The Waiting Game
Director of Photography Andrew Dunn BSC had to dodge a hurricane to lens historic drama The Butler in New Orleans
Which is greater – the weight of history or the power of a hurricane? Not a common question, but then The Butler is not your common-or-garden kind of film. The story of a White House butler (Last King OF Scotland Best Actor Oscar winner Forest Whitaker) who serves eight Presidents of the United States (including Robin Williams as Dwight D Eisenhower, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, James Marsden as John F Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B Johnson and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan), The Butler is both epic in scope and intimate in detail. Directed by Lee Daniels, the project reteams the filmmaker behind harrowing-yet-uplifting awards-magnet true life drama Precious with cinematographer Andrew Dunn BSC.
“Since shooting Precious with Lee, we’d planned to shoot an interesting variety of films together, mostly which didn't come to fruition,” says Dunn. “So when The Butler started to become a reality this year I jumped at the opportunity.Having had such a wonderfully successful relationship with Lee on our previous excursion, and the script truly being one-in-a-million, with a cast assembling that was simply irresistible, well…” A cast that includes no less than eight Academy Award winners (“not to mention nominees!”) – so the script must have been pretty impressive, given that said acting powerhouses weren’t going to get their usual salaries on this relatively low-budget film.
“Very few scripts come along which are so strong, so powerful, telling an epic tale of a man's life, from nine years old in the cotton fields of 1926 – still in virtual slavery, seeing his father killed in front of his eyes and his mother taken off and raped – all the way through to his 90s, being invited into the White House to meet the first black President of the United States,” explains Dunn, clearly still relishing the chance to film this once-in-a-career tale. “He was a butler over a period of 35 years in the White House, serving nine presidents – an epic tale indeed.”
When choosing how he was going to film this intimate epic, Dunn turned immediately to the Fuji Eterna stocks – 500T, 250D and Vivid 160T. “These are terrific film stocks, which, with some filtering and the appropriate lighting, are able to take us on this long journey through three quarters of century,” says Dunn. “We did discuss creating different looks for the decades, but thought that this would be too much of a distraction for the audience, although I am intending to alter the contrast of scenes during the grading process.
“We’re using Panavision cameras rented out of New Orleans and Houston, together with the superb back up of Panavision in Woodland Hills and London,” he continues. “Then mainly 'Primo' lenses with some Angenieux Optimos to add some variety. I’m working with a New Orleans crew, camera, lighting and grips, only bringing my esteemed gaffer, Len Levine from California.”
Ah, New Orleans, hence the battle with the elements?
“Hurricane Isaac!” nods Dunn about the storm that shut down production briefly in late August 2012. Luckily, Dunn, Daniels and the crew had formed a bond that not even tropical cyclone could dampen.“Lee and I work very closely together,” says Dunn. “He has a very unique way of describing a feeling, of what he would like to achieve and I’m able to run with that, and create on film his special vision of the story.
“Working with such a fantastic cast who are coming in for a day or two here and there to play their parts in the story, has presented some challenges,” Dunn continues. “Like making sure we’re ready to shoot their scenes during their short time here, as it’s very difficult for an actor to come straight in and play such iconic roles straight off the bat.It has been an experience for me like no other in my career [a storied career that includes The Bodyguard, The Madness Of King George, Gosford Park, The History Boys, Hitch and, recently, Crazy, Stupid, Love], it’s been a privilege, with so many different looks to create in a film… such an amazing opportunity, with a terrific crew, great cameras and lenses, and Fuji film stocks. Not to mention Cecil Gaines, The Butler’s, life and journey, an essential story to be told and shared with the world.”
Looks like the weight of history triumphed in the end.