PLUS… AN EXCLUSIVE Q&A WITH REGINA KING
By Ron Prince
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee…” is probably the most famous catchphrase of boxer Cassius Clay (later to become Muhammad Ali). The 22-year old pugilist prodigy uttered these classic words before defeating Sonny Liston in the world heavyweight championship title bout at the Miami Beach Convention Center on February 25th, 1964.
However, the first half of his celebrated saying could be equally applied to Tami Reiker ASC’s lustrous and gliding cinematography, the latter to the impact delivered by debut director Regina King, in the storytelling of One Night In Miami.
The $17million, independently-produced drama, available on Amazon Prime, is a fictionalised narrative about a meeting between Muslim minister and human rights activist Malcolm X, boxer Cassius Clay, NFL megastar Jim Brown and soul legend Sam Cooke, in a modest Miami motel suite, as they gather to celebrate Clay’s surprise title win over Liston.
The four were friends in real life, and the get-together of these iconic celebrities really did take place, although little is known about it. The film’s scenario is peppered with historical facts about each of the characters, who engage in thought-provoking speeches and heated arguments, as Malcolm X challenges each of them to harness their fame to champion the cause of equality for black people in the face of segregation and endemic racism.
One Night In Miami is the first feature directed by King, the Academy, Golden Globe and Primetime Emmy Award-winning actress, from a screenplay adapted by Kemp Powers from his own successful 2013 stage play of the same name. It stars Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X, Eli Goree as Cassius Clay, Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown and Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke.
The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival on September 7, 2020, a first for an African-American woman director, and received overwhelmingly positive reviews, with critics praising King’s direction, the performances, the screenplay and Reiker’s vivid cinematography. The movie’s critical standing is such that it went on to garner 67 wins and 181 nominations at film festivals around the world.
“I had not met Regina before, but had always admired her work as an actress,” says Reiker, who studied cinematography at New York’s Tisch School Of The Arts, and whose credits include Lisa Cholodenko’s High Art (1998), plus Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond The Lights (2014) and The Old Guard (2020).
“I read the script, loved it and put together a look book of visual ideas before I interviewed with Regina. When we met, we had both independently come to the same conclusions and felt this film needed to be immersive, for the cool blue of the Miami exteriors to contrast with really saturated, vibrant colours of the hotel suite, and for the camera to be able to drift and change to depict the action from different perspectives. Regina and I really hit it off, and before I knew it, we were off for the shoot.”
Amongst the pictorial references Reiker included in her look book were colourful stills from street photographers, such as Saul Leiter and Garry Winogrand, together with shots from Muhammad Ali’s longtime photographer, Howard L. Bingham, and Neil Leifer’s famous ringside photo of Ali towering over Liston, taunting his vanquished opponent to, “Get up and fight, sucker!”.
Further references for the film’s boxing sequences included Taschen’s hardback tome, Greatest Of All Time: A Tribute To Muhammad Ali, and a plethora of boxing movies, including Raging Bull (1980, dir. Martin Scorsese, DP Michael Chapman ASC).
Reiker also referenced the dynamic and striking use of colour in such movies as In The Mood For Love (2000, dir. Wong Kar-Wai, DP Chris Doyle), together with the artworks of painter Jacob Armstead Lawrence, known for his portrayal of African-American historical subjects and contemporary life.
Reiker had five weeks of prep prior to six weeks of principal photography, which took place in New Orleans, Louisiana, from the beginning of January to the end of February 2020.
The interior of the Hampton House motel suite was built on a stage at La Place studios, with the commensurate exteriors shot on location in Thibodaux. The movie’s boxing matches were shot at Second Line Stages in New Orleans.
At the end of February, the production relocated to Long Beach, California to shoot the Fountainebleu and liquor store exterior scenes, but was shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, these were picked-up during two days in June as soon as the film business started up again in Los Angeles.
“There’s an epic, filmic feeling to the Alexa 65 in widescreen format”
“One of my first suggestions to Regina regarding the immersive experience was that we shoot One Night I Miami in large format and play with the depth-of-field, using the ARRI Alexa 65 and Prime DNA lenses, with a 2.39:1 frameline,” says Reiker. “There’s an epic, filmic feeling to the Alexa 65 in widescreen format. I had fallen in love with it when shooting The Old Guard, and Regina knew it from acting in If Beale Street Could Talk (2018, dir. Barry Jenkins, DP James Laxton ASC).
“However, we didn’t quite have the budget for that. So, before we presented this idea to our producers, I called ARRI Rental in LA, spoke to Chris Ragsdale, their business development executive, and sent him the script. He said ARRI Rental would totally help us out with costs and equipment, and I am hugely thankful for that.
“The Alexa 65 was so perfect, not only to shoot the movie, but also the amount of latitude the 6K images give you later in the DI to manipulate the image without losing quality. I chose the DNA lenses for their softness, and the fact that they open up to T2, giving a very shallow depth-of-field.”
One extra and subtle addition to the camera package came in the form of Tiffen Bronze Glimmer Glass #1 filtration. As Reiker explains, “Whilst the DNA lenses take the edge off the digital sensor with a lovely softness, the Bronze Glimmer Glass also gives warmth and richness to the image, with beautiful results on skin. I had never used this filter before, and it is more subtle than the name might suggest. It creates an understated halation around practical and spectral illumination and, in combination with foundation make-up, it blends shadows on dark skin tones, whilst keeping the apparent sharpness intact. It was incredible on the actors faces, creating the look and feel we wanted, and I used it for the entire film.”
Whilst the lenses and filtration, together with production design by Barry Robison and Page Buckner, and wardrobe by Francine Jamison-Tanchuck, combined to take the look of the production back to the early 1960s, a pair of day and night LUTs, which Reiker describes as being “very heavy”, plus a modicum of on-set grading, helped to inject the colour saturation she originally envisaged with King.
Reiker generally rated the camera at 800ISO, to retain the richness in the image, although sometimes went to 1280ISO for night/dark exterior sequences, to keep the depth-of-field at around T2 to T2.8, rather than boost the lighting.
Although the brace of boxing matches in the movie – Clay’s fight against British champion Henry Cooper at Wembley, and the bout with Liston in Miami – were shot on the same studio stage at Second Line Stages, they necessarily needed to look authentic. This was achieved by meticulously recreating both boxing rings and their lighting grids from archive footage and photos taken during each contest. Steadfast research from the production’s gaffer, Allen Parks, unearthed a host of original 18-inch Altman 1K scoop lights, sourced from MBS in Burbank.
“The lighting grids at those fights appeared super random, with some lights on and some off,” says Reiker. “But with the 1K scoops bouncing off the white boxing surface there as was enough light to illuminate the actors as well as the ringside audience, so we did not need any supplementary lighting.”
Both boxing matches were shot with three cameras, usually with two sited ringside to observe the action, the audience reaction and match commentators through longer lenses. The A-camera, operated handheld by Chad Chamberlain, captured the fisticuffs closer-up inside the ring. Chamberlain also operated handheld for the ten-minute scene between the protagonists that takes place on the motel roof at night – which, for safety’s sake, was actually shot 12ft off the ground on a set built using shipping containers, with a waist-high railing painted black to ensure invisibility in shot, and accent lights placed in the far distance.
Drifting the camera around the actors for the extended scenes in the motel room was an altogether different affair.
“We had a number of ten and 12-page scenes in the suite that were just wall-to-wall dialogue, with hardly any action. That is very daunting for any director and cinematographer,” declares Reiker. “We did not want the on-screen result to get chopped up in the editing, and preferred the camera to be able to move and shift perspectives between the characters – to witness the reactions between one person talking and another person listening, either by a camera move or a focus pull, whilst also being able to see the detail on faces.
“So I suggested to Regina that we use two 12-foot jib arms for those scenes, with the cameras underslung on Lambda heads and manually-operated. On those jib arms we could go from 2ft to 8ft, and swing right and left, so long as they didn’t hit a wall or a light. Along with practicals, we placed Astera Titan and Helios LED tubes, with honey crates and fabric grids, in every corner of the room, to keep the characters softly backlit, and also hid them behind furniture.
“In practice, this set-up allowed the cameras to essentially float from character-to-character, and give us incredible perspective changes. During production, we were all on headsets, and I could speak to the operators to give them direction. We did ten-minute masters in the hotel suite, shooting the entire scene in one take, without breaking-up for coverage. This also suited the actors as they did not want to break for close-ups and coverage, but retain the power of the dialogue and their performances.”
Reiker adds, “Of course, it was a little unnerving for everyone at first – the actors, operators, focus pullers and boom operators – to concentrate for such long periods of time, especially as we did not set marks for the actors. But everything soon fell into place after rehearsals. The actors were free to improvise and move around a little. The operators could organically react to the actors, and we continually found incredible moments.
“Although we worried we might have missed something, our editor, Tariq Anwar, was very pleased with the material we shot, and felt he had what he needed for his editorial purposes.”
Reiker completed the DI grade in Covid-safe conditions with Ian Vertovec at Light Iron in Hollywood, in a two-theatre set-up – one for the Light Iron team, the other for the filmmakers. The final grade started with a theatrical version as the film was opening at the Venice Film Festival, before creating HDR and SDR versions for streaming.
“The DI was quite simple as we were in the same facility, just in different rooms,” says Reiker. “We had social distancing protocols in place, including disinfecting the rooms between sessions, and we communicated theatre-to-theatre over Google Meet. This proved quite an effective way to collaborate, as we were able to involve more people without physically having them in the room.
“The movie could not be more timely or relevant”
“For example, we had several VFX reviews with artists from out of town, as well as the assistant editor, Naomi Sunrise Filoramo, without them having to travel to the facility. They could just join our Google Meet. If they required visuals of the DI to communicate more effectively with Regina, we would set up a Streambox stream for them whilst the rest of us were in theatres.”
So how does Reiker feel about One Might In Miami getting some 2021 Oscar buzz? “It’s fantastic,” she exclaims. “The movie could not be more timely or relevant. It has such a strong message for young people that they can create change. And it’s not just an American message, it is universal.”
And how about the prospect of an Oscar nomination? “That would be incredible – in the sense of me personally getting something like that, but also in the fact that there has only been one other woman so far in the whole history of cinema, Rachel Morrison ASC, to have been Oscar-nominated for cinematography.
“Whether I get nominated or not, it is pleasing to see more and more women, and more diversity, behind-the-camera right around the world. Although it’s slow, the change is going to come.”
EXCLUSIVE Q&A WITH REGINA KING
Oscar-winning actress of If Beale Street Could Talk, and debut director of One Night In Miami.
When and why did you decide to take-up directing?
Regina: I can’t remember exactly when. It was a while ago. I think it was something that was a natural attraction after having worked in front of the camera for so many years. I started paying attention to what a director does outside of working with actors while working with John Singleton. He let me into the process after I got the part in Poetic Justice. I began to get a better understanding for the responsibilities of a director.
How does your experience in acting help you as a director?
Regina: Each informs the other, giving me a deeper understanding and respect for both crafts.
What inspired you to want to direct One Night In Miami?
Regina: It’s on the page! Kemp wrote a powerful piece. The conversations he captions in 1964 are still happening in 2020. While this fact is heartbreaking, the script still read to me like a love letter for the black man’s experience in America.
What were your initial conversations with Tami about the look/aesthetic of One Night In Miami?
Regina: I wanted the film to be rich in colour and wanted to keep energy in the frame without the camera being a distraction. Tami and I connected when we first met because she had the same view. We both agreed that there are films we love that are of the same period that remain faithful to the tone of the ‘60s. But we also know these films don’t always appeal visually to a younger generation. So our mission was to keep the authenticity of the period with warm tones.
What were the key challenges for you and Tami?
Regina: Time. Time. Time. Like all filmmakers will say, there just wasn’t enough. We didn’t have a rehearsal period before we started shooting. We had one night to rehearse the day before we started principal photography. So we had to dedicate some of the time that would be used for shooting to rehearse and block scenes.
“I really want every black man that I know, love and respect, to walk away having seen a bit of himself in this film.”
Not ideal, but it was the cards we were dealt. Tami and I pretty much spent every moment together discussing and planning what we would change or do more of after we would make discoveries each day. We rode to work together, ate lunch together, and ate dinner together. Communication was key.
What message/impact do you hope that One Night In Miami will have?
Regina: I really want every black man that I know, love and respect, to walk away having seen a bit of himself in this film. I want the black men I don’t know to see the same. We rarely get the opportunity to see our men portrayed as we know them in our lives. They are complex, intelligent, vulnerable and strong.
Why is One Night In Miami important to the world?
Regina: It’s a reminder of how far we haven’t come as a country. It’s a peek into the struggle artists have with themselves when it comes to determining how our art meets our social responsibility.
What advice do you have to other people wanting to direct?
Regina: If it’s truly what you want to do, understand that you are playing the long game. You will never stop learning. Your work is what turns a “No” into a “Yes”. So find a way to shoot something that best reflects you. There are some successful directors who financed their first piece of work with credit cards. Everybody’s journey is different. Don’t think you have to reach your success the same way another director reached theirs.
What’s the best advice you were ever given?
Regina: My life is filled with great advice. Too much to qualify as one piece of advice being better than another. So I guess the first advice that I remember applying was from my Mom. The Seven Ps – “Proper prior preparation prevents piss poor performance”.
What mantra do you live by?
Regina: GIMOSAS – “God Is My Only Source And Supply”.