This is real-life television, which is decidedly different from reality TV. That’s a prime distinction made by cinematographers Ben Bloodwell and Bryan Donnell when discussing We Are Here (HBO), an unscripted series starring well known drag queens Shangela Laquifa Wadley, Bob The Drag Queen, and Eureka O’Hara. The show is not centered on makeovers or some sort of competition--staples of reality TV--but rather small town communities, the issues and hardships their residents face, and how a drag show can bring those people to the fore and be almost therapeutic, uniting them and others through empathy and shared humanity.
Each episode generally has three main components, starting with the town part of the show where Shangela, Bob and Eureka venture into a rural community and get to know several of the folks living there. Next comes the camp part where select townspeople who are prospective drag performers are brought into Shangela, Bob and Eureka’s world to learn the finer points of giving a queen-worthy performance. And the third act is the performance itself which takes the form of a live, artistic drag show which townsfolk come to watch at a local watering hole or other venue.
The third part, observed Donnell, is the first two parts coming together--the people we visit and then marrying them and their worlds with the queens’ camp, the world of Shangela, Bob and Eureka. In part one, said Donnell, he and Bloodwell want the viewers to see these people and their towns as who and what they are. The towns become in a sense characters unto themselves. Then in the queens’ space, the camp too is accurately depicted, lit the way Shangela, Bob and Eureka want it to be lit. It’s not lit for TV. This documentary approach to the queens’ world is also applied next to the performance but with lenses that are more cinematic, with a verite perspective backstage, around the stage itself and in the audience.
The series has a pathos and relevance to it as people share their true stories and in the process break down barriers relative to misperceptions about rural and the LGBTQ communities as well as the series star drag queens themselves. For example, one episode take us to Farmington, New Mexico, where we meet residents Nate, a gay, indigenous photographer eager to make a deeper connection with his Navajo roots; Nicole, a lesbian, public defender and LGBTQ activist who’s often misgendered because she wears’ “men’s” clothing; and Stacy and Jasmine, a mother-daughter duo processing the suicide of their beloved daughter and sister DJ, who as a lesbian felt desperately isolated in her community. Shangela, Bob and Eureka connect with these people who in turn connect with their communities at large through a public drag performance. In the case of Stacy and Jasmine, their performance is a catharsis of sorts, dedicated to the memory of DJ.
Bloodwell explained that We’re Here is “shot with the same sensitivity with which we would shoot a true verite documentary. It feels really different (from reality TV). It feels much more intimate.” Bloodwell and Donnell work in tandem on each episode, capturing the different stories, working closely with director, showrunner and EP Peter LoGreco. While LoGreco directs the lion’s share of the episodes, the Farmington, New Mexico installment was directed by Johnnie Ingram who created the series with Stephen Warren.
“In reality TV,” continued Bloodwell,” it’s almost like you’re watching a performance. With We’re Here, we instead sit back and film people. We’re not going to tell them where to stand. We will just follow them”
Donnell said that key is helping people to feel at ease and to be real. “We’ve tried to evolve our approach to being as minimal as possible. Instead of coming in with a look we’re going for, we are looking for what’s there and trying to portray it as is. If anything, we try to turn off the lights and not make people feel they are on stage. It’s intimate and emotional.”
During the course of season one, camera operator Kristy Tully moved up to DP on a couple of episodes. Bloodwell described her as “amazingly talented,” brilliantly capturing, for example, certain interviews and taking on more responsibilities above and beyond her operating duties.
The DPs deployed ARRI Alexa Minis and the ARRI Amira cameras on We’re Here. Bloodwell cited his affinity for the “look” afforded by the Arriflex digital chip, “cinemagraphic if you will, separating it from the TV reality world. The color palette is amazing out of the box.” He added that for the actual on-stage performances, they went anamorphic with the Mini to give those segments “an extra layer of optical beauty.”
Bloodwell and Donnell have a track record of working together--and with LoGreco. All three, for instance, collaborated on the series Intervention which shows real people living with different types of addictions on a daily basis. (Donnell earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Cinematography for Reality Programming for the “Chad” episode of Intervention in 2009). The trust that LoGreco, Bloodwell and Donnell developed over time helped ensure them that We’re Here would be properly and respectfully handled. “Peter had to pitch us individually,” recalled Donnell who saw the potential pitfalls of the show as it becoming too campy or making light of rural people. But with collaborators he had confidence in, that wouldn’t happen. We’re Here could reach its full illuminating, storytelling potential.
Bloodwell added that “when partnering with another DP, it’s important to have a shorthand and a way of working together, where egos don’t clash, where’s there’s a mutual respect and shared values.” He has that bond with Donnell which proved invaluable in telling the We’re Here stories.
The stories in turn impacted the cinematographers. “I stepped into this amazing world I knew nothing about--much deeper into the LGBTQ world than I ever had before,” related Bloodwell. “The amount I learned from the drag queens was remarkable. They are so smart and wise.” The experience underscored for him “how important it is for a show to have talent like that. You can have all these cameras and approaches but if the talent isn’t there, you have nothing. They really nailed it.”
Donnell noted, “These incredible queens are such artists.” Just as importantly, though, were all the people providing support to the show, including HBO itself, “brilliant makeup artists, wig and costume makers,” production designer Marla Weinhoff, and assorted others. “Wow, this is what it’s like if you have all the elements in place,” affirmed Donnell.”
Last month, HBO renewed We’re Here for a second season. Nina Rosenstein, EVP, HBO Programming, said, “We’re Here resonates in ways we had hoped for but couldn’t really have anticipated. The stories of our small-town drag daughters created an incredibly positive communal experience. We can’t wait for Bob, Shangela and Eureka to continue their journey helping others find their voice.”
This is the 10th installment in SHOOT’s 16-part weekly series of The Road To Emmy feature stories. The features explore the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, writing, producing, showrunning, cinematography, editing, production design, music, sound and visual effects. The Road To Emmy series will then be followed by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners in September, and the Primetime Emmy Awards later that month (9/20).