Award-winning cinematographer James L. Brown ACS travels to the urban jungles of Colombia to help bring a deeply personal story, Killing Jesús, to the screen.
Story and interview by James Cunningham.
Matar a Jesús (the literal translation of the title is ‘To Kill Jesús’, however Killing Jesús will be the film’s English translation) is loosely based on true events from the life of writer/director Laura Mora Ortega, a graduate of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). Ortega’s father was a political science lecturer at Colombia’s National University and one of the country’s top lawyers. The inspiring figure was assassinated when Ortega was young.
The trauma of this event influenced her life and her work, and while Killing Jesús is not a truly autobiographical piece it is an incredibly personal film. The story follows Paula (Natasha Jaramillo), the central protagonist, and her family’s breakdown, facing a failed system which has no compassion for victims and which does not have any interest in solving the crime.
“Her father is just another name in a long list of the Colombian conflict´s victims,” explains cinematographer James L Brown ACS.
The film investigates the failed society they live in, the violence embedded in the country’s history and Paula’s choice to either resist this cycle of violence or enact revenge for her father’s death. “It is a very intimate drama about a victim and a victimiser,” says Brown. “Two very young souls who have been deeply pierced by violence, recognising one another as human beings.”
Ortega co-directed the acclaimed television series Pablo Escobar (2012) with Carlos Moreno, who sought out her talents after seeing her award-winning short films Brotherhood (2006) and Salomé (2012). “We shot sixty episodes in ten months,” says Ortega of the ambitious Escobar series. Moreno teased her about the gruelling experience saying it was her ‘baptism in blood’.
“I’ve been writing this film,” Ortega says of Killing Jesús, “for the past ten years but I felt I needed to prepare for it physically, emotionally and also technically.“
Ortega met Brown eleven years ago as undergraduate film students at RMIT. They shot a few short films together and knew that they would collaborate again in the future. Brotherhood was a super 16mm black and white short film set in the housing commission flats in Fitzroy, a suburb of Melbourne.
“We weren’t the most seasoned filmmakers back then but I knew she was going to be incredible one day,” says Brown. “We shared a similar visual sensibility that I think really cemented our future together.” Brotherhood went on to earn Brown his first ever ACS Award, a Gold in the ‘Student’ category at the Victorian & Tasmanian State ACS Awards in 2007.
“I think a big reason I got the gig on this film was a camera test of our 16mm rushes from over a decade ago. Some rough and ready footage of kids playing a basketball game,” says Brown. “It was dirty and instinctual and we used it as a visual reference for the film. It reminded us of the raw story-telling that we were both attracted to which became an integral part of this film’s tone.”
Ortega and Brown stayed close friends over the following decade and watched each other grow in their respective careers. Killing Jesús was always going to be the collaborative project that brought them back together.
Brown says if the production had more financing he would have pushed to shoot 35mm, however Killing Jesús’ naturalistic visual approach, and the fact that they were working with non-professional actors and shooting many night exteriors, meant it would not have been possible from an economic point of view.
“Everything was shot with the Alexa Mini, one-hundred percent handheld with mk111 super speeds.” The Alexa Mini was a pretty obvious choice for Brown shooting digital. “It’s unbreakable, lightweight and I knew how far I could push it. We shot about eighty-five percent of the film on the 35mm lens.”
Director and Cinematographer ended up pushing the camera equipment a lot further than Brown has in the past. “This story is rough and urban and it just couldn’t have that clean digital look to it,” he says. In pre-production Brown did tests to work on bringing out the texture of the sensor and building in noise. Trying to degrade the image as much as he could. “We settled on a 1600 ISO rating on the camera and then designed the in camera LUTs to underexpose the sensor by 2-3 stops, monitoring it at key level.”
Brown says his time in pre-production was incredibly intense. Three months before they ‘officially’ started pre-production he flew to Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city where they would be filming, for ten days. “What I found most valuable on that first trip was that we didn’t talk shots. We talked Colombian history, politics, youth culture and violence, along with themes of empathy and revenge. When we talked about scenes it was about the meaning and tone of that scene rather than the specific coverage.”
Ortega had been thinking about the story for Killing Jesús for ten years, and writing it for six, so the most important thing for both Director and Cinematographer was the intent of the scene, how they wanted to tell the story. “Then, in theory, I was just going to point the camera at that story,” says Brown.
“The world we had to create on a pure location-based urban drama meant every location had specifics like social class, tone and historical importance within the city,” says Brown. “All these aspects combined had to be considered to fit the aesthetic and practicalities of shooting.”
From a reference point-of-view there were certain films and photography which laid the groundwork for the creative team behind Killing Jesús. These included documentary photographers Bruce Davidson, Gordon Parks and Stephen Shames.
Colombian war-photographer Jesús Abad Colorado, who documented Colombia’s ongoing violence, was also a big influence.
Brown and Ortega took inspiration from and discussed collaborations like the work of Robbie Ryan BSC ISC and his director Andrea Arnold on Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank (2009). Also the work of Rodrigo Prieto AMC ASC and Alejandro González Iñárritu on Amors Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003) and Buitiful (2009). As well as the films Kids (1995); cinematography by Eric Edwards, Un Profete (2009); cinematography by Stéphane Fontaine AFC, and White Material (2009); cinematography by Yves Cape AFC SBC.
“They all had a common style that inspired our approach to our film,” says Brown. “We sought out rawness, naturalism and honesty. We couldn’t show off, the camera was always servicing the action of the characters – never standing out. We could talk for hours about a scene; the coverage, tone, pacing, blocking, cultural significance… and in the end covering it in one shot on the 35mm lens, unrehearsed.”
Killing Jesús was shot entirely hand-held and Brown proclaims that his whole camera team was incredible. “At T2-T2.8 with non-professional actors, without marks, shooting 360-degrees my Focus Puller Héctor Usuga – or ‘Hectic’ – was always on point. My 2nd AC Alvaro López and Video Split Operator Camilo Meneses were a dynamic team, and my DIT Laura Camilla always had my back.”
Having said that, however, Brown adds that he was continually pushing the Alexa Mini to its limits and that although Camilla would let him know how far he could go. “I’d mostly ignore her and keep pushing.”
I’d mostly ignore her and keep pushing.
Brown says there are zero visual effects in the film, “Probably just some post-stabilisation on some of the motorbike scenes that I shot handheld off a quad bike.”
When asked what were some of the biggest obstacles on Killing Jesús, Brown says: “I’m not sure if films are meant to be this difficult. Every step of the way it felt like the film gods were against us.”
“Medellín is an ever-changing tropical climate surrounded by mountains, and without doubt I would wake up every morning with extreme anxiety about when during the day the weather would decide to move in and ruin us.” If it wasn’t the weather that was to effect production on Killing Jesús it would be something else; underwater housings flooding, the police shutting down locations, and everyday dealings with violence in the city made filming extremely difficult.
“It was all part of the chaos of embracing the city as a character in the film, and what made it unique.” says Brown. “You will be able to say what you like about many aspects of this film, but that sense of place is absolutely undeniable.”
Day-by-day, night-by-night, the crew had to build resilience, become stronger, problem solve and go into damage control. Brown thinks these kinds of obstacles helped create a spirit, a spirit that merges into the DNA of the film.
Having a Spanish script, actors and crew, while not speaking the language was the most personally difficult part of this project for Brown, “It put a lot of pressure on the Director, Producer and 1st AC to relay my fast talking Australian banter all day. What did I learn? Speak Spanish before you do a Spanish-language film in Colombia!”
But there was a positive from this, Ortega and Brown talked a lot about instinct and Brown believes that when one becomes disconnected from the language and the words it becomes more about the feeling and energy of a scene, the cinematic language. “Where and when to pan for dialogue is not an intellectual decision, it is one which resonates through your body and affects choice.”
Brown says he will be involved as much as he can in the colour-grading process on Killing Jesús, “I have already seen rough cuts of scenes as they edit.” In April he flew to Buenos Aires, Argentina, for the grade. “Visually we don’t want to push it too far from the LUTs we created because I lit for those LUTs and if I push it somewhere completely different the whole colour scheme will go out the window.”
“We battled the sodium vapour street lights that engulf Medellín. It was one of our key discussions in pre-production because we wanted to embrace the feeling of the city, but the tone of our film is not one of overpowering warmth. So I pushed out the warmth as much as I could in the LUTs without changing the feel of the city.”
One of the Cinematographer’s favourite moments in Killing Jesús is when Paula is walking back into her house after being out all night, right after she has met Jesús (played by Giovanny Rodríguez) for the first time. “Her brother is waiting for her and for the first time violence enters the family home.” Brown understood the energy of the scene and knew what might happen, however they did not rehearse. “I lit for 360-degrees. The Director prepped the actors, and we just went for it.”
Brown describes capturing the energy in this unrehearsed scene, “The connection between the script, the actors and myself – where it was a dance, a feel, an instinct – comes across in the camerawork. The scene is just heartbreaking. When I watch the rushes, I still shiver.”
“There are some beautiful scenes in the film that as a cinematographer I should be talking about, but it’s not really just about making a beautiful scene. It was about being unnoticed, working with naturalism, spontaneity, harshness and embracing social realism. People could watch the film and say ‘he didn’t shoot that very well’ however the intent is not to make a beautifully shot film, but to enhance the script with the way you shoot it. That is what I am most proud of.”
Brown believes that a cinematographer’s perspective on a story comes from the life he or she has lived; the places you travel, the films you watch, your politics, your empathy towards people. So he says a unique perspective comes from that.
“Obviously we are cinematographers and need to be chameleons to adapt within different visual styles that suits each story, but with this project I was lucky enough to share my Director’s vision. The camera’s connection to the character and movement in a scene was the most important part of my job, hands down.”
“I think this is an incredible film,” says Brown of Killing Jesús. “The script is outstanding, the performances are breathtaking and the Director is an auteur.” He says it was his duty to get on board and help create a new dialect with Ortega. “She owned the language of the film.”
But in hindsight, Brown might have done a lot of things differently. He says when you are in the moment you only have the knowledge you have prepped for. You know the story better than anyone else and that you are there for a reason, “Your instinct has to be the thing you trust, because if we don’t have that as storytellers then what do we have?”
Killing Jesús is produced by 64A Films and is set for release in 2018.
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer.