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Interview: Cinematographer Andrew Dunn on ‘The United States vs Billie Holiday’

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Andrew Dunn is the cinematographer of the new Hulu Original film The United States vs. Billie Holiday, which is nominated for 2 Golden Globe Awards including Best Actress – Drama for Andra Day and Best Original Song. Dunn’s previous credits include The Bodyguard, Practical Magic, Gosford Park, Sweet Home Alabama, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. He also worked with director Lee Daniels previously on Precious and The Butler. He was kind enough to spend some time recently talking with Awards Radar.

Andrew, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me today. You and Lee Daniels (the director) have worked together before on Precious and The Butler. How did this working relationship begin? And how did he approach you in working with him again on United States v Billie Holiday?

Lee and I go back to Precious. It was quite a long time ago. Quite why it worked and how it worked, I don’t know. It was like a marriage that you follow a relationship upon where, together, you build these things and make a life. And we’ve made life through the film we made with Precious, The Butler, and the pilot of Empire together previously. We were actually going to do a Richard Pryor film which didn’t happen in the end. We talked about Billie for about 4 years. We met in LA for supper. I am very lucky to work with creative directors where I try to get into their head and into their soul. And the story they try to tell, I try to visualize it with the influences and ideas the directors throw at me. Sometimes, they can really speak it and tell me what they want. And sometimes it’s just a feeling they have.

Prep is really important with a film and spending time with the director where we can find its heart and the true meaning of the story. When I’m lucky enough to work with Lee, you find another layer there, another meaning. He will eke out performances from actors that you didn’t know they had in themselves and give them through humor, conjoling. And he’ll give them the confidence. Andra Day’s a great example. I think he has a real skill in that. Therefore, for me, when the actor feels comfortable in the role they’re taking on, this camera and lens that we use finds its connection between these great actors and become the characters. It forms a symbiosis with the character and the actors becoming the character. And when the actors trust the camera and hopefully me through that as I think Andra and I did. That’s a real connection. If you can create this intimacy to get into the soul and the camera must never have an ego. It’s part of a scene and the actor feels omctable. For me, Lee and I have this understanding. It often goes unsaid. He’ll sort of run an idea to me and I’ll run with it. Lee would suddenly go off on a tangent but he won’t lose sight of the story. And that takes you to some other place you haven’t thought of. It tests and excites us. It’s so common to fall into one’s comfort zone.

Along with the beautiful ways in which you crafted shots throughout the film spanning years and settings, another huge takeaway from the film is the discovery of Andra Day as an actress. What was it like working with someone who isn’t new to music but who was pretty new to acting?

In life, I’m an observer. That’s why I Love doing what I do. One of the reasons I love doing what I do is I’m here with this camera. I think the performers I work with feel this presence without intrusion. That we are there as a privilege and with respect for what they’re trying to do. We all go on this journey together. One film we saw Saturday afternoon with Lee, Andra and others was Judy. Just out of interest but we saw some things in there we quite liked. It’s important to not forget who she is, and who she is portraying and who I am as this observer person with this apparatus. Our footprint as a cinematographer is pretty major in a film. We got three cameras sometimes, lights, cranes, a whole staff. To keep all that in control and intimate is quite a challenge. Hopefully, I achieved that. In Montreal, I had a fantastic crew. To me, it’s just about storytelling. Camera’s a tool for me to tell the story. Lee will take the time it takes and make the actor feel comfortable and confident. Watching these performers like Andra, it’s like watching a nurturing seed that will flower into the most extraordinary plant. 

Did you undertake any research into the life and career of Billie Holiday while in preparation for the film? And if so, how does that research inform your working in shooting the film?

We did a lot of research. Billie, in particular, had been ongoing for about 4 or 5 years. For me, it’s a personal project because I grew up in North London and on Sunday morning my father would play Billie Holiday records so I was sort of brought up with the sound and feeling. It was always something I maybe one day would get involved with this person and this life and my father, who’s now passed, It meant a lot to me. So i feel very lucky and privileged. Lee said we might be doing it and asked me to do it. I was thrilled. It had a deep meaning for me. 

Once you hear about a project about a real life character like her, and the most extraordinary lives within her short life. I listened to a lot of music. Finding photographs from the period. We would try to evoke that time and the decision to go with film was a no-brainer because film has a sort of life, texture and movement within it that works for this period whether we shoot in color, black and white, because life is so colorful so we went with color. Within the colorful life which is a facade and pretend so with the camera we can see through all that, through her eyes and into her soul and find this other real person under there. Lighting-wise, I decided to go with not so many lights. There’s a style of lighting which feels more like the period. The old fashioned key lights with old fashioned lenses. This has been one of my best experiences.

A couple moments where I really took notice with the camerawork was when it sort of seamlessly went from real, archival footage during the era in which the film is set in, to the actual film where it would transition back into black-and-white for a couple seconds before going back into color. This happened throughout the film. Can you talk a bit about the decision making process for utilizing archival footage and having it blend it pretty seamlessly with the film?

Its; a very tricky one to pull out because you want to immerse the audience at this time and not depart from it. It’s a difficult thing to then jump out and look at archival footage because that could be a barrier where suddenly you’re looking back. But I think it works in this instance. We’re shooting footage on a 16MM camera which is transferred to black and white or color. Interspersed with that, Lee and the editor found quite a lot of archival footage, some was black and white and colorized, so we went through fading out the color and then transitioning with overlapping sound and pictures with the real people and sound of this time and place. It gives another dimension of what’s going on in the world. We planned a lot of that in shooting and then Jay the editor took it and ran with it. There were quite a few versions in the edit I saw when we were deciding what was gonna work. The journey to find the key to that was difficult because it could suddenly go the wrong way. For me always, as cinematographer, is to lose that space between the camera and audience. The camera is a character but also the audience which is a devilish thing. You don’t want any barriers between the audience and story and find yourself in these rooms, venues and hearts of these people.

With the archival footage, it can suddenly put barrieres so you have to really make sure the audience is feeling that. That the shots have movement in them and that they’re actually there in a time and place.

Another moment which I think it one of the strongest and most emotional moments of the film is the leadup to hearing Billie sing the song Strange Fruit where she’s high and is seen roaming through different rooms, and for a moment, imagining a lynching as the inspritation behind the song. What was it like approaching the preparation for that & for handling such delicate material?

It was extremely delicate and really quite tricky. We were all very moved by shooting it. The concept was there from very early on that Lee and I wanted to do this horror shot from her getting up, overhearing some strnage noise, and going across and finding a burnt-out shack, burning cross, and lynching. And so the question really is, is she really seeing this? Or is it taken somewhere else? The inference is that she’s really seeing it. She backs away. She goes into the shack and has this journey through her own imagination, her own life. [It represented] Black communities’ lives of terrors and many layers going on within this whole sequence. So the challenge is there. 

We shot in Montreal where we needed to find a shack that would work. That place existed in this location. And we needed to find a place where the exterior would work for the lynching scene. It’s like making a cake or the most wonderful thing in the world where you have to find the ingredients when you’re prepping the film. To find the shack and the location for the lynching, we looked at a lot of places around Montreal. Once we found it, the tree and burnt out building were there. There’s a feeling behind all this and a soul. ALongside that was the shack which did exist where she’s running away from the lynching and goes into this building. It’s all one shot. And goes off through this building which is like a labyrinth, a maze. SHe’s imagining all this terror. But through our work and the concept from Lee, is that my team and I went through this shack with ten corners. It was like a labyrinth. But it was a very tiny place. As soon as we turned a corner, we moved another curtain in so it looked like something else. We changed lighting which changed the mood from the next room to the next room as she went through this maze. Tied in with that is to make sure we give Andra the freedom. Once she’s in there, she has to feel it. She’s wonderful. I would never want to tell an actor what to do. She was given the free reign. Even if she went to a different room, it didn’t matter because we just made sure we followed her. My guys would be able to see the light and there were people moving the set pieces around. So we went through all this and back out at the same spot which you don’t recognize because we changed the set dressing by then and then we transitioned to the red curtain onto the Carnegie Hall stage hall. That takes us to a huge venue in Montreal in the city which we stimulated at Carnegie Hall for her performance as Strange Fruit. 

It’s the collaboration of everyone working as one but steered with the person at the helm. In this case, Lee and working with his vision tied in with Andra’s performance and the storytelling. And it was tied in beautifully. I think we did like 4 or 5 takes but we got it on the second take.

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Written by Max Geschwind

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