The fights between Zendaya and John David Washington in Malcolm & Marie get brutal and ugly, but it always looks gorgeous. With lush cinematography, you can get lost in the black and white imagery despite the troubles brewing between this young couple. Director of photography, Marcell Rév, just came off of Sam Levinson’s Euphoria, and the projects couldn’t be more different.
The announcement that the actors made a film in quarantine came as a surprise to many, but what was that production really like to shoot? With only two actors and one set, they were able to shoot an intimate marital drama without sacrificing story, with all the new procedures put in place. Rév details what it was like to shoot in that particular set and also the challenges of shooting outside.
When these two fight, it feels like we are being thrown into the action—the camera weaving close to their faces. We are given the opportunity for a breather, but Rév explained that was to help keep the audience neutral as the night goes on. There is something beautifully sad in how Rév captures the bitterness and anger between Malcolm and Marie. We are stuck in the volatile fishbowl with them.
Awards Daily: I like the way the camera is set up early on when Marie is standing in the doorway to outside and she’s smoking and Malcolm is pacing around. The camera keeps up with him, and I wondered if that was going to establish some energy for us later on.
Marcell Rév: The way we wanted to shoot that was totally different.
AD: Oh, yeah?
MR: Initially it was going to be a shot connecting the bathroom to the living room. It was a dolly shot and we started to shoot it and it was meant to be a short little arrival and cutting into the living room. When we set that shot up, Sam [Levinson] suggested that we shoot the entire scene like that. We already shot it with them in pieces and we blocked it a different way. I think the sun was already rising on the third day and we had three shots when we got the one that ended up being in the movie. They decided to use that one take and I think that was amazing.
AD: It also made me wonder about the space. Did it feel claustrophobic and what was it like to shoot it during a pandemic?
MR: In a movie like this, when you have one location, it’s key to choose that location very carefully. It’s important to understand that that’s all you’ve got to work with. Sometimes when a movie has 120 locations and one of them isn’t perfect, you can get away with finding interesting angles and making it work. We went through a few houses and I was imagining a structure that was open and you could see the surroundings. I wanted somewhere that was an interior and exterior at the same time so you can photograph it outside like an aquarium and have that landscape in the background.
AD: I did think of an aquarium when I saw a shot outside.
MR: Yeah, and when you have that landscape in the back, there’s another challenge of lighting all that outside the house. With a limited crew on film stock, it’s difficult. We didn’t want just bare walls around the house. That’s not interesting to shoot. The other aspect of the house is that besides the open living room, there is a maze line hallway that you can walk down and get lost a little bit. The bedrooms and the bathrooms are small.
AD: Speaking of outside, there is that scene where Malcolm is punching the air and we follow him as Marie is getting ready. That small scene is gorgeous. What other challenges were there outside?
MR: We didn’t have access to fancy equipment so there were no condors or big rigs of lights around the hills. We had to used really old school methods like lighting from the ground. It wasn’t easy with a limited crew and the film stock wasn’t particularly sensitive.
AD: I’m really mad that your weren’t nominated for an Emmy for Euphoria.
MR: (laughs) Maybe next time, right?
AD: I would hope so! The colors of that show mean so much, but a lot of people are talking about how lush the black and white cinematography is in this. Is there something you wish audiences knew about filming something this way?
MR: Like how is it different?
MR: It’s so different. It’s not just to make it be black and white. It’s 180-degree opposite approach to lighting. You’re using different kinds of light because of the difference in sensitivity, but you can’t achieve the same quality or softness of the light. Also, just the nature of the monochromatic spectrum is different in how you perceive an image. Or how you look at it. The feeling of contrast is different than on a color image. For this movie, we were going for a deeper contrast and harder lights on actors. John David [Washington]’s skin is shiny whereas Zendaya’s is more matte and that’s two different approaches of lighting. It was a pleasure to light them. Every time I’m going for a different project, I have to start from scratch. I’m not using the same methods from Euphoria on Malcolm & Marie.
AD: And you don’t want the black and white to seem washed out. A movie shot in the 1930s is going to look different from a film shot now.
MR: We wanted to do a real black and white movie and not a grey movie. The film stock helped with that as did the approach to the lighting.
AD: I felt like the camera pushes us into the action during some of those fights. How did you want to put us in the way?
MR: It’s a balance of being there with them but also not taking sides. It’s about being subjective and you want to emotionally engage with them. You don’t want to take a side. Once you do that, the entire thing is lost and the next argument or dramatic turn can’t work in favor of the movie. The mixture of those things and the balance of those things makes it work.
AD: So the camera helps you stay objective?
MR: And also, these are conscious choices where we take a look at something from the outside. Sometimes it’s too suffocating so we have to pull back. We shot this movie in order, so we knew when it started to feel too claustrophobic or too suffocating and when we knew when to take a break.
AD: What’s your favorite shot of the film? In the middle of the film, Zendaya is sitting on the edge of the bed as John David walks away from her. There’s something intrusive about that that I remember. Is there something that sticks out to you the most?
MR: I’m a little bit with the movie still. I can only see the problems and I’m never satisfied. I only see things that I want to do differently. I’m so proud of the whole movie, but I’m too caught up in the details.