The “Honey Boy” script that cinematographer Natasha Braier read prior to signing on with first-time narrative feature director Alma Har’el to shoot star and writer Shia LaBeouf’s intimate memoir-focused arthouse film was psychologically rich and emotionally fraught with no visual cues. It was a deep character study of the beginnings of his acting career with his alcoholic and abusive father as sole caretaker. Since both Braier’s parents are psychoanalysts, this was fertile ground and an exciting challenge for the DP who has done many a low-budget, high-stakes arthouse indies, like “The Neon Demon,” “The Rover” and “Gloria Bell.”
“It was mostly these two people in a room having very dynamic interactions: The stuff in the hotel room with his dad and the stuff at rehab with his therapist,” says Braier of the original script. “It is a script’s essence that excites me, though — the characters’ emotional journeys and what the message is. I ask myself, ‘How are we contributing to make this a better world from telling this story?’ It’s not the possibilities of doing great cinematography and winning awards.”
Braier’s other requirement: to resonate with the director. From the first frames of Har’el’s “Bombay Beach” — the Tribeca Film Festival-winning 2011 documentary about one of California’s poorest communities — Braier recognized one of her “tribe,” as she says.
“Her sensibility, her empathy, her poetry, her respect and love for her characters — she is creating from a very similar place as I am. It’s located
in the stomach.”
Intrinsic to both the script and the final product was a blending of documentary and fiction. This meant Braier needed to take a nonfiction approach — no rehearsals and no heavy direction from Alma to the actors — in what is ultimately a fictional world.
“Shia was going to do whatever he felt like doing,” says Braier, who was totally on board with the freedom of creativity and artistic integrity Har’el and LaBeouf were going for.
Braier directed her camera (and Steadicam) operator Matias Mesa on the Alexa Mini with Cooke Xtal Express anamorphic lenses (vintage lenses originally designed by Joe Dunton) to be as free as possible to capture images in the way that Har’el does in her documentaries. And at the same time, Har’el wanted Braier to light for a fictional feature film — expressive lighting that supports the characters’ emotions.
“Alma wanted the best of both worlds,” says Braier, who became proficient at using DMX and iPad dimmer boards in real time in order to have a
jam-session type of set up with the LEDs she placed around a scene. “And though challenging, especially when shooting over 21 days with very limited resources, I wanted to give that to her.”