Jameson Fahy shoots his first feature film, Benefited, with actor and director Clare McCann – by Slade Phillips
Cinematographer Jameson Fahy came across an ad online looking for a ‘cinematographer with gear’. He was fresh out of film school and had done freelance work but nothing of the caliber of shooting a feature, mostly commercial and corporate work, but figured there was no harm in applying. Fahy submitted his showreel and got a phone call within twenty-four hours asking if he could be ready to shoot immediately. Turned out the film’s original cinematographer had dropped out last minute.
“This was a sink or swim moment for me,” says Fahy. “I threw myself into the deep end. Really, how often does a twenty-year-old get the chance to be cinematographer on a feature film?”
Fahy’s first time meeting cast and crew was literally the first day of shooting. Although daunting, this just made the cinematographer adapt faster and allowed for a knee-jerk sense of creativity which he explains was quite liberating. “There was a shot list from the former cinematographer, but we found that when blocking scenes we would often change how we wanted to shoot,” he says. “I’m a fan of wide tableaux encompassing a whole scene, and although we didn’t have the budget we always tried to get the most out of every frame in the film, either by changing the blocking or simply filling the background with layers of actors and props.”
Benefited is an independent feature that details the intertwining lives of a single mother, government workers, thieves and drug addicts as they struggle within the Australian housing and the government benefit system. Interestingly, Fahy’s biggest cinematic reference was Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (1981, cinematography by Tim Philo). Much like the horror classic Fahy was limited with his resources so used whatever he had at his disposal in whatever way he could to create something special.
“I was literally limited to what I had in my kit,” says Fahy. “I had a Sony A7 II with Rokinon Cine Prime lenses so that’s what we used for production. As much as this might seem like a limitation, it was nice to be comfortable with the gear I was using and not worry about rental gear. There were shots I would have never tried if I didn’t own the gear.”
The rest of Fahy’s camera crew were already on the film before he arrived. For pickups, he brought in his own assistant camera, Sebastian Ulriksen, whom he knew from film school. Michael Ryan was initially the on-set photographer, continuity and the film’s editor. “We realised we’d also gone to the same film school, albeit a couple of years apart,” says Fahy. “There were a few days I couldn’t shoot and Ryan took over for me. Honesty, he did an incredible job and I think the best way to tell is I haven’t had anyone notice the difference in our shots.”
In terms of coverage, it all started rather orthodox for the cinematographer with establishing, mid-shots and close-ups, however as the shoot progressed the crew experimented both behind and in front of the camera. “There are a couple of shots that were completely improvised based on either location or performance dictating how I wanted to shoot,” explains Fahy.
“There’s a scene where Ray (played by Ryan Bown) is cleaning a head wound of Dity (played by Clare McCann, also the film’s director). I opted to shoot into the mirror as Ray washes a cloth and pull focus as he walks back to Dity with the camera staying on the mirror. In retrospect, definitely inspired by the film Contact (1997, cinematography by Don Burgess ASC) which might be one of the most iconic mirror shots in cinema.”
“My favourite shot in the film is one with two teenagers riding down the street on their bikes,” he explains. “It seems like a pretty basic shot but I called it ‘my E.T. shot’. I operated the camera with one hand on a gimbal while riding a bike, holding focus and trying to not crash. This is one of those shots that I wouldn’t have attempted if the gear wasn’t my own.”
Benefited deals with domestic violence, sexual abuse, classism, societal stigma and the loss of cultural identity and challenges the perceptions of people living on Australia’s benefit system and in our housing system. “Looking back, I don’t know how much I would change because again, for a twenty-year-old it was a massive opportunity and I learned more about on-set filmmaking than I ever could from a textbook,” says Fahy.
Jameson Fahy is a cinematographer based in Sydney.
Slade Phillips is a writer based in Sydney.