Shooting black-and-white still photography has long been a passion for “Clemency” cinematographer Eric Branco. So it seemed serendipitous when he received an inbox message that included a script for Radha Blank’s “The-Forty-Year-Old Version” with a title page that read, “A New York tale in black and white.”
Blank, a writer-producer on Spike Lee’s Netflix series “She’s Gotta Have It,” wrote and directed the semi-autobiographical comedy about Radha, a playwright who hasn’t sold anything in a while and teaches high school theater to make ends meet. On the brink of turning 40, she finds her creative juices reinvigorated one day when she goes to an underground rap club and is lured into the world of hip-hop battles.
When we first meet the character, she’s lying on her bed and with the last light of day coming through the windows — the lighting scheme seems pretty straightforward. But another movie had just finished shooting on the same street and the area had been labeled a hot zone, which meant Branco couldn’t get permits to put a crane on the sidewalk or lights on a nearby property to illuminate the top-floor studio apartment from the outside.
The DP credits his key team, including gaffer Tyler Harmon-Townsend, who set up a 12’ x 24’ overhang that was rigged to the roof of the building to “give us this nice glow coming in through the windows.” Adds Branco: “Everything was shot in 10 minutes [because the sun was setting]; we had to match what the ambient light was doing outside.”
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The hip-hop battle took place in a warehouse in the Bronx set up to look like an underground club. Radha is a fish out of water in this world because she doesn’t know that scene. To reflect this, Branco shoots wide and low from the crowd’s perspective and cuts to reaction shots of audience members who aren’t feeling her act.
A boxing ring was brought in for the hip-hop battle, but Branco wanted to avoid the spotlight-driven noir lighting style of such shots. Instead, he had his gaffers rig a square of LED lights and place them overhead. “I liked how when we [shot from a low position] this ribbon of light played on camera,” he says.
For the scenes in the apartment and at the club, Branco aimed to complement the 35mm black-and-white film he was shooting and maintain a gritty look that matched the vibe of both locations. “We ended up using an Arricam LT and Zeiss Super Speed lenses from the 1970s,” he says.
His choice of camera changed for the diverse Greek chorus of locals that contributes to the story throughout the movie. Branco shot those clips on an iPhone. But he noticed that, with the camera being quite sophisticated, the footage he got was “shockingly sharp.” He adjusted the texture by softening the resolution.
In framing Radha, Branco wanted to portray her in an “honest and raw way.” When we first meet her, she’s very much down on her luck. But as her circumstances change and she finds herself not only recording a rap demo but also seeing opportunity come her way in her theater career, the DP got in tighter and closer with his lens to show the decision she has to make about which dream she wants to pursue. “It was a great choice to start the script where the character was at a low point,” Branco says.
Blank says the film’s focus on hip-hop was one of the reasons she chose to shoot in black and white. “I wanted to give [the characters] a kind of sophisticated and vulnerable treatment,” she says. “Hip-hop culture is often presented as oversexualized, and I feel like taking the color out forces you to see a certain level of humanity.”