Radha Blank in the 40-year-old version (photo courtesy Jeong Park / Netflix)
On the cover of her screenplay for the 40-year-old version, director and star Radha Blank wrote, "A New York Story in Black and White." Cinematographer Eric Branco took these words to heart and shot the Netflix production almost entirely on Kodak Double X films.
In the film, Blank plays an alternative to herself, a playwright who was once on a list of 30 to 30 artists and is now trying to reinvent herself as the rapper RadhaMUSPrime. During the 20-day schedule, Branco shot almost entirely in locations in Manhattan and the Bronx, from apartments to studios, clubs, theaters to crowded streets.
Before the 40-year-old version, Branco turned the short cap in black and white 16 mm and the feature clemency. He is currently working on a project for HBO Max. He spoke to the filmmaker over the phone.
Filmmaker: How are things going under the new pandemic protocols?
Branco: I think a movie set is the safest place I could be right now. Certainly safer than the White House. Everyone is tested three times a week, you will have to wear masks even when testing. Having a mask all day is frustrating but I'll take care of it.
Filmmaker: What led you to work on the 40 year old version?
Branco: A couple of years ago, right before I was shooting Clemency, I decided to use too much paint to draw the eye. I wanted to focus on just drawing the eye with contrast. So I sold my digital camera, bought a photo camera, and loaded it with black and white film. I filmed like this for about a year and taught myself how to see the world in black and white. That really helped when I was making Cap (Director: Marshall Tyler). It won a short film competition at the American Black Film Festival. Then I got the script for the 40-year-old version and met Radha in New York.
Filmmaker: Ms. Blank has a background in theater and performance arts. This is her first film. How did you both come up with a visual style?
Branco: Radha felt very strong in some things. She wanted to shoot in black and white – that was her job from the start. This film was supposed to be black and white even before I was involved. She also wanted to shoot on film. And she wanted to shoot every scene at once. Every scene should be played like this. Obviously there were some cuts, some scenes that were put together from several takes. But we didn't do any cross-coverage or anything like that. Everything was blocked very carefully so that everything could be presented in one frame.
Filmmaker: Which camera did you choose?
Branco: We shot with Zeiss Super Speeds from the 70s on the Arricam LT, which was converted for a four-perf movement. For about 90 percent of the film we used Kodak Double-X, beautiful old material that hasn't really been updated since the 1960s. They shot Manhattan and Raging Bull on it.
I wanted the film to feel like I didn't have time. We shoot on film with old lenses, but the camera movement and lighting style are more modern. Hopefully, if all things fit together, you can't tell exactly when the movie is showing.
Filmmaker: It's not a very quick action.
Branco: It's slow by modern standards, 200 ASA. Which meant this film needed a lot of light. When Double-X was popular, the lighting was a bit more stylized: key light, backlight, fill light. More "Hollywood", more modeled. We tried to shoot in a more natural style, softer light, not necessarily with fill and back lighting.
In another interview they asked how much of 40 was shot with available light and I had to say, "None of these films are available light." It's quite a compliment if you think I came in with a camera and found the perfect lighting for every character standing there. But there isn't a single frame in this movie that it wasn't 150 degrees on set when we were shooting because of all the lights we were using.
Filmmaker: What was your lighting package?
Branco: Our package wasn't big. Most days we only replaced lightbulbs and built oil rigs. I had an amazing gaffer, Tyler Harmon-Townsend, and my key hack was Scott DeAngelo. You were the key. In one of my favorite scenes in the film, Radha meets J. Whitman (Reed Birney) in a restaurant on the Upper West Side. There were these wonderful lights wrapped around pillars. Tyler built a couple of rigs that copied the ring lights that we could angle and arm on speed rails.
So this was a set with no "movie" lights, but one that was washed in that soft, old Hollywood glamor light. There is a moment when Reed tilts his head back and the reflection of the tungsten bulbs can be seen in his glasses. It makes me feel warm every time I see it.
Our basic approach was to strategically place very small lights. We spent most of our lighting budget after a few days. There's a big argument between Radha and her agent Archie (Peter Kim), where we're all over his apartment, so to speak. Sun bounces in its windows and off the floor, lighting them up a bit. It was pouring rain, gray day. All the sunlight is made. Six HMIs pop through each window.
Filmmaker: What about nighttime street shots?
Branco: We could have put big lights on at the end of the block to expose Double-X, but that's not what New York looks like at night. We wanted to present New York as it exists. At night there are many different small points of light and not a large source.
I did some tests at Colorlab with color material that we used for processing. For the night we exposed Kodak 5219 for 200 ASA, pressed two stops, and a bleach bypass to keep some of the silver on the negative so it felt closer to black and white. I think the silver is a type that gives black and white film its magical, ethereal sheen. Without turning off the street lights for 2Ks, it had to be. We converted the color back to black and white in the DI.
Black and white material does not have an opaque Rem-Jet carrier, but a light halogen protection. Any bright light source contaminates the environment in ways that color does not. There are some scenes where we added some of that sheen to the paint material.
Filmmaker: Radha gets on a bus at the beginning of the film and you film her inside as she drives to the next stops. How did you light this?
Branco: We rented the bus for a day and chose a route that goes south. We shot early in the morning so that the light would come from the east and we chose buildings across the street that were bright and without many windows. We used this building as a bounce light.
Filmmaker: You are doing several performances, including a “Queen of the Ring” competition among rappers. How do you block these scenes while keeping the momentum between takes?
Branco: It's about lighting the room so that I can take pictures anywhere I want and it will look good. So I don't have to pause to say I have to adjust this light or move this stand. For the Queen of the Ring everything was manipulated from above so we could shoot 360 knowing that everything in the ring would be exposed as we wanted it to be up to a distance of about two meters. From that point on, just let go, rotate until the movie expires, reload, and rotate again.
It was kind of a half documentary. All of these rappers were real, Radha was a fan and asked her to be a part of it. Many of them were not used to being in front of the camera. I had a game plan when I jumped in the ring but also had to flow with what they were doing. We took maybe two or three pictures and then moved on. I would jump out and take some reaction shots of Radha and D (Oswin Benjamin) and the other freestyle rhymes that were playing out.
Filmmaker: How you frame the rappers, your decision to take a closer look at them or to retire, all add to performance.
Branco: It's second nature if I'm cutting my teeth on rap videos on a very low budget. You develop an instinct for when to step in or catch a reaction. I think a lot of these on-the-fly choices were influenced by my background when shooting videos.
Filmmaker: You shot some scenes with Radha's play of colors.
Branco: We wanted to record it at 16 mm instead of 35 mm, but we couldn't afford two camera packages. One day we had a Eureka moment: "Wait a minute, why don't we just close the gate until it's the same size as Super 16?" There is quite a bit of unused 35mm around all of that stuff.
We recorded the interviews with people on the street with an iPhone and used Canon video cameras for an NY1 interview with Frank Dilella.
Filmmaker: When we started that call, you were talking about experimenting with filtration at an equipment rental in Los Angeles.
Branco: When black and white was the industry standard, color filtration was widely used. If you want to darken the sky in a desert landscape, you can use a red filter. Or to shoot a red rose, a green filter would darken the petals but lighten the surrounding green and push it into the background.
These filters were well established for popping the skin tone of Caucasian actors. They fell into the orange-pink spectrum, say, a peach or coral filter to add extra shine to an actress' cheeks. These standards were not developed for darker skinned actors as they were not the focus.
When I got the call for this film, I was in a rental house trying to develop filter cocktails for darker skin. My recipes came from older filters, sepia tinted filters, tobacco or chocolate filters that have those rich brown tones. They aren't used much these days as this type of work is done in DI. For example, if you want a dusty western, no longer do it with filtration, but in the color class. So I went over them all and did a few tests. And so most of the shots in 40 have some kind of color filtration to make Radha's skin burst.
When I take digital photos, I usually expose the darkest person in the room. I'd rather decrease the overexposed skin tones than boost the darker tones that may be louder or blockier. Film recordings are just the opposite. I was exposed to Radha's skin most of the time. Most of our filter combinations are built for their tone. Through testing, we found that if she looked good, everyone else would go together.
It's pretty rare to see darker skin in black and white in a New York movie that's beautifully presented. Many of the movies with dark skinned actors are downcast, depressed battle stories. I've had the opportunity to present actors with darker skin in ways I don't see often. Certainly not in black and white.