Eric Branco | I AM Clemency
Clemency is a powerful character-driven drama about a prison warden, Bernadine Williams played by Alfre Woodard, who is in the midst of a personal crisis; struggling to come to terms with her duty to carry out executions in a maximum security prison, and her growing bond with a death-row inmate Anthony Woods played by Aldis Hodge—while her marriage is falling apart.
Shot exquisitely by Branco, this cinematographer-to-watch has shot over 50 films—screened at major festivals worldwide in addition to Sundance, including TriBeCa, Slamdance, and SXSW—notably, he was also the Director of Photography for Student Academy Award winning film The Compositor directed by John Mattiuzzi (2013).
The Compositor short film - Oscar’s Youtube Channel
Branco who is a filmmaker who came from the Bronx in New York City, was quickly offered work by renown acting coach Susan Batson by age 19, after dropping out of art school, directed his own feature film Stay Cold, Stay Hungry (2013), and has worked with some of the best talents in the film industry including, Viola Davis and now Chukwu on her debut and critically-acclaimed feature.
Branco generously took time out during Sundance to speak with I AM FILM’s editor Amy Tam about Clemency, and his career path to arriving at this major career milestone.
You began as a young artist from the Bronx. Did you have challenges breaking into the industry?
EB: I came from a place where I didn’t have any connection to film at all, aside from just loving movies. I think, depending on where you come from, you could be at a disadvantage because there is no one to make those introductions or connections for you. It’s not even about kicking down the door, you have to find the door first!
I’ve been luckily enough that I met really, really great people along the way, that have really helped me during my career. So many people have taken a chance on me because they like my work, which is amazing.
Was there a key turning point in your career, that lead to your first break?
EB: It was accumulative. Right as I was about to do film school, I had a directing teacher who after our last class was like, “Hey, what are your plans?” I told her that I was actually leaving school. It was acting coach Susan Batson; she’s Nicole Kidman and Juliette Binoche’s coach, and she just coached Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born.
Two weeks later...I get a call from her office, they called me in to film audition tapes. That was probably the biggest turning point—the first time that I actually got money.
Since then, it’s just been a lot of work and a lot grinding, meeting great people, and trying to pick great projects to work on.
How does it feel having your latest film Clemency premiere at Sundance?
EB: I feel great. There’s so much going on. The cast was amazing. They had a panel the other day. Talking and seeing everyone back together for the first time since filming was awesome. I’m just feeling excitement.
This is your second collaboration with the director, Chinonye Chukwu. How did you get together for this project?
EB: We did a short film together called A Long Walk a few years ago near Philadelphia. We had a great time working on that film. Right as we were wrapping that up, she was like, “Hey, I just wrote this script. Can I send you a draft and see what you think?” That was probably 2014 when I read the first draft.
This is one of those projects where every year it was, “We have the money.” And then, the money would fall through. It wasn’t until last year where things started clicking. Alfre Woodward signed on and Windall Pierce signed on. Once they were involved, suddenly, it became more tangible and real.
I am honoured that Chinonye brought me back. We had a great time making this film.
What was the creative conversation and vision for this film between you and Chinonye?
EB: I think we have a common interest in being truthful to the material and we share a commonality in giving actors space to work. That was a big mandate for this one.
The film is so full of moments of silence and quiet, that a large part of what we were trying to do was to really give the actors the room they needed. To the point where, from a lighting perspective, I rarely had lights in the room with the actors.
I wanted to give them freedom—if it felt right to them to stand up in the middle of a scene and walk over to the window, they could, and it wouldn’t be a half hour before I was ready for them to do that. I think that was some of our biggest conversations leading up to shooting, and we were able to pull that off throughout our entire shoot.
Clemency explores a really intense topic, following a female protagonist who is an executioner in a prison, played so extraordinarily well by Alfre Woodard. Through the film, we as an audience really feel all the complexities of the ethical questions behind capital punishment, that she lives with every day at her job.
How did you and Chinonye decide to approach the creation of her complex psychological world in such a nuanced and elegant fashion?
EB: We talked a lot about how mundane prisons are and how dissimilar a lot of prison movies are to the actual reality of the situation. For the people working in a prison, you know, as much as I like these romantic gothic prison images that seem to permeate the conversation, the reality of the modern day prison in America is that it is basically an office building.
It’s all fluorescent overhead-lighting. Unless you’re actually on the cell block, it really does look like any other office. So, that was important to capture. And everything was kind of motivated by the fact that we were trying to show that these were just people going about their day, at a job, and it just so happens that their job is to facilitate executions.
We were trying to stay away from those romanticised images of prisons; stay away from brick towers, that kind of stuff. It was really just about these drab, bland places, which I think definitely affects the psyche of everyone involved, not just the prisoners.
When looking at a character like hers, there’s obviously so much going on internally. Tonally, how did you approach the colours and lighting to reflect her state-of-being?
EB: There are a few locations in the film where we go from the prison itself to her home life.
Within the prison, everything is cooler with a more fluorescent feel or a ‘daylight-coming-in-from-windows’ feel. All of our lighting was motivated from lighting above, to simulate that oppressive fluorescent feeling.
Her office is within the prison, but it is her space, so it’s a touch warmer. Lighting is coming more from the inside. And by the time we get into her home, everything is warming up and everything is coming from lamps on the floor.
Nothing is coming from above. So, that was our visual break between the different emotional lives that she has. You know, it affects her psyche, in that, the prison is a somewhat cold and detached place.
Her home looks very warm and inviting, but that is also a manufactured feeling that doesn’t always match her emotions. Part of what is explored in the film is that as she moves within these spaces; there’s always this mask she has to be wearing. She very rarely lets her guard down.
I noticed something very interesting, that there is a balance of feminine and masculine frequencies in your approach to the depiction of all your characters going through challenging times, that feels different to the gritty treatments we normally see attributed to similar subjects. Talk to us a little bit about your unique style
Eric Branco Reel - Eric Branco Vimeo
EB: What you’re talking about is probably the prototype to what we did on Clemency. My approach is an actors-first approach. I am not interested in telegraphing to the audience how they should feel about the characters, based on how they are being shot and presented.
I want in my work for the audience to see that every character is a person. And so, it is really about presenting them in the most thoughtful and truthful way that you can. Film is about so much more than the visuals.
Before his work on Clemency, Branco directed his own feature film in 2013 entitled Stay Cold, Stay Hungry about a homeless man and an alcoholic who befriend each other in New York and change each other’s lives—another intimate character-driven drama.
Stay Cold, Stay Hungry (2013) Official Trailer - Courtesy of the Artist
We move to discuss Branco’s extensive folio of work, in particular, his feature film as a director and how he selects the projects he works on.
What makes a story personal enough to you to work on and why?
EB: I think that I have seen very few films that reflect the reality of how I grew up and the people I grew up with. I feel like there are very few films that depict the New York that I know. Even for such a place that is so blanketed in film and film history, I feel like very little of that has made it out of the clichés of New York.
I think, like anybody, I’m interested in telling my story and getting it out into the world. Because, I know, if it is my story, it’s the story of countless others too.
It takes a lot of maturity and restraint to build the body of work that you have; primarily character-driven narratives without the gloss. Tell us about what drives your story-telling
EB: I guess I am attracted to telling stories where there are stakes and there is a need for these characters to change in someway. I love telling very character-based stories. It is so much more interesting to watch someone make a choice, than it is to watch something happen to someone.
I am attracted to the stories of the down and out—people trying to make something happen and trying to loop those hurdles as they are doing it.
Storytelling is what I love. So when a story comes to me that I can help get told through cinematography, I’ll always jump at that.
Stories that are more personal to me…I feel like those are the stories that I will be ushering through the entire process and directing.
What has been the most challenging and unforgettable moment you’ve had as an artist?
EB: The most challenging thing is really trying to focus on choosing really great projects and passion projects that I love, that I can give something to, rather than taking the easy job that I wouldn’t feel fulfilled doing.
I think that's the biggest challenge: maintaining that through-line in my career and really working to accumulate a body of work that I think is truthful and people will relate to. There’s always technical challenges. There’s always not enough time or money. Multiple egos clashing on set. As the DP, you’re always kind of the peacekeeper/therapist.
I actually started in acting, that was my first foray into this world. So, there’s nothing more that I love, than being in a room with actors.
What have you learned after gaining so much experience as a Director and Director of Photography?
EB: I think it’s about keeping the joy alive in what you do. I think that’s the most important thing. Maybe it’s not that I didn’t know it, but it really has come into focus. That, not everyone gets to do this. I think if you want to do good work, it is important to be thankful, open and aware, and to keep that excitement alive on set.
Eric’s work with Chukwu on Clemency is I AM FILM’s favourite film of Sundance 2019, and the first film directed by an African-American female director to have won the film festival’s top prize.
Distribution rights for the film have just been bought by US distributor NEON.