“When I first read it, I was quite scared of it,” admits cinematographer Tobias Schliessler of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” The script was adapted from the play by late playwright August Wilson, and its stage origins meant that the majority of the story takes place within two rooms. Schliessler’s biggest challenge was discovering methods to make the cramped sets feel cinematic. As one of the final creatives to jump on board the project, he had just 13 days to find the right approach. Watch the exclusive video interview above.
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It was director George C. Wolfe who helped the cinematographer find the filming dynamic for the small rehearsal room which served as the main set. George instructed him to “think of it as a boxing fight.” Each of the four band members would have a corner of the “ring” and would come into the center to attack or spar with one another. Wolfe’s boxing-inspired blocking inspired Schiessler’s camera movements.
Camera placement turned out to be paramount to Wolfe’s vision. It is a movie about the actors, so Schliessler describes that his filming process was all in service of “capturing those performances.” A major goal of the cinematography was making sure the actors were unencumbered, so Schiessler often used two cameras simultaneously during a scene. This tactic was used to great effect when Chadwick Boseman’s Levee launches into a monologue about seeing his mother being assaulted. “There was no interruption of that scene,” remembers Schiessler. That’s thanks to two cameras that moved around the actor on dollies and sliders, allowing Boseman to complete the monologue in one take.
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Lighting such a small space also proved a difficult challenge. “When I first read the script, there was no window,” exclaims the cinematographer. Wilson has described the rehearsal studio as a windowless storage room. But on a site visit, he and production designer Mark Ricker found a space with a small high window where the sun streamed down in a captivating manner. “It reminded me of a Caravaggio painting,” says Schiessler. The window was the perfect addition because its position allowed him to film at any angle in the room without adjusting the lighting setup. And for the four band members, it represented “a place they can’t get to.”
Some of the filmmaking methods were unconventional. There were no marks on the floor for the actors to hit. The lighting equipment was authentic to the time period. “We didn’t want to lock the actors in,” Schiessler explains. Instead, his job became “about being there with the camera at the right time” to capture a spontaneous moment from the actors. The DP fondly remembers that “it really was magical sometimes, how it all came together.”
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