Benjamin Kracun, the cinematographer for the 5-time Oscar nominee Promising Young Woman, gets into the details of his craft in a chat with Awards Daily. He talks about how he became interested in cinematography as a job and as an art form. He also reveals many of the shots that he is particularly proud of in Promising Young Woman and how many of them came about. Finally, he talks about what a joy it was working with Emerald Fennell and what she brought to the work early on and as the film progressed.
Awards Daily: I was curious: what got you interested in cinematography?
Benjamin Kracun: I grew up in a very small town in Scotland with my parents who were both immigrants in Scotland. My dad’s Croatian, my mom is German, so I grew up slightly like an outsider. In this small town basically either you worked in a fish factory or packing boxes. I was just very curious and wanted to get out and about as soon as possible. At the same time my father had a few film cameras lying around the house. He never told me to take any pictures or anything like that, but they were just around and I wasn’t very academic but I knew I had to leave this town somehow. So I ended up picking these cameras and started taking photos around where I grew up. And I think it was my dad who processed them and said, I think you have an eye. Well, it’s something any parent would say to their kid. It was enough to spur me on to go further.
I applied and got into art school and did a foundation and wanted to do still photography. Initially I didn’t know anything about cinematography. I didn’t know it even existed; I didn’t know it was a job. I guess it’s so funny now because all that stuff’s available now. I just turned up at college. I was doing a lot of stills and a lot of black and white work. Then a friend of mine, a fellow student was like, ‘Ben, Ben, do you know that there is a course at Edinburgh Napier University that has a film camera, a 16 mm Bolex?’ Then literally I got on a bus and went across and asked if I could see this 16 mm Bolex camera, and they showed me it and I applied there. I was going to go to the arts school but then I ended up on this course purely because they had a Bolex camera. The course was called Film, Photography and Imaging. It was a great course. I remember reading that Lynn Ramsey took the course and seeing her film Ratcatcher and being, ‘Oh, my god, this is a milestone for me.’
So at that time I was interested in film and the process of it and developing it myself. I didn’t have stories, I didn’t know how to tell stories visually. But a few things happened. I just loved film and playing with cameras, and people at this school noticed that and they would just ask me to shoot films. Then a tutor told me there was a thing called cinematography, and I guess it started from there.
AD: So, with this film Carey Mulligan is the focus of so many shots of the film. She is in pretty much every scene. Did that require something different from you as a cinematographer with her being such a major focus?
BK: No, I previously worked on a film called Beast with Jessie Buckley where I think she is also in every frame. They are not similar in tone or anything but they are psychological thrillers. I really like psychological thrillers, especially strong female single character psychological thrillers, shall we say. I like that because you can really adapt and play with the psychology of the character through camera and lighting and influence that. I actually think it’s stronger, because it gives us a very focused point of view and way to watch the picture. With Mulligan even when she isn’t in it she is sort of still in it. But it meant that we could play with the object of subjective point of view. We could really amp it up as Cassie’s mission became more apparent of what she wanted to do. It also puts into question how the audience feels about her and many things, and it’s such a wonderful thing to play with in cinema. I think thriller, psychology, perspective, single view. You can really play with cinematography and cameras in those films.
AD: Already there are some iconic shots in the film of Mulligan when she’s lying out in the club pretending to be drunk, standing in the road after the attack on the car, and, of course, standing there in the nurse outfit wearing the wig. Do you remember what went into some of those shots and what your input was?
BK: Emerald had such a strong look book when we met for this job, and she showed me some images including some avenging angel images, and the image of Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia with her arms out. There were certain images in this lookbook, and Emerald was very clear about Cassie being this avenging angel, bringing retribution or forgiveness, depending how you fare. To speak to the first image when she’s on the bench in the club, which is such a powerful image, Emerald sat on the bench with their arms out and said, ‘This is where Cassie will be.’
What’s interesting there is that she is playing drunk, so it is a powerful image but also shows vulnerability. The images came from those discussions and Emerald’s idea of the avenging angel. They were always there and we were looking for locations and decided in the main how well they presented that image. With the nurse outfit that was more Nancy (Steiner). What me and Emerald discussed involved a beautiful moment where Cassie is going up to the cabin, filmed with a Steadicam, but instead we decided to stay back and I think it’s a really important moment. Emerald was very clear that we stay back and watch Cassie walk all the way up to the cabin, becoming smaller and smaller. You are always playing with that power, that sense of how much she’s a vulnerable woman going to the wolf’s lair, but at the same time the music is going and you are excited, which Emerald would have had in her mind. So you have this tension there where you’re, like, oh my God, this is so exciting but oh my God, she is so vulnerable. Oh my God, what’s going to happen? Playing with these ideas was always inside Emerald’s mind, so getting that information from her and really heightening it.
AD: I noticed in a lot of shots when Cassie is interacting with her “victims” there is a lot of cutting back and forth between her and whoever she is dealing with. What went into those kinds of shots? I remember specifically when she’s interacting with the dean in her office. A lot of tension back and forth.
BK: Yeah, that scene with Dean Elizabeth Walker (Connie Britton). Again that is a kind of classic two-hander, and there are quite a lot in this film. We were aware of that so we wanted to change them slightly, but keep them in the form of the film. That shot with the dean because of the nature of the office and how they were sat; also it is quite a regal office, it’s a university, that one plays out more like a Mexican standoff type vibe. In a Western it would be with guns and here it’s with words, with a quick back and forth. There are also very strong profiles that are equally balanced. Then there are the front shots where Cassie starts a little bit off and becomes more center as she reveals that she has the dean’s daughter, and the dean, who is very powerful in the beginning, then becomes more insecure there. It’s quite simple camera techniques in a way but they are very powerful shots. That was also a really great location for lighting because I used a lot of that mixed lighting so I would constantly be playing with warm lights in there, which I think is quite seductive for the audience. Even though you might be on edge or it might be an odd frame, I wanted it to feel very luscious most of the time. You know what I mean?
AD: Yeah, I was just thinking about the lawyer’s home. While it’s a wealthy house it’s not played up as a luxurious thing.
BK: That’s true. Actually it’s a much more austere sort of space. Which is a very interesting scene because it’s the only place where she dishes out forgiveness. I think it’s a scene that takes Cassie as much by surprise as it does the audience and the lawyer. I remember that we had these quite high central frames and then there is a complete change where we cross over when he gets close to her and she forgives him. There was actually a moment there that would have played into what happens at the end. There is a God light that comes through the window in that penultimate scene, and there’s a similar scene that would have happened in the lawyer’s home. We played with it but it didn’t feel right, that was going to be mirroring there.
AD: You already touched on it a lot, but what was it like working with Emerald Fennell?
BK: Wonderful! Emerald is such an amazing communicator, for a start. She had the vision for the film, I mean that in terms of the look, the tones, the colors, costumes. I am basically listening as best as I can taking it in, and then suggesting where to heighten that. That’s what a lot of the job in preparation is like. The other thing to mention is we made this film quite fast. We were kind of sprinting together and Emerald would throw me something and I would throw it back. We didn’t have much time to reflect on how it was going, we were just going for it. We both were quite open communicators. Maybe it’s a British thing, but we could be quite honest with each other when we needed to be and not take it too personally. That kind of helped on the set. Emerald was so prepared and worked all the time and she is so clear, it really helped when passing on information quickly. You also have to remember the star Carey Mulligan was also wonderful, and the two of them together set the tone for on set, and it was so wonderful to see the two of them and have that space.
I think we worked really hard to prepare as much as we could on a film that was quite short, but also gave room for Emerald to work with the actors and things like that. She is an actor herself and she understands what it’s like, and I think that also meant at times she knew when to push things further or just go quickly. Actually the other thing I should mention, she was also very economical. I’m usually the kind of DP who says we don’t need to cover this many things because people just like to cover scenes, especially on digital. Emerald was more “No, we got that, let’s move on. We do not need a close up here, we don’t need this.” The vision was always so complete for her. It was easy to work with.
AD: Was there a particular shot or experience that meant a lot to you while doing the film?
BK: I like a very simple scene, but still very important, when Cassie is on her bed on her computer. That was the moment where we heightened things, because computer scenes can be so dull, just people on keys. We had this idea that came from Emerald explaining that she used to have this old Macintosh computer in her room that had the screensaver that would light up and then go dark. We thought we could use that like the computer is beckoning Cassie to start her mission. It’s the moment of the film where she decides what she’s going to do and how she’s going to plan it. I think it’s a beautiful visual motif but also it’s a good moment, as we discussed earlier, how to get psychologically involved with her. That the film shifts the gear there and it also shifts into a psychological space. I was very happy seeing that on the big screen.
Promising Young Woman is now available on VOD.