Insights Into "First Man," "BlacKkKlansman," "The Favourite," "Black Panther"
DP Linus Sandgren, FSF (photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)
Reflections from DP Linus Sandgren, editor Barry Alexander Brown, costume designers Sandy Powell, Ruth Carter

In this prequel to SHOOT’s The Road To Oscar series which starts next month, we tap into voices of experience—Academy Award winners and nominees who are now find themselves again in the awards season conversation.

Here are reflections from an Academy Award-winning DP, an editor who earned an Oscar nomination for a documentary he co-directed and produced, a three-time Oscar-winning costume designer, and yet another costume designer who’s been twice nominated. They share insights, respectively, into First Man (Universal Pictures), BlacKkKlansman (Focus Features), The Favourite (Fox Searchlight), and Black Panther (Walt Disney Studios).

Linus Sandgren, FSF
Linus Sandgren, FSF, who won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography in 2017 on the strength of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, reunited with the director on the recently released First Man and is again very much in this awards season’s Oscar conversation.

Based on the book by James R. Hansen, First Man chronicles the multi-faceted backstory of the first manned mission to the moon, focusing on Neil Armstrong and the decade leading to the historic Apollo 11 flight. A visceral and intimate account told from Armstrong’s perspective, the film explores the triumphs and the cost—on Armstrong, his family, his colleagues and the nation itself—of one of the most dangerous missions in history.

For Sandgren, the allure of the project centered on getting the opportunity to not only again collaborate with Chazelle but also to take on a cinematic adventure dramatically different from La La Land. “From one film to the next, it’s a complete U-turn in terms of style,” shared Sandgren. “For this (First Man) we explored cinema verite, documentary style, filmmakers from the 1960s and ‘70s. Damien and I looked into perhaps finding a way to make it feel like this film was made back during that time. Damien wanted it to be very authentic, like you were with the astronauts in the space craft—and just as importantly to experience the realism of the Armstrong family behind the scenes.

The range conveyed by Sandgren extends from epic, majestic and expansive on the lunar surface to claustrophobic in the space capsule, and deeply intimate and personal in Armstrong’s family life. “We embraced the texture of film, shooting on 16mm, pushing across to 35mm to create grain, and then going to huge IMAX as we get to the moon,” related Sandgren. “We go from 16mm handheld to sweeping crane shots, from the sounds of everyday life on Earth to silence on the moon. All these opposites help tell the story, getting viewers to feel what Armstrong, his colleagues and family experienced. The camera work and creative/technical decisions are motivated by story, emotion, humanity and the characters.” 

Capturing this range necessitated a mix of Aaton cameras for super 16 and 35mm—models made for documentary filmmakers to run around with, often deploying a smaller zoom lens that works really well for handheld. VistaVision cameras were selected for the miniatures unit, and of course large format IMAX cameras.

Underscoring Chazelle’s realistic bent and aspirations for First Man, Sandgren noted that the director wanted to avoid a CG, green screen feel. “We didn’t do a single green screen shot,” affirmed the DP.

First Man posed assorted challenges for Sandgren, among the most prominent being how to make the moon appear to be lit by a single light source—the sun. Sandgren initially anticipated having to use two enormous lamps to get the sunlight right. But thinking outside the box led in another direction. “There was this great moment when I got together with David Pringle of Luminys,” recalled Sandgren. “David (chairman/chief technical officer of Luminys) said he could make a 200K light. He had previously made a 100,000 watt light, which was the largest ever. Now he was going to build us a 200,000 watt lamp to give us the sun effect and add to the realism of the movie.”

Problem solving akin to this was evident on varied fronts, said Sandgren, noting that Chazelle “immerses himself in every single department. He knows a lot about everything but wants to collaborate and make the most of every single department. And the departments meet with each other as well to achieve the most possible to advance the story.”

For Sandgren, a major takeaway from his experience on First Man was getting to meet and know the people from the story—Neil Armstrong’s sons, other astronauts. “The greatest joy was to be with these people now that we’re screening the film. To hear their stories, to see them as real people. It was beautiful to be able to tell their story.”

Sandgren’s filmography extends beyond his lauded collaborations with Chazelle. The DP also, for example, lensed American Hustle and Joy for director David O. Russell, and Battle of the Sexes, which tells the story behind the historic Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs tennis match, for the directorial team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. The Dayton/Faris duo, who take on commercials and branded content via production house Bob Industries, gravitated to Sandgren for Battle of the Sexes based on his work for them lensing select spots over the years.

Barry Alexander Brown
Barry Alexander Brown is a filmmaking talent whose work spans editing as well as directing—but as the subject of a film, he leaves something to be desired. 

Brown recalled years ago editing He Got Game, one of his many collaborations with director Spike Lee. “A camera crew came in to shoot us,” said Brown. “Finally the director/cameraman put down the camera and declared, ‘Come on guys. You have to finish a sentence. I can’t use this stuff.’ I then realized the problem he was having. Spike and I have done so much together, we have a real shorthand. We trust each other. Whatever’s said between us is usually pretty quick but we really get what the other one is saying. He talks about a performance and I know what he’s thinking, what he’s feeling. Somebody else without that history might have no idea what he’s saying, what he sees and wants.”

Their latest collaboration is the critically acclaimed BlacKkKlansman, which received a six-minute standing ovation after its world premiere screening at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It adds to a shared filmography which has seen Brown edit such Lee features as Do The Right Thing, School Daze, Oldboy, Inside Man, Summer of Sam, Crooklyn and Malcolm X.

BlacKkKlansman takes us back to the early 1970s to tell the true story of Ron Stallworth (portrayed by John David Washington) who becomes the first African-American detective on the Colorado Springs Police Department, but his arrival is greeted with skepticism and open hostility by the department’s rank and file. Undaunted, Stallworth resolves to make a name for himself and a difference in his community. He sets out on a dangerous pursuit—to infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan. Posing as a racist extremist, Stallworth contacts the group and soon finds himself invited into its inner circle. He even cultivates a relationship over the phone with the Klan’s Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace), who praises Stallworth’s commitment to the advancement of White America. With the undercover investigation growing ever more complex, detective colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) poses as Stallworth in face-to-face meetings with members of hate group, gaining insider’s knowledge of a deadly plot. Together, Stallworth and Zimmerman successfully take on the organization which aims to sanitize its violent rhetoric to appeal to the mainstream. 

For Brown, BlacKkKlansman provided myriad challenges—and tremendous gratification. He cited the juxtaposition of two scenes to make one sequence—Harry Belafonte recounting for a contemporary audience a white mob’s brutalization of a young black man in Texas in 1915, interspersed with the current movie storyline which takes us to a KKK dinner where members are being inducted into the Klan, the families beaming with pride and celebratory joy. “The challenge was to constantly weave in and out yet create an emotional feeling like it’s one thing—not two disparate, unrelated events. Tying the two together carried an emotional resonance,” observed Brown.

Another prime challenge for Brown was bringing into the movie’s fabric news footage from last year’s Charlottesville, Virginia tragedy in which white supremacists and Nazis marched, their hate meeting resistance and then yielding the murder of 32-year-old civil rights protester Heather Heyer. Two Virginia State Patrol troopers—Lt. H. Jay Cullen, 48, and Berke M.M. Bates, 40—were also killed in a helicopter crash while trying to advance public safety efforts. The news footage also contained part of the now infamous reaction  of President Trump who at a press conference talked of “good people” marching in step with the Nazis and KKK members.

“The Charlottesville footage had to be impactful,” related Brown. “That footage couldn’t feel like an addendum to the movie. It had to really be a piece of the film. We had to move the audience through it, not lose them, tying our true story to a recent reality.”

Brown was drawn to the original script for BlacKkKlansman. His interest then intensified after reading the rewrite by Lee and Kevin Willmott. “I agreed to cut it and had a great feeling about the film because I liked so much what Spike and Kevin had done. However, you can never tell. I remember cutting 25th Hour for Spike a long time ago. We were both pretty confident about the film, that it would catch a wave but it didn’t. Years later, it found a life and is now better respected than when it first came out.”

As for what’s next, Brown at press time was about to begin directing a film, Son of the South. Brown wrote the script based on the autobiography of Bob Zellner who grew up as the son of a minister and the grandson of a KKK member before joining the civil rights movement. “I put a great deal of humor into the script which some may view as inappropriate,” said Brown. “I argue that it’s not. There’s a lot of humor in BlacKkKlansman, for example, yet it works. Both of these movies are dramas with serious endings but humor doesn’t hurt their impact. At some level, it helps. It helps with establishing characters. It makes the story a little more real. There’s humor in life. That’s one of the takeaways I had from my experience on BlacKkKlansman.”

Editor Brown brings impressive directing credentials to Son of the South. He, for example, co-directed with Glenn Silber The War At Home. As producers of that film, Brown and Silber earned a Best Feature Documentary Oscar nomination in 1980.

Sandy Powell
Winner of three Academy Awards for her work on The Young Victoria for director Jean-Marc Vallee, The Aviator for Martin Scorsese, and Shakespeare in Love for John Madden, costume designer Sandy Powell has also been nominated nine other times for her work on Carol, Cinderella, Orlando, The Wings of the Dove, Velvet Goldmine, Gangs of New York, Mrs. Henderson Presents, The Tempest, and Hugo.

Powell has teamed numerous times with director Neil Jordan on such films as The Crying Game, Interview With A Vampire, Michael Collins, The Butcher Boy and The End of The Affair. Other frequent collaborators include directors Derek Jarman and Scorsese. Powell costume designed Jarman’s Caravaggio, The Last Of England, Edward II and Wittgenstein. For Scorsese, Powell recently wrapped her seventh feature, The Irishman, having previously worked on The Wolf of Wall Street, Shutter Island, The Departed, The Aviator, Gangs of New York, and Hugo.

Powell now finds herself again being talked up in terms of Oscar prospects, this time for The Favourite, a feature which marks her first collaboration with director Yorgos Lanthimos. The Favourite takes us to the early 18th century. England is at war with the French. Nevertheless, duck racing, pineapple eating and other offbeat indulgences are thriving with people of wealth. A frail Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) occupies the throne and her close friend Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) governs the country in her stead while tending to Anne’s ill health and mercurial temper. When a new servant Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah. Sarah takes Abigail under her wing and Abigail sees a chance at a return to her aristocratic roots. As the politics of war become quite time consuming for Sarah, Abigail steps into the breach to fill in as the Queen’s companion. Their budding friendship gives Abagail a chance to fulfill her ambitions and she will not let anyone or anything stand in her way. 

Powell—who herself has a royal streak, having in 2011 being appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for her services to the film industry—was drawn to The Favourite on several fronts such as getting to work with Lanthimos for the first time, taking on a period film for an era not that often explored, and the rare opportunity to work with three female leads. On the latter score, Powell quipped, “I’ve spent most of my professional life dressing men. It hardly ever happens you get two female leads, let alone three.”

As for Lanthimos, Powell related, “The idea of Yorgos doing a period film intrigued me as being something totally different from anything I had ever done. I was already very familiar with his unique work, admired it and particularly loved The Lobster. I knew it (The Favourite) was going to be period yet slightly off the wall with an element of stylization—a wonderful creative challenge.”

Part of that challenge, noted Powell, entailed spending “three weeks figuring out how the hell to do this ambitious period film with limited time and money. A reduced color palette helped. In the palace scenes, the colors were restricted pretty much to black and white, with some silvers and grays. Yorgos had a strong feeling for white, had among the movie references The Draughtsman’s Contract and we just put our heads down and did what was necessary.” 

The politicians in the story are defined in part by their colors—the Tories in red and the Whigs in blue. But Powell dressed them all in black and they just wore waistcoats in either the blue or the red.

Powell added, “Producing that many costumes in a short period of time is always tough. But Yorgos gave me a sense of what he wanted and then free reign to do as I saw fit to help realize that vision.” 

Still, there was research involved. For example, the shape and silhouette of the Queen’s robes of state while addressing Parliament are based on period portraits—yet Powell infused that garb with details that were stylized and marked by her own whimsy.

At the same time, Powell was often “too busy making costumes to be on set. We were all outside while Yorgos was with the actors. We never saw what was happening while it was happening on set.”

The Favourite is slated to hit theaters in late November. Powell also recently wrapped work on director Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns which is scheduled for release on December 19. 

Ruth Carter
A two-time Oscar nominee—for Malcolm X in 1993 and Amistad in 1998—costume designer Ruth Carter is now again front and center in Academy Awards speculation—based on her contributions to Black Panther, the breakout hit directed by Ryan Coogler.

Having never done a superhero movie before and needing a crash course in the Marvel universe of characters, Carter was taken out of her comfort zone. But Carter gained a measure of that comfort back from Coogler, whom she worked with for the first time. 

“Ryan immediately put me at ease during our first meeting,” recalled Carter. “He told me he saw Malcolm X when he was a kid, which led him to think about the costumes. He has a great sense of history and bringing the best out of people. He brought that to Black Panther, tapping into African tribal costumes and seeking to bring those designs to life on screen.”

Carter went on to observe that in many respects Coogler reminds her of Spike Lee, whom she teamed with on such films over the years as Malcolm X, Oldboy, Chi-Raq, Summer of Sam, Crooklyn, Jungle Fever, School Daze and Do The Right Thing. “Spike was our leader,” related Carter. “He elevated our process. He elevated our thoughts about the African diaspora and how we want to present black people in films. Working with Ryan reminded me of that. He’s a young man who’s thoughtful, articulate and has a passion for storytelling.”

Black Panther also reaffirmed for Carter the value, artistry and power of costume design. “What Marvel brings to the table in terms of visual effects and postproduction is completely marvelous,” said Carter. “But costumes are still the purest thing around. It’s not like they’re going to do the costumes in post. People need to be dressed in costumes. In the end, the artistry of costuming matters—assuring me that I was qualified and we could be triumphant in the superhero movie genre.”

Carter’s triumphs have been realized in a still growing body of work which over the years includes Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, the reincarnation of the Roots miniseries, which earned her a primetime Emmy nomination in 2016, and Ava DuVernay’s Selma. The latter garnered Carter a Costume Designers Guild Award nomination in 2015 for Excellence in a Period Film.

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