After shooting such relatively complex films as Nadja, illtown, and Boys Don't Cry — and gaining a reputation as one of the most gifted cinematographers working in independent film — Jim Denault says Our Song was “in a lot of ways, a back-to-basics movie for me.” The story of three teenage girls coming to a crossroads during a hot August in Brooklyn's Crown Heights, Our Song is the DP's first 16mm film in several years. “It was like going full circle back to my first feature, River of Grass, where we had a 16-day shooting schedule and the whole equipment package fit into the back of my Ford Ranger pickup truck.”
Our Song, which is written and directed by Jim McKay, was actually made in 1999, right after Boys Don't Cry; Denault has shot perhaps a half-dozen films since then. But the vagaries of independent film distribution being what they are, it is only now getting a theatrical release, through IFC Films. “Boys Don't Cry was pretty good-sized, $1-2 million, and it was full of big lights and big night exteriors,” says the DP. “On Our Song, the lighting package basically fit into a rolling hamper. It was a couple of 400W HMIs, a couple of 1,000W Mickey Moles, a couple inkys, and a couple Kino Flos. The grip and electric department was one person, and the camera department was three people — myself, an AC, and a PA who helped us push the cart around.” Denault operated the film, much of it handheld, with an Arri SL2.
What McKay and the DP were going for was a sense of immediacy, “like you took out your camera and took a picture of what was there,” Denault says. “The director said he wanted to do something where the crew was very small and where we would blend in with the neighborhood as much as possible.” The camera stays lovingly close to the three young actresses (Kerry Washington, Anna Simpson, and Melissa Martinez) as they lounge, listening to music, chatting and arguing in their cramped project apartments. “Scouting the locations, and finding things that would work lighting-wise, was a key thing,” he says. “A lot of the light is what was there. We don't really have night exteriors, because we weren't able to do them.”
Tying the story together are scenes of the girls rehearsing with the energetic Jackie Robinson Steppers Marching Band, an actual 60-piece young musicians' group. “It was a blast shooting the band performance stuff,” Denault says. “We shot it pretty much like a documentary; we had them do their numbers a few times over for us, and just ran around and got cool shots.” Most of the rehearsals are held outside, “but there's one band scene that takes place inside a gymnasium. The reason was, it rained, and that's where we could do it. On a bigger film, we would have been able to reschedule. But what would the band have done if it were raining? They'd practice inside.” He adds that some of the limitations were self-imposed, “to make us think out our choices. To stay out of the way, and let the characters and actors come through.”
Denault learned to be surreptitious early on. “I'm one of those kids who figured out that their parents always kept film in the camera,” he says. “My father would say, ‘Who took these pictures of the dog?’ They finally gave me my own camera.” He majored in still photography at Rochester Institute of Technology, “not really knowing how I was going to make a living. In high school, the teacher had shown us movies about Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, and I thought, that's great, they're taking the kinds of pictures I would like to take. It never entered my mind that Edward Weston would scrape the images off his glass-plate negatives to make windows for his house.”
At some point, Denault realized cinematography might offer him more options. He shot video for a Rochester cable access channel, which led to industrial video production and local commercials, which led to work with a lighting rental house. After moving to New York in 1989, he rose through the electrical ranks on independent films — instead of the more customary camera department trajectory for an aspiring director of photography. “Not that I planned it that way, but I think it was good,” he says. “When you're a DP, hopefully you have a good eye for framing, but hopefully the director does too. But lighting is the part where you're pretty much on your own.”
Denault eventually purchased his own Aaton 16mm camera to get a leg up as an indie shooter — “if you have something to bring, like a camera or mini-DV, then they're going to hire you over somebody else who will work for free who doesn't have a camera.” He used the Aaton for River of Grass and a couple of other films, and then graduated to 35mm with Nadja. On that black-and-white vampire movie, Denault and director Michael Almereyda continued some of the Pixelvision experimentation they had begun on an earlier short film; the DP's efforts earned him an Independent Spirit Award nomination.
There have been signs that Denault may be graduating to bigger things; he recently got back from Cambodia, where he shot Matt Dillon's $8 million directorial debut film, for example. Yet he says, “I'd rather be doing cool movies that a few people see and really enjoy, than be doing major blockbusters that get panned by everybody. My worst nightmare is to do a movie that's terrible.”