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Cinematographer Laura Valladao on finding the art and meaning through the in-between spaces
Donya (Anaita Wali Zada) is an Afghani emigre adjusting to her new life in Babak Jalalai’s Fremont, beautifully shot in black and white by Laura Valladao. (Image courtesy of the Sundance Film festival.)
In the third and final part of my Sundance interviews, I talked with cinematographer Laura Valladao.
She photographed one of the most formally interesting works, Fremont, the fourth feature of the London-based Iranian director Babak Jalali.
It’s an acute, sharp piece, shot in highly textured black and white, about cultural dislocation that explores the tricky, amorphous state of exile. The movie is about the interior world of a young Afghani emigre, a former American military translator, adjusting to her new life in the Bay Area.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Dreams and Shadows: Was shooting in black and white a stylistic, artistic or budgetary issue?
Laura Valladao: The director Babak Jalali had the idea to shoot in black and white after I had been brought on the project when we were in pre-production. He called me one day and said, “Hey, what do you think about shooting this in black and white?”
I imagined it immediately. It seemed like a good fit to me from the beginning. So we agreed that we would explore that idea in pre-production and then we had to get the producers on board. Luckily they understood the vision, and came on board pretty quickly.
Shadows and Dreams: Did you have a lot of previous experience of shooting in black and white?
Laura Valladao: I do a lot of still photography and film, and a lot of that is in black and white. That definitely informed my work. I’ve done a handful of other short films and things like that, but never a feature.
Shadows and Dreams: How did the black and white shape the look of the film, with contrasts, tones and mood?
Laura Valladao: I think the tone of the film is actually one of the most interesting parts about it. It’s very unique, and I think the black and white adds to the fact the main character is coming to Fremont—coming to the US—for the first time. We wanted to show this place that might seem familiar to a lot of people—this American suburb—and show it through her perspective of seeing it for the first time. We thought the black and white would lend itself well to that.
We looked at a lot of still photography, and they were really interested in landing on a look that fell somewhere in between naturalistic and fairly stylized.
Dreams and Shadows: How is shooting black and white different, and what are all the different factors that go into shooting?
Laura Valladao: The biggest question, I think, of black and white was losing this tool of color for something for separation and composition, and also finding itself to the feeling of a scene. Without color, what are the tools that we're going to use to do that?
It was something we did with planning, but also something with production design and wardrobe. So the collaborations were really important with the other department heads. We did a lot of tests seeing how things blended into the background. All the departments are collaborating in order to problem solve.
Shadows and Dreams: Like any artist, you have choices and freedom in your work. As the cinematographer, what shapes your decision about whether to get involved with a project or not?
Laura Valladao: Usually the first thing that I get is the script. Obviously, I'll know who the director is, and if it’s someone I've worked with and we have a relationship, that makes the decision a little bit easier.
I usually get the script before I meet with them, so it always starts there. The first time that I read it, I'm not thinking about what I want it to look like, I'm not thinking about how I would shoot it. I'm thinking about how it makes me feel, and if there's something here that I connect to, and if there's something in this story that I feel like I can contribute to in a positive way. If I check all of those boxes, then I have a meeting with the director and see if we would be good collaborators.
Dreams and Shadows: Textures, shadows and light are so important in black and white. Do you handle a lot of the lighting yourself?
Laura Valladao: I was working closely with my local gaffers from the Bay Area on this. We did a lot of work with natural light and available light, and shaping the light that was there in kind of working through shooting during opportune times of day whenever possible.
But I was really interested in using the architecture and the spaces and the textures that already existed in the spaces and figuring out how to incorporate those into the lighting, like shadows with branches of trees, or, you know, just architectural, textural spaces, shadows and space frames. Most of those are either inspired by or actually being formed by the actual spaces.
Dreams and Shadows: This is a very intimate film in many ways. Did you work off storyboards, and what role if any did improvisation play in composing the rhythm and look of the film?
Laura Valladao: The director and I had a shot list going in. So we had sort of the game plan, but our lead actress, Anaita Wali Zada, this was her first time acting. We weren't sure what her process was going to be like, or what we would need to do to make her feel comfortable.
Every actor has a different process, but sometimes that might mean breaking up the scenes into smaller pieces, or maybe it means that we're going to shoot the scenes in bigger pieces. Or it can look a lot of different ways. So we weren't sure how our collaboration with Anaita was going to affect our shot design. Once we started shooting, we had a better idea, and she was absolutely great to work with.
Everything always evolves on set on the day. You go in with your plan. I'd taken a lot of still photography and preparation for the shoot. Some that we used as references for shots and some that were used as visual and textural inspiration.
There were a handful of scenes that we set up planning for it to be on the tripod and locked off. And the director would say what do you think about making it handheld instead. Usually I’d agree, and say that feels really right. We took the camera off the tripod and then shot the scene handheld. It was often instinctual, something that felt right that day and we’d pivot to it.
Dreams and Shadows: You are working with both traditional and non-traditional or untrained actors. How did that impact your rehearsal, or did you want to just capture something raw and immediate?
Laura Valladao: There were rehearsals that I was involved in. It seemed like the director was very conversational with the actors, about their story and the characters and their own experiences. We observed all of that, and showed up on the day, and made decisions accordingly.
Depending on the director and their experience and technical expertise, the role of the cinematographer takes on many different forms or permutations. What was your creative dynamic like with the director, Babak Jalali?
Laura Valladao: That is actually one of my favorite things about the job is that it's different every time, depending on the project and depending on my relationship with the director. With Babak, what I discovered is that he has a really strong compass, for the scene overall and the aesthetic, and how the shots should go in. Babak always had a strong feeling about something, even if it’s not always super logical or super by the rules.
We would sort of together try to work out, “Okay, what does that mean aesthetically?” Or logistically, how can I execute this with the cinematography tools that we have available? It was really fantastic working with Babak. He had a lot of heart, a lot of strong ideas, but he was also really open to collaboration, which was great.
Dreams and Shadows: How have your ideas evolved through your career about the art of capturing performance, and what you’re looking for in your collaboration with the actors?
Laura Valladao: It's really the most important thing. I came into cinematography with a lighting background. And that's sort of what I was interested in, and the more that I've been shooting, the thing that I am most interested in is capturing the actors, because it really is the most important thing. Now my priorities as a cinematographer have become more and more about lighting space, and about giving the actors and also the director room and flexibility to find their performance and feel comfortable and have the space to do that rather than sort of boxing them in with my shot or my lighting or whatever it is.
Dreams and Shadows: You have worked in a lot of different formats and forms. How has your eclectic background shaped your work and style?
Laura Valladao: I've done a lot of shorts. I went to film school for undergraduate and graduate programs. Short films are a great way to explore joining genres to a bunch of different directors in a short period of time. So that was really great. I also do a lot of documentary work now, and my documentary work always informs my narrative work.
My narrative work always informs my documentary work.
Are there particular cinematographers who have been particularly influential, either the classic era figures like Gregg Toland or Russell Metty or more contemporary filmmakers?
Laura Valladao: Absolutely. I think there have been so many and I am constantly learning about new cinematographers and diving into their work. Most recently, I think the most influential has been Bradford Young. I got to hear him speak, recently, for the first time, at a school screening that he was doing. And that was just really incredible, but he's definitely someone I've always looked up to.
Dreams and Shadows: What is the most interesting challenge of your work, and what brings you the greatest satisfaction with your art?
Laura Valladao: There's so many things. I think one thing that comes to mind is I love there's some sort of challenge and getting a shot either as a really long one or where there's a shot where different people in the crew have to jump in and be involved in executing something. Other times, maybe it's just a challenging scene for the actor. But I love a challenging scene and then when you get it and everyone's kind of come together to make it happen. That's just the best.
Dreams and Shadows: Have you always just had an eye, or a way or seeing, that made becoming a photographer and cinematographer intuitive and inevitable?
Laura Valladao: That's a really great question. I'm not sure. I definitely came in on the lighting side. And I was really interested in the physics of life. I was also interested in the way that light in faces affects how people feel, and how it affects how we behave and interact with each other and interact with the world. That’s what got me interested in lighting, and then I transitioned from lighting to shooting. I fell in love with operating the camera handheld. That was something I was really drawn toward.
Now I think the thing that I'm most interested in is developing the visual language with the director and also just getting to interact with so many different people so intimately. I think that that's a really special part of this job.
Orson Welles famously said all movies are the results of happy accidents on the set. Given the providential nature of making films, you’re trying to assert a certain control and discipline, but you’re also making art, and it’s not always linear.
Laura Valladao: One-hundred percent absolutely. I think the important thing is knowing when or being able to recognize when the happy accident is a blessing rather than trying to force it into this.
The gifted cinematographer Laura Valladao.