Academy Award-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe ACS ASC (Memoirs of a Geisha, Chicago) teams up with director Unjoo Moon tell the incredible story of Australian icon Helen Reddy, and a song that changed the Women’s Liberation Movement, in I Am Woman.
By Sarah Jo Fraser.
If you don’t know the name, you’ll know the song. ‘I am woman, hear me roar’ is the opening line of the hit song ‘I Am Woman’, written by Helen Reddy and released in 1972 through Capitol Records. It had well and truly become an anthem of the Women’s Liberation Movement by the time of Helen’s iconic performance at the 1989 ‘Mobilize For Women’s Lives’ Rally in Washington DC, marking a moment in history that would define the women’s movement, and Reddy’s life, forever.
Packing up her life and landing in New York with her three-year-old daughter and $230 to her name, Reddy was broke within weeks. Five years later she would become the first ever Australian Grammy Award winner and one of the biggest stars of her time. But Reddy’s journey began in Australia, so it’s only fitting that her story begin here.
I Am Woman, directed by Unjoo Moon, is Dion Beebe’s first foray into the ARRI Alexa 65 and large format cinematography. Having seen other projects use the format with great success from a visual effects perspective, Beebe was curious about the large sensor’s ability to play with depth of field. In this case paired with ARRI Prime DNA lenses. “When you’re in a world with very quick drop-off it becomes quite an intimate format. Yes, it’s Helen Reddy. She’s a singer, and the period is important. But at its very core is this relationship between her and her husband Jeff Wald (played by Evan Peters). The director and I really saw it as a way to focus on the people, and the intimacy of this relationship,” Beebe explains.
Beebe and Moon didn’t want to over-stylise the film, and shooting on large format really allowed them both to pursue that. “We both felt that Reddy (played by Tilda Cobham-Hervey) and her story wanted more of a classic approach to the camera. We wanted to give the film as big a canvas as possible,” says Beebe. And there’s no doubt the ARRI Alexa 65 is a much bigger camera, “which is certainly something to consider. It’s sort of like an ARRI XL on steroids; it’s chunkier, it’s heavier. You have to consider how you’re going to move it, and how much hand-held you’re going to do. But from my experience on this movie it’s really totally manageable.”
But the size of the camera wasn’t the only concern; large format cameras can chew up a serious amount of data, meaning more time in post-production and more money handling large files. “There’s a trickle down effect that people see costing a lot of money,” says Beebe. “But it’s really worth looking into because you can mitigate some of that cost.”
Shot on a relatively modest budget, I Am Woman was completed on a tiny thirty-day schedule in Sydney, plus three days on location in Los Angeles. It was not a slow affair by any means. “This was how I started making movies,” Beebe reflects. “The director and I both understand what it’s like to work with those sorts of constraints.” Beebe and Moon have the unique benefit of also being husband and wife, which afforded a lot to the production’s success in running smoothly.
“Really we were talking about the movie a year before it started,” says Beebe. “When you’re literally 24/7 in the company of your director it means that you’re never going to escape the film no matter what time of day or night, or what day of the week it is. But on a movie like this where time was critical, when you’re really facing that time crunch on set, you really do have to be prepared, because if you start falling behind you’re just not going to make your day and you’re also not going to get a chance to come back to that location necessarily and pick that up the next day.”
As on any production, a camera is only as good as the crew behind it. A-camera’s first assistant was Ricky Schamburg, accompanied by B-camera’s first assistant Sally Eccleston. Both took the challenge of fast lenses and shallow depth-of-field in their stride. “I was very lucky to have two of Australia’s finest,” says Beebe. “I was really able to push the envelope a lot in terms of our F-stop. Schamburg and Eccleston did an incredible job that allowed me to really push that shallow focus.”
Key grip John Balbi had his work cut out for him and his team. “We had to move fast,” Beebe explains. “Yes, the Alexa 65s are a very workable camera but they’re bigger, they’re heavier. We couldn’t afford to be swinging around on remote heads all the time, or use the sorts of equipment that often go with those bigger format cameras on larger budget films. We were on fixed arms primarily, and often times just dollies.”
Beebe and Moon settled on two cameras for I Am Woman. Weighing up budget limitations with time and location constraints, they felt two cameras would allow more freedom to capture performances. “We had some quite intense dramatic sequences and we just had a very limited time to do all of this so we really felt that having two cameras would allow us to focus on performance and particularly our big musical performances,” explains Beebe.
Beebe’s ground rules for selecting his B-camera operator were precise. “I think when looking for any sort of operator you really want to find someone who has a connection to the material, and has an understanding of the story,” he says. “This isn’t an action movie. It didn’t require a lot of complicated camera rigs and remote work. Instead what it did need is a sensitivity to the material, to this relationship. Our B-camera operator Velinda Wardell ACS was great. She had an understanding of what we were trying to do and that leant a lot to what Unjoo wanted.”
I Am Woman is set over a span of thirty years. When it came to showing that journey on-screen Beebe and Moon chose to have a clear, consistent look. Instead of separating the film into visually defined periods of time the film was constructed around the emotional journey of the characters.
“In New York, as Reddy struggles to find her voice, it’s a slightly more claustrophobic and closed down world that we’re in. But she’s a single mother; she’s struggling. It’s a little cooler, it’s a little darker,” says Beebe. “As she travels to California and arrives in Los Angeles the colours become warmer, it becomes brighter. There’s a sense of hope, a sense of things starting to happen. The film does kick into a different gear and the look changes. But this was really more of a tone and colour shift than a dramatic lighting change. As their relationship starts to fall apart, the lighting changes to reflect that too.”
Gaffer Steve Daley developed a system of LEDs with best boy Joel Klinger allowing a lighting setup that was both lightweight and low profile. The lighting package wasn’t exhaustive, with the odd HMI on bigger interior or exterior scenes and a few clusters of par cans utilised as on-screen lighting to create a period-specific touch to certain performance pieces. “When we moved inside, particularly in New York, we were able to keep the package small and intimate,” says Beebe. “But once we moved into our Los Angeles period, that’s when we were using the bigger 12-18K par cans to maintain the hard California sunlight.”
Beebe and Moon discussed the idea of creating a database of archival footage and building cues from that footage into I Am Woman. “When we were developing the palette of the film, a lot came from period references that we looked at, discussed and tested,” explained Beebe. In the end, however, the pair decided it wasn’t right for the film. “We needed to rely less on those stylistic elements. What was important for the director was that we serve the character. Yes, we’ve added strong visual elements to the film, but we were always careful not to let those elements override Reddy’s story or Tilda Cobham-Hervey’s performance.”
Beebe explains that Cobham-Hervey and Evan Peters, who plays Reddy’s husband Jeff Wald, were two very different types of actors. “Cobham-Hervey is a very prepared actor. She did a lot of study and worked her director to develop an interpretation of Reddy’s mannerisms,” he says. “Whereas Peters had actually met Jeff Wald, but is an actor that really works from instinct. He doesn’t necessarily like to rehearse that much. So Moon was always riding that balance in terms wanting to rehearse and understand blocking and not wanting to have Peters loose his spontaneity and his need for this sort of discovery that he enjoyed.” Meaning the director was constantly having to balance the two approaches.
Camera movement was an important story element in I Am Woman, used largely in the third act as the relationship between Reddy and her husband begins to deteriorate. “We wanted
that movement, flexibility, and energy in these scene, and the hand-held camera was a way to facilitate that,” says Beebe. “It would allow Peters more freedom in terms of performance, in terms of movement. The reality is when you go hand-held you move between setups quicker, so my approach to these would be to light the room 360-degrees so the turnaround was really quick; we wouldn’t lose energy. We could keep the momentum that had been created.”
With such a rapid shooting schedule it would be tempting to utilise hand-held more heavily as a means to buy time, but this doesn’t always work to the favour of the film; as Beebe explains. “You want to use it with some degree of caution. Once you’re on a handheld camera, it’s pretty hard to back out of it because the energy of hand-held can be a little bit intoxicating. It can be an easier way to get through a scene. You can get seduced by it and there’s a danger that you just keep leaning on the handheld camera and forget about how the camera can work in other ways in terms of composing shots and creating isolation and space, and not constantly having this moving agitated viewpoint. There’s a lot of choices we can make with camera and when we choose to just go on the shoulder there is a lot of freedom and there’s a lot of energy, but it can also become a single note.”
So what does it all boil down to? “When Moon and I first started to discuss the film, discuss Reddy’s story, we talked a lot about style. About the period. We pulled a lot of visual reference from the period, and because Reddy’s story is also the story of the sixties and seventies we really wanted her personal story to reflect this period,” says Beebe.
“The first time Reddy sings the song ‘I Am Woman’ in the Washington Club, to the building of the montage of that song, and as it explodes across the United States and ultimately beyond, is again a certain sort of ‘performance peak’, which ultimately leads us to her performing the song again at the end of the movie at the Washington Memorial.”
“To get to that performance at the Washington Memorial, where she sings a song that she’s sung so many times but she sings it with a totally new perspective on her life, on the impact of that song on the women’s movement and how that song has impacted so many lives. That was such an important part of Moon’s vision for this film,” the cinematographer finishes by saying. “That moment on the stage at the end of the movie where Reddy sees a song that she thought she knew, that she wrote, has taken on its own meaning.”
Dion Beebe ACS ASC received the Academy Award for Best Cinematography in 2006 for the film ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’.
Sarah Jo Fraser has worked on multiple Australian productions within the camera department, and was camera attachment to Beebe on ‘I Am Woman’.