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How ‘Harriet’ DP and Composer Drew Inspiration From Specific Scenes

The joys — and complexity — of making movies often can be found in different aspects of creating a scene. For Focus Features’ “Harriet,” director of photography John Toll was challenged by a sequence in which 19th-century abolitionist Harriet Tubman, played by Cynthia Erivo, calls upon her faith for support as she crosses a deep river. 

“As is often the case, you see a shot in a film and you just take it for granted,” says Toll, a two-time Oscar winner (“Braveheart,” “Legends of the Fall”). To get the camera placement just right, a 10-foot crane was mounted in a boat that was stabilized in the middle of the lake that stood in for the scripted river, Toll says. The crane was fully extended, holding a remote-controlled camera at an improbable two inches above the water. 

“We wanted to be eye level with Cynthia, and she was literally up to her neck in the water,” he explains. 

Executing a natural lighting setup added to the degree of difficulty. “When people are standing around on movie sets, sometimes they wonder what takes so long,” says Toll. “It’s because of situations like that.”

Toll’s overall strategy was to help the film, directed by Kasi Lemmons, look as realistic as possible without using additional camera filters. “It was all natural color,” he says. “I was really interested in describing that environment and re-creating it in a way that [simulated how] it actually looked. … It was really just trying to capture a sense of the period and place.”

Composer Terence Blanchard, an Oscar-nominated composer who has worked extensively with writer-director Spike Lee, says he was particularly taken by Harriet’s declaration in a scene in which she declares that she would rather die trying to gain freedom than continue to live enslaved, and jumps off a bridge. “That statement kind of drove me when writing the score, because I thought it was an amazing thing to say and actually mean,” he says. “That’s not something you throw out there casually.” 

When writing for the film, Blanchard focused not on individual instruments but on the power of a 70- to 80-piece orchestra. “It’s about the collective, and how that reverberates and comes together to create one powerful sound,” he says.

Blanchard likens the instrumentation on the score to various colors. Some “are softer in nature, and others are vibrant,” he says. “For me, with some of those big sweeping shots, it was just about raw power.” 

In addition to writing the score and playing percussion on the soundtrack, Blanchard also conducted the orchestra, which he says he loves doing. “We try to keep our work environments very light and enjoyable, because creating music should be an enjoyable thing,” he says. “It should never feel like a job.”

The most important thing Blanchard kept in mind while scoring, he notes, was the main character. “When you think of Harriet, you don’t think of this diminutive person, because she was anything but. She was a powerhouse, and I think the music has to portray that.” 

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