‘Keep Shooting and Be Humble’: ‘BLAZE’ DP Steve Cosens on Advice for Young Cinematographers
"When you first start your career, it's inevitable that you're going to try to emulate films that you've seen."
It may be about Outlaw Country music, but DP Steve Cosens was tasked to lens Ethan Hawke’s latest film with the philosophy of an improvisational jazz musician. Cosens was more than up to that task. “I was game to work that way, and it was exciting and wonderful from day one,” he told No Film School about working on the film about largely unknown Texas legend Blaze Foley who inspired the careers of Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard.
BLAZE, which opened in Texas last month and is playing in NYC and Los Angeles this week, is a film that would test any Director of Photography, from maintaining a fluid approach during production while pulling off lighting extremes that reflect the dichotomies of the artist in the film. Watch some selects of Cosens's cinematography in the film here, and check out the trailer below:
Steve Cosens sat down with No Film School to talk about balancing the philosophical and practical approach by being extremely selective with locations, embracing natural light, and how taking chances to learn, even if it means shooting karaoke videos, is how you will find your voice in film.
No Film School: When Ethan Hawke approached you about this project, what kind of conversations did you have regarding the look and the feel of it?
Steve Cosens: I had shot Born to be Blue with him and we had formed a friendship making that film. When he reached out to me to shoot BLAZE, he sent me this stream-of-consciousness, kind of rambling piece of poetry/narrative script all combined into one. And I was like, “Oh my God, yes, I have to do this!”
That's the way the script always existed, within this kind of loose form. Ethan had said fairly early on is that he wanted it to be improvisational, that he was going to be using non-actors with some more experienced actors. He wanted to go into it with a looser form and to film it in the way like you would approach jazz. We chose our sets and we were careful about the locations, but once we got in there, we played, and let the actors do what they wanted to do and experiment that way too. We adjusted. That was kind of the birth of it and the style that Ethan wanted from the beginning.
NFS: After getting this initial poem-like script (and hearing that he wanted this jazz improvisation approach) how did you interpret what that would mean for you in terms of cinematography?
Cosens: I knew that I was just going to be going in there and would have to be flexible and fluid, to not hold onto preconceived ideas about what the shape of any scene could or should be. It was really just about being open and intuitive, and everything that Ethan likes to do, and it was something that I realized, "This is what I need to just embrace." I knew I was going to use a lot of natural light and practicals so that I could be fluid and move around if all of a sudden things changed and we ended up shooting on the other side of the room. I had to be adaptive at all times. I really like shooting that way. Not too many directors actually like to work that way. So, for me, I was like, "Yeah, bring it!" I was game to work that way, and it was exciting and wonderful from day one.
"He sent me this stream-of-consciousness, kind of rambling piece of poetry, narrative script all combined into one."
NFS: A big part of the film is about the light and dark of the artist [Blaze Foley] and a lot of the film’s look goes between lightness and darkness. What was your philosophy to accomplish that while keeping the style fluid?
Cosens: The tree house in the woods, even in the original script, or when Ethan talked about the film, was about how this love relationship developed in this tree house. It's such a romantic idea.
We built this tree house up on the back property of this small studio in Louisiana, and it was something from the very beginning that I was so excited about shooting. As we were building it, I was constantly talking to Ethan about where the windows should be, and where the bed should be in relation to the windows, and which side of the tree house we should favor windows on, and which should be the negative side, the darker side of the treehouse, based on where the sun was going to be and the position of the tree house on this point that we had built. I was able to control the use of daylight somewhat with that, and I, also in the tree house up where the kitchen area is, I wanted that to be a little bit lighter, so I had the art department put plastic corrugated roofing up there. That was all pre-thought out, and of course, the art department was game for that and they incorporated those elements.
Cosens: Pretty much everywhere we shot, Ethan and I would walk in and we would talk about what we could do there. It was a low budget film, so any of the solutions couldn’t be expensive. I like to work that way. I like to keep things minimal and simple and more realistic. In the outhouse bar, I turned off a bunch of lights and I changed a bunch of light bulbs in the bar so that they were warmer. I put up one light (I think it was a short Kino) that I made red for Blaze when he's singing.
I ended up putting up some of these lights around the performance area because I wanted to use it for highlight detail and to have a little bit of fill from these Christmas lights that were around the stage area. I had put them up on these pillars. When the art department came in, I didn't know that they were going to have this big American flag, and it just so happened that the American flag fit exactly in my outline of lights. The whole thing just fell together.
There were so many beautiful accidents that happened. That was the beauty of it, and every day I was like, "Oh my God." Sometimes you really know when a film is meant to be because things just fall into place, and this is a film that things really fell into place for all the time. We were really careful in most locations to choose a location that really worked for us so that we could use natural light. If it was going to be too big of a deal for the art department or for lighting, we just disregarded it and we moved onto something else. Something that I always tell younger DPs is, "The easiest thing to control at the beginning is to just say no to a location. Because if you have to choose a location where there's going to be so much lighting, then you're not doing yourself any favors."
That was something I did just all through the film, saying, "Yeah, I can make this work here," or "I can't make this work," and then we would just move on.
NFS: I was reading that the production used some DJI tools on this film. What were those used for?
Cosens: We did shoot some stuff with the DJI Osmo at the beginning and at the end of the film. There are some footers that are black and white and that was shot with the Osmo, so it had a different texture. The whole film was handheld except for the stuff where they go in, where Sybil and Zee go into the old house at the end of the film, that was with the Ronin. They couldn't afford a Steadicam guy, but we wanted to do the shots where Zee and Sybil go into the house to be more fluid, to contrast that period of time with the rest of the film. DJI lent us this new Ronin and their newest drone for it.
"...the easiest thing to control at the beginning is to just say no to a location."
Cosens: I realized working with the Ronin that it’s not a tool to just pick up and use. I've played with it a little before we used it, but I never really got comfortable with it. To finesse it was very difficult for me, not having been able to play with it for days. It was the Ronin 1 but I hear the Ronin 2 is easier. I know a guy in Toronto where that's his thing. He owns the Ronin 1 and he owns the Ronin 2 and he's still refining his process of working with the Ronin. To master it takes a bit of time, so for me, the Ronin almost killed me!
NFS: It sounds like the DJI tools either helped bring a different texture or helped stretch what you could do with the budget. What did you shoot on for the rest of the film to match the fluid style of everything?
Cosens: I used the RED Dragon and I used Canon K35 lenses, just so that I could have lighter lenses and a smaller body. I knew it was going to be a lot of handheld and I am 51 years old, and I needed something that was going to be easy to work with for a long time because every pound counts at this age. I had been working with the Dragon on a couple of shows, and I was liking the texture and the feel of the Dragon. The K35s (the K35s with the Dragon sensor) ended up having a texture that I really liked and it was also lightweight, so it helped.
NFS: Based on what you learned on Blaze and leading up to this point, what’s your advice for other filmmakers or DPs?
Cosens: I went to an art school in Vancouver, the Emily Carr College of Art and Design, and I studied film and video there. The school was very much about experimenting with film. If there's something that I took out of that, it was that it really honored your own voice in terms of how you wanted to shoot and what you could do with the medium. What I would say to young filmmakers or DPs is to honor your own voice, and that's what's going to make you stand out in the industry. You should do that from an early age, I think, because then you start to develop your own style and it’s easier than trying to be something else. I think a lot of DPs try to be something else.
When you first start your career, it's inevitable that you're going to try to emulate films that you've seen or lighting that you've seen. The more you shoot, however, the more you’ll use your own voice. That also comes with the experience of shooting. When I first got out of Emily Carr, I shot karaoke videos for a year. We did two videos a day. We were shooting the videos that you sing against, right? You stand up and behind you are those videos. At the time, I was like, “Oh my God, what the fuck am I doing? I'm going from art school to shooting karaoke videos!”
Now when I look back on it, that year of shooting two music videos, these two karaoke videos a day, was an amazing experience because we would go into some location that I had never seen before. I compare it to a Rubik's Cube where I go into these locations and think, “What am I going to do here?” That's where I really learned to light.
I think the key, especially for young DPs, is do anything you can do. If it's somebody's birthday party, if it's a karaoke video, if it's a music video, if it's a short film, if it's a PSA, you just need to keep shooting, and I think, be humble. Work on anything you can to just refine your skill.