DP Bradford Young on Bridging the ‘Mundane and the Spectacular’ in Arrival

The cinematographer talks shooting Arrival, working with its director and preparing to film the Han Solo Star Wars spin-off.

Although his regular go-to cinematographer on his last few films (Prisoners, Sicario) has been the legendary Roger Deakins, director Denis Villeneuve switched things up for his masterful new science fiction drama Arrival. Bringing this melancholy and thought-provoking story of first contact to the screen with Villeneuve is cinematographer Bradford Young, whose naturalistic, gritty style of shooting on movies like Selma and Pawn Sacrifice might not seem immediately the right fit for a sci-fi film.

But Arrival is no ordinary sci-fi film, and Young’s esthetic gives it its own unique look while also focusing on the human drama as linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) struggles to decipher the language of the alien visitors and discover their purpose for visiting Earth, all while their 12 massive ships land at a dozen different locations and begin to cause mass panic and global tensions.

We spoke with Young recently by phone about how the material affected him, what it was like to work with Villeneuve and his own next project, collaborating with directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie) on the untitled Star Wars film about the early life of Han Solo.

Den of Geek: When this project came to you, what was your initial reaction to it as a human being reading it and then as a cinematographer looking at it?

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Bradford Young: Ha ha, that’s great. Well as the human being reading it, there was a lot to anchor myself into, you know. I’m a fairly new parent, so there was something there, this idea of questioning the mortality of your children really spoke to me in this real visceral sort of deep palpable way. The material got me quick. And I’m quite familiar with Ted Chiang’s work, so finding out that somebody had written a script based on “Story of Your Life” (the short story by Chiang that the movie is based on) was really amazing, it was really exciting to me.

From the cinematographer’s point of view, I didn’t have any real notions early on about what the film could look like because I was just so moved by the material. As a cinematographer it was really just about Denis, how much I am invested in Denis as an artist. I’m a real fan. I really respect his work, so that material plus the possibility of working with Denis just seemed like a no-brainer for me. It’s one of those perfect storms, where you are working with a director that really humbles you and makes you think about your own practice in a very particular way. Plus we’re harnessing some material together that allows you to build relationships and also question your own notions of how the universe functions.

When you got together with Denis what were those discussions like?

When we first got together it was real just human. “You got kids?” “Yeah, I’ve got kids.” “Where you live? Are you married?” All those basic questions. “What kind of films do you like?” “What are you into?” Just breaking bread, intellectually, philosophically breaking bread so that we felt like we could spend six months together in the trenches and still come out really respecting and enjoying each others company. That was key.

Then it was really just about him telling me that he wanted to make a really truthful film that wasn’t overly concerned with aesthetics and just wanted to be honest, just wanted to be truthful to Louise’s story. Then it just took some really careful exploration about what truthfulness could be in the context of this story, what truthfulness could be in terms of the visual landscape of it.

We had references, I was using (photographer) Martina Hoogland Ivanow as one of the big references. Her book, Speedway, is a big reference to the film. Denis and Patrice (Vermette, production designer) really like those images and we just kind of set out on a journey to make that happen in the film. I think really what it was, was that bridge between the mundane and the spectacular. Taking just regular, ordinary, what Denis would call “boring Tuesday morning life” and bringing a certain level of allegory and mythology to it that we just don’t get a chance to see in films a lot. Really just celebrating the ordinary, celebrating life.

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What did you not want to do? If you look at the history of science fiction movies and how they’re shot, anything you wanted to get away from?

I think there was a collective agreement that we wanted to just…I mean, we obviously love the pantheon of American and world science fiction films. I mean they are brilliant. There is not a better genre. Science fiction is so powerful because it is so imaginative and exploratory and it really poses interesting questions about humanity and our notions of extra-terrestrial life. That is a great thing. But for me, I didn’t really want to make a science fiction film, you know what I mean? I still wanted to make a human drama. I think that’s what Denis wanted, and he wanted to make a human story, where humans have agency in their own enlightenment.

I didn’t want to make a story where the aliens have two arms and two legs and they have guns and they have all the things that human beings have and there is some sort of philosophical war about cultural world dominance that is so played out. For me as an image maker, I was happy because there was material that I could still stay anchored in, what I feel like I’m doing as I develop my own body of work, which is really being truthful to flesh and bone and trying to anchor myself with real human stories.

The aliens are an important wedge in the story, but it’s not about them, you know what I mean? It’s about Louise and in that I feel like I have something to offer. When you talk about human stories, I can really offer something. I just wanted to be part of a film that allowed us to keep it ordinary, simple and natural. I think that’s really what Denis wanted. That’s really what he inoculated me with.

For the layman reading this, it seems that the DP, the director and the production designer really have to have a unique chemistry together. Can you talk about the way you work on set?

In this case I was a newcomer to that collaboration. Patrice and Denis have had an ongoing relationship for years. So I had to sort of early on say “This is where my tastes lie, and hopefully there is a good marriage between what you guys have been doing and what I really want to keep nurturing in my own work.” We knew that quickly, that that was going to be okay.

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But I think with any good collaboration, specifically with this one, it was really about everybody who is the head of a department — production designer, cinematographer, and of course our general, the director — coming up with these broad strokes. It is our job to bring the nuance to the broad strokes. Patrice and Denis had already had a visual idea what the ship could be and we helped massage it and take it in the direction where it is in the film. That is a lot of talking, a lot of disagreeing, a lot of agreeing, a lot of serendipitous things happening where we are not really talking about much, but things are happening in the right direction because we are on a journey together and at some point it becomes that we are sharing the same brain.

It was very collaborative, we were all headed in the same direction. Once we started going in that direction we refuse to let one another derail the process. That’s not going to happen in the collaborative process where we are all invested in the same thing. More importantly, we are all invested in Denis. We are all invested in Denis’ vision because we all believe in him and trust him and we respect his genius.

I read some comments you made about the chamber inside of the alien vessel being sort of a place of light, not just in physical terms, but also light in spiritual, metaphysical or intellectual terms. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Yeah, I mean, that ship was an ashram. That ship was a temple. It’s the one place where Louise could reflect on life in a real, uninhibited way and so it just needed to really represent that. I think everything outside of the ship has a very medium gray feel to it. It was just sort of ordinary and it exists with this hanging presence. You are not sure what’s going to happen. It is all in the air, you can smell it, you can feel it, but you are just not sure what is going to happen, or what may be ahead of us.

When she is in the ship you know it’s there, you know it’s right in front of you and what’s in front of her is enlightening. It was opening up some spaces in her mind so that she could reflect on herself and her future and our future. I think I had to draw the connection between physical light and the light of extended consciousness. It was really important for us to allow the audience to have that same feeling. From her perspective, this was an extension of consciousnesses because she ultimately was able to look into a source of light that we really just didn’t see in the rest of the film, so when you see it, it had to matter. The audience had to feel the same relief. That is probably what we were trying to do.

What new tools do you feel like you came away with from this film in terms of your own craft?

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I hated LED’s before, like I felt like I didn’t really see the real application for LEDs in my practice. I’m a person that loves incandescent lighting. I’m a person that loves incandescent lights, so LEDs always seemed very disingenuous. So this is the first time where I used them to light the majority of the film, and I was really impressed with how flexible the technology allows you to be. That was a big revelation for me. I’m incorporating all into everything I’m doing now. I’m trying to use LEDs as much as possible because we could just have so much more intimate personal control. It was something that I have to say early on, I’m just going to embrace it and see what happens. It really worked out, there were some glitches but that goes with any sort of emerging technology, but in general it was very helpful.

Now, we know that the LucasFilm spies are listening in on us and they are planted outside of our houses, but have you had discussions yet with Phil Lord and Christopher Miller about the look of the Han Solo film, have you started to get into that?

(Laughs) I love the way you started that question, man. That’s funny. I get it. Yeah, it’s at that level, man. The matrix is upon us. Yeah, we have had some real interesting discussions. I’ll just say, we are all on the same page with where the look of that film is headed. I think I can say this, because it is sort of LucasFilm’s mantra, the look of that film is going to be very different from the look of all the other films. That is part of the mandate of these movies, is that they should feel like they are coming from the people that are taking the lead. Chris and Phil, I don’t think anybody really understands the extent of the layers that those guys bring to their process.

They are asking me to continue to do what I’ve tried to do in all the other films that I’ve worked on, which is, I feel like is a very specific thing. They’re asking me to take that to the next level. Hats off to them, a lot of respect for them. These guys know exactly what they want. I’m not on the film by accident, they came to ask me to shoot the film because they wanted something on the film, and I think they are brave cats. The look of the film is going to be very interesting. We are breaking a lot of rules. It is going to feel like a Star Wars world, but we are breaking some rules in order to make some other things happen that I think will be special. At least for this film for sure.

That’s fascinating. Is that like a bucket list thing now, to have a Star Wars movie on your resume?

No, I’ll be honest, it wasn’t. I never really imagined it, never really wanted it, didn’t really care about it, so it’s all new for me because this is not what I had planned on doing right now. I was hoping to be doing something else, but they convinced me that it was the right project to do and I’m having a really good time with them and really enjoying myself. I’m happy with where it’s headed. I feel like I made the right choice. I feel like this is supposed to happen and I’m rolling with it. I’m in some really, really very generous company with some generous filmmakers.

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Speaking of bucket lists, is directing on your list? Is that something you want to get into yourself at some point?

No, no, no, no, no, directing requires a very specific genetic disposition that I do not have (laughs). I do not have that in my bones. That is for very special people. No, I’ll stay in my lane, which is exploring image making within the art context, that’s what I do. I feel like I’m trying to straddle both of those worlds, the art world and the film world. But in terms of directing in it’s own context, no interest.

All right. That’s honest enough and we will leave it right there.

Okay, man. Thanks so much.

Arrival is in theaters on Friday (November 11).