A Most Violent Year tells the story of an immigrant in New York City fighting to protect his business and his family in 1981—statistically, one of the most violent years in the city’s history. Directed by J.C. Chandor and starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, the film was named the best film of the year by the National Review Board.
The movie’s cinematographer is Bradford Young, who gained notice for his work on two 2013 indie hits: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, directed by David Lowery, and Mother of George, directed by Andrew Dosunmu. Young is a graduate of Howard University’s film school—the only historically black college to offer a graduate film program—and counts the filmmaker Haile Gerima, who teaches writing and directing there, as his mentor.
Here, Bradford Young discusses the production of A Most Violent Year.
Photo by Atsushi Nishijima.
You’ve had such a busy year. I see you worked on three films.
Bradford Young: I actually started on Ed Zwick’s film Pawn Sacrifice in 2013. When that was done, I had a week off and then went to shoot A Most Violent Year; then I had another week off and went to shoot Selma. I also helped out on Nas: Time Is Illmatic. I helped them raise some funds and was the conceptual framework of the piece, kind of a visual consultant. I also had a brand new baby this year!
How did you get the job on A Most Violent Year?
David Lowery, who was the director of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, met J.C. Chandor on the festival circuit. J.C. was looking for a cinematographer and David told him to talk to me. He’d seen Mother of George also, but Ain’t Them Bodies was the conversation piece. Our initial conversation was about how to create a visual personification of 1980 New York City. How do you break the idea of this city that is under economic duress and nestled in urban blight by showing the undercurrent of elegance? It was about that balance, and finding and creating images about the time period.
What were your visual touchstones for creating the film?
Photographer Jamel Shabazz did all these portraits of kids from the early hip-hop era. I found the photos when I was 17 or 18. He was focused on these musicians’ adornment and aesthetics, which look so beautiful in the decaying landscape of New York City. They’re amazingly dressed and posed against walls covered with graffiti. We referenced the warm, hopeful over- and undertones of his images. His framing was always about balance, having that one element in the frame that counterbalanced the background.
Photo by Atsushi Nishijima.
As it turns out, J.C. and the costume designer, Kasia Walicka-Maimone, also had these photos in their look books! Jamel just informed that place and time.
What else was in the look books?
In J.C.’s book, he had some interesting 1981 clips from Town & Country magazine. I had some super-obscure images from [photographer] Gordon Parks. I also used some of the images from Elliott Erwitt, who was the guy photographing places where no one else wanted to photograph.
How did you choose your camera and lenses?
We shot with the ARRI Alexa, both the Studio and the Plus, and we shot ARRIRAW. I knew we had to shoot anamorphic. It wasn’t about the height of buildings but about this idea of the expansiveness of decay. We chose the new ARRI Master Anamorphics. We only had three lenses—a 35mm, 50mm and 75mm—but we had doubles of them. We used the 35mm very rarely and the 75mm one time. I would say 98 percent of the movie was shot with the 50mm.
Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) and Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo). Photo by Atsushi Nishijima.
I tested so I knew what we would do with the anamorphic lenses. The lenses are super-sophisticated, and that really worked for the story. I wanted really straight lines, and sometimes it’s hard to keep lines straight with anamorphics, but they didn’t bend at all with the ARRI Master Anamorphics. And [the lenses] looked really great on faces, flattering on Jessica and David [Oyelowo].
Where was A Most Violent Year shot?
We had a second unit, and 1st AC Stanley Fernandez shot in Detroit because New York City doesn’t have the decay we needed anymore. Detroit looks like NYC in the 1980s. The protagonists’ house is in Chappaqua, in Bedford, in Westchester County, so we also shot up in that area, an hour up north [from New York City]. We also shot two locations on stage, including the company offices.
Everything else was found locations, little funky corners that we had to hunt down. The city is in such economic transition that most of those funky spots aren’t there anymore. We went to all five boroughs to discover places that wouldn’t challenge us with the need for visual effects.
What was your lighting package like?
Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) and his lawyer, Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks). Photo by Atsushi Nishijima.
We were moving fast, and when we got there we had to get it right. My gaffer, Bill O’Leary, and key grip Mitchell Andrew Lillian are legendary. Those guys work fast. A lot of what you see is highlight-controlled natural light. We used whatever lighting source or piece of architecture we could. I used lots of top light, which is my preferred method of lighting because it allows you to shoot 360 degrees and it makes faces look great. The kit included a lot of fluorescents, which is perfect for the era, and lots of lighting through windows with HMIs. For exteriors, we used balloons and lots of top lighting. At times we lit just with practicals, which worked well because of all the beautiful fixtures of that era, which were all on dimmers.
The beauty of shooting with the Alexa is how sensitive it is and how it sees into the shadows. I like lots of details in the shadows, which is always a struggle with film. Shadows are so nuanced with the Alexa. Put those two instruments together—the Alexa camera and the Master Anamorphics—and we could light with pretty small fixtures.
Did you create a specific style for your camera moves?
Oh yeah. Lots of very slow, meticulous dolly moves, all push-ins. If I wasn’t doing handheld, the camera was on a dolly. Even in a 10-minute scene, we’d have very small micro-moves. We even did it on close-ups. There’s a big action sequence that’s very rough and tumble at the end of the movie. We didn’t do it refined but just took everyone’s clumsiness and made it part of the scene. It added authenticity to it.
What was the biggest challenge in making A Most Violent Year?
Photo by Atsushi Nishijima.
The weather. At the Verrazano Bridge sequence, where they hijack a truck for the first time, we had snow, rain, sunshine and clouds. That’s heavy when you’re trying to make a scene look consistent and fighting those elements. You can’t put any diffusion in there because there’s nowhere to put it.
And it was a very cold winter. The snow held us up, too; we had blizzards. That first scene, where they pull into the parking lot of their offices, that snow is real snow. In another scene, a character shows up at the house and there’s no snow on the ground. By the time he leaves, there’s a foot of snow on the ground. It was brutal.
I felt beat down by the weather. I still feel cold! It was very physical, in spite of the style of the film being very methodical and calm. What was happening around us was chaotic.
Where did you do the DI?
Photo by Atsushi Nishijima.
At Harbor Picture Company. Joe Gawler was the colorist and he’s amazing. I was kind of raw walking into the DI, but it was a great collaborative effort. J.C. is very smart and it was a real honor to shoot for him. With Bill O’Leary and Mitch Lillian by my side, we were covered.
What else would you’d like us to know about the picture?
I really grew up and matured on this film. Before, if someone had said, “Bradford, that kid who shoots movies,” I wouldn’t have disagreed with the word “kid.” After my son was born, making this film was the last missing element that said I’d become a man. This is a turning point in my personal growth, as someone concerned about the art form of cinematography. I’m happy to take whatever I’ve gained from it and take it to other films. It was a joy. I saw a difference in my work and that’s all I care about: that I’m constantly growing and bettering my work.