Korean-American Antonio (Justin Chon) has spent his whole life in Louisiana’s bayou region, where he was raised after being adopted as a baby. Now happily married and raising his own family, he is shocked to learn that he’s facing deportation.
Shot entirely on 16mm film and selected for Un Certain Regard at this year’s Cannes Film Festival Blue Bayou sees a collaboration between Australian cinematographer Matthew Chuang ACS and LA-based cinematographer from Taipei, Ante Cheng.
Interview by Francis Kara.
Inspired by true events, Blue Bayou is a touching, heartbreakingly pertinent film from writer/director Justin Chon, who makes his Cannes Film Festival debut after having his previous features Gook (2017) and Ms. Purple (2019) premiere at Sundance.
A vital tale of identity, statelessness and belonging, Blue Bayou is essential viewing from a rising cinematic voice. Chon is arguably best known to Australian audiences as an actor, he played Eric Yorkie in the Twilight series.
Cinematographer Ante Cheng had shot Chon’s previous two films. They had been working on Blue Bayou together, however production delays and scheduling conflicts arose before Australian cinematographer Matthew Chuang ACS was invited onto the project.
“The script was originally set in New Orleans,” says Chuang. “At one point, due to a limited budget, the film was moved to Biloxi, Mississippi. During this time of reshaping the film, Academy Award-winner Alicia Vikander came onboard and the film went back to New Orleans and the budget was increased considerably. At that point, Cheng became available again and now being a much bigger production with Justin Chon being the director, writer and playing the lead opposite Vikander, he asked if the both of us would be open to the idea of teaming up on the film.”
Chon already had a strong working relationship with Cheng. “During the time I spent with Chon, he felt I contributed new creative ideas that built on top of what he had with Cheng and he wanted to combine the two of us to build a cohesive team,” says Chuang.
All three are very inspired by Asian cinema and interestingly some of the team’s favourite films had multiple cinematographers involved. The award-winning Chungking Express (1994) had two cinematographers; Australian Christopher Doyle HKSC and Andrew Lau. Wong Kar Wai’s critically acclaimed In The Mood For Love (2000) had three cinematographers; Doyle again with Pun-Leung Kwan and Ping Bin Lee.
“It’s common for directors to work in pairs, multiple writers, editors and composers,” says Chuang. “Given the growing size of the production and our own high expectations of how we envisioned the film, we put our egos aside and decided this was the right step towards making the film we all set out to make.”
The two cinematographers shared an Airbnb and spent their time discussing all aspects of the production. From the theoretical, philosophical and the practicalities of it all. “Does it feel right going with this particular stock for that specific scene? How do you feel about using Ektachrome cross-processed for that scene? Is this too stylised if we go this direction, shall we strip it down to keep it honest? We challenged each other and set the bar really high for ourselves,” says Chuang.
“It was an ambitious script,” explains Chuang. “We had fifty-eight locations in only thirty-two days. Sometimes Cheng and I would shoot simultaneously with Chon bouncing between the two different units.”
For example, one unit would set up the process trailer while the other was shooting Chon riding a motorbike with the stunt team. After they completed that set-up the process trailer was ready for Chon to jump on with actress Sydney Kowalske, who plays Jessie in the film, to shoot the motorbike scenes of the two of them together. Each unit would leap ahead with set-ups and locations with Chon bouncing between the two, with the final set-up seeing both units shooting the same action simultaneously.
“This is a story about an American family in the South,” says Chuang. “We felt it was necessary that this feel immediate and tangible. We wanted a naturalistic visceral vibe to the film. We definitely had strong influences and then it was about honing it down and making it more concentrated so it can be thematic. We had ideas about the colour palette, in terms of production design and wardrobe and how we wanted New Orleans to be shot. It was written for New Orleans so that in itself was a character and a look of the film.”
The filmmakers agreed that 16mm film felt right for Blue Bayou. “We can talk about all the textual qualities of the grain, the way film renders colour, the latitude in harsh sunlight, all those were a factor but simply it really felt right,” he says.
Hirokazu Koreeda’s Nobody Knows (2004, cinematography by Yutaka Yamazaki) was a big inspiration for the 1.66:1 aspect ratio, which is native to 16mm. “We wanted to embrace all the qualities of 16mm, the energy of that format, our choice to frame in 1:66:1. 16mm had the photochemical look that captured what we felt New Orleans was like for us and for the story.”
Chuang and Cheng shot all of the costume and make-up tests on location when production design had already spent time dressing the space, with the wallpaper already installed. They went through the different film stocks learning all of the subtle differences.
“Each character had a different colour palette for wardrobe,” says Chuang. “Antonio (played by Chon) had a lot of earth tones, blues for Kathy (Vikander) and Parker (Linh Dan Pham) was purple. Jessie (Kowalske) was more lively with yellows while the cops were darker and more stern colours. In terms of setting, we took full advantage of film and made sure that things were saturated. We also took full advantage of natural light, dusk and dawn.”
The film was shot-listed in advance with very specific movements for certain moments but Chuang and Cheng always kept searching and open to spontaneous ideas evolving once on set and presented with all the elements.
Blue Bayou was filmed on Kodak VISION3 200T Colour Negative Film 7213 for daytime exteriors, VISION3 250D Colour Negative Film 7207 when it came to sunrise and sunset and VISION3 500T Colour Negative Film 7219 for daytime and nighttime interiors, and we also shot some Ektachrome Colour Reversal 7294, cross-processed, for one particular scene. The Arriflex 416 and ARRI SR2 cameras were paired with Zeiss Super Speeds S16, Canon 8-64mm T2.4, and Canon 11-165mm T2.5.
“A crucial tool was the zoom lens,” says Chuang. “There were some key moments with Antonio’s character that we felt that a slow push-in zoom, sometimes combined with a slow dolly-in really took us into his internal state of mind. Zooms get frowned upon generally in drama but it’s such a staple of that 16mm aesthetic and auteur vibe that we were pushing for.” Chuang stayed away from Steadicam and gimbals because it felt ‘too polished’ for what they were going for.
Lighting consisted of ARRI SkyPanels, ARRI HMIs, Astera Titans, LiteMats, CRLS Reflectors, and DMG Lumiere Mini Mix. The cinematographers tried to keep lighting coming from windows or from anywhere it felt naturalistic. They also didn’t want the light to be too sterile or designed. “New Orleans has an edge and we wanted to capture that,” says Chuang.
The camera crew consisted of first assistant camera Samuel Kim, second assistant camera Melanie Gates, additional second assistant camera Danika Andrade and film loader Bily Salazar. “Kim worked with Chon and Cheng on their previous two films so it was important to have that experience be a part of our camera team,” says Chuang. “We were lucky to have Gates and Salazar onboard since they’re the last remaining crew in New Orleans with considerable experience working with film.”
Brad Martin was gaffer and Justin Crawford was key grip. “They embraced our approach to the film and were invaluable in helping us accomplish our more ambitious setups such as the Bayou scenes at night, and coordinating the simultaneous units working together,” says Chuang. “We owe a lot to the New Orleans crew and it was a pleasure to work alongside them all. It was important to them since the film is set in New Orleans that we capture it with a sense of authenticity and honesty.”
In terms of approaching things like coverage of more ‘performance driven’ scenes, for Chuang and Cheng, it really was dependent on the scene itself and how they wanted it to feel. “If the scene had multiple view points and presented a lot of informational elements such as our scenes in the lawyers office, it would start more traditional but each time we revisited the lawyer we changed it up dependent on how the scene shifts between the characters view points,” says Chuang.
An argument scene between Antonio and Cathy in the house was always planned as a ‘oner’, to be captured in a single shot with no edits. “We knew this going into it so emphasis was placed on location scouting and trying to find a location with a layout that could work with what we were hoping to achieve with the choreography between the actors, the camera and the space.”
“Even for the motorbike riding scenes it was always driven by the emotional state of Antonio,” explains Chuang. “This is also evident in the heist scene, where Chon wanted it to feel more distinctive than the rest of the film. More adrenaline fuelled, as Chon would describe it as if Antonio was a ex-drug addict and this was him relapsing after being sober for a long time. It needed to feel heightened in that way with Antonio’s emotional ‘hit’ resulting in the scene being captured on Ektachrome, cross-processed and step-printed.”
The filmmakers are grateful that Tom Poole at Company 3 came on board as the film’s colourist. “He saw a cut of the film, loved it, and knew exactly what we were going for stylistically and where we wanted the audience to be emotionally,” says Chuang. “We had a lot of blues in the film and blues tend to wash things out completely, but even within the blues Poole was able to bring out some life with skin tones. He knew more about enhancing the photochemical qualities of film than we did and he really brought everything to life.”
Chuang says he feels proud that they set out to create a film that really captures a true sense of place visually. “New Orleans itself is such a character,” he says. “The humidity, the thickness of the air, the vibrancy and distinctive colours. There is an edge to New Orleans we felt like we captured.”
One decision that was made in post-production, with full support of the films distributor Focus Features, was to keep the ‘hairs in the gate’ in the finished film. “When we were filming we tried everything one can do to prevent it, from meticulously cleaning the gate after every take, continually servicing the camera at Panavision to in depth conversations with the lab,” says Chuang. “In the end it really came down to how the film responded to the humidity of New Orleans. To me it perfectly captures what this film is about, an imperfect world.”
16mm gives Blue Bayou another level of emotionality. Shooting on film takes a lot of discipline. The cinematographers wanted to challenge themselves and to grow as filmmakers. “Chen and I are glad that we managed to shoot a film on film and hopefully it is not the last,” says Chuang.
Matthew Chuang ACS is an award-winning Australian cinematographer.
Francis Kara is a contributor to Australian Cinematographer Magazine.