When longtime friends and collaborators Barry Jenkins and James Laxton — the director-cinematographer pairing behind “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk” — first discussed their new Amazon Prime Video series “The Underground Railroad,” there was one part of the project that was non-negotiable. Namely, how to avoid reveling in the violence brought against the slaves at the focus of Colson Whitehead’s narrative story.
“It’s a topic we discussed quite a lot about as you can imagine,” Laxton says during the Gold Derby Meet the Experts: Cinematographers panel. “It was really important to us not to be gratuitous or dip into the violence too heavy-handedly. Our goal was instead to root the camera perspective to particular characters, our main characters let’s say, and see and witness the trauma to their eyes — as opposed to say cutting to the whip and cutting to the impact and cutting to the grimace. Instead what we wanted to do was show the character’s perspective.”
Based on Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and spread across 10 episodes, “The Underground Railroad” mainly focuses on Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a slave who escapes her bondage with support from a literal underground railroad that runs through the American South just before the Civil War. The series includes brutal depictions of violence against Cora and others, recreations that left the cast and crew in extremely vulnerable mental states. (Amazon supplied a counselor on the set of the series to provide mental health support during production.)
“It took a lot of emotional strength to get through a lot of days. It was a daily occurrence,” Laxton says of the shoot. “Most days something terrible was happening. Even if it wasn’t physical it was mental or it was spiritual. It wore on you and there are days when you go through it easily and days when you didn’t. But Amazon was kind enough to make sure the crew and the cast were taken care of.”
Amid all that, however, Laxton still had to do his job. “To be a cinematographer within that is a bizarre experience,” he explains. “You’re experiencing these things because you want to feel them. It’s important to process that as an artist, capturing what you’re capturing. You need to interact and engage with your characters as much as actors and casts in general. What was tricky as well was walking up to these people who are experiencing and going through a very traumatic time performing these things and saying, can you step a little bit to your left or back up a step. It was mind-boggling to continuously do your job while, for good reason, trying to make sure you’re engaged with the material.”
Watch the exclusive video interview with Laxton above.
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