Washington and Viola Davis in Fences

Danish cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, known for her work with countryman Thomas Vinterberg (Submarino, The Hunt and Far From the Madding Crowd) was not the obvious choice to shoot August Wilson’s Fences.

This masterpiece by American’s Shakespeare is about a black garbage collector and his wife, Troy and Rose Maxson, who live in a row house in 1950s Pittsburgh. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, who starred in the 2010 Broadway revival, reprise their roles as Troy and Rose Maxson, a married couple with complicated family issues and frustrated, unrealized dreams.

Washington, who also directed the film, asked the 38-year-old Scandinavian cinematographer in their first meeting what she knew about African-American history. Not much, she admitted. But she told him she related to the universality of August Wilson’s portrait of family relationships and their complications. Christensen also mentioned her love for the movies for Ingmar Bergman, the revered Swedish director known for his cinematic unraveling of complicated family relationships.

Washington realized he had the perfect choice in Christensen, whose career has been a roll. In addition to her trio of Vinterberg movies, all singled out for her exquisite cinematography, she is fresh off the success of her first studio film, Tate Taylor’s The Girl on the Train. And currently she is shooting Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, Molly’s Game, in Toronto.

Chistensen is of course in a male-dominated field. According to Women’s Media Center, in the Academy’s 88-year history, no woman has ever been nominated for an Oscar for cinematography. Christensen, whom Variety singled out as a cinematographer to watch, may change that.

In Fences, a stingy patch of backyard and a narrow row house set the stage for a film that doesn’t feel enclosed or stagy. Credit that to Washington and his collaboration with Christensen, whose cinematography keeps moving and humming to keep up with the musicality of Wilson’s words.

Back in April, at the Tribeca Film Festival, I found myself at a reception with Viola Davis who raved about Christensen, whom she called “absolutely authentic.” She enthused of the DP: “She and Denzel have been working for months, studying the houses right on the Hill District. You know those houses with the small grooves and the vast yards and the little gardens full of roses? It’s tremendous.”

Last week on the red carpet at the New York premiere of Fences, I had the opportunity to speak to Christensen, who is as ebullient and passionate about Fences as the cast members who have been with the project since the 2010 Broadway production.

Christensen got high praise from the veteran August Wilson actor Russell Hornsby, who beautiful articulated to me the cinematographer’s contribution to the film. “Charlotta [as he called her] was invisible. And I mean that in the most beautiful way,” he said. “See when people say it’s theatrical, that it seems like a play, no, no—there’s a life happening in front of you. It’s not a play on screen. It’s life on screen, and I think what Charlotta was able to do was to allow that life to just happen. ‘Let’s not fiddle with it. Let’s not try to do any tricks. It doesn’t need or deserve that.’ That’s what I thought she gave across. ‘I just need to sit back and let this life happen. Get a couple close ups, pull back.’ And you earn those pauses. You earn those close ups. You earn those moments. She understood the full measure of the material and its impact on these lives and who these people are, and sat back and observed and allowed life to happen.”

Paula Schwartz, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What inspired Denzel Washington to ask you to be the DP on Fences? A Scandinavian cinematographer is not the obvious choice for a film set mainly in the backyard of a black sanitation worker in 1950s Pittsburgh. 

Charlotte Bruus Christensen (CBC): I have a feeling it was one of the producers who saw Far From the Madding Crowd. I haven’t actually asked Denzel, “Why me?” Because I didn’t know Denzel, I didn’t know any of the producers. I’d never been in touch with anybody on this project, so I still ask myself that question. Because he’s worked with a lot of amazing cinematographers and the fact that he gave me the chance—I’m very lucky.

Charlotte Bruus Christensen and Denzel Washington on the set of Fences

MM: What was your first meeting with Denzel like?

CBC: I was in his apartment just up the street from here for a four-hour conversation. I’d never met him before. We had a conversation about filmmaking and culture and African-American culture and he asked me, “What do you know about that?” And I said, not much. But reading this script I think it’s pretty universal. You know, where I come from, Scandinavia, I relate to this story. I relate to the humanity and relationships, so we spoke a lot about that. I mentioned Ingmar Bergman and how when I read the script of Fences, I was reminded of how Bergman was a theater director, a director who wrote the screenplay first. And he made films about families, so I felt pretty connected to this piece… I feel really lucky to have been invited in this project.

MM: What was your collaboration with Denzel like?

CBC: It was very passionate, very truthful. He’s a man that seeks the truth in a story and he keeps going [in that direction]. This is about love, even though his character, Troy Maxson, was doing things that would make us feel like he doesn’t love his boy. He doesn’t love his family. Denzel said, this is actually essentially about love, and then he gives that in his performance and shows you it’s true. He’s a great director because he lets you work. He brings the best out of you and he lets you give. If somebody wants what you can give, you’re happier than if people don’t want what you can give, and he takes it in, he appreciates it and he keeps directing you so even if you give something that’s not quite right, he’ll guide you into a better position of whatever it is. He’s got such wide shoulders as a director that he can take it in and still direct and keep everything in control. He’s a star.

MM: What were some of the challenges of taking a play and making it into a movie?

CBC: It was hard. The “opening it up” wasn’t just about opening it up in terms of space. Yes, we go into the house and we add the street on the other side, so there’s a few more locations then there are in the play, but it wasn’t about, “Now we’ve got to scope for more locations.” The opening up was more about, “Now we can make a close up of the actor, the person, who’s got the backs of the audience. Now we can see the feelings of that person.” That was opening up, because now you have an insight into the reactions of Troy Maxson by the close-ups of his face. I think also the opening up, for Denzel, was more about, “Now we can go inside and hear the person who’s overhearing conversations and their reaction.” You know, Rose in the kitchen overhearing Troy. And so that was kind of opening up.

Russell Hornsby as Lyons and Viola Davis as Rose in Fences

MM: Your career seems to be taking off. You just came off the success of The Girl on the Train, a movie that’s completely different than Fences. And now you’re working with Aaron Sorkin on his film Molly’s Game. What can you say about that experience?

CBC: He’s a fantastic scriptwriter, and he’s directing for the first time. We’re up in Toronto actually right now, in the middle of the shoot, which is on digital. This is a totally different experience again and very exciting. It’s based on a true story.

MM: You shot Fences on 35mm I read. Seamus McGarvey (Nocturnal Animals) and Linus Sandgren (La La Land), cinematographers I recently interviewed, also shot on 35mm. Is it a trend to go old school? I’m happy about it myself.

CBC: I am too, you know. We had a great screening last night in L.A. with Rodrigo Prieto (Silence, Passengers, The Wolf of Wall Street), another of my favorite DPs. He was so sweet to host the event for Fences, and did a Q&A with me. There were a lot of people asking me, “Why do you shoot 35mm? Why don’t you support the digital market, because it’s obviously going to take off?” But we were both like, “Well, at the moment, film is still available, and they’re opening a lab here in New York…” and, I don’t know, I love that medium. I think it’s truthful. It’s like you shoot in digital. Then you go into post-production and try to make it look like film. Why don’t you just shoot on film?

MM: There’s always been a tradition of great directors and cinematographers who come from the Scandinavian countries. Ingmar Bergman is most famous. Then you have the young cinematographers who include Martin Ahlgren, Jakob Ihre, Ulf Brantas and of course Linus Sandgren. Do you think it’s something about the landscapes or the light there that inspires people to pick up a camera?

CBC: It’s possibly the landscape and the light, the softness of the light, of course. I think maybe it’s the culture but it’s also that everyday living is very low key in a way that I think there’s room to explore the nature of stories. I don’t know, but there’s something very family-oriented about Scandinavia. It’s about family, that’s where we put the highest value. It’s not success and beauty necessarily, it’s family, so there’s a lot of kind of family stories, and I think that’s where our focus is.

MM: Do you then think of yourself as much a storyteller as a cinematographer?

CBC: In my collaboration with Denzel—I love that guy—he lets you give to the story. I want to understand the story, because otherwise how do I know where to put the lights? I don’t just put a light there to make you look pretty. I put a light there to support the words, and Denzel understood that. And he wanted it. And that’s why to work with somebody who gets that level of storytelling in which you can give—I think that’s what cinematography is about. It’s not about pretty images. I’m not saying it’s not pretty images but it’s not made to do that. It’s made to be truthful to the feelings of these characters and that’s how we lit it. It’s not supposed to look like a flashy commercial loaded with beautiful backlight and people moving in the backyard. No, it’s pretty raw.

MM: There’s a lot of movement in this film. In the opening scenes at the house when you’re getting to know the characters, including Troy and his buddy Bono [the legendary August Wilson veteran Stephen McKinley Henderson], there’s a lot of movement, especially through the house and then the backyard. Then of course the musicality of August Wilson’s words keep everything humming and jazzed up. Were you running with the camera in those scenes?

CBC: Yes! [laughs] That’s a Steadicam. It’s a Steadicam that I’m carrying and I’m running. Basically from the minute [snaps her finger] you open the movie, they talk, and it’s like music. Denzel kept saying, “My direction to you is this is like music, music.” I had to keep that in my mind as I moved. And then when we come to the backyard, suddenly, we feel a little bit theatrical again and we put the camera exactly where the audience was. Now we just stay there. So up until Viola comes in the camera’s been moving. And then when she comes into the scene the camera is trained on her to get every emotion.

Washington and Davis reprise their roles in the 2010 Broadway production of the play

MM: Images are sharp in the film but there’s one point where Denzel’s character has been drinking, and he’s hitting the baseball attached to the string on the pole and things start getting blurry. How did you shoot that?

CBC: We use a very special lens that is called a portrait lens to get that effect. I had a fantastic, wonderful colleague, my focus puller Glenn Kaplan. He’s my first assistant and when I expressed [my intention], he goes, “There’s actually a lens that you can blur the edges; maybe it’s going to work.” So I had great colleagues.

And also when I talked to Denzel and I got ideas, he invited me in and I invited my crew in to share ideas… I don’t have all the ideas but I have a visual story in my head. Denzel has a vision in his heart. I’m going to put it through a lens, but I have different creative approach, because now it becomes technical. I have to choose lenses and all these things. So that’s a portrait lens. And the camera was a Panavision XL2 Millennium camera, 35mm.

MM: There are so few women cinematographers. I asked Seamus why there were so few women cinematographers and he said that was changing. Do you agree?

CBC: Oh, he said that? [Laughs] I do hope so. I feel there’s a lot of talented female DPs. There aren’t a lot making studio movies but there are a lot working on independent films and documentaries. I think also it comes down to a practical thing: If you want to have kids it’s a tough thing to travel the world with three kids and you’ve got to have support to do that. Maybe I’m lucky to have that support, and I wish that every female—director or cinematographer, it doesn’t matter—would have the support to let her explore her talent. And I think there’s a lot of talent out there. It’s just that some people are restricted, for reasons that we don’t know.

MM: Is your husband, Stefan Mørk, in the film business?

CBC: He’s an editor and then he’s a musician. His heart is with the music so when we go traveling his thing is to write his music.

MM: When you are shooting do you share the duties of taking care of your three children? Do you take them with you?

CBC: We bring the kids with us, yeah. He comes. Everybody comes. I don’t go anywhere without my kids.

Christensen at the New York premiere of Fences. Photograph by Paula Schwartz

MM: McGarvey told me also that he and his crew loved working with women, especially under pressure. Do you think there’s something women can contribute to cinematography that gives them the edge over men?

CBC: I don’t know what we bring. Maybe we have a sensitivity. I hope its emotion. Maybe guys are more technical… With this movie I think I’m just excited about the story. I’m not necessarily just excited about the camera and the lenses. Sometimes I go, “Something doesn’t work about this camera!” I’m a storyteller, not a technician. I had all the guys there, the camera operators, and I had no fear of showing them that I don’t know everything about this camera. I need them, my camera crew.

MM: But you’re the boss, right?

CBC: Yes, but I direct the images, so I don’t lose any pride by saying I don’t know everything about this. Like my first assistant brought me that lens and said, “Are you talking about something like this?” It’s a collaboration.

MM: Men are not good at admitting they don’t know something.

CBC: No. They want to say, “It was all my idea.” I don’t care about that. Fences is a brilliant movie and it’s collaborative.

MM: I’ve interviewed Denzel Washington before and can be tough to interview because if you don’t ask him smart questions, he’ll tell you off.

CBC: He does that with me too. But I’ll tell him off too. [Laughs] No, he never scared me. We had a great first interview and he pushed me a little bit, and I pushed him a little bit back and I feel that something happened where I really connected with him in the way that we told the story. I call it passion. He was just really passionate about the project. It made me even more passionate, so I think we’re two passionate people. So then it becomes about that—not that I forget who he is, but I do a little bit—so I’ll push back. That’s the way I work and I think that’s what worked between us. In the end, he’s the director. But I would push with my ideas—I pushed for some of these handheld camera shots—and hen he’d go, “Crazy girl! Go on, then do it!” And I’m like, “Yeah! I want that one.”

Christensen and Washington enjoyed a fruitful creative collaboration on Fences

MM: Did you find it an extra challenge working with a director who is also the star of the film? Have you ever done that before?

CBC: Fences was the first. I didn’t find that a problem at all. Denzel sent me off and I’m a doer. When he sends me off I go and do it. And then at some point, he goes, “Oh, oh, oh, where you going?” I go, “I’m going here.” He’d say, “No, no, I want you to go here.” And then I’d go, “Why there?” We’d have equal discussions. In the end, he’ll decide. He’s the director. But he’d always let me in to say my opinion and he would listen. And then sometimes he’ll cut me off and go, “Thanks very much but no.” [Laughs] So that’s fair enough. MM

Fences is currently in theaters, courtesy of Paramount Pictures.