right there. Largely with the help of our production designer Mark Friedberg and our location manager as well, we found some fantastic locations and settings that had a great deal of the integrity of what we were looking for. We did have to dress certain street corners differently. But there are some amazing places in the Bronx, specifically Arthur Avenue is one that is amazing, but there are many others as well. New York still has this era to it, in many ways, so we just took advantage of what we could and, what we couldn’t, we dealt with accordingly. I didn’t want this film to feel like a small-scoped project. When you have a film made for a tighter budget than a period piece would traditionally be made for, there’s a thought in the DP’s mind that they need to shoot tighter or  into corners. That’s clearly not going to happen on a Barry Jenkins production—we move the camera too much.  

Laxton was pleased to discover many old-era locations to use as a backdrop for their ’70s love story.

MM: Was this camera movement more difficult with the larger camera?

JL: Of course, this is a heavier camera than even the Alexa XT. People often talk about the advantages of small cameras and, yes, they do help in some ways, but the truth is once you outfit an Alexa Mini with a zoom lens or a Matte box and a focus and all the wireless gear, they get built up to something not so different from the 65. It’s bigger, but it’s nominal enough, to not hinder or hold back from the choices we made. There’s a scene at the end of the movie where the camera begins under the water with the baby floating on the surface and the camera moves up out of the water and follows the baby handheld into Tish’s arms. There was some pressure applied—more by myself than anybody else—to go down to an Alexa Mini but, in that same moment, I felt that would be a big mistake. If there’s any moment that should feel strong and have importance placed upon, it should be the birth of this child in the story. So we made sure to be able to move this large camera through the water. I held the camera at the surface of the bathtub and moved it up and followed the baby down. Was it heavy? Sure. Was it worth it? Of course. Sometimes you have to persevere to hold the integrity of what the image should be. I don’t worry about the fact that somebody’s saying it’s impacting the creative process. To me, you have to fight for what looks right on a day to day basis. The value of the large format outweighed any struggle to get the camera where it needed to be or move it the way we wanted to move it.  

MM: How did you decide on a color palette?

JL: Unlike Moonlight which perhaps had a cooler bluer hue in terms of how the light played on people’s faces, Beale Street has more of a warmer tonality to it as to how the light plays in scenes. That had a lot to do with this idea of love. The movie’s about a lot of different things—it’s about race in America, the justice system at large, but it’s also about these two characters, Tish and Fonny, experiencing deep and meaningful young love between the two of them. We felt we should shoot and tell the story through the prism of love—through love in general, we could find a way for the audience to connect with these characters. When I think of love, I think of warm colors, saturation, romance, and all that stuff played a role in how we lit a lot of these scenes. The care and the sensitivity and the nuance to soften some of the qualities that light can sometimes give us in ways that hopefully enhance the sensibility of love.

MM: What types of lenses did you use?

JL: The film was mostly shot on ARRI prime DNAs. We also had a vintage hawk, 150-450mm zoom lens which we used occasionally when we needed it to be more telephoto or when we wanted to bring ’70s visual language into the film when we wanted to zoom to a scene. We used this when Tish and Fonny were standing at the subway station waiting for the train to arrive, but most of the film was shot on the prime DNAs. They have a vintage sensibility to them in the way they flare, into the fall off they create, into the bokeh that they have, that gave us this context of the ’70s. At the same time though, they are a very sharp lens, so I wouldn’t call them a “vintage lens.” Beale Street is not intended to be a film that looks like it was made in the 1970s. We needed the film to reflect or remind us that yes, the film takes place in the ’70s, but these are still current issues that this country hasn’t dealt with yet. So the lenses helped to present a story set in the ’70s but through today’s technology and perspective.

Laxton frames Regina King, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Sharon Rivers.

MM: Nicholas Britell was working on the score early on, which you were able to reference, and that’s a recurring theme with moviemakersthis idea that the earlier you can get everybody involved (in all stages of production), the better your project will be from day one.

JL: There’s no doubt in my mind, that’s true. It’s something I’ve struggled with a lot doing independent films in the US. Money is tight and therefore schedules are tight and specifically pre-production schedules are very tight. There are a few projects where I come on board on Thursday, and by Monday I’m in the office trying to breakdown a schedule with the director because we shoot in three or four or five weeks. That is not a great way to make something unique and something personal. Time is needed to develop these things. With Barry, I have the luxury that we’re close friends outside of filmmaking. There’s just such a history of our relationship that we can talk about stuff all the time. Decisions that were made on Beale Street on say, Day 10 of production had to do with discussions we had a year and a half earlier. It’s through that time that nuance and personal expression comes out, and without that time, things tend to become a little bit blunt.

MM: Outside of your unique relationship with Barry, what would be the sweet spot for you and a new director: “I like to have this minimum amount of time in pre-production”?

JL: Well, it depends on the scope of the project, but if I’m doing a traditional drama, without many effects, a story based around performance and location, and if I don’t have a history with the director and we need to build a filmmaking language, I would personally like to have at least six weeks of pre-production. The first couple weeks are probably just the director, the other department heads and and I getting to know each other and getting to know the story we’re telling through our conversations. Then maybe you have four weeks to actually start to make choices, test cameras, look at those results, change some ideas around, break down the script, hire the crew—it’s difficult to do all those other things without truly getting to know the people you’re collaborating with on an intimate level. I would ballpark it somewhere around six weeks personally. Whether it’s more or less depends on the project’s needs, but I’ll throw that out there as a basic framework. MM

If Beale Street Could Talk is now available to stream on Hulu and also available on DVD and Blu-ray, courtesy of Annapurna Pictures. All photographs by Tatum Mangus, courtesy of Annapurna Pictures.

1 Comment

  1. John Rupkalvis

    March 28, 2019 at 8:56 pm

    If he wanted depth, he should have shot it in native stereoscopic 3D. Done correctly, this is no more expensive than 2D, and the results are normal and natural, not grossly distorted squashed flat as 2D cameras produce. A single 3D camera will do this beautifully, with no additional costs, since being already in 3D when shot, no conversion is required.

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