It was Alan Jacobsen’s interest in lighting that got him into filmmaking in the first place, working his way up in narrative films as a gaffer in New York to eventually becoming a cinematographer. The projects got bigger and by extension, the crews, eventually to the point where he no longer knew if he could properly light a scene without half a dozen people and 12 lights on the set. It was at that point he thought about shaking things up.
“The crucible of documentary camerawork will strip away a lot of the safety nets right away,” said Jacobsen, now one of nonfiction’s premier directors of photography. “For me, [that] was really exhilarating and to be in these very privileged and intimate relationships with your subject.”
One gets the sense that it wasn’t only Jacobsen’s eye, but also his perspective in general that made him the ideal partner for Yance Ford to tell his family’s devastating story in “Strong Island,” which recounts the murder of Ford’s brother William and the racial inequity within the criminal justice system that perversely repositioned the 24-year-old African-American man as a perpetrator rather than a victim during a confrontation stemming from a car accident instigated by a white mechanic. While detailing how a Grand Jury case failed the Fords so thoroughly will strike many as sadly nothing new in America, Yance, who came to directing from serving as a longtime producer at PBS’ POV, knew he had to do something completely different than the thousands of films he evaluated for inclusion in the acclaimed documentary series to enable audiences to see anew, and to do that, he enlisted someone as equally aware of the form and with as much a desire to break it as Jacobsen, a frequent collaborator of Marshall Curry (“Racing Dreams, “Point and Shoot”).
“Strong Island” didn’t only require sensitivity of the lens, but behind it as well as Ford eventually realized that in order to tell the story properly, he would have to include his own testimony, needing to open up in front of the camera in a way he hadn’t even done in private. To this end, he and Jacobsen devised a camera set-up that carried the sanctity of a church confessional, allowing Ford to speak with intensity and clarity even as he was working out memories and emotions that roiled around in his mind for years. The result of this remarkable feat of filmmaking will be on display in two places this weekend, most prominently at the Academy Awards where “Strong Island” earned a well-deserved nomination for best documentary. But for nonfiction fans in Columbia, Missouri for True/False Festival, a must-see attraction is housed in the Reynolds School of Journalism where the interview set-up for “Strong Island” has been painstakingly recreated (on the second floor in Smith 200 RJI), right down to the Luke 12:2 quote (“There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be known”) and nearby bottles of Diet Mountain Dew and Immodium AD that gave Ford the strength and stamina to carry on.
While Jacobsen couldn’t be in two places at once, what with an Oscar invite to attend to, he graciously jumped on the phone shortly before True/False to talk about the installation as well as the unusual demands of bringing “Strong Island” to the screen, fine-tuning a truly innovative and disarming visual language for the film over an emotionally wrenching seven-year process.
It was really born out of Robert Greene’s brilliant imagination. He’s really on the vanguard of trying to push the documentary form as a creative medium in terms of new ways of telling stories, he started a program at the University of Missouri for creative documentary, and he was a big champion of “Strong Island.” I think he’s very curious about how the process of making cinema can inform the storytelling, so when he asked us to do [the installation], I got it right away. I was at True/False last year [where] he had a similar installation done by the Ross Brothers, [these] filmmaking brothers out of Texas who make some very interesting location-based films about towns or communities and he had them recreate the apartment that they lived in while making their movie “Western.” It had their preproduction photos and their maps and their contact lists. It was very much a peek into the process of how to create and structure a film like that was really interesting to me, so I was really thrilled when Robert approached Yance to do a recreation of our interview set-up that [gradually] evolved on “Strong Island” to help Yance be as vulnerable as he needed to be in these very intense, close-up interviews that are the spine of the film.
This could be about the installation or about the film in general, but how did you figure out how to create that space? The intimacy isn’t only created through the way you use the space but how you light it.
In our very first meeting, Yance talked about wanting to give these voices of his family and of William’s friends and the people that knew William Ford Jr. an agency that had been denied to them during the investigation of William’s death. If you’ve seen the film, then you know the investigation worked quite effectively to cast William as the perpetrator in this exchange, so Yance wanted to visually give these voices that we don’t hear from often enough in these kind of cases the command of the frame to provide testimony — missing testimony that may have been given if the system worked properly 20 years ago. We used that idea as the basis for this low, wide frame that Yance’s mother Barbara [gets] in her Queen’s chair, as Yance calls it, in her kitchen. That’s where she has comfort and authority in her place, so the visual idea was to underline that, giving the audience a sense that these characters own this story by inhabiting the middle of the frame.
[Because] the frames were very strong, I tried to light [the subjects] very simply, but with a centered light that if you’re thinking about it maybe hearkens back to the police interview, but giving authority to the speaker. We did extensive tests with Barbara at her house where we tried different looks and different lighting and really honed in on [what you see]. Some of the footage from those tests is in the film because Barbara as a storyteller is so magnetic and everything she said was so wonderful, and we carried on in that mode for about four years interviewing the subjects in the film.
We created what we called the 10 rules, a list that we were going to try to follow [that could] create this rigor that the film would follow to really reinforce this idea of control of what the audience gets to see and experience, in the way these narratives are written by the [legal and criminal] system. Two of the top 10 rules right off the bat were one, there would be no closeups in the film [stemming from] this idea of giving people agency within their own frame, and the second rule was Yance will not appear in the film. We worked under those two rules for about the first three or four years and then it kind of became apparent that Yance was going to need to be in the film.
Once Yance started speaking in the film, we had to figure out how to [present] Yance and we assumed that it would be in a similar kind of wide frame [as we had been shooting other interviews], but almost accidentally we ended up with the exact opposite of that, which was this very blatant breaking of Yance’s rule, which was no closeups. Yance speaks to the audience in the most extreme closeup you can almost imagine — eyebrow to chin — and the visual concept became this idea of being invited into Yance’s thinking space, this black void where Yance is alone with his thoughts and having to tease things out from very limited information and push against this systemic conditions that did not want to be explored [because] this is something Yance does every day, mulling things over, trying to think this through, trying to figure out what happened and why it was so unfair to the family.
So we created this dark space where Yance is almost an apparition and it was the same kind of centered lighting that really brings out the texture of the skin [because] the idea of showing black skin in such proximity and so intimately is also something that’s rarely done in these kinds of stories. The victims and families are kind of painted with a broad brush, so you don’t really get to see the human there and visually, we [wanted to] really force the audience to see this, hear it and not be able to look away. All of the frames are held in long takes. There are no cutaways. There’s no second camera to give the audience breathing space. It is presented to give the audience a sense of the relentless, unceasing pressure that’s been on the survivors.
I had the good fortune to talk to Yance in the summer around the film’s release and I know this applies more to the exteriors you shot, but he spoke about it being a bit of a breakthrough to realize that the camera wouldn’t necessarily act as a surrogate for the audience, but as an extension of his own sight. What’s it like to quite literally bring a director’s vision to the screen?
I feel like my job as a cinematographer working with a director is to really get inside the director’s head and try to learn to see like the director does. So Yance and I had the luxury of a lot of time where we would go out to the house — Yance was the caretaker of the house, always saying, “I’m going out [there because] “The chimney’s cracked.” So I’d go along with Yance and take a camera and I could just explore around. Yance would weigh in as I would shoot, but I would shoot something maybe four different ways – the regular way, the way that I thought was interesting and then maybe some variations that were a little safer and then we’d look at them back and Yance would say, “That one!” And Yance was always picking the bold one.
Yance gave me a lot of leeway to bring my eye and through that process [of filming at the house], I learned to anticipate what Yance would respond to and once we developed a trust together, we had spoken not so much about what the movie would literally look like, but we talked a lot about what we wanted the film to feel like, and whatever environment we were in, I had kind of learned to see the way Yance would see. [In the film] all those shots of the house looking up at the house against the sky, that’s literally Yance stressing about the leaky roof or the cracked chimney or the landscaping that needs to be done. It was a remarkable collaboration because very often he’d see [a shot] and say, “A-Ha! That’s what I wanted! I just didn’t know how to say it.” I felt so gratified and when you can get into that kind of mindmeld with the director and go really deep, that’s what I enjoy most about the process.
I’m a huge fan of having rules [because] the limitations breed really great creative solutions. It makes things much clearer if you have a very limited palette to work from and then you also reserve this amazing power to decide when and where to break the rules. For example, the camera very rarely moves in the film. There’s no pans or tilts in this film and the camera always has this very locked off point of view, so we thought very hard for years about when the camera would move for the first time and why – what that would signal after the audience has had about an hour or so of the film spent with these very controlled tableaux, what would it mean and what would it feel like for the audience to suddenly realize that the camera was moving.
Some of the great power of having a limited palette and giving yourself limitations is that it helps structure the piece from a macro level, but then it helps you evolve and take a dramatic turn if you need to. That gave us a great opportunity once Yance felt ready to enter the film [after] we had worked for four years trying to honor the rules of working in this very formalized aesthetic. So I’ve become a big proponent of rules and one of the rules can be that there will be no rules. I do a lot of verite work on various projects and I love verite because you’re in the moment, you’re responding to story, you’re mining for the deeper level of truth that’s going on within whatever verite moment is happening. It can feel very chaotic and very happenstance, but if you have a sense of where your story is and where it’s going, that helps guide you into what to look for. A lot of times in verite [films], the story is not actually what’s happening in front of you in this moment, but what it will link to or what comes before or after. So I like to work with directors that have a strong point of view and have something that they want to say and reinforce visually to make that point of view even stronger. That’s my goal now – to really work with those kind of directors.
It would also seem to require a different skillset to work as a cinematographer on documentaries where you’re capturing moments that really have an impact on the people in front of the camera and where life goes on even after you turn the camera off. What is that responsibility like for you?
You’re working both for the creative good of the project, but also working with real people in real life and trying to be a friend and a collaborator and a trustworthy person, so emotionally and relationally, it can be a really interesting process. That’s a dynamic I really enjoy. On “Strong Island,” it really paid off because Yance and I worked together for seven years and oftentimes it was just the two of us for long stretches of time and there’s [extremely sensitive] moments in the film where Yance is finding out things about his brother and how it happened to him. It was really tough [where it’d be] just the two of us in a room and the drama of trying to respect that moment for the camera, but also be there for Yance. There’s moments in the film now where I’m watching between my fingers with hands over my eyes because of the memory of how excruciating some of those moments were, just to have to stay quiet and keep the camera rolling and not reach out and try to comfort my friend, it was really harrowing stuff. But hopefully the audience feels that tension in the movie.
“Strong Island” is now streaming on Netflix.