How ‘Honey Boy’ DP Natasha Braier Managed To Capture Painfully Intimate Performances From A Respectful Distance

'Honey Boy' cinematographer Natasha Braier
Michael Buckner/Deadline/Shutterstock

On Honey Boy, cinematographer Natasha Braier found herself seeking two quite difficult forms of balance.

On a visual level, the film needed to be both naturalistic and highly cinematic. In practical terms, the DP needed to capture performance with the utmost intimacy, while giving her actors as much space and freedom as possible to grapple with material of extreme emotional intensity.

Written by Shia LaBeouf in court-ordered therapy, Honey Boy reflects the actor’s turbulent experience of childhood, growing up with a physically and mentally abusive father, and the process he engaged in to grow through his pain. With Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges portraying Otis—a stand-in for the actor—at ages 12 and 22, director Alma Har’el asked LaBeouf to portray his own father, which could only make for a remarkably challenging shoot.

Noah Jupe and Shia LaBeouf in 'Honey Boy'
Amazon Studios

Braier’s challenge on the film is most clearly embodied in her lighting design for the shoddy motel room, where the younger Otis lives. Setting up dimmable lights throughout the space, where Jupe and LaBeouf would repeatedly clash, the DP decided to light their scenes on the go, from outside the room, understanding the emotional difficulties LaBeouf was going through in portraying his abuser.

“He’s not just acting. He’s enacting scenes that really traumatized him in his life. I thought it was my responsibility as a cinematographer to facilitate a container of safety and freedom for him to do that,” Braier explains. “So I thought, I need two things. I need to somehow invent a system where I can give him 360 degrees, but I can still somehow do cinematic lighting. But I also need to be quite invisible.”

For Braier, minimizing invasion of the actors’ space with the technical work she needs to do between takes has always been a priority. “But this set-up really forced me to take that approach to the extreme, and what I found was that it was facilitating the actors’ work so much,” she reflects. “To [interfere] so little and let them really forget about us, and feel really intimate and present in the moment, was so beneficial in this case that it made me really excited about using this method in every movie I do.”

DEADLINE: What were your first impressions of Honey Boy? What excited you about the idea of shooting this film?

Noah Jupe in 'Honey Boy'
Amazon Studios

NATASHA BRAIER: When I got the script, I thought that this territory between film, documentary and therapy was really exciting. I’ve always been interested in therapy; my parents are both Freudian psychoanalysts, so it seemed to me that it could be a quite challenging experiment, but very inspiring. Then, when I saw Bombay Beach, Alma’s first documentary, I fell in love with her sensibility as a director, and recognized her as one of my tribe. I could really see what she would do with this kind of material, and that was really exciting to me.

DEADLINE: What did you discuss with Har’el early on, in terms of the approach you would take to this material?

BRAIER: Alma wanted it to feel very real, very raw, in the same way that her documentaries feel real, and I was totally on the same page with that. We knew that we wanted a camera that was honest, raw and handheld, that was going to be capturing what was happening with the actors in a fresh kind of documentary way—not anticipating or choreographing or manipulating what’s happening, but capturing [it].

At the same time, we didn’t want the lighting to be like a documentary. We wanted it to be expressive and to support the emotions of the characters, so the combination of those two worlds became the challenge, in a way—how to get cinematic lighting, but at the same time, give the actors 360-degree freedom to move in the space.

DEADLINE: What informed the film’s dreamy color palette?

BRAIER: In terms of the light and the colors, we wanted to evoke some sense of memory and nostalgia, to move in a territory that was a bit blurry between reality, memory and dreams. We didn’t want to have a very clear separation: “Now is the past; now is the present. This is a dream, and this is a memory; this is imagination, or a desire.” We wanted somehow to create a time-space that was ambiguous.

Director Alma Har'el, Noah Jupe and FKA Twigs behind the scenes of 'Honey Boy'
Monica Lek

It’s kind of a reflection also on, “What is reality? And what is time?” In a way, even if the character Otis is now in his 30s, that kid is also alive, in another layer. It’s not just the past; it’s a part of himself, so we wanted to unify all these worlds and create just one time-space.

To make it a little dreamy, and enhance the reality a little bit, we used colors and lenses that were soft, and were giving a more poetic, organic feel to the image, with a lot of flares on the lenses, so that we could create this more magical texture. We had a color palette in the production design that was quite controlled, inspired by posters from old rodeos, which had these pastel blues and yellows, and oranges and reds. So, that was the base, because you first have to control the colors that you have in front of the camera, before you start putting filters, or colored lights.

Then, in terms of the lights, I wanted to create a little bit of this kind of magical memory, as well. Even if it was a traumatic, hard time, to live in the motel with the father, it’s also like this memory of the time where they were the closest. So, there is also some love there, and some idealization of the relationship. Somehow, I feel like the lighting at night romanticizes the place a little bit, and we used the existing light that we had there—some neon lights that were pink and lilac—as a base. Then, of course, that was just not lighting the place at all, but I kind of created that effect of continuing the neon light.

Noah Jupe in 'Honey Boy'
Amazon Studios

At night, whenever he escapes to the back of the motel, he meets a prostitute, and I thought that was a really important character because the film’s talking about toxic masculinity. And suddenly, you have that character that is embodying all the positive, divine, feminine traits. He takes refuge in the tenderness of this woman, and I liked the idea of representing that with the pink. Not because pink is feminine, but just to give it that magic touch. So, every time that he’s outside by the motel, I used neon, so there’s that little pink that is slowly creeping in.

When the father is at the strip club, there’s a lot more red. You also have the same pink and lilac that you had outside the motel, but the proportions are different, [which reflects the father’s] more violent relationship with the feminine world.

DEADLINE: Could you explain what the lighting setup you devised for the inside of Otis’s motel room looked like? How did it work?

BRAIER: What we did was, we thought about possible scenarios, in terms of where [the actors] could be in the space, and what the best lighting would be for those scenarios. We designed practical lights with Jc [Molina, production designer], which I then replaced with LED lights. So everything was LED, and everything was on wireless transmitters and receivers. Then, I had a dimmer board by my monitor, and I could control all the lights—the intensity and the color—remotely, so I didn’t have to be in the room.

Director Alma Har'el and Natasha Braier
Amazon Studios

I had them strategically in the four corners of the room, and I would look at the frame, and I had a headset to talk with my camera operator, as well. So, depending on where [the actors] were ending up, and how we were framing, I would just dim the lights. It was like, “Okay, they’re closer to the TV. So now, the TV becomes the key light, and I’m just going to turn down the light that is coming from the front,” which could be the window light or the lamp next to the bed. Depending on their position, I would dim one light higher, and dim one lower, so my key light would be coming from the front, they wouldn’t shadow each other, and I could create expressive lighting that was supporting the performances. We could do all that live thanks to new technology; it’s probably something that I couldn’t have done three years ago.

DEADLINE: What did you enjoy most about working on Honey Boy?

BRAIER: What I enjoyed most was observing Shia’s process. I think he’s an incredibly talented actor, and he’s super intelligent. I could see how he grew up on a film set, because even though he’s acting—and even though he’s also role-playing his father, and going through a very complex psychological challenge—he was very intelligent, in the way that he could see everything that was happening around him, what every one of the crew were doing.

He was in this super tricky moment as an actor, where most actors would be not aware of anything around them, and he was aware. He was totally present, totally real and in the moment, like I’ve seen very few actors in my life be. And at the same time, he had full awareness of the mechanics going on around him to capture that, and also worked with us [with that knowledge in mind]. So, it was really, really impressive to see him working, and to see, as an actor, his attention to detail, how he constructs complexity and richness with really small details. I was just fascinated by him.

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