Michael Radford

Michael Radford on the set of Dancing
at the Blue Iguana.

Since lensing his first feature, Michael Almereyda’s Another Girl, Another Planet, in 1992, cinematographer Jim
Denault has become the DP of choice for some of the independent film
world’s most recognized talents. In addition to Almereyda-with whom
he also shot the arthouse vampire hit Nadja-Denault has collaborated
with Hal Hartley on The Book of Life, Kimberley Peirce on Boys
Don’t Cry
and Jill Sprecher on Clockwatchers, just to name
a few. Now, he’s teamed up with director Jim McKay (Girls Town) to
help create the realistically gritty world of three young women growing
up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in Our Song. Here, Denault talks
with MM about his road to success,
the importance of being happy and the series of “lucky breaks” that
have put him at the top of his craft.

Jennifer Wood (MM): How did you first
get started as a cinematographer?

Jim Denault (JD): I was always interested
in photography; I was one of those kids that figured that out
early. It didn’t occur to me until my last year in college that
I was going to have to figure out a way to make a living; I had
always just thought that I would take pictures and somehow the
money would come. After I got out of college, I got a job shooting
TV news for a cable station in Rochester (NY), where I went to
school. Then one thing lead to another. I see it as a huge series
of lucky breaks. I look at where I am now and I think how lucky
I am to have even gotten to the point where I am. My friend says
it’s like they give you this big expensive car and you get to
drive it.

MM: What was the first film you saw that-visually-amazed

JD: My father took me to see 2001 when I was nine years old and it was the first movie where I realized
that movies are photographs. They’re not just a window you’re
looking through where you see the world, they’re actually a creation
of the world. That was an eye-opening thing for me.

MM: Your work has been almost exclusively
in independent film. Is there a certain freedom that working in
these smaller films allows you?

JD: It’s definitely one of those ‘the grass
is always greener’ things. The budget is never big enough. That’s
sort of the conclusion I’ve come to. But really the size of the
budget doesn’t have as much to do with your freedom as who the
director and producer are, and what their relationship is. You
could be as restrained and limited in a $1 million film as in
a $100,000 movie if the director and producer don’t have the vision
or are too nervous.

MM: What would your ideal collaboration
be like?

JD: The ideal creative collaboration with
a director and producer is that the producer and director are
a team already-there’s a vision they share between them. You have
the producer pulling strings and juggling the budget in order
to make the director’s ideas work rather than trying to figure
out how to manage the director and to keep them in control. The
same relationship works between me and the director-the idea that
they can tell you what crazy schemes they have in mind and you
can figure out what kinds of things you can do with the budget
and schedule and time to be able to execute those ideas. You should
be able to bounce ideas around and be able to bring some part
of yourself into it.

MM: Our Song has a very documentary-like
feel to it. Was that the intention?

JD: We didn’t want it to be strictly a documentary.
Jim [McKay] wanted it to be a kind of low-impact shoot; he didn’t
want us to come in and take over the neighborhood, but have the
neighborhood take us over. The feeling of the shoot was not so
much like a documentary, but like some of the first 16mm movies
that I was shooting, where it was a small crew and we had very
limited resources. The roughness of it, in my intention, is not
an attempt to mimic how a documentary would do it, it’s an attempt
to make something that’s visually interesting and unique but not
overly flashy and pretentious.

MM: Was the decision to use just a handheld
camera and a tripod an obvious one?

JD: We were talking about where to use the
dolly almost up until the time we started shooting, when I said
‘You know what, let’s just skip the dolly and we’ll do everything
handheld. It will make us that much smaller and lighter.’

MM: But the shakiness of the camera certainly
adds to the context of the film. The one scene that stands out
is when Maria (Melissa Martinez) is on the train with Terell (D’Monroe)
and tells him she is pregnant. There’s not a moment of calm in
that scene-visually or emotionally.

JD: What’s interesting about that scene is
that we shot coverage of it. There was another angle, a close-up
on Terell-that [Jim] never decided to cut to. It’s not that it
didn’t work, it just feels so much more real, holding with that
one shot on Maria’s face.

MM: There’s an obvious difference between
that scene and the scenes where we see Lanisha (Kerry Washington)
with her family-visiting her father at work, or home for her birthday
party. In these much more emotionally stable scenes, the camera
is stable. And these scenes are all well lit, almost making you
forget where the people are. It’s amazing how much these seemingly
small details can lend to the story.

JD: It’s interesting because you kind of
make those decisions based on gut feeling. Sometimes you’ll have
one idea about how you’re going to shoot a scene and then you
see a rehearsal and you think it’s totally wrong and ‘I can’t
believe I was thinking that.’ A lot of those decisions wind up
being unconscious.

MM: One of the film’s main characters
is the Jackie Robinson Steppers Marching Band. How difficult was
it to keep those shots manageable? Was everything storyboarded?

JD: That was great-that was some of my favorite
stuff. In terms of the process of the shooting, I think that Jim
might have been a little bit frustrated [laughs]. We had done
rough sketches, sort of storyboards, for the entire movie. But
when it came to the band, we had a series of shots that we wanted.
Basically, we’d just have them run through their song a bunch
of times and, while it was happening, I just ran around and grabbed

MM: Was it easy to then synchronize those
shots with the constant music?

JD: Those are the things-those little inserts-that
can go in anywhere. A foot comes down and you cut it on the beat.
The important thing, if you want to be able to do those quick
cuts, is to get a bunch of different angles. So I would just go
as crazy as I could before they started yelling at me for shooting
too much film. There’s nothing very fancy about what we did-it’s
very classic film structure.

MM: What is the main difference in you
between those first 16mm films you were shooting and
Our Song?

JD: I think the difference for me was that,
when I was doing those first films, I felt like I had a lot to
prove, which in some ways was true, but it’s a mistake to be like
that. If you can’t relax into a situation, it makes it that much
harder. With Our Song, whatever I had to prove I had done
a long time ago, so it was much easier. It was kind of like the
back-to-basics rock and roll thing after you’ve done the progressive
rock orchestra thing to just get back to the do-it-yourself punk
rock. I don’t know how else to describe it. And that was the appeal
of it for me-to be able to get rid of the string section and just
concentrate on the simple melodies.