In the midst of discussing the eclectic group of directors that cinematographer Bradford Young has worked with up to this point – directors like David Lowrey for Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, J.C. Chandor for A Most Violent Year, and Ava DuVernay for Selma, and now Denis Villeneuve for Arrivial – it was funny to hear Young admit that even he wouldn’t have guessed he’d be working with Phil Lord and Chris Miller on a Han Solo movie. Young goes as far to admit that he had to be talked into shooting the still untitled Han Solo spinoff and says there was one specific key to him agreeing (get your thinking caps on): Lord and Miller cited one specific movie as an influence for what they wanted to do with Han Solo. And it just so happens that Young loves this specific movie. What is this movie? Young’s not saying for fear he’d give the plot away, but, as he explains below, it was this moment he decided to sign on and shoot a Star Wars movie.
Young’s latest project is Arrivial. Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguist who is paired with a mathematician (Jeremy Renner) in an effort to decode the language of visiting aliens. If you’ve seen any of Young’s prior films, you should be at least somewhat familiar with his poetic shooting style – a style that seems to evolve into a different form with every film. It’s an approach that serves a movie like Arrival, so raw at times, perfectly.
Ahead, Young speaks about the challenges of shooting a science fiction movie (he’d never shot a scene depicting zero gravity before), how his choices of directors has shaped his career, and why The Empire Strikes Back is such a beautiful looking film. (And, just maybe, we can all figure out the movie Lord and Miller pitched to Young to convince him to shoot the Han Solo movie.)
A lot of cinematographers will work with the same directors, and you’re not really doing that.
I mean, I can’t speak for other cinematographers, but for me personally, I just try to work with an artist that I respect. All the filmmakers I’ve worked with, I somehow, some way, bear witness to their body of work and I’m inspired by what they do. And so I just sort of let that drive everything. That obviously leads to a lot of me telling a lot of people no, and just waiting to see who will ask me to collaborate with them. But yeah, I’ve been fortunate to work with some really genius, brilliant artists, and Denis is one of the best of our generation, so a complete honor. I’m really humbled by it.
That’s high praise.
I mean, I’ve been a fan since Polytechnique, so I’ve been invested for years. Not that long, since 2009, but I’ve been invested for years. I make it part of my business to see everything he’s doing.
I could see people on your position work with David Lowery on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and decide, well, this works, and just keep that collaboration going. Or any of the directors you’ve worked with.
I think it’s a combination of working with directors that have a very particular way of working and have their own particular voice and accent and those things are felt and they’re very powerful in the work they do. And the fact that I’m a human being and I change day to day, you know what I mean? So just imagine year to year what that looks like for us. So I’m definitely not the same cinematographer from Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. The work at the time was the right work for what we did. But if I made another film with David Lowery now, we would make a different kind of film, for sure. You know, with the same independent rigor. The work ethic doesn’t change, but the vision change, because time and life determines our perspective on the world. And so, yeah, I’m just bringing whatever I can offer. All the baggage I collect along the way comes with me to every film and everybody gets a different version of me. You know what I mean? That’s just the natural process.
Working with Denis in Arrival, is that a collaborative process?
Oh, yeah, very collaborative. So there’s an ebb and flow.
Is that normal, or is it different every time?
It’s normal for me. I’m only interested in working on projects with a high level of collaboration, so that’s normal for me. I don’t know about everybody’s experience, but for me, that’s really a number one requirement. We have to be able to collaborate, which means there’s compromises on both sides. I don’t always get what I want, which is life, and I accept that. But yeah.
What was the most challenging scene to shoot in Arrival?
The memory chamber sequence. That was real difficult, because nothing was there. We shot in a completely blue environment, but we had beautiful pre-viz. We had a pre-viz that was working on a really solid emotional level, so we knew if we just honored the pre-viz, we would probably get something powerful. And obviously, we were shooting Amy Adams, who just brings so much gravity in every frame. She’s giving it totally 100 percent. So it’s just one of those things where I had to be very myopic. I had to really just focus in on Amy and let Amy lead me and I couldn’t worry about what they were going to do later, or what the alien would look like, or how much smoke would be in the room. But sure, even though I was trying to surrender to the process, it was still difficult.
And I think that also equally hard was the first time they go into the ship, so the zero gravity. We had five different set pieces that had to all be connected and it seemed like they were all happening within a matter of ten minutes – and we shot those over a matter of weeks, and it had to be so precise. But also at the same time, not be shackled by precision. But it was really difficult, very difficult for me.
I have to admit, if you didn’t even tell me what the movie was and just told me Phil Lord and Chris Miller are going to work with Bradford Young, I am in.
It could have been Lego Movie 2. It could be anything. I’m in.
[Laughs.] Now, this collaboration, in the essence, didn’t seem as obvious to me. You know what I mean? There was a real bridge to it. But they convinced me.
They had to convince you?
They convinced me. I wasn’t sure, you know what I mean? They were sure, though.
I imagine they were.
They know exactly what they want. And it didn’t take long to convince me, but they did it. They referenced the right things and immediately I was like, “Okay, I want to work with these guys.” You know, but I wasn’t sure. Star Wars, it’s not something I’ve been thinking about or dreaming about. It just kind of fell on me, so I wasn’t expecting that.
I got to interview [Empire Strikes Back cinematographer] Peter Suschitzky once. His whole point is that he and Irvin Kershner weren’t sci-fi filmmakers, so that’s why that movie worked so well.
Yeah. I mean, I think Peter and Irvin, they were experimental filmmakers. So that just was the brilliance of that, the unexpected bridge between that film and what they did. But it makes sense, though. It makes sense because that world is really playful, and it needs that. It can’t be too procedural and it can’t be too over the top action. Those films straddle a fine line and so why wouldn’t you bring the two best art filmmakers of their time to the table and have them be part of the process? That’s why that film is the best film narratively and it’s the best film visually.
You said Lord and Miller referenced the right things. What did they say?
Well, I’ll just say this: that they referenced the right films in the American film lexicon that really touched me in a real tender place. And they mentioned some films that I don’t think they knew I had such a really emotional attachment to – and there’s one in particular and I’m not going to give it up because it would just tell everything. But there’s one in particular that they mentioned in the referential landscape and that one really convinced me that these cats wanted to do something different. Because if you mention that film, it shows that you’re brave and that you want to really try to do something different. And so, as soon as they said that, I had to double check, like, “Are you sure? That? You know what they did?” And they’re like, “Yeah, that’s the film we want to make.” And I was like, Wow, these cats are brave.
That’s really interesting it came down to that. There’s a chance you might not have liked that movie they referenced.
They’re honest. Yeah, those guys aren’t guarded. They’re not guarded with what they do best, you know what I mean? They believe in themselves, so they’re only going to reference things that mean something to them. And if you are into it, great, let’s roll. If you’re not, we’ll try again on another film. But these cats are real, they know exactly what they want. And so, that goes a long way for me.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.