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Through the Lens: Charlotte Bruus Christensen on Fences

Cinematographer, Charlotte Bruus Christensen cites Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman as an inspiration for her work. Bergman’s films often deal with complicated family relationships and the eventual unraveling of them. It was thus perfect that Bruus Christensen come on board and work alongside Denzel Washington on Fences, a film that deals with family frustrations and how time and fate have failed him.

The shots are simple but beautiful, as is the film, a beauty that blossoms and enriches the viewer after each viewing. It’s painful, and haunting.

In Through the Lens: Bruus Christensen discusses the details of two scenes:

The Interior Scene In The Bedroom:

Denzel and I never sat down with shots and where he was going to be. It was more an umbrella of ideas. If you watch Denzel on his publicity tours, he’s telling this story, and every sentence of his story is set in a past experience. He would set the scenes based on past experience. He talks about this climax of the scene which is building up to the death conversation.

Early on in the film, he talks about death, and Rose tells him, she doesn’t want to hear him talk about death. He tells her, “You’re going to die, I’m going to die, we’re all going to die.” He sounds like it’s not a big deal to him, but whenever he’s alone, he has this struggle.

So, whenever you see him alone, like he’s in the backyard, he looks up to the window, we’d shoot from high angles.

The film has been dealing with this side story or the devil. Denzel says this is where Troy is dealing with the devil and shouting out the window. It’s a climax to that whole story where he’s not afraid of death.

When it came to being in the bedroom, we spoke about the opening of this moment. It’s calm, the phone rings, Rose goes downstairs. We didn’t want to prepare the audience for anything. Even when the news comes that the baby has been born, but the mother has died, we still stay calm.

Denzel isn’t a big handheld fan, but he really liked the feeling of it. I had to fight a bit for it. The minute she closes the door, and she goes out, that was the second we went handheld. It was so quietly done but we needed to make it really intimate because it’s this intimate battle he’s having in his room.

The rest of the scene after that is one handheld shot. We did shoot a few of those angles from outside the window, but in the edit, they chose to just stay in that one shot. We stay over the shoulder, photographing the side of his face or his jaw, and it turns out that that was what gives the whole shot this very emotional feeling.

Denzel would never give us, a specific direction as to whether he would open the window or not, he just told us to be prepared. Sometimes a director and actor will disagree on that choice, but because he was playing both, he could keep that inside, but he’d keep me on my toes, and I’d have to be prepared to react immediately. I had to feel and I had to listen.

So when we did that handheld shot, I didn’t know whether he was going to open the window, how far I could reach out, or if the rain was going to hit the lens. Even though we spoke about the silence at the beginning, the climax is truly when he’s alone and you have that internal battle.

For the lighting, he always wanted the lightening and thunder to be going, so we knew we had that to help with the climactic feeling, but it’s still very simple, and that became the theme.

There’s a lot of warmth in the scene even though it’s a cool night and there’s the storm happening. We said it wasn’t about making it blue and cold, we had to keep that warmth to the scene.

The Final Battle:

This is another climactic scene. Troy isn’t the master of the house anymore. Denzel has been talking about this too when his father-in-law was dying a few years ago. Denzel and his wife brought his father-in-law there, and something he said to them was, “This is not just a house, make it a home.” By that, he was saying, you take care of my daughter. Denzel repeated that story on set, and that somehow built that scene. There’s this understanding of how much a home means, and not being the head of the home, is where he’s defeated. Troy is on the stairs, defeated, drunk. His son comes along and tries to pass him on the stairs, and there’s this duel happening. His son is saying, “I’ve lost respect for you. You’re not the master anymore.”

This scene is almost like those duels you see in Westerns, and you feel that tension in this moment between father and son. The challenge was whether we move the camera, and work with static frames or track it. We made some on the spot decisions, and it was all about seeing it on the day. Denzel prepared us in the same way by telling us these stories.

The whole scene is that duel that ends in this fight, and Troy is the stronger one. The boy leaves and Troy is alone. The audience doesn’t know that this is the last time we see Troy, but we don’t figure that out.

It’s been truthful to the performances, and when Troy is alone, the last shot of Troy is shot with a portrait lens that blurs the edges. You can define the blur of the scene.

Whenever Troy is alone and talking to the devil or God, he’s looking up to this window. In this scene, there’s a light and it’s a high angle looking down at him. We used this special lens, and he looks into the lens, and the camera stays with him. They’re such simple tools but honest to the idea and the visual intent that Denzel has and it’s honest to the story of Troy.

He’s going a bit crazy at this point, and there’s ambiguity, we don’t know where the story is going to go. The little choices of lenses and lighting were really important to the scene.

The tree, the bat, the baseball, and the boy grabbing it before he does. All of those details were important to catch.

As a cinematographer, there were so many details had so much meaning and intent that needed to be captured.

Fences from Film on Vimeo.