Earlier this week, The Hate U Give joined La La Land, Room, The Artist, and Silver Linings Playbook when it won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at this year’s Hampton’s International Film Festival.
The extraordinary film about Starr (Amandla Stenberg) is a young black teenager whose home is in the poor urban ‘hood of Garden Heights. But her parents want Starr to attend a prep school where her classmates are mainly wealthy white kids. Starr travels between these two worlds each day, adopting two personas to fit into her dual life. When her childhood friend Kahlil is shot, Starr is compelled to discover her voice and stand up for what she truly believes in.
George Tillman Jr’s film is a powerful, striking look at race relations. Cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare Jr worked with Tillman to capture individual looks for the two worlds. I caught up with him to discuss how he used new cameras and new technology to created the effects he needed to deliver the timely message in The Hate U Give. Mălaimare also talks about how Tillman’s prep reminded him of another great director with whom he has worked: Francis Ford Coppola.
Read our chat below:
You and George created these two worlds of the ‘hood where Starr lives and the elite environs of her prestigious school. What conversations did you have about the differences between those two worlds?
We knew about this approach from the beginning. It was something George said from the beginning and he wanted to differentiate from the two worlds. We were trying different ideas and I remember when we were scouting, most of the schools had a lot of blue lockers and a lot of glass on the facade. They were reflecting the sky and blue just seemed to dominate that environment.
When we were in the ‘hood, I remember Miss Rosalie’s house when the colleagues are there. Most of the houses had red and orange curtains that were filtering the sun. It was such a warming environment and we realized that it was the right approach. The other elements followed in how we lit everything and it all culminated with the color grading.
We shot most of the neighborhood in anamorphic and the school was shot in spherical. It’s not a giant difference and it’s nothing that’s not been done before, but it’s an extra element.
Since you brought it up, you like to mix your technical aspects. Did you do anything different or new for this?
The cameras we chose were fairly new at that time and it was my first time using it. It was the Panavision DXL. What was interesting about it was that it had a larger sensor than a regular camera. We used an old 1950’s lens that we, were told were used for Ben Hur.
The spherical sphere lenses were still large format film lenses, but they were more modern and sharper.
Did any of that new equipment serve as a challenge?
We actually tested a lot and I used them on commercials. It’s always a challenge when you use something you’ve never used, but that’s the beauty of our work.
We also knew we wanted to make Khalil’s shooting as real as possible and instead of using any other small camera for the body cam or dashboard footage, we actually used a real police dashcam system and a real body cam. Not only did it have the GPS image on screen, but it also had infra-red mode. It’s something everyone in the audience, unfortunately, is so familiar with and it’s so real no one would question the nature of it.
So, you talked about the shooting scene. At the other end of the film, we have the riot scene.
We used three cameras and we had a lot of footage, but not a lot of that ended up in the movie. The ones that did made it feel real for the audience. We used phone footage and real broadcast cameras for that. Again, you can downgrade movie cameras to make them look like a broadcast camera, but it’s not as authentic as the actual broadcast camera.
We had a lot of references and a lot of news footage. I remember sitting with George and watching a documentary with him about Ferguson. It didn’t have too much news footage, but it had a lot of phone footage which put you in that place. You felt you were there compared to the distant images you get when you use long lenses. You felt like you were in the middle of the crowd. That was really the main thing we took from there, figuring out where to place the cameras and being close to Starr.
How did your vision merge with George’s viewfinder to work with him for a unified effect?
We established a few rules from the beginning that helped us. One of the things related to camera movement. We didn’t know when to use Steadicam or hand-held. At first, we were going to use hand-held for Garden Heights and Steadicam for the school scenes, but then we realized everything revolves around Starr’s character. Our rule was that Starr’s feelings should dictate the camera movement no matter where you are. I think that worked really well. It was easy for us to decide which scenes needed to be static after that and it was a good rule for both worlds.
How did you choose to light Garden Heights?
I think we got the idea in prep. The school is a big space and we scheduled where the sun would be. We’d have a lot of lighting on the roof. In Garden Heights, we had a lot of sunlight filtering in through the curtains.
Were there other influences that served for you?
I love still photography and get more of my references from stills. I remember printing a lot of photos. Eli Reed was the first African-American to be employed by Magnum Photos. His street photography is amazing and served as our reference.
We were going back and forth. There’s definitely Spike Lee references in the opening. Interestingly, a Procter and Gamble commercial called The Talk was another reference. When we saw that, we thought it confirmed that we were on the right track with our visual ideas for the film.
How was that collaborative process with George?
He’s amazing. He’s very similar to Coppola. Francis does this thing and George did it as well. In prep, instead of rehearsing the script. He was trying to create familiar situations, so he would have dinner nights and bowling nights. It was far better than just reading the lines. You believe that family is real.
You absolutely are convinced and you never question it for a single minute.
You could absolutely tell that.