From Heathers to Natural Born Killers, Clueless to Jawbreaker and The Caveman’s Valentine to This Film is Not Yet Rated, cinematographer Amy Vincent is no stranger to the world of independent film. As such, she knows the importance of forging strong partnerships—like the one she has with writer-director Craig Brewer.
After riding an unexpected wave of success with their debut collaboration, Hustle & Flow (for which Vincent won the Cinematography Award at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival), this dynamic duo is partnering up again, this time on Black Snake Moan, an unconventional “coming of age” story in which an aging blues musician (Samuel L. Jackson) helps to cure a young nymphomaniac (Christina Ricci) of her sexual addiction.
As Black Snake Moan makes waves in theaters across the country, MM sat down with Vincent to discuss how this Boston native’s unconventional career path brought her to Memphis, Tennessee for Black Snake Moan.
Bob Fisher (MM): How did you first meet Craig Brewer?
Amy Vincent (AV): [Producer] Stephanie Allain introduced us. I met Stephanie when she was a dancer and I was a lighting designer in the Theater Arts Department at USC Santa Cruz. Later, Stephanie was one of the producers when I shot second unit for Biker Boyz in 2003.
Stephanie told me about Craig and gave me a copy of his script for Hustle & Flow, which I found compelling. Craig and I had our first conversations about the visual style while he was searching for funding. It took about two years until John Singleton and his company, Homegrown Pictures, invested $2.5 million in the production of Hustle & Flow.
MM: One of the things that struck me about Hustle & Flow was how the music and images were in perfect harmony—almost like a ballet.
AV: Craig gave the music to three songwriters and he worked with them on the lyrics. He played the beats in the music while he was explaining his vision for each scene to me, so it was like he was choreographing a ballet.
MM: When did Craig tell you about Black Snake Moan?
AV: Craig was working on the concept and music while he was still editing Hustle & Flow. He finished the script and asked me to read it before Hustle & Flow premiered at Sundance. On the surface, it read like a sexploitation movie; but underneath it was a story about love, redemption and the uncertainty of not knowing what’s going to happen next.
MM: How did you prepare to shoot Black Snake Moan?
AV: Early in pre-production, Craig concentrated on the music, which was composed by Scott Bomar, so he only spoke with me in two hour-long stretches. He suggested that I watch several southern gothic films, including Bad Georgia Road, as visual references.
Craig got everyone involved in our discussions about the visual style, including Scott, Stephanie, [production designer] Keith Burns and [editor] Billy Fox. We were like a family; the choices we made as a team were based on conversations, scouting and experiencing the humidity and mosquitoes in Tennessee. All of those things help give the film a visceral quality.
MM: How were decisions made about coverage?
AV: I watched Craig rehearse with the actors to get a sense of what they were going to do. That was important, because while Craig storyboarded some shots, we did a lot more running and gunning shots, usually with two cameras. There’s something a bit magical about finding the scene and figuring out how to shoot it. We rarely needed more than one or two takes. That is important, because it feels more natural.
MM: Black Snake Moan was produced in Super 35, combined with digital intermediate (DI) timing. How and why were those choices made?
AV: We agreed on day one that the film needed a widescreen aspect ratio, because the environments are part of the story. I suggested Super 35 rather than anamorphic format because we wanted the flexibility of using spherical lenses. I wanted to do a DI mainly to avoid needing an optical blowup to get to a wide screen aspect ratio.
MM: Can you explain why—in non-technical terms?
AV: With traditional timing you need an extra step in the lab to optically squeeze the images into widescreen aspect ratio. With a DI, you record the timed digital file directly on to the intermediate film used for release printing in widescreen aspect ratio. This ensures that the prints are an accurate reflection of the details recorded on the negative.
I suggested using three- rather than four-perf 35mm film, which you can do on a DI. There is no loss in picture quality, because you only use three-quarters of the frame when you compose for a widescreen aspect ratio, and it trimmed film and lab costs by 25 percent.
FotoKem Film & Video in Burbank, California did both the lab work and the DI. After the film was edited, they scanned the negative and converted it to a 2K resolution digital file. I timed the film with [DI colorist] Walter Volpatto, whom I had worked with on Hustle & Flow.
MM: There is a memorable scene in a soybean field, with Lazarus in the foreground holding a chain and Rae in the background, craning her neck, trying to pull away. Tell us about the meaning of that shot and how you composed it?
AV: There are only two lines of dialogue, but the dynamics of their relationship are defined by her gestures and his physical presence: She is short and slender; he is tall and husky. One camera was covering the master shot, and the other one was closer in on one their faces. About halfway through the scene we see his hands clutching the chain; she is trying to get away and he is determined to hold on to her.
Black Snake Moan is in theaters now, courtesy of Paramount Vantage.