A scene from Dee Rees' "Mudbound"

Interview: Cinematographer Rachel Morrison on Growing Something Special Out of “Mudbound”

As much as it may have pleased others to have a glorious sunny afternoon in Georgia, Rachel Morrison couldn’t really enjoy it when shooting the opening scene of “Mudbound.” The celebrated director of photography was frustrated that in setting the mood for two brothers (Jason Clarke and Garrett Hedlund) to dig a grave for a relative as the elements conspire against them, thickening the soil with unrelenting downpour, there was nothing but glistening daylight for miles, even as the production kept the schedule loose enough to capture real rain if it came. Still, as someone who loves a good challenge, a smile eventually crept across Morrison’s face.

“The thing about Atlanta is you really don’t get long storms there. The storm clouds move in, it pours like hell for about 20 minutes, sometimes half an hour and it clears up and it’s beautiful,” recalls Morrison. “And to be able to make anything that impending on our budget was impossible, so we embraced a reverse coverage idea where we knew we had to get the wide wide [shots] in a real storm and then the rest of it, believe it or not, was a beautiful sunny day outside of our lens. We had to build blasts all around and put rain machines under the blasts, but then still find a way to backlight the rain, or else we can’t see it’s raining. It was our own lightning effects [too], but that to me was the unique challenge.”

Seeing things in a new light has long come naturally to Morrison, who has rapidly established herself as one of the industry’s most gifted cinematographers for bringing a culture into the focus as readily as the subject right before her. Angelenos, in particular, have been able to marvel at her unique ability to bring out the underlying emotional undercurrents in different parts of the city, whether it was in her feature debut on Zal Batmanglij’s “Sound of My Voice,” where a woman claiming to be from the future could feel right at home in Morrison’s crisp, inventive lensing of Silver Lake, or her all-too-rare fun, florid view of South Central in Rick Famuyiwa’s “Dope.” In turning her lens to the Deep South, Morrison brings history in its many layers into the present tense in Dee Rees’ “Mudbound,” recounting the parallel lives of a white and black family with claims to the same piece of land in Mississippi on the eve of World War II, which steals the most virile member of each. But she also appears aware of how “Mudbound”’ is itself a contribution to history, with our collective memory of the pre-civil rights era often shaped by film and television efforts that have been reductive even when it’s well-meaning, and introducing bold colors and sharp angles to refresh images that have consecrated a narrative that voices like hers and Rees have rarely, if ever, been a part of and allowing them to be looked at anew from a different perspective.

At times brutal, Morrison makes it impossible to look away from “Mudbound” as every frame offers a chance to sink as deeply into it as the characters onscreen feel, at the mercy of forces they can’t control in society or in nature. Even in the midst of chaos, she shows unmistakable command over making the invisible barriers seem so clear and presenting the riveting performances from a stellar cast that also includes Mary J. Blige, Jason Mitchell, Rob Morgan, Carey Mulligan and Jonathan Banks unmediated by her camera. In a much deserved nod earlier today, the New York Film Critics Circle bestowed their award for best cinematography to Morrison and as the film is streaming everywhere on Netflix, she spoke about handling the challenges presented by multiple narratives and mercurial weather to make a most devastating epic, as well as filming in locations that once belonged to real tenant farmers and getting the film’s rich color palette.

Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund in "Mudbound"Was it interesting to work with the kind of story that was split up in this way with parallel experiences and opposing perspectives?

Yeah, I actually thought that was going to be the most challenging component of the film. My experience has been that now people’s attention spans are so much shorter than they once were, so it’s really hard to make an ensemble cast film work. Back in the Altman days, people were [regularly] watching three-hour movies, so you could get to know five or six main characters over the course of three hours, but in 90 minutes to two hours, I find that it gets distilled. So that was always going to be the biggest challenge, but a fun challenge to be subjective with various different points of view and to think about not just one main character, but several. It felt like it was a blessing and a curse to see how it was going to work.

You’ve said previously you were going for something “lush yet naturalistic,” which makes complete sense once you see the film, but seem completely at odds with each other. Was that something that was difficult to balance?

I don’t think so. The very nature of the film was contrasting the American dream and the hope for something better – the ideal – with the reality, so it feels right that some frames will feel beautiful and almost glorify the land and what’s it like to be on these farms and other frames feel just absolutely gritty and hard and you feel the weight of it. Because that’s the nature of the story, they’re allowed to coexist – I know there was a lot of attention drawn to how the world is in “12 Years a Slave” and they were very cognizant of the approach they took, which is that despite all these hardships, there was this omnipresent beauty and every frame is about how beautiful it is there, and that wasn’t what we were trying to say at all. If anything, it really was about what we hope our realities contrasted with what the reality of the reality is, so I think we got to do both in a way that would support the narrative.

When you were initially talking about this with Dee, were there any foundational references you could build upon?

There were many. My go-to was Farm Security Administration or the Work Progress Administration photography [of the 1930s and ’40s]. That was actually one of the reasons I got into photography initially and then cinematography was the love of that whole body of imagery from Dorothea Lange to Gordon Parks and Arthur Rothstein. Dee actually had first referenced a documentary filmmaker named Les Blank and his work had a real naturalistic quality and felt very free-flowing and the colors felt very muted, but not overly so. I was really interested in not just hitting the desat button and calling it a period piece, but actually still trying to find rich blacks and colorful colors – maybe not as punchy as we’re used to in the modern age.

Still, that color palette is so rich and vivid – was a lot of that done on set or was some of it post with a colorist?

It was a real conversation from prep all the way through to post with our production designer [David J. Bomba], myself and Dee, wanting to explore some of the more pastel-y colors and faded hues [with] the idea of things that were once bright had been worn away, so you can feel the age in the color palette – the texturing and layering of these houses where entire families would come and go every few years. It was very transient, so nothing should feel too new and it should all feel like if you remove layer after layer after layer, you’ll just explore more lives and more stories.

Carey Mulligan in "Mudbound"What was it like for you to go down to the South and explore that terrain? That’s new territory for you, it feels like.

I loved it. For probably most cinematographers, any chance to do something out of your comfort zone or outside of what your day to day is is exciting because it forces you to see the world in a new way. And I just find the South to be so inspiring visually. There’s just a real character to it. Southern pride is a real thing and it’s like things look almost the way they smell or taste. It’s so rich and vibrant, so I really, really enjoyed shooting in the South. I didn’t love the weather. [laughs] We were there in the dead of summer and it was pretty relentless because we were out in these plantations without any shade for miles. Then in the sharecropper homes that actually didn’t have windows, there was no way to air condition them, so there was no respite from the heat. The intention wasn’t to shoot in the summer, but of course between casting and financing, it took a long longer to get onto its feet, so by the time we shot, it was July, which was quite a different experience in the South.

Did that change your ideas about how to shoot? I’ve heard Dee say that even though there’s a fairly meticulous shotlist in advance, she likes to leave room to let the conditions of the day make their way onscreen.

Oh absolutely. A lot of it was weather-based. Some of it was in the script – the nature of the mud and the rain and [the elements], but the South in the summer will start out sunny and by 11 a.m. or 3 p.m., there’ll be this massive thunderstorm and an hour later, it’ll be sunny again. That leads to beautiful sunsets and all of these things, so often, our day would kind of be steered by some element.

We needed the rain as a story element, and obviously, a lot of it was manmade, but for some of the wide [shots] we needed the real rain, so we had to plan out if the rain came in, we would throw a camera in a sprinter van with a door open to go shoot some of the B-roll. But certainly for blocking, we had a shotlist, but we would always defer to what blocking felt the most natural. Most directors try to go into the day with a plan but be ready to make changes as they see fit and it was always a dance with the actors and with cameras to see what feels the most right for any given moment.

Because you were shooting in the real sharecropper and tenant houses, does that might’ve affect the blocking or how you might choose angles in such tight spaces?

Yeah, it was fairly limiting. There were only so many angles you could shoot when these houses were probably around 600′ [square feet], maybe not even. Maybe 450′. There were two main houses and they were only two or three rooms subdivided by walls. We actually ended up cutting an extra door into one of them just because we needed another way for the characters to go in and out and I needed another way to light them. I actually cut a hole in the ceiling, not to feel that there was a skylight because that wouldn’t have made sense, but just to be able to show some [light] from outside. The ceilings are so low we couldn’t even put lights in the ceiling or you’d see them. So it was about finding ways to make it feel like there was more variety than there was on the day.

You use the full expanse of the frame brilliantly – given how intimate it can be, did you see the epic scope in this from the start?

That was never a question for us. We wanted to show land overpowering man so much of the time and also [with] the families being quite large, we wanted to feel like at times the frames are bursting at the seams with people and at other times, we really feel like it’s man alone against the world. Anamorphic was another thing that once I showed Dee what it could do. Not having a huge financial budget, the nice thing about anamorphic is that it helps to sell period when you don’t have the resources to make sure that every last detail is up to snuff. It’s nice to be [in] deep focus for a little bit and then you’ll never know if an Edison plug [in the background] is from 1950 instead of 1920 and things like that. We ended up actually mixing anamorphic and spherical, but mostly anamorphic during the day.

Mary J. Blige and Carey Mulligan in "Mudbound"I understand you employed some vintage lenses as well.

Yeah. In a perfect world, I think we would’ve shot film and that was something that we both had wanted to do from the get-go. Ultimately, it just came down to money and thankfully – and I appreciate this – the producers didn’t draw a line in the sand and say “no.” They just said you can shoot film and lose two days out of your shooting schedule or you can shoot digital and have those two days. Our shooting schedule was so tight as it was that we couldn’t afford to lose those two days. And when we decided to shoot digital, I knew immediately it would take some of the sting off the digital edge with this older vintage glass. There’s a natural vignette with softening that feels like an old photograph to me and also just helps to make things feel a little more humane.

Just knowing personally how much I was taken aback by seeing it for the first time, what was it like for you when it all came together?

I actually just saw it for the first time at the Mill Valley Film Festival because I was shooting “Black Panther” when it premiered at Sundance and I couldn’t make it to Toronto. and I didn’t want to see it by myself. I wanted to be part of an audience. It was good because enough time had passed that I could experience it with a fresh set of eyes. It’s always hard when you watch a film to really see the forest through the trees and not look at your work or what’s outside of each frame. But I was very pleasantly surprised with how Dee managed to weave together all the individual narratives. [Since] that was my biggest concern – there were that many characters and that many intertwining stories – how do you make that work? And I thought it was really beautiful. She basically made a poem out of it. Everything isn’t overt or spelled out. It’s almost like each character stands for so much more.

“Mudbound” is now on Netflix.