Bradford Young on the responsibility of 'Selma' and growing up on 'A Most Violent Year'
Bradford Young is easily one of the most exciting cinematographers working today. Since igniting on the indie scene with films like "Pariah," "Middle of Nowhere," "Mother of George" and "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," his stock has continued to rise. This holiday season he'll have two very distinct, rich and exquisite films on display in theaters nationwide: Ava DuVernay's Martin Luther King biopic "Selma" and J.C. Chandor's NYC crime drama "A Most Violent Year."
So it was with great pleasure that I finally wrangled a chat with the low-key 37-year-old, who makes his home outside of the industry fray in Washington, D.C. Each of these films represents such striking confidence, yet they feel wholly different from one another. They examine darker reaches of the frame with their own curiosity, each of them very specifically influenced by photographers who captured the human face in specific and, in their separate eras, meaningful ways. The results are simply mesmerizing, and let's just put it this way: If I were setting out to direct a film, Bradford Young would be my first phone call.
With all that in mind — clearly I'm in the tank — read through the back and forth below to learn more about the approaches to these two films, how one felt of a piece with his tendencies and how on the other, in Young's words, he grew up as a cinematographer.
"Selma" opens Christmas Day. "A Most Violent Year" opens Dec. 31.
HitFix: Obviously I want to talk about both "A Most Violent Year" and "Selma" here, and congrats, by the way, on the Spirit Awards nomination.
Bradford Young: Thank you. Thank you so much.
That was for "Selma," but let's start with "A Most Violent Year." I felt the ghost of Gordon Willis in there, but I also hear you're quite a Vilmos Zsigmond devotee. What are some of your influences in general and then, specifically, on this movie?
For "A Most Violent Year," Jamel Shabazz's photography from the 1980s. He was a street photographer. He still is, but he was most prolific in the 1980s during that early New York hip-hop phase when hip-hop culture in New York was just sort of emerging. He did a lot of these really beautiful portraits of kids in the South Bronx and Brooklyn and Queens, etc. His photographs have that sort of yellowish, warm quality to them that you see in the film. Those were references that J.C. and I shared together, just for sort of the tone and the color.
And how about some DPs you admire?
Obviously a big fan of Vilmos. Love his work on "Heaven's Gate." Love his work on "McCabe & Mrs. Miller." Those are sort of my favorite films of his. I love all of Gordon Willis' work, but I would say films like "The Parallax View" include more the sort of Gordon Willis photography that I, at least, was referencing. And then obviously I'm a big fan of Harris' [Savides] work and Ernest Dickerson, Malik Sayeed, Arthur Jaffa. I feel like they all have that sort of similar appreciation for darkness that I try to clone and explore in my own work.
Is that hard to accomplish with digital photography?
No, it's a lot easier. It's so much more comfortable.
You think so?
Yeah. For me it's a lot more comfortable, which actually just helps me go a little bit further. Some of the stuff I was doing with shadows in "A Most Violent Year" are things that I wanted to do in "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" but just was a little timid to do, because we were exposing film. It just gives you that little confidence to go a little darker because you're seeing what you're getting. And obviously the approach is different, the sort of ethos and how you approach it, but the result is kind of the same. I just feel like with digital you can be a bit more radical with it. That's just my feeling.
Yeah. I tend to ask about that in these interviews and you always get the level-headed assessment from DPs.
They're not digging in to take some stand. It's just about the tools.
Yeah. I'm a big fan of the digital thing. I think it's changing the way we work, you know? I feel like it's given me a lot more confidence to go further, and that's nice. It's nice to have your head in the game for other things and not have to worry about, "Is it going to come out" and "Will there be no image at all?"
J.C. told me you guys ended up having similar imagery in your separate "look books" to guide the visual language of the film. I guess a lot of those were of Shabazz's work?
Yeah, actually between J.C., Kasia [Walicka-Maimone] — who is the costume designer — we all had a few similar frames from Jamel Shabazz's work. And I think that's what got me the job, when we started out the conversation about the tone of the film. But J.C. had always, from the beginning, told me he wanted this film that was very — I don't want to say symmetrical, but just had this elegance to it that you would assume you wouldn't see in films that are portraying that era. It's a sort of profile of the violence of New York City in the '80s, but this film is about a sector of the population that wasn't directly affected by that. They had their own world. They were still eating expensive dinners. The economy was still good for them, but it wasn't good for everybody else. So we wanted to be very conscious of the spaces and the places those characters would show up and it just felt like the film needed to have a particular elegance to it. Just conscious of lines and frames within frames and conscious of architecture. But the tone of the film came from those Jamel Shabazz photographs, which are just creamy and warm and sort of brown, you know? But it's not like a dinge. It sort of has a celebratory feel to it in a way. The yellow in the film is less about the sort of dinginess and more of just capturing the vibe that was so present in his photographs.
It certainly makes for some beautiful tableaus throughout.