This could be the first year a woman gets an Oscar nom for cinematography–thanks to Danish cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen. Her unique vision includes shooting on film rather than in digital–something she employed for Girl on the Train and now in Denzel Washington’s critically-acclaimed Fences.
Based on August Wilson’s Pullitzer-winning play and set in 50s Pittsburgh, Fences stars Washington as Troy, a baseball star-turned-garbage collector, alongside Viola Davis as his wife Rose. The pair had previously played these roles opposite each other in the Kenny Leon-directed 2010 Broadway production.
Christensen spoke to AwardsLine about the benefits of working with an intimate cast in close quarters and how she created the perfect 50s-era color palette.
How did you get involved with Fences?
I was actually way into shooting the movie Girl on the Train, which was my first studio movie in the states, so my head was all into that, not thinking about the next project at all. I actually read it twice because the first time I was like, “Oh my God. That’s a lot of work.” I read it again and felt really connected with the material. I think it is such a universal story, even though it’s set in the ’50s in African American culture. I just felt like this could very well just be set in Scandinavia where I’m from. I felt like it links to Ingmar Bergman, you know he was a stage director as well and I just felt like there was a lot I could say about the script.
Then my agents said, “Well, actually Denzel is in New York and he’d like to meet you.” It ended up being a four-hour intense, passionate meeting in his flat in New York, just talking about the scenes. We were talking about what is filmmaking? What is it to convey a story visually and just overall, just a chat about filmmaking. I think the producer had seen Far From the Madding Crowd, a film I did with Thomas Vinterberg in the UK.
How did you research? Did you go to Pittsburgh? Did you dig into the visuals of life back then?
I have to say, I actually stayed very much on the script, kind of just digging into the script. I hadn’t seen the play when it was on Broadway at the time, but then I went to Lincoln Center because I heard that you could book yourself in to see it. I felt like it’s very important that I understand what this is all about. I actually asked for a staff meeting. I wanted to make sure that they had the patience to sit down and talk to me about it and all these things. It was digging into the story and August Wilson’s work deeply, more than going to the location. That came once the project started.
What made you want to shoot on 35mm film for this particular project? You also did that in Girl on the train?
My spontaneous reaction is that this was a very 35mm project. We were talking about texture, and it’s a film that takes place mainly in a backyard of a house. It’s a limited location. So this film was very much about close-ups and very much about the claustrophobic house and all being so tight and close. So the texture was very, very important. Also, the way of working with Denzel, we felt, both of us, that because we’re all working on the set, we’re all standing on set, it’s like a more old fashioned way of working where you’re by the camera and you look onto the set and you don’t disappear into a video village to discover where you can go later. Just the way you work with film was also, actually, a very important factor for us. To be present, not discover what we can do in grading. We weren’t lighting for grading we were lighting to achieve the look there and then. Film is just great for that.
Silence and La La Land were also shot on film. Do you feel there’s a trend all around of going back to film or is it just that these are period pieces and it feels more appropriate?
I don’t know if it’s a trend, I’d call it a desire. I think they’re using film because they like to touch base with the simplicity of film and the softness that it naturally brings when you’re shooting. With digital you’re spending a lot of energy in post production. Softening and adding all these things to make it look like film. I think it’s a thing of “Why don’t we just shoot on what actually brings you there right away?” Even though, I have to say that I adore digital and I think for some projects it is a brilliant media. They are still both alive and available so I think it’s great to pick. Right now I’m shooting with digital for an Aaron Sorkin movie called Molly’s Game. It seemed that that would work well for that project.
Because Denzel and Viola had played these roles on Broadway together before–did you find their existing relationship as actors was helpful to you?
Yes, it was. It gave me a lot of meat, if you can say that. It gave me a lot of stuff to work with from the beginning. Of course the technical aspects were very important but first and foremost, it was to understand the story as much as I could. I thought I’d never reach into where Viola and Denzel were with this story but the important bit was for me to understand what they were trying to achieve. I was attending all the rehearsals when Denzel and Viola and the rest of the cast were rehearsing for two weeks prior to the shoot. I was just the fly on the wall. That gave me a lot of material to work with and understand the story. It gave me extra depth, the fact that the two of them knew there material so well.
So this year could be the first year that a woman gets an Oscar nomination for Cinematography.
You know, Oscars, they want you to prove what hasn’t been done before. This movie doesn’t. But, who knows? You can never say never.
What needs to happen to bring more women into cinematography?
It’s a very difficult thing to put your finger on. I meet a lot of talent, female talent, female directors and cinematographers. I truly believe that there is a lot of talent out there. But you question yourself why aren’t there more female DPs or female directors when I believe the talent is there. It’s such a hard to thing to say why. I think maybe also just the physical, practical aspect sometimes is a reason. It’s difficult if you have kids and to be able to travel the world you have to bring your kids. You’ve got to have a husband who wants to do that. If you’re alone with your kids it’s even harder. I think it’s just a very hard thing to orchestrate. It takes a lot of stamina and it takes a lot of, “I want to do this”. That’s a tough thing. Maybe I’m also very lucky, I have a family and three healthy kids who can travel. I have a husband who’s up for it and is in the industry. He understands what it all takes and he does music so he can be other places in the world and enjoy it. I’m fortunate that I’m surrounded by people who are supporting me and I could not do this without support. I think maybe for women sometimes that is an issue. The practical aspect of life and kids. Your career often takes off in the time when you have small kids. I just want to do the work. I just want to do what I’m good at and do it well and not be judged for who you are or if you do it differently.
What can you say about Molly’s Game?
It’s a very intense script. It’s a true story about a girl called Molly Bloom. Aaron Sorkin is such an amazing script writer and he’s now directing for the first time. It’s an exciting project. We’re in the midst of it right now in Toronto.