Working With Chadwick Boseman on ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ an ‘Incredible Experience,’ DP Tobias Schliessler Says
George C. Wolfe’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” features the final performance of “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman, who died Aug. 28. In the film, coming to Netflix on Dec. 18, he plays an ambitious jazz trumpeter, Levee, butting heads with Viola Davis’ titular blues singer in 1920s Chicago. Asked about his favorite shot from the film during EnergaCamerimage Film Festival’s online seminar, the film’s DP Tobias Schliessler chose one featuring Boseman.
“One of the moments I will never forget was when Chadwick had this incredible emotional scene, talking about his mother getting raped,” he said. “I was looking at the monitors and I wanted to get just a little bit more light in his eyes, to show all the emotions. My operator was tightening in on him and everything just fell into place. It was an incredible experience, watching this actor.”
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is an adaptation of a play by August Wilson, whose “Fences” was adapted by Denzel Washington. The actor was a producer on Wolfe’s film, which saw Schliessler reunite with Washington and Todd Black, also a producer on the pic, after “The Taking of Pelham 123.”
“I did watch the play on YouTube, but not as a visual reference,” Schliessler mentioned. “I had seen ‘Fences,’ which I thought was an incredible movie, and that kind of gave me the idea of the tone. That was my background.”
As he shared with Wolfe, the focus on the recording studio and band room in the film worried him at first.
“When people go to see the film they will understand. In the script it said that the band room, which occupies 40 or 50 pages, is a windowless, dark storage room with no air and no light. When I read it, I went: How are we gonna do this? I said to George: ‘I love the script, the story is amazing, but I am not quite sure how to approach this band room, which is one of the biggest sets in the movie!’ He said: ‘If you knew how to do it, why would you want to do it again?’”
With limited time to prepare, the German-born DP turned to paintings for inspiration and to achieve the warm tones of a “hot summer day in Chicago,” with Wolfe comparing the atmosphere in the band room to that of a boxing ring.
“He wanted it to feel like a fight that’s done with words instead of fists. That became my guidance,” he said, adding that he didn’t want to “distract” with the camera. “George comes from a theatrical background and everyone said he is incredible at blocking the actors. He came in every morning, an hour before call time, sat by himself on set and worked it all out in his mind.”
Using three cameras to capture musical numbers in the movie, Schliessler – who in 2006 shot “Dreamgirls” – admitted that music influenced his work. “It always gives you energy in terms of camera movement and lighting. You just feel it,” he noted.
“I want to give the actors as much freedom as they need to perform. I don’t ever want to limit where they want to go or which way to move. They shouldn’t have to worry about that so I never set marks on the floor. I always tell my operators and everyone else: ‘Let them do what they want to do.’”
Schliessler, who has made eight films with Peter Berg and Bill Condon, opened up about his approach on set, also pointing out that there is no difference when shooting for streamers.
“I don’t think about it at all. The bar is set so high these days, there is such great work out there, also in television, so you just try to do your best. It’s all about telling a cinematic story, whether it’s for a smaller or bigger screen,” he said.
“I like to talk scenes through with the director before we shoot, making sure I know what our intention is. It’s great to have a shot list, but when you start to work you can put it aside. Now, it’s all about the actors,” he said.
Sharing what it is that every cinematographer dreams about, he said: “More time! Every DP wants a little more time.”