The last time director Lee Daniels and cinematographer Andrew Dunn, BSC teamed up was on the film Precious, which earned six ACADEMY AWARD® nominations, including one for best picture. “That film was special, and it meant a lot to people,” recalls Dunn. “It changed some lives.”
The duo’s latest collaboration is the extraordinary story of Cecil Gaines, who served eight presidents as the head butler of the White House from 1952 to 1986. The film begins in the cotton fields of Gaines’ youth and reaches a climax when Gaines returns to the White House at age 92 to meet an African-American president. Forest Whitaker plays the title role.
“The epic nature of this story intrigued me,” says Dunn. “I knew Lee would give it a very distinct and special twist.”
For a story that unfolds over 85 years, with many flashbacks and flash-forwards, Dunn and Daniels considered differentiating time periods using photographic techniques. But they decided against overt, self-conscious cues, and instead allowed the production design to subtly indicate the various eras. For instance, the scenes at the White House, which were filmed at Second Line Stages in New Orleans, were more formally shot and lit.
“The actors have a different look naturally, because of their costumes, the locations, and what they’re doing,” says Dunn. “The camerawork is in tune with that. So in a way, the story as we shot it drove the look.”
The filmmakers chose to frame Lee Daniels’ The Butler in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, maximizing the negative in 3-perf format. Dunn says that there was no question that film was the right choice for this story.
“Lee came to the project with a great heart and soul,” notes Dunn. “I fed off of that. I could feel what he wanted, and I knew that the texture and feeling of film was essential to telling this story. And because of the historical nature of the material, we didn’t even question it. 3-perf is also a good format because you get a lot of negative for your buck.”
Diffusion filters were another variable Dunn used to draw in audiences. “For our storytelling purpose, we want to make the audience feel part of it, like a voyeur, without becoming self-conscious and noticing that we’re doing it,” says Dunn. “If they notice then they withdraw. It’s a fine line. We’re telling a story as seen through the human eye, which is full of flares and defects. I try to make the camera lens deal with those human aspects.
That’s the thinking behind the filtration, and film also helps with that. With digital formats, the trick is somehow giving it that human aspect, whereas film has a natural sensuality about it.”
Dunn used a range of stocks, including KODAK VISION3 50D Color Negative Film 5203. “That stock is fabulous,” he says. “I had used it a couple of years ago on Crazy, Stupid, Love in the hard, high-contrast light of Los Angeles. Talk about high definition! Digital isn’t high definition — it’s just higher def than the last high def. But that 50 ASA stock is actually high definition, in the detail and texture, holding highlights and what hides deep in the shadows. It’s a really beautiful stock. I’d love to shoot a whole movie on it.”
Dunn says the project was a great opportunity for a cinematographer, partly because of the wide range of situations and eras, from Dwight Eisenhower sending troops to the south to a less-than-sober Richard Nixon, played by John Cusack, scheming to evade Watergate in the dark shadows of the White House at night.
Dunn describes his lighting style as intuitive. He notes that Gaines is often somewhat forgotten at the periphery of the room as powerful world leaders are focused on the decisions of the day. A delicate balance had to be struck to depict Gaines’ unobtrusive presence, even as the story is about him, and his unique perspective on the history of the 20th century.
“These people generally ignore him,” says Dunn. “In a way, he doesn’t exist. But he is a witness to world events like the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Johnson and the civil rights era. One of our references was The Remains of the Day (1993, shot by Tony Pierce-Roberts, BSC). Anthony Hopkins’ character, the butler, was present, but as far as the others were concerned, he wasn’t really there. We composed in a more formal, careful way, and that kept us on the straight and narrow stylistically.”
Dunn also studied films like Mississippi Burning (1988, OSCAR®-winning cinematography by Peter Biziou, BSC) and still photography from the era of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black Panthers. Lee Daniels’ The Butler also makes extensive use of library and stock footage.
“The television is like a Greek chorus throughout the film,” says Dunn. “The years of the presidents we didn’t film as characters — Presidents Ford and Carter for example — are seen 90% on television. We also matched in some characters to this library footage. Gaines’ son gets involved quite heavily in the civil rights movement, for example. One sequence begins with old footage that we then meshed with footage of our own, and it’s seamless. We shot [KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film] 5207 and manipulated it in the DI to match, muting the colors.
“Making that work can be pretty tricky,” he says. “Part of it is having a very good editor like we did with Joe Klotz. There is some slight-of-hand camerawork, panning across to find the character. With good operators, you give them the feeling and idea, and let them use their skills and talent. The dailies timer in New Orleans read the script, and understood the texture and tone we were after. The great thing about what we do is the teamwork and collaboration of all these people joined together in pursuit of the same goal.”
Dunn says it was a great privilege to be involved on Lee Daniels’ The Butler. “As cinematographers, we learn all these skills and tools, but basically we are storytellers,” he says. “In a way, it’s like telling a child a story at bedtime. We all want to be told tales and our perception of the story changes with each telling, depending on our mood. I’ve been a cinematographer for a long time, and I think that’s what it comes down to at its most essential.”