‘The Banker’ DP Charlotte Bruus Christensen on Adopting ‘Classic Movie Style’
“The Banker,” a sumptuous Apple TV Plus production competing in the EnergaCamerimage Film Festival’s main competition this week, is the true story of Bernard Garrett and Joe Morris, two Black investors who broke down racial barriers during the 1960s by keeping their race secret. DP Charlotte Bruus Christensen (“Far From the Madding Crowd,” “A Quiet Place”) worked with director George Nolfi to conjure a magisterial look to the trappings of a real estate empire for the film, which moves from small-town Texas to booming Los Angeles – and finally to the halls of Congress, where the protagonists face a reckoning for rocking the boat.
When you’re going into a low-budget film that calls for a big, old-school Hollywood look and period locations, what are you thinking of as a way to pull it off?
One of the things that pushed this toward 35mm film was that the script and the period and everything about it had a sort of a heavyweight feel. One of the things that the director, George Nolfi, wanted was that it have a very graphic style. A lot of it was architecture and how people used the rooms to empower the people, and how when you go to court they shine that light right in your face to make you feel smaller. In buildings it was all about making people feel smaller so that you can control them. So grander, big, wide shots, sort of classic movie style – I can always find good reasons for shooting 35mm and for this one it became that.
Low angles and wide angles so that you see the ceiling, you understand the height of a room and also it’s a film about buildings. These two guys start buying different houses, fixing them up and selling them, and then they move into the bank business. So money was obviously also a subject. It’s important to visualize money in terms of housing estates and rooms.
Lots of those big, ornate halls are quite shadowy with points of light in the background suggesting great depth. Is it the richness of the shadows that you like so much about film?
You know, it photographs black so well, it keeps it alive – it’s not just a black hole where you can’t see anything. There’s so much texture in the shadows and in black areas, still moving because of the grain and the nature of celluloid. So when it’s a movie that has a lot of dark stuff, just like “A Quiet Place” was full of black – and red – there’s another good reason why film is a good choice.
But you’re not opposed to working on digital? As with your current project, the London-shot thriller “All the Old Knives” with Chris Pine, Thandie Newton, Laurence Fishburne and Jonathan Pryce.
A spy movie – I’ve never done a spy movie. This film/digital thing – there isn’t one that is better than the other. I’m shooting digital now and we all feel good about that. It’s just the fact that there’s a choice – that filmmaker’s should have that choice. It’s about what is right to tell your story.
As such a devotee of 35mm, what’s the film stock you’re most dedicated to for a movie like this?
For all the night shoots we were on 500T, which is called 5219. There’s a slower stock I like but with anamorphic lenses, shooting on a slow film stock means a lot of light so the 500T was preferred. People say it’s supposed to have a little more grain but I think it’s really beautiful these days. And whenever possible we did shoot on the 50T for daylight. And for the more overcast pieces we had the 250 daylight.
Shooting on location in Georgia, with Atlanta standing in for L.A. and the city of Newnan for small-town Texas, that had to be a challenge on a period film like this.
Around the bank on the square we did dress quite a bit for the budget, which was like $11-13 million, I was really impressed with what everybody managed to get out of it. We dressed big parts of that location. But with period films on a low budget all the shots need to be planned carefully.
And the budget would mean you couldn’t do a lot of takes either, I assume.
You know, George didn’t overshoot. And I think that’s another conversation you do have to have. If you have only three or four takes it’s putting too much restriction on the director. But John Collins, who was the production designer on the film … I don’t know how he did it but he really created a lot of freedom. A very authentic look and he was very creative. It looks great and he definitely gets a big part of the credit for it.
And I understand that in some of the historic locations you weren’t allowed to touch the walls? That must have called for creative shooting.
It was very tricky. Quite a few of the sets actually were historically protected – also that big office you see them take over. So it was tricky to light. For the courtroom scene we decided to light them up with the period-looking lamps. George wanted people to see how they put these spotlights in people’s faces to get them to sweat. And we put a little bit in through the windows. When you can’t have equipment in there it just is a matter of lighting to each shot. It took a bit more time but it worked out.
Samuel L. Jackson is quite a dynamo, balancing out the quiet performance of Anthony Mackie. Do you have to stay on your toes with such a big personality?
It is a pleasure to work with people – Denzel Washington [with whom she worked on “Fences”] as well – who have massive experience. They’re so pro, even though they’ve done this for so many years, they take every scene very seriously and for Sam he just brings a lot of truth. He’s the sort of person where he just walks into the room and the film becomes alive. He really brings the set to life. You can’t say, ‘Why don’t you stand there or sit there?’ He’s definitely going to have an opinion about what feels right for the character but once you find that right collaboration for how to block the scene, he gives you a lot back.