“Waves,” the latest collaboration between cinematographer Drew Daniels and writer-director Trey Edward Shults, is an emotional drama centered on an upper-middle class African-American family in Florida. Daniels’ camera work highlights the characters’ stories while celebrating the film’s setting.
When you first saw the script, what jumped out as things you could highlight or play with to help both propel the story and convey the South Florida setting?
It was immediately the most heartbreaking and dynamic script I’ve ever read. Music was embedded in the script … the music itself had this sort of rhythm to it. Since Trey and I have worked together for so long, I could sense the emotion and knew what he wanted; we like to have our films evolve and change, and the cinematic language changes throughout this film with the characters’ emotions and as the story arc changes. We built this really detailed camera language arc for “Waves” [beginning with] lots of movement and wide-angle lenses, and deeper focus — having a sense of a person at the top of their world, at the top of their happiness and life is going so well. The camera needed to feel like it was free and mobile and happy and energetic and youthful. That was always the beginning of the film; we knew it needed to feel like that so it had somewhere to go. Movement as well as lenses as well as color all evolve during the film, and we had a very specific arc for the way that evolves.
How do you plan that visual arc?
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After we iron out the emotions and how things should feel, we assign different elements to that, different techniques. [As the story progresses] we literally use all the different elements of cinematography — we use the aspect ratio, we use color, we use lensing, we use zooms, we have less camera movement, and then we move into handheld so it evolves as the character has this downward spiral. We also have an element of circular movements throughout the entire film. That evolved as we were shooting. Because the way we were lighting the film was very naturalistic — I tried to keep movie lights off the set, and just use practicals and light through windows, or in the ceiling — [it] gave us a lot of space and gave the actors a lot of freedom. Because we had that much freedom, we ended up using these circular movements that make you feel like things are a little bit more real.
With natural light, you’re at the mercy of the elements, especially in Florida with all the sun and storms. How did those elements enhance or restrict your shooting?
I feel like they both enhanced it and restricted it, and that’s the beautiful thing about the way that we approached the film. It was so naturalistic — we went with the flow. We were willing to go where nature took us, go where the universe took us. We had this huge plan of how to shoot the film, but other elements — rain, actors, restrictions with locations, all these things — weigh into how you make a film. We let a lot of those restrictions guide our hand. We didn’t fight it.
Trey and I came up with a way of shooting we called “playing jazz with the actors.” Essentially it would be me, Trey, and a sound person in the room — or outside, or wherever you happen to be — and we’d just riff and follow the actors’ lead…. That goes for the lighting as well. I was OK with things being dark, and OK with actors being top-lit by the sun or front-lit at some parts — things I naturally have this inclination to fight — and I think it really helped the filmmaking process.
Did that lead to some great shots?
Yeah. There’s a very intimate [beach] scene that we shot with two cameras…. That was one of those “time permitting” scenes if we had time at the end of the day. We got through the scene with just enough time for the very last bit of twilight, and asked the actors to go in the water in their wardrobe, and I jumped in the water with them and rolled this long, maybe 15-minute take until there was absolutely no light left—one of those late moments where there’s the very last bit of a bluish color in the sky and a little bit of pink and a lightning storm so far away that it wasn’t dangerous for us to be in the water. It takes following the moment and making enough time for these serendipitous moments to happen.
What was it important to keep the camera eye-level with the action, even if they’re down on the wrestling mat?
I just prefer more grounded camerawork —even though the camera might be spinning and pushing and pulling and zooming. I prefer being on the ground and not doing extravagant shots with cranes. Those have their place, but for “Waves” it didn’t feel right.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a documentary with a director named Matthew Heineman. He did “Cartel Land” and “A Private War.” Honestly, after “Waves” I want to take my time and follow my heart and find something that really speaks to me.
Any advice for aspiring cinematographers?
We didn’t really do anything on “Waves” that wasn’t something you couldn’t do with very little means….Everything about it was very minimal, almost DIY in a lot of ways. I want people to be Inspired by that, and feel they can make a movie—similar, or better, or as good as “Waves”—with very little means. Because what really makes “Waves” stand out are the ideas and the concepts and the magic….We didn’t overshoot things. We stuck to our ideas, and adapted them when necessary. We didn’t shoot back-ups. We shot with a lot of conviction.