Megan McLachlan speaks with Eric Branco, cinematographer on Neon’s Clemency.
Clemency, written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu, follows prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) as she prepares to execute her 12th inmate. It’s a simple premise, but it bears so much weight, as Bernadine carries the death of each inmate with her, something she can’t shake even when she’s at home with her husband. Woodard gives a career best performance, matched by the eloquent direction and writing from Chukwu.
I had the chance to speak with Eric Branco, cinematographer on the film, and he’s correct when he says that everyone brings their A game on this project, from Aldis Hodge as a death-row inmate to supporting characters like Wendell Pierce, and of course, the thoughtful lighting and creative choices from Branco.
Awards Daily: How much research did you do for this project? Did you have to watch any executions?
Eric Branco: No, I didn’t watch any executions. I’m somewhat familiar with the criminal justice system and everything, but I really started researching through the director Chinonye. Basically when she started writing the script, she went all in on it. She was honestly the fulcrum that we all balanced on, as far as research went. She came prepared and would tell us what to read. We had to be up to par. When someone is so well-versed, it can be intimidating. You need to make sure you’re on your game.
AD: The film opens with a botched execution, almost like a nightmare. I mean, it is a nightmare. Tell me a bit about what filming that scene was like.
EB: Filming that scene was tough. Everything in the death chamber was shot over the course of three days. I think we started with the botched execution and then went on to the other two scenes.
AD: Including the final scene?
EB: Yeah. Which was maybe the most intense, emotional three days of filming I’ve ever had in my life. There was a therapist on set. In between takes, a team member would go off with a therapist for a moment, and then come back. Also, we shot in a real prison, so while we shot, you’re sitting in a space and essentially playing make-believe. No one was executed where we shot, but it’s not a far stretch for it to be in that space and to put yourself in that emotional head space. The death chamber in the film was actually a set built in the prison.
AD: I really like the way the lighting is used in this film. The prison scenes have lots of synthetic light, her office scenes natural light, and home scenes a more incandescent and warm. What other choices did you make in differentiating Bernadine’s settings and moods?
EB: That was something Chinonye and I talked about at length. She wrote the first draft of the script three years before we shot the film. I think I read the first draft. So it was an interesting, organic pre-production process before we actually got into pre-production, where we would bounce ideas off each other every couple of weeks or every month or so over the course of several years. We’d send each other images that spoke to us. Where we landed as far as lighting and different locations was everything in the prison itself is lit from above with fluorescence. In her office, the light comes from the top side, and then by the time you get to her home, everything is at eye level or below. The prison has cooler tones, and the office is somewhat neutral, because that’s her sanctuary within the prison. And her home is warm except for the light of the TV, which is the same temperature as the prison. So every time she’s watching the news, we tried to hint a little bit through the color temperature of the TV, that mold slowly breaking into her home life.
AD: Alfre Woodard creates such tension in her performance. She’s kind of like walking tension. How did you match that tension in the film? I suppose I’m asking which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did she match you or did you match her or did you work together?
EB: I think we were hand in hand with the same goal in mind. Any time you’re on set and you’re watching a performance like that. It might be the best performance I’ve ever seen personally on a set, and it’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in a film. Everyone on this film really brought their A game. It was the kind of thing where no one wanted to be the weak link, and everyone was amazing. As far as tension goes, I think Chinonye and I planned from the start to give the actors room to breathe and to play in the scene. There are a lot of longer takes that are left uncut. We start the movie somewhat wide. At the head of the movie, the windows are always in frame, and a little wider. Then throughout the course of the movie, we get tighter and tighter and tighter and also eliminate any windows from the frames. The first time we see her in the death chamber, there’s a window that’s pretty wide, and there’s a window right behind her. And the last time we see her in the death chamber, we’re in close-up, and it’s just her face. Same in her office, we begin with wide-facing windows, and if you watch it, in every scene consecutively, we come around and around further and closer until the very last time you see her, we’re in close-up, almost in profile with her against the wall on the other side.
AD: Now I need to go rewatch it. I definitely noticed the longer takes. It makes you uncomfortable.
EB: I never want to be a flashy cinematographer. It takes you out of the story. But the movie should be making you more stressed. Hopefully by the end of the movie, the credits roll, and you’re like, oh wow, I haven’t taken a breath in the last few minutes.
AD: This isn’t a typical movie about capital punishment, in that it isn’t as much concerned with the process, like Just Mercy is, as it is with the aftermath. How much did that affect your shooting choices?
EB: What’s difference about Clemency as opposed to other movies that have taken place in the capital punishment system is the fact the main character is just someone who works there. It’s just her job. That definitely influenced us when looking for locations. In a lot of prison movies, and this isn’t knocking any other films, they lean heavily into that romanticized vision of a prison. Brick and swinging pendant lights. That type of aesthetic is not what a modern prison is. Modern prisons are essentially like office blocks. They’re workplaces for people, and they’re really just sterile. Because the story focuses so much on Bernadine and her journey, that was important to us to let the space fall away and show it as it is, to blend office worlds. Which hopefully we achieve.
AD: Yeah, you totally do. There are so many shades of blue and gray. Even her clothes match the prison sometimes, which is weird. Did you have discussions about the colors you wanted to include?
EB: Pre-production took place in a small office, so any time someone had an idea, you’d walk four steps into a person’s room and discuss it. We had a lot of discussions about the carpet in her [Bernadine’s] office, what color it had to be. Because it’s this awful green, which we tried to match the carpet in her office with the green paint on the walls in the prison, to bring a little bit of the prison into her office. If you notice, the last scene, she’s wearing white, which is kind of her escaping.
AD: Why do you think Bernadine continues to stay in this role as warden?
EB: I think she’s fought so hard to get it that she doesn’t want to let it go. It becomes this thing where her career is defining who she is. I’m not sure there is a Bernadine separate from the prison. I think it becomes that scary thing, if I walk away from this, who will I become?
AD: The film has an unidentified location, and it feels like this could take place in any state. What did you do to make it feel so universal?
EB: We purposefully didn’t set a location. It’s Anywhere, USA. Part of that is to speak to the universality of the process and how it’s not really about where you are. It’s to not give you any handle outside of the prison to hold onto. Another part of it is that Chinonye was specifically trying not to make a film about one state. She was very clear about it. She didn’t want it to be about the death penalty in Florida or Texas. It was much more about the sameness of this process, because essentially there is one Bernadine per state. She didn’t want to make commentary.
Clemency will be in theaters December 27.