It is without a doubt one of the most important films of 2018 and one of the best. We can say it over and over, but in the cannon of Spike Lee films, this is one of his greatest joints he’s ever directed.
That ending packs a powerful blow, connecting today’s crisis to the story of Ron Stallworth, the African-American police officer who infiltrated the KKK. The film was released on the anniversary of the Charlottesville protests and in true Lee style, he changed his original ending to include footage of 45 — or as Lee calls him, “Agent Orange” — as he tries to blame both side (the “alt-left” and white supremacists) for the events of Charlottesville. Lee brings Blackkklansman into the present day with that clip and strikes the most powerful cinematic blow of 2018.
How did you get involved in the film?
It was actually through my agent while I was on vacation in Sweden and he said that Spike wanted to meet with me, “tomorrow.” So, I hopped on a plane and Spike and I went to a Yankees game. He was sitting behind the Yankees head coach, chatting. I thought it was just amazing.
We didn’t talk about the movie. We talked about how we liked to make films. It was more about chemistry and ideas. The next morning, I met Spike at a coffee shop at 6am outside of 40 Acres and Fort Greene where his offices are. He handed me the script and told me to read it on the flight. I was flying back to South Africa for a project. It was a long enough flight and I read it. When I got to South Africa, he asked what images I saw and if I saw any. So, I told him yes.
How did you marry your visions as a cinematographer with Spike Lee who has his ideas?
When he asked me that question, I told him a flat out lie and told him I did see images, but I didn’t. But in my own aesthetic view, I try not to impose ideas or images in my head on the project. I try to construct everything through the experience of making the film itself.
When we’re trying to figure out the cameras and lenses that we wanted to explore in the aesthetic. I’m putting everything on the table first. I’m shooting examples of each thing, pulling examples from the script, or doing night exteriors.
I’d go into the cinema watch it and decide what feels right to me. I try to be as vulnerable as possible to the possibilities. I think there’s one thing that’s important to me, and that is the images have to feel hypnotic. It can reach the spectator in their sensorial experience. I experienced that in the testing. All these things inform choices.
On the scout photography, I was shooting all the scout photography and stills on a Polaroid camera, the same kind of way they would have done in the 70s. I was trying to assume this role where I was like raw and investigating what this film was without not necessarily have answers. It was more about figuring out what the important questions were and then exploring them.
How did it all come alive for you as you’re location scouting?
It’s my first period movie, the way I like to work is using my intuition and imagining that anything is possible. The difficult thing with a period film is that if you’re using a lot of background actors or period cars, you can’t afford to really do the set 360 which is what I like to do.
With the police station and the KKK house, that was very freeing for me. I was able to look in any direction. But in some scenes where it’s a night exterior outside the student union house, we really had to know that from certain areas it would look like Colorado Springs and not Brooklyn or upstate New York. That was tricky stuff.
Our production designer gave us large vehicles when we were doing those scenes so we could block areas of the background. It was a lot of problem-solving. I’m trying to find the areas with Spike and Curt where we could look another way.
When you’re dealing with period, talk about your tools and the lenses you used.
I chose a set of lenses based off of the testing and working with Panavision who are my closest collaborators. I chose a mish-mash of vintage lenses. They have a series called P-Vintage which is 1970s glass. I supplemented that with 1960s glass and 80s glass. We used that for hand-helds inside cars. I’m a big believer in selecting things based off of the necessity of scenes rather than the look.
For me, I like to have tools that allow me to feel free and improvise and not feel constrained.
I also am shooting on 35mm, so I’m contradicting myself because that, of course, comes with its own plethora of constraints. I think it’s the core of creativity. I’ve always felt like the constraints force you to come up with a lot of scenarios where you are creatively free. In a sense, freedom is not how we define it. It’s not freedom of constraints, but the constraints themselves and imposing constraints, these laws force you to operate in a very determined way. I’m always trying to balance between the two things. So, I’m choosing lenses that can absorb light very fast, are lightweight. But I also compliment that with a camera package and a film stock that might have certain constraints. I’m always trying to reverberate between these two kinds of ideas.
Let’s talk about Spike’s double-dolly shot and what he said because it comes at such a crucial point in the film.
When you do a Spike film, you know you’re going to do that shot. Spike and I didn’t know where we were going to do it. It was through the scouting, but when we were in production, he came up with the idea that we’d do it right at the end. We were going to do it in the hallway.
The production designer and myself were reacting to this and figuring out the lighting. I think it worked out so beautifully. I’d found some Ektachrome early on in the process.
Spike and I talked about the film JFK and they had used a lot of different formats and aspect ratios. I think he’d seen my other work and me doing that. Before I had decided to shoot in 35mm, I knew I was using other formats.
I found a guy in LA who sent me four rolls and we had shot those in the opening. It also happened that an apprentice of mine in NY had one roll. We shot it all in the beginning not knowing what lab could process the footage.
By the end, we had one roll left. We did the double-dolly shot on vision 3 and right as we were about to call wrap, we chose to do it on Ektachrome. It was a special one. It invoked this emotion that becomes magical realism in the end. You see Ron and Patrice walk up to the door and they’re floating and it becomes this window that you travel into this window. I found it so poetic.