Danish cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen has two films out that are on the awards radar — The Girl on the Train starring Emily Blunt, and Fences starring Denzel Washington. We recently caught up to talk about her work on Fences and working with Denzel Washington.
Hers is a rare interview because it’s not every day we get to speak to a female cinematographer, but Christensen has been doing this for over ten years. She says working on Fences was a collaborative process, and different because she and Washington didn’t use shot lists. This was all about observing the actors and allowing them the freedom to roam.
She talks about the minimalist movement of the camera and explains why she chose to shoot on film instead of digital.
Awards Daily: Well, it’s great speaking to you today. What a contrast of films you’ve worked on this year, The Girl on the Train and now Fences
Charlotte Bruus Christensen: What a contrast. They’re pretty much opposite in terms of world and looks.
AD: How did you get involved on Fences?
CBC: It was actually through my agent. I was still shooting the very last part of The Girl on the Train and I was in New York. My agent called me and said they were still meeting people. I had a read and loved it. It sounds like you’re familiar with Sweden and the movies that the films that Ingmar Bergman had written for theater and stage. This script reminded me of that. I saw a lot of similarities and this story was very universal. I could certainly relate to it. As it turns out, Denzel was in New York and my agent suggested we meet. I went in thinking it would be a polite 20-minute hello. It turned into a four-hour script meeting, going through the whole script and discussing it. So, that was my first meeting with Denzel.
He didn’t talk too much about the look, he was more concerned with story. He expected my work to translate that. Once in a while, he’d come up with a lens choice or a shot, but our conversations were always related to the story. We never separated the look and shots from talking about the emotions of the characters. He would inform me and direct me that way, that this scene was heading in this direction, and I’d take that information and break it up into shots.
AD: As a cinematographer, what’s your process once you take on a film? Did you approach Fences differently to your normal approach?
CDC: I did because I think we didn’t do shot lists throughout the movie. As I said, Denzel would just have conversations about the scenes, and a few shots had some specifics, but then I needed to create the rest. If I suggested some things or even a shot list, Denzel would question why I’d do that. “How can you make lists? You don’t know where I’m going to be. You don’t know what I’m going to do. You have to lead the actors to have the freedom to do whatever they want.”
I was able to understand very quickly what that gave me. I did prepare this differently. I was fully prepared in terms of story. I had to react spontaneously to rehearsals that morning because then he would say, “I could be here.”
He would always say that if I wanted something specific like wanting a scene elsewhere for say lighting or do wider shots. He would say, ‘”Let the actors act.” It taught me a lot about how you observe and learn and react to a story and that is when you place the camera. I am a story teller like he is. It’s not like he’s a creative and I am a technician. Our goal was to make it work together.
AD: How did you achieve the stagey look and feel of the film that we see?
CBC: I shot on 35mm which was the desire of both of us as we feel this format has this softness and texture that served the look we wanted. It also is a way of working that is a little old-fashioned. I stay by the camera observing the actors. I don’t shoot the footage off and do the grading. I stay put.
What we did in Fences was not to show off the camera work. We focused on precision and minimal movement. By doing that it becomes about the actor, so when you move the camera, it becomes extremely important.
We paid a lot of attention to how we placed the camera. So when he’s talking to Rose and what’s so dangerous about death, the camera is there with him making him feel important and high. Later, when he’s alone, you see he’s actually scared of death so we placed the camera higher to make him appear smaller.
AD: The film didn’t appear claustrophobic at all. How did you achieve that and what were some challenges for you?
CBC: That was a challenge because this house that we used was ten feet wide. There were three boxes with low ceilings. Denzel is a tall guy, and we’d have five people in the room who’d take up all the room. How on earth were we going to make the camera invisible? It was a challenge, but again it was also about carefully working out these things in rehearsal. They’d come in and feel what they needed to feel. He knows the camera and how actors work for the camera, so we let the actors do what they needed to do, but we did have to squeeze the camera in there. It was hard in there as we shot with anamorphic lenses. You can’t focus up close; you have to be at a distance to make that lens work.
In movies, they use the handheld camera to create tension, to bring fear. We used it in all the joyful moments. When he comes home and he’s a driver, we went handheld to support that joyful moment. It is love and they love each other. With every scene, we just broke them down and worked with the challenges of being on location.
Denzel and I both said that the walls couldn’t be knocked down and so that would add to the authenticity as we couldn’t put the lens where it couldn’t be.
AD: Can you talk about the process of Rose’s monologue scene?
CBC: That scene was all about letting them feel like they were on stage and that they could go wherever they wanted to go. What we did was, we put the camera on a track so we could follow her and not have to cut all the time. We had a long zoom lens too. By putting it on the right angle knowing that she was doing what she was doing, also that scene is full of emotions. I had to support that and the zoom helped me move in a bit closer and I did it slowly so that you don’t really see the zoom at all. You just realize that I’m in a close up. We changed the distance in that same take without seeing it. I’d go with her emotions and zoom when I needed to get in with those emotions and to get intimate.
Denzel didn’t know when I’d do things. He’d also direct me in terms of getting the speed perfect. He is a great director and lets you be good at what you’re good at. He just is in control but he lets you give. I could give what I could give, and he would enhance it with small comments.
AD: I’m going to have to go back and watch this zoom now.
CBC: You must.
AD: I was just thinking that when I speak to cinematographers, they’re usually male, and yet it’s a craft that is gender invisible.
CBC: There are amazing female filmmakers out there, but there aren’t a lot of female cinematographers. It’s tough if you have a family. It’s hard if you have to travel and bring the children. I think there are a lot of women who have the vision and talent, but it’s tough to make it work with life. The answer might be practical. It’s all about choices in life. I have three small children, but I’m very lucky to have a husband who can travel. It also takes stamina. You have to want to do it, you have to drive it. I also feel there’s a bit of fear, but there’s certainly no lack of talent, they are out there for sure.