In our latest interview, we spoke with cinematographer Justin Derry on the TIFF 2022 selected film Bruiser.
Bruiser follows a 14-year-old boy who finds a new father figure and learns to defend himself after being beaten up one day at school. Originally a short that debuted at Sundance before becoming a full feature-length project, the film is a dramatic coming-of-age story that tackles family struggles and the effects of fighting. The film stars Trevente Rhodes, Shamier Anderson, Jalyn Hall, and Shinelle Azoroh, and will premiere at TIFF on September 11th.
We spoke with Justin about how he created the visual aesthetic of this film through his choices as a cinematographer further.
PH: Hi Justin, how are you? Can you start by sharing a bit of your background in the industry?
Justin Derry: Hey, thank you for the opportunity to chat about our film. Like many cinematographers of my generation, my first introduction to photography and motion pictures came through skateboarding. I grew up driving around with friends with an old mini-DV camera, shooting and editing skateboarding. I don’t even think I knew what a cinematographer was at the time. I chose to go to film school because a friend of mine suggested it, and in my first cinematography class, I discovered what it meant to craft images through a lens. This is where I fell in love with the idea of becoming a cameraman.
After film school, I moved to New York City. I knew I wouldn’t immediately find work as a DP, so I began working in the lighting department. Shortly after that film, I made the transition to DP. Early on, I was given a few opportunities to shoot commercials, which are a good place to hone your skills while also making a decent living. My first 5 years as a cinematographer were focused on exploring new ways to light and shoot on commercials where there was often a decent budget and a quick turn around. A friend of mine and very talented cinematographer Martin Ahlgren (House of Cards) told me, “Every commercial I shoot, I try something I’ve never done before.” In commercials, it’s okay to take risks. Why not use the commercial space as a playground for you to expand your toolset?
After several years in the commercial and music video world, I felt it was time to get back to my passion for movies. In 2018, I shot my first feature film Minor Premise (directed by Eric Schultz), and following that I shot The Atlantic City Story (directed by Henry Butash, 2019). Right before the pandemic, I shot my second short film collaboration with director Miles Warren. The goal of this film was to build excitement for a feature film Miles was writing, BRUISER. Riding the momentum and excitement for the short film, Miles started to put a team together for the feature length film. One of the first to sign on was producer Aaron Ryder (Arrival, The Prestige). We shot BRUISER in the winter of 2021, and just 7 months later the film premiered at The Toronto International Film Festival, where we had two sold out screenings and a standing ovation. Leading up to the festival, Disney’s ONYX Collective purchased the film for distribution.
PH: What were some of your motivators to become a cinematographer?
Justin Derry: Honestly, I grew up loving movies and watching them on the weekends with my family. At a young age, I watched movies for the thrill of emotion. I liked movies that frightened me, like JAWS and Halloween. As I got older, I started to watch very character driven and emotionally crippling films like A Woman Under the Influence and Three Colors: Blue. I love that the film can tell us about our own existence and about how other people live and feel. Film can inspire and make us understand humanity and humility. I grew up sketching and painting, and I was enamored by the ability to express myself through images. When I realized that I could manipulate the real world through photography to express something universal and intimate through storytelling, I was hooked. I knew that this was what I was meant to do.
PH: Let’s talk about Bruiser. How did you come to work on it? What enticed you about it?
Justin Derry: Bruiser is my third collaboration with Miles Warren. We met on his short film Huntress back in 2017. From our first phone call, I knew that we shared a lot of the same taste for films. That first short film together felt like we were speaking the same language. We didn’t have much time to prepare for that film, but when I arrived on set, I just knew where to put the camera. Our instincts for composition aligned in an uncanny way. While shooting that film, we had a very dramatic blizzard happen mid-shoot and all the sudden we had to shoot in 3ft of snow. None of us were prepared for the severity. It was brutal. I sometimes think the strongest bonds come from struggling through a difficult and intense situation. Half of the crew left to go back to the city, and we had to go to a local thrift store to get cheap winter clothes for those who remained. The producers went and bought propane space heaters. It was a challenging experience, but one we both learned from. I knew this was a director I could get down in the trenches with and come out of it with a good film.
PH: What does “finding beauty in the messiness of reality” mean to you and how do you translate that to film?
Justin Derry: I find some of the best cinematography to be in films that augment and heighten things that exist in the real world to draw emotion, like Paris, Texas or Three Colors: Blue or Chungking Express. Those films take dirty green fluorescents and make them greener, or push saturated red into a car interior as if it’s coming from a stop light. They use color that exists in the real world and exaggerate it to manipulate how the audience feels. I don’t think films should look perfectly lit or composed because I think these choices call attention to the artifice of filmmaking. There’s a quote that “style is the death of honest filmmaking.” Instead of imposing a style on the films I work on, I want to manipulate the audience through motivated color and lighting choices that feel real and messy, but in a beautiful way.
PH: Can you share an example of a very visually impactful moment from this film—and explain why it had such an impact?
Justin Derry: I think one of the most visually impactful scenes in the film takes place at the local fair in the film. There was so much color and life at this moment of the film. I’ve seen Bruiser many times at this point, and I still get chills during this scene. The strong colors and life of the camera movement and compositions directly translates to a moment in the film where we feel hopeful, no matter how short-lived. I feel like we accurately represented that hopefulness in the way we chose to photograph that moment, and that always has a strong emotional impact on me.
PH: You collaborated with production design for this film as well. What does that collaboration look like?
Justin Derry: Our Production Designer, April Lasky, was an amazing collaborator on this film. Miles would joke that we were conspiring against him because we would start talking about the colors in a room or the drapes on the windows or the placement of rides at the fair, and before you knew it, we would be deep in a conversation about the importance of color or blocking to a point where it became a bit obsessive. I loved it! April also just did so much with limited time and resources. Due to COVID, the film had to push back a few months. This meant that April was brought on at the very last minute and only had 2.5 weeks to prep the film. Somehow in this time, we managed to plan specifically what each location would look like. Her team completely painted, wallpapered and dressed the entire house. We hired a local fair company to provide all our rides for the fair, food trucks, and worked with them to place all the rides and booths. They also gutted and designed a houseboat, built a working dock and aged everything to look appropriate. It was very impressive. Much of my work shined because of the amazing work done by the Art Department team.
PH: Can you discuss some of the technical challenges you encountered?
Justin Derry: Honestly, the biggest technical challenge was the schedule. Because of Covid, we only had 20 days to shoot at some pretty challenging locations. We also had a minor as our lead in the film and that limits your time on set with them, so we were always pushing against a super tight timeline. We had an amazing team, including our 1st Assistant Director, Josh Montes, who was an absolute lifesaver throughout the film. He was constantly shuffling things around and thinking of more efficient ways to use our time. I can’t give him enough praise and respect, a true legend who did everything he could to make the movie succeed.
PH: You also use a handheld camera for one of the scenes. What was that experience like?
Justin Derry: We only employed handheld operating for one sequence in the film. My brother, Kyle Derry, was the Steadicam Operator on the film and also operated A-Cam when we weren’t on Steadi. I operated the one handheld shot, which moves through the houseboat, onto the floating T-shaped dock, and follows Porter (Trevante Rhodes, Moonlight) when he runs off into the woods. I operated because I often like to operate handheld scenes, but this was much trickier than expected. When I stepped off of the boat and onto the dock, the dock would shift and sink about a foot. It was very unstable, even though we tried to brace it with supports for the shot. The water wasn’t very deep, so I told my dolly grip, “If I lose my footing, just be ready to grab the camera from me.” I knew I would be fine if I fell in, but I wanted to make sure the camera was safe and we didn’t take any unnecessary risks. We were also relying on blue hour, which is when the sun has dipped beyond the horizon and you only really have 30-40 mins of usable light. Luckily we did a few takes and after the first few tries at half speed, I felt good to run it and we managed to get the shot pretty quickly. Even more impressive is that the next day, my brother operated a very similar move with much more complicated blocking on Steadicam. I knew how difficult that shot was handheld, so I can’t imagine with all the weight and precision that is required for Steadi. However, he nailed every take, which really freed up the actors to focus on their performances.
PH: What did you shoot on and why? (equipment)
Justin Derry: We shot on the Arri Alexa Mini with Panavision Ultraspeed lenses. The entire film was also shot at 3200ISO, and we added halation in the color grade with our talented colorist Sean Dunckley at Assembly. We shot the short film version of Bruiser on 4-perf 35mm Kodak film stock. For me, this is the gold standard for storytelling because again, I appreciate the flaws of the format. The “Happy Accidents” is what Conrad Hall, ASC would often champion. When it came time to shoot the feature, we knew 35mm was going to be impossible on our budget, especially considering all of the other ambitious elements of the film. The director had also never shot digitally before, so he was nervous about being able to capture the look he imagined on digital. I began testing during prep at the New Orleans Panavision office. I knew I wanted to use older lenses to take advantage of the patina and inconsistencies they offer, so we chose Panavision Ultraspeed. There’s a gauziness with these lenses that makes it feel like you’re looking at a painting. I had also heard that my friend, Drew Daniels had shot 3200iso on the Alexa for the film Waves (2019). Though we had a much different look planned for our film, I really liked the texture and soft highlights Drew achieved in Waves. After shooting some tests, I was surprised how well the Arri Alexa performed at 3200iso. Honestly, it was still too clean for us, so we ended up also adding 1/4 Black Pearlescent filtration and pretty strong film grain emulation and halation in post.
PH: What goes on in your mind before you start shooting? What did ideation and pre-production look like?
Justin Derry: Usually when I first get a script, I see the words through images and iconography. I start jotting down painters, photographers, and movies that represent what I’m feeling as I read. I’ve loved this painter Alex Merritt for a long time, and when I read about some of the brutality in this film, his paintings came to mind. We also referenced photographers like Gordon Parks and William Eggleston. More than anything else, we watched movies. Some of the films we both loved and watched during our prep for the film were Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Cold War, The Place Beyond the Pines, and Come and See, and they put us in the right headspace while we were shot-listing. For Bruiser, we made an extensive shot list. We had a spreadsheet with every shot in the film and also included composition references, which were screen grabs from other films that best expressed the placement and lensing of the camera. Lastly, we diagrammed every scene so that we had overhead layouts of the blocking and camera positions for each scene. The shot list included our notes and a list of any specialty equipment we would use for each shot. Having such a detailed shot list allowed us to move fast during production and limited time spent discussing each shot because everyone knew exactly what we planned to shoot. It was a liberating way of working on set because it allowed us to put our brain power toward other important elements, like lighting, performances, and set dressing. It also freed us up to improvise when we felt inspired.
PH: Can you share some of your other projects you’ve worked on and what those experiences were like?
Justin Derry: In 3 years as a lighting technician and a gaffer, I worked on about 20 feature films including Alex Ross Perry’s Sundance Film, Listen Up Philip. In 2018, after several years of working as a DP in commercials and music videos, I shot my first feature film Minor Premise (Directed by Eric Schultz). This film played at several festivals including Fantasia Film Festival in 2020. Following that I shot a beautiful, quiet, and contemplative film about having marriage, forgiveness, and the importance of companionship titled The Atlantic City Story (Directed by Henry Butash, 2019).
As I mentioned, right before the pandemic I shot my second short film collaboration with director Miles Warren. The short film found success at Sundance, SXSW, and the Seattle International Film Festival where it won Best Short Film, and then Miles began putting a team together for BRUISER.
PH: After years in the industry, what are some of the biggest lesson(s) you’ve learned?
Justin Derry: It’s important to think of every person of the crew as a true collaborator and never take anyone’s work for granted. Working in film is difficult; there are long hours, tough schedules, and often a lot of pressure to perform under extreme circumstances. You have to value the work and experience of those around you and really trust your team. Respect every department. Care for one another. It’s easy for emotions and exhaustion to get the best of people, so you have to try not to let yourself get overwhelmed.
PH: In your opinion, a great cinematographer has to embody what characteristics/qualities?
Justin Derry: A great cinematographer must value performance and story above all else. The cinematography should always be in service to the story and to the director’s vision. They must also be a great leader, which is probably the most difficult part of the job. The best leaders inspire their team to care about the film and embolden them to take risks and to push the bar that much higher. I think it’s important at the end of each day to walk around and thank everyone on the team and show them that their hard work is recognized. I like to form bonds with most of my crew, and I want them to be my friends and allies. When things get tough and you’re really in the weeds, your crew is your support group. They keep things moving forward and prevent any difficult situation from spiraling into a vortex.
PH: Would you like to share any other upcoming projects you have in the works?
Justin Derry: I am about to start prep on a very exciting film out in Montana, directed by another great friend and collaborator, Rod Blackhurst. I can’t say too much about it at this stage, but it is another project that I can not wait to sink into and be consumed by.