Amy Vincent Shoots "Black Snake Moan"
Black Snake Moan is the second co-venture for Amy Vincent, ASC, and writer/director Craig Brewer. It follows in the wake of Hustle & Flow, which won the Audience and Cinematography awards at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. Black Snake Moan unfolds in contemporary times in a small town in northern Mississippi, where the lives of the two main characters intersect by chance.
Christina Ricci portrays Rae, an unstable young woman who is wracked by vivid memories and dreams of being sexually abused during her childhood. Samuel L. Jackson plays Lazarus, a farmer who scratches a living out of the ground and expresses his belief in God by playing his guitar and singing songs about sin and salvation.
The music, composed by Scott Bomar, sets the tone for the emotional flow of the story. Brewer describes it as North Mississippi Hills blues, which he defines as "the type of music that makes you want to dance, sweat and drink, especially when a bunch of other people are reacting the same way. The beat of the music keeps your head bobbing."
Black Snake Moan sounds like classic deep South rhetoric. Brewer borrowed that phrase from the name of a song by blues singer and guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson. He wrote the script while Hustle & Flow was still in postproduction.
Brewer sets the stage for this Southern gothic tale in the opening scene. Rae's boyfriend, Ronnie, tells her he is joining the army, and Lazarus is abandoned by his longtime wife. Lazarus and Rae cross paths in a dark and dingy bar. He notices Rae working the room.
"She wants someone to love her," Brewer says, "but her dress and actions make men think that she is theirs for the taking. Part of the electricity is a tactile feeling that Rae could explode at any minute and lunge after people like a dog guarding her home."
The film was produced at practical locations including bars, streets and an expansive soybean field. Some interior and exterior farmhouse scenes were staged on a set in Brewer's hometown of Memphis. The director set about recording music during early preproduction because he wanted the actors to hear and react to it on the set. He gave Vincent DVDs of the Southern gothic films Bad Georgia Road and The Baby Doll as visual references.
They made an early decision to produce Black Snake Moan in a widescreen 2.4:1 aspect ratio to put the characters into the environments and show the audience how they react to one another. Vincent suggested shooting with spherical lenses in Super 35 format with one proviso: a guarantee of digital intermediate (DI) timing. Brewer and the producers agreed, and the production team found ways to trim other costs.
Vincent explains that in addition to providing flexibility in adding finishing touches to looks of scenes, one benefit of a digital intermediate is that the timed DI file is recorded in 2.4:1 aspect ratio directly onto the internegative used to generate release prints. Optical timing of films produced in Super 35 format requires an extra optical step to "squeeze" images into 2.4:1 format.
"We were like a family," she says. "Everybody contributed to discussions about the visual style during preproduction, including Craig, Scott, [producer] Stephanie Allain, [production designer] Keith Brian Burns and [editor] Billy Fox. Scott came in one day and put a book from Fat Possum Records on the table. It was a collection of biographies and photos of North Mississippi blues musicians."
Brewer staged rehearsals with Jackson and Ricci in spaces that were the same as the sets where they were going to shoot, which enabled Vincent to provide input to the production designer about wild walls and where she felt windows, doors and props should be placed on the set to give her flexibility in lighting and camera movement.
The rehearsals also gave her a sense of what the actors were going to do, since Brewer gave them freedom to follow their instincts. Vincent covered most scenes with two cameras, a Panavision Panaflex Platinum for master shots and a Panavision GII zeroed in on closer coverage. She used a range of Primo primes and 4:1 and 11:1 zoom lenses. Her film palette consisted of Kodak Vision2 500T 5218 and 100T 5212.
The 500-speed film enabled her to reach deep into the darkest shadows and brightest highlights the same way the human eye would perceive those scenes. She used the 100-speed for exteriors filmed in bright daylight.
Burns augmented the natural setting in the juke joint with an array of bottle lights that were spray painted red. Vincent says that setup inspired the use of red lights during the filming of Lazurus singing the volatile Stragger Lee lyrics during a seminal moment in the story.
The house where Lazarus lives was built on location, but the sets were later moved to a stage. That set had feminine touches, including pink tones, doilies and gray and green floral wallpaper as a reminder of the woman who left him behind.
There was an unscripted transition with characters interacting in the juke joint between the first song that Lazarus plays early in the evening to the last one at 3 a.m.
"Everyone was dancing and sweating," Vincent says. "I've done three movies with Sam and have never seen him beaming the way he was when we shot the Stagger Lee number with two big women dancing behind him. He was so engaged that he had no idea that those amazing women were behind him dancing in the dark.
"Craig comes to work extremely well prepared, and he expects the same from everybody," Vincent says. "In the first few days of shooting, we realized that capturing the performances in one or two takes really worked for Sam and Christina. It stepped up everybody's game."
Brewer says, "Artists don't paint multiple canvases and decide which one they like best later. That drains everyone's energy, and it creates too many options in editing. We storyboarded some shots, but we did a lot more running and gunning. There's something magical about finding the scene and figuring out how to shoot it."
Vincent lauds the collaborative spirit of her crew, which kept pace with the sometimes spontaneous action. Operator Jeff Greeley and 1st AC Jamie Felz were on A-camera. Paul Sanchez was the B-camera operator and Heather Lea was the first assistant. The second assistants were Ryan Rayner and Beth Horton. Traci Facelli was the film loader.
After the bar closes, Lazarus brings a drunken and bruised Rae home with him and puts her to bed. He is determined to put her on the path to redemption and happiness.
"Rae is a vulnerable character who spends most of the movie half-naked and covered in blood and bruises," Vincent notes. "It isn't a glamorous role for Christina, whose performance is appropriately and wonderfully raw, but [gaffer] Dan Cornwall and I made a conscious decision to light her in a classically beautiful way."
There is a shot of Lazarus pacing through the house after he puts Rae to bed. He walks out of a shadowy place and stops next to an old-fashioned radiator. Lazarus touches it and looks over his shoulder at Rae. You can see that he has an idea.
After Rae wakes up from a nightmare, she gets out of bed, crawls across the floor and passes out next to the radiator. Upon waking, Rae discovers that Lazarus has chained her to it. She can't run away, but it is a long chain, so she can explore the house.
The visual grammar punctuates the emotional flow of the story.
"It's a scary-looking, dark place, even in the daytime," Vincent says. "The lighting becomes softer and more inviting as the relationship between Lazarus and Rae evolves."
A seminal scene takes place in the soybean field outside the farmhouse. Jackson is in the foreground and Ricci is in the background, craning her neck, trying to pull away. Against a pink-orange sunset, the leaves on trees and other foliage are turning yellow. With just two lines of dialogue, the dynamic of their relationship is conveyed by her gestures and his physical presence.
"It's inspiring because it reflects the emotions of the scene with two iconic personalities going toe to toe," Vincent says. "One camera was covering the master shot and the other one was closer in on one of their faces. Maybe halfway through the shot there are images of his hands clutching the chain."
Vincent brought Steadicam Operator Colin Hudson in for a week for selected shots, including one in which Rae runs across an open field. The images turn sideways at a 90-degree angle, everything in the frame turns blue, and then the shot returns to the proper angle. All of that happens in seconds, choreographed with the music. You get the feeling that she is reacting to drugs. The color changes were applied during the DI.
As the story evolves, a preacher who is friendly with Lazarus asks Rae if there is someone important in her life. She names Ronnie, who is played by Justin Timberlake. Brewer is figuratively winking at the audience, telling them that Ronnie is returning. There is a cut to a shot of someone getting off a bus. When the bus clears the frame, the audience can see that it is Ronnie. He goes into a bar that has a different look and feel than the juke joint: it looks and feels like the quintessential redneck bar.
"Guys are drinking beer and smoking cigarettes," Vincent says. "There is decades of nicotine caked on the counters, and a turquoise lamp was generating nicotine yellow and brown light. I took all the lighting cues for colors off the uncorrected fluorescents and the lamp." That scene sets the stage for the film's conclusion.
Burbank's FotoKem Film & Video did both the front-end lab work and the DI. The conformed negative was scanned at 2K resolution, and painterly touches were added to some shots. Vincent had worked with DI colorist Walter Volpatto on Hustle & Flow, which simplified the collaboration process on this film. The sunset had painted a pink edge behind Rae when she and Lazarus are in the soybean field; Volpatto was able to create a matching pink horizon behind Lazarus. Other scenes that required image manipulation include the spinning Steadicam shot, where the images fade in and out of blue.
Black Snake Moan was produced by Paramount Classics for distribution to cinemas by Paramount Vantage.