Following its premiere at Sundance in January, Nate Parker’s directorial debut, The Birth of a Nation, quickly became the biggest thing to hit Park City since… well, ever.
The tragic tale of Nat Turner, a slave who led a rebellion through his preaching in 1831, went on to win both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize, after making a record-breaking distribution deal with Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million (it was made for an estimated $10 million). As indie lore goes, streaming titan Netflix offered a reported $20 million for the film but lost the battle to Fox’s promise of full theatrical release and a road show that would bring Parker around the country to present the film at colleges and churches.
A black director, writer, producer and actor shining light on America’s turbulent past via a bold period piece seemed like a response to Hollywood’s diversity problem, the #OscarSoWhite controversy, and the xenophobic climate permeating segments of the country during the 2016 presidential election. In August, though, a different narrative started to coalesce, as well—one that placed the spotlight on the rape charges that Parker and his co-writer on the film, Jean McGianni Celestin, faced in 1999 as students at Penn State. Though Parker was eventually acquitted and Celestin’s conviction overturned, the circumstances of the case are troubling and complicated, and threaten to cloud the earnest, passionate message Parker presents in his film.
Parker’s past is worthy of scrutiny (commendably done elsewhere), though no man is an independent film unto himself. In the case of The Birth of a Nation, that proves particularly true. A rising actor, Parker spent seven years getting his passion project off the ground, but with only a couple of shorts to his name as a director, he was relatively ill-equipped to captain a film of this magnitude. So he hired people who could.
Enter the veterans: cinematographer Elliot Davis (The Iron Lady, Man of Tai Chi, Twilight) and Academy Award-nominated editor Steven Rosenblum (Braveheart, The Last Samurai, Public Enemies). Their experience and patient advice for Parker was mission-critical to the finished product. So to understand the film’s profound emotional effects, and its festival triumph, we turned to them.
DP Elliot Davis
MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What are the considerations that you take when you decide to work with a first-timer?
Elliot Davis (ED): When you’ve done enough movies, working with a first-time director is always scary. They are unpredictable. They are usually obsessive, and possessive, about their film, so it can be hard to get them to be fluid and flexible. Once in a while a director may convince me, if their vision is so great, that they can override any weakness of content, but that’s not usual. In Nate’s case it was his content and then his passion that sealed it for me, because he’d lived with this project for seven years or so. And the momentum was so strong that I had to go with it. My idea has always been to take my political consciousness and use it for films that would move the sociopolitical stage forward. It’s never to make better Hollywood movies. It’s to make better movies that are outside of Hollywood.
MM: Did anything in the script jump out at you as something you had a vision for?
ED: I try not to put my visual imprint on a script. I try to stay blank. I don’t want to be making the mistake that first-time directors make, which is thinking, “I know what this film looks like. I can see every frame.” I want to know the essence of every frame and that essence will reveal itself. I try to stay empty all the way to the point where I can’t anymore. This comes from my architectural training—“form follows function.”
MM: What did Nate want the film to look like?
ED: He put up a huge visual board with images from five or six movies: Man of Tai Chi, Valhalla Rising, Anonymous, The Iron Lady and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He put those stills together, and they looked like they all came from one movie. It was very strong imagery: a very cool, desaturated look. Similar color palette, composition, framing.
MM: You shot with both the Alexa XT and the Red Dragon cameras. Why?
ED: Choosing digital cameras now is like choosing different types of film stock. In the end almost all digital stuff can be made to look the same. That is the upside and the downside. More and more studio pictures look like they come out of the same puppy mill and it’s artistically very disheartening. I hope it’s just that we are in an artistic transitional phase and that a new digital aesthetic will arise.
The Alexa was the main camera because of its depth and smoothness. I was the first person in the world to shoot with the Alexa with an unlocked full 4:3, anamorphic chip, on Man of Tai Chi in China [in 2012]. That was the first time I saw digital full chip anamorphic on an Alexa, and it was stunning. The Red was used as it was lighter, so the second camera operator could pick it up on a Steadicam, because we were shooting on very hot and humid conditions.
MM: What about lenses and lighting?
ED: Less is more, in composition, in lighting, and in my camera package. I’ve tried to distill my package to only three lenses. I only carry a set of Angénieux Optimo zooms, the 15-40mm and 28-76mm and the 45-120mm, and I carry 14mm, a 10mm, 135mm, and a 12:1 zoom. I hardly ever took off the Optimo zooms because a lot of the film was handheld. This was a very stable handheld. The zooms allow me to do nuanced movements, some that are not even perceptible. I find that kind of package gives me the most flexibility.
In terms of lighting, this film didn’t have much money so my gaffer, Dan Riffel, and I tried to come up with the most flexible package. The lighting package mirrored the lenses. The day stuff required big broad sources because we had interiors inside plantation houses, and in our exteriors I was very careful to be in control of the sun, which stayed high all day. Controlling the sun was paramount in the movie. We kept two 80-foot Condors on set. We had prebuilt 20-foot-by-20-foot grid cloth frames on each of the Condors so that we could control the harsh sunlight of Savannah, Georgia. All in all I was able to create a wrap-around, sultry softness in the exteriors as well as in the cool, shaded interiors, so it was consistent light. Nate became conscious of the fact that when shooting outside we needed to shoot in backlight to keep the soft front fill light going.
MM: Can you describe how the shoot was paced?
ED: As a first-time director Nate was so on edge about getting everything that was in his head, and as we know when we make enough movies, everything you shoot does not make it into the movie. He thought he had to shoot everything that was in his head, so I was like on a stopwatch. Every 10 or 15 minutes, I was shooting—from finding out what the shot was, putting the actors in place, to lighting it, to camera wrap. I was the proverbial mouse on the treadmill for 27 days. At the end of the movie, Nate gave me a watch as a present!
That’s probably what he learned in cutting it—that it couldn’t all fit, and if all did fit, it would be unwatchable. An experienced cinematographer has to be patient because we know that, but they don’t know that. Directors’ brains and DPs’ are different. Artistic DPs are pre-visualizers. Really good DPs are like jazz musicians. They can riff and play music, whereas directors are more like rappers—they are verbal.
MM: How much did you have to compromise between what you wanted and what Nate wanted?
ED: I always listened to Nate’s shots first, because that’s what he had been carrying around for so long. That was my number one rule: Always listen to what Nate has to say first. Now, as an experienced shooter sometimes I could already see that something was not going to work. But that didn’t matter; I had to play it through. Then in the time that I had left, if I had what I thought was a better idea, I’d present that to him and he would either go with it or not.