Bradford Young is easily one of the most exciting cinematographers working today. Since igniting on the indie scene with films like “Pariah,” “Middle of Nowhere,” “Mother of George” and “Ain't Them Bodies Saints,” his stock has continued to rise. This holiday season he'll have two very distinct, rich and exquisite films on display in theaters nationwide: Ava DuVernay's Martin Luther King biopic “Selma” and J.C. Chandor's NYC crime drama “A Most Violent Year.”
So it was with great pleasure that I finally wrangled a chat with the low-key 37-year-old, who makes his home outside of the industry fray in Washington, D.C. Each of these films represents such striking confidence, yet they feel wholly different from one another. They examine darker reaches of the frame with their own curiosity, each of them very specifically influenced by photographers who captured the human face in specific and, in their separate eras, meaningful ways. The results are simply mesmerizing, and let's just put it this way: If I were setting out to direct a film, Bradford Young would be my first phone call.
With all that in mind – clearly I'm in the tank – read through the back and forth below to learn more about the approaches to these two films, how one felt of a piece with his tendencies and how on the other, in Young's words, he grew up as a cinematographer.
“Selma” opens Christmas Day. “A Most Violent Year” opens Dec. 31.
HitFix: Obviously I want to talk about both “A Most Violent Year” and “Selma” here, and congrats, by the way, on the Spirit Awards nomination.
Bradford Young: Thank you. Thank you so much.
That was for “Selma,” but let's start with “A Most Violent Year.” I felt the ghost of Gordon Willis in there, but I also hear you're quite a Vilmos Zsigmond devotee. What are some of your influences in general and then, specifically, on this movie?
For “A Most Violent Year,” Jamel Shabazz's photography from the 1980s. He was a street photographer. He still is, but he was most prolific in the 1980s during that early New York hip-hop phase when hip-hop culture in New York was just sort of emerging. He did a lot of these really beautiful portraits of kids in the South Bronx and Brooklyn and Queens, etc. His photographs have that sort of yellowish, warm quality to them that you see in the film. Those were references that J.C. and I shared together, just for sort of the tone and the color.
And how about some DPs you admire?
Obviously a big fan of Vilmos. Love his work on “Heaven's Gate.” Love his work on “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.” Those are sort of my favorite films of his. I love all of Gordon Willis' work, but I would say films like “The Parallax View” include more the sort of Gordon Willis photography that I, at least, was referencing. And then obviously I'm a big fan of Harris' [Savides] work and Ernest Dickerson, Malik Sayeed, Arthur Jaffa. I feel like they all have that sort of similar appreciation for darkness that I try to clone and explore in my own work.
Is that hard to accomplish with digital photography?
No, it's a lot easier. It's so much more comfortable.
You think so?
Yeah. For me it's a lot more comfortable, which actually just helps me go a little bit further. Some of the stuff I was doing with shadows in “A Most Violent Year” are things that I wanted to do in “Ain't Them Bodies Saints” but just was a little timid to do, because we were exposing film. It just gives you that little confidence to go a little darker because you're seeing what you're getting. And obviously the approach is different, the sort of ethos and how you approach it, but the result is kind of the same. I just feel like with digital you can be a bit more radical with it. That's just my feeling.
Yeah. I tend to ask about that in these interviews and you always get the level-headed assessment from DPs.
They're not digging in to take some stand. It's just about the tools.
Yeah. I'm a big fan of the digital thing. I think it's changing the way we work, you know? I feel like it's given me a lot more confidence to go further, and that's nice. It's nice to have your head in the game for other things and not have to worry about, “Is it going to come out” and “Will there be no image at all?”
J.C. told me you guys ended up having similar imagery in your separate “look books” to guide the visual language of the film. I guess a lot of those were of Shabazz's work?
Yeah, actually between J.C., Kasia [Walicka-Maimone] – who is the costume designer – we all had a few similar frames from Jamel Shabazz's work. And I think that's what got me the job, when we started out the conversation about the tone of the film. But J.C. had always, from the beginning, told me he wanted this film that was very – I don't want to say symmetrical, but just had this elegance to it that you would assume you wouldn't see in films that are portraying that era. It's a sort of profile of the violence of New York City in the '80s, but this film is about a sector of the population that wasn't directly affected by that. They had their own world. They were still eating expensive dinners. The economy was still good for them, but it wasn't good for everybody else. So we wanted to be very conscious of the spaces and the places those characters would show up and it just felt like the film needed to have a particular elegance to it. Just conscious of lines and frames within frames and conscious of architecture. But the tone of the film came from those Jamel Shabazz photographs, which are just creamy and warm and sort of brown, you know? But it's not like a dinge. It sort of has a celebratory feel to it in a way. The yellow in the film is less about the sort of dinginess and more of just capturing the vibe that was so present in his photographs.
It certainly makes for some beautiful tableaus throughout.
Let's talk about “Selma.” Both of these films are independent productions, even if “Selma” is being released by a studio, but how did they feel similar or different to you?
“Selma” was just such a massive undertaking on so many levels. Technically it was a more difficult film for me, just because there was so much more action that needed to be achieved and so many more moving parts. “A Most Violent Year” just felt a bit more simple, a little more controlled, because it's a film all about conversations. With “Selma” it was just so much more about the movement, the action, the sort of, like, people moving forward, and that's a challenging thing to capture without it being boring. Technically “Selma” was a lot more difficult. Also, too, is just the emotional sort of investment in the film made it different from “A Most Violent Year.” I mean the story of Dr. King is a story that I've been thinking about since I was a child, so just the stakes were a lot higher. I felt like I had to be so much more careful, and so much more precise about helping to tell the story visually than I was with “A Most Violent Year.” I was freer with “A Most Violent Year” because it's not a story that, if you brought it to my attention, I would have a lot to just organically, innately offer, whereas with “Selma,” I just had so much more invested. It's like, “That's my story,” you know?
That's interesting, because “Selma,” I thought, felt much more of a piece with your aesthetic tendencies.
In other words, “A Most Violent Year” sort of struck me as a bold departure in some ways, while “Selma” felt right in your wheelhouse. Do you know what I mean?
Hmm, that's interesting. Yeah. I mean I feel like I grew up, in a sort of particular way, on “A Most Violent Year” in a way that I didn't, necessarily, on “Selma.” Meaning, you know, “A Most Violent Year,” I was trying things and exploring things, maybe closer to “Mother of George,” you know? But with “Mother of George” there was still that level of awareness and comfortability that I had with the director and the subject matter, where this was just totally different. I went from feeling – like I would have loved to have been Bob Elswit shooting “Michael Clayton,” you know? Just that sort of slow burn adult drama, where “Selma,” it's different. It's the community I'm familiar with. Ava [DuVernay], in so many ways, said, “Listen, just do what you do best.” Whereas J.C. was saying, “Listen, I want to create a world that we're unfamiliar with, a world that you may have been too young to understand or too young to remember.” It was almost starting from scratch, where with “Selma” we weren't starting from scratch. We were actually treading territory we had done in other films.
So it's a good observation, yeah. “A Most Violent Year” is very different for me. When I watch the film, I feel very different about it. There were a couple of times during the screening I kept saying to myself, like, “Man, this may be the first time where I'm watching a film that I'm not so self-aware of the cinematography.” With “Selma,” I'm scrutinizing every frame. [Laughs.] You know what I mean? I'm trying things or revisiting things that I've visited in other films before, so the level of scrutiny and the level of nervousness around making sure the photography was right, according to the story, was so much more intense.
Well it's no less beautiful and it has this sort of sun-kissed quality to it. What was your inspiration for the look? What did you and Ava talk about?
When I first met with Ava, she brought up this idea of the film looking like it was shot on Kodachrome. And, you know, there are a lot of films that try to achieve that look, so automatically you imagine it's going to have this overall warm feel and there's going to be a lot of blues in the shadows. But then she broke out these photographs from a photographer named Paul Fusco, who was the photographer who shot all of those images from the RFK train funeral procession. Basically what he did was, you know – RFK died and what they did was they put his body on a train and they drove the train cross-country to be buried. And Paul Fusco shot all these photographs from the train. And it's interesting. They have this sort of deep, deep, rich quality to it. He was very much aware of the faces of the people watching the train go by, and not necessarily the landscape. The faces, the skin tones are very, very rich, but the landscape is just sort of blurry and…
Yeah, it's very secondary, thank you. So it just gives this sort of imbalance. You would think it would be about these phantom landscapes. But it wasn't about “this is America, the landscape” it was about “this is America, the faces of the people who were most sort of affected by this man's death.” It seemed like there was a great opportunity to explore some things visually with it, but it also seemed like there were some parallels to the narrative, too. You could almost imagine if it was Martin Luther King's body on that train and these people along the road paying homage to him. So Paul Fusco's photographs, and just that idea of a very – I don't want to say retro, but a very particular patina to it that made us feel like we were in that moment, without it being distracting.
Got it. Well what do you have coming up next, man? And what are you interested in doing with your career? Obviously you've been working a number of years now, but, you know, you're taking off!
So what kind of stuff do you want to do?
Ah, man, I just want to keep growing. The great thing about these two films, again, was I feel like I grew up on those movies in ways that I hadn't before. And that's refreshing. Because it's almost like you're reinventing yourself a little bit, which I'm interested in. I don't want to be this artist who has his bag of tricks for every film. I want to grow. I want to develop. I have some ideas that I'm constantly trying to develop on every film, and I want to keep having opportunities to do that, and an opportunity to be in harmony with the photographic sensibilities that I care about. And I'm hoping that comes in forms that work for me. Like I like quiet dramas, you know? I like quiet dramas that have a slide of action in there, and those action sequences can just be a little bit more clumsy. [Laughs.] So I just hope I can continue to do what I'm doing, but not in a bigger way in the sense that it's just going to be disruptive to the process. I like small movies. I like quieter-feeling films, at least. Maybe they'll be bigger in budget, but in feel I'm hoping they can feel like smaller, more personal, more intimate films. And I don't care. I'm open. Whoever has something interesting, I'd love to read it and see if I can find myself in the material.