Cinematographer Bryce Fortner details the visual motivation behind Julia Hart's crime thriller.
Long before the pandemic hit, cinematographer Bryce Fortner was prepping I’m Your Woman with director Julia Hart, a film that turns the ‘70s crime drama inside out. It's streaming now on Amazon Prime.
Rachel Brosnahan plays Jean, the wife of a gangster. Her life is sent into a tailspin after her husband is caught by the wrong men. The plot follows the aftermath of a crime that’s gone wrong (instead of the mischievous misdeed itself) and how it affects the people they love.
Visually, the movie breaks away from ‘70s era films where desaturated colors, grainy textures, and moody shadows typically influenced the period. The cinematographer instead painted with vivid hues, referencing images of photographer William Eggleston, known for capturing everyday subject matter in eccentric, refined composition with beautiful, striking colors.
“Julia didn’t want this movie to feel like a museum piece as if we were looking back at something,” said Fortner, who also shot Hart’s previous film Stargirl, which is about a boy’s infatuation with a girl at school.
While the tone was influenced by Eggleston’s photography, a film that had the biggest impact in terms of visuals was Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise for the way it was lit and its anamorphic look.
Fortner leaned on the ARRI Alexa Mini paired with Canon special flare anamorphics and an ARRIRAW workflow.
“The special flare gave us a slightly heightened experience,” said the cinematographer. “We weren’t going for a flare-filled film, but since it was set in the ‘70s, we wanted a little hint of sloppiness to the lenses."
The DP also turned to a LUT that he found prepping Stargirl as a base for the work on set.
“The two films are different visually, but the contrast and saturation of the LUT is a good base point,” he said. Fortner rated the Alexa Mini at ISO 2000 and 2500 for the majority of scenes which is higher than its native ISO of 800. “When I shoot digital, I do so at a higher ISO. It adds texture to the image that I don’t feel is distracting while softening it a little, taking a slight edge off the newer lenses.”
With the higher ISO and an “aggressive LUT” that’s dialed in close to the final image, it allowed him to work with minimal lighting.
“When we’re looking at the image on set, I know it has a lot of latitude in the highlights and the shadows. In a way, we’re painting ourselves in a tiny box knowing we’re able to unpack it later.”
Compositionally the film makes an impact through a steady frame, where the camera only moves with intention—causing you to lock into the unnerving story unfolding in front of you.
“I’m a big believer, along with Julia, that the camera shouldn’t move unless it has to,” he said. “Modern-day movies can sometimes try to make every shot look cool, which can be tiring and lose its value. Sometimes it’s more captivating just to see people sit there and talk and watch their faces.”
You experience the framing style from the film’s inception, where Jean’s husband Eddie (Bill Heck) flings open the front door to their home holding a baby. Jean is down the hall in the kitchen. The two have a lengthy conversation about why Eddie is holding the child, and the camera never breaks for a close-up, even when he says, “It’s mine.”
In another scene, Jean is frantically packing a bag in her closet as a confidant is warning her to leave because her life is in danger. The camera stays on the two characters desperate in pace, never cutting to another angle to break the moment.
“When we were in that closet, we thought about going handheld to see her face, or shooting other coverage, but it just felt better to observe the moment and process it instead of trying to be in there,” said Fortner.
The intention behind the style was driven by perspective where Hart and Fortner wanted the audience to experience the drama through Jean’s point of view. This was especially true during a nightclub scene that ends in tragedy. The scene involves over 300 extras but focuses on Jean.
On the run, Jean is trying to find out what happened to her husband and ends up at the nightclub owned by Eddie's old cohorts. As she heads towards the backrooms, gunshots ring out and the partygoers run in hysteria, seeking cover. Fearing for her life, Jean crouches down in a phone booth with a clear glass door.
Instead of the camera showing us the crowd of frantic people, it stays with Jean in the phone booth, and we see them running past her as more gunshots are heard.
To pull the scene off, production built a set (production design by Gae S. Buckley) in the basement of the practical location.
“During prep, we knew we wanted to experience the violence from Jean’s perspective and be with her in the phone booth. The only problem was that we needed to build a set big enough to fit Rachel and the camera operator inside,” said Fortner. The result was even more terrifying, as it stirs your imagination of what could be unfolding.
For the cinematographer, I’m Your Woman was a heavily prepped film where every scene was discussed and shot-listed between him, Hart, and co-writer-producer Jordan Horowitz of La La Land, who is the director’s husband.
“We didn’t have any hard and fast rules in terms of composition, but we are fans of close-ups used with intention. If you have a movie of medium shots and then jump in, it has a certain value,” said Fortner. “We sat down and talked about the entire movie. It was a fun, long process, but it allows us to be more fluid, reactive, and freer on the day—which is what you want as a cinematographer.”