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SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL

The sympathetic eye

In Craig Brewer's `Hustle & Flow' and now in `Black Snake Moan,' cinematographer Amy Vincent finds love and redemption in dark material.

January 22, 2007|Sheigh Crabtree | Special to The Times

GETTING naked in front of a camera requires a different kind of bravery than being emotionally honest. "Black Snake Moan" cinematographer Amy Vincent captures actress Christina Ricci's ability to expose both her body and psyche in director Craig Brewer's $12 million B-movie-by-way-of-bluesy-redemption-fable premiering at the Sundance Film Festival on Wednesday.

But oh, how the tables turn when the time comes for Vincent to step in front of a camera. The normally stoic Ducati-motorcycle-riding cinematographer -- known for a vise-like handshake and running a tight ship on set -- is overcome with a defensive grimace and a reflexive need to check her hair.

"This light seems so ... hard," she says to the photographer as she steps into the bright afternoon sun streaming through an office window in downtown Los Angeles. The photographer adjusts the blinds and positions Vincent so she's straddling a couch. "This is a little too Victoria's Secret for me," she says. "Can we ... try something else?" He moves in tight on her face, but she pulls back. "Is that a 28 [millimeter]?" she asks, wary of a distorted view.

And so Vincent more than understands what Ricci endured in little more than a pair of underwear for 3 million film frames over the course of a 36-day shoot in rural Tennessee.

"Christina is battered, bloody and bruised through the entire movie," Vincent says. "She puts it all out there, and it's painful to watch. And I have to say, there's a maternal part of me that felt like it would have been irresponsible for me not to look after these people while they're performing their craft -- just seeing whether they need looking after when they're done with a certain take."

That need to create an emotionally safe place extended to costar Samuel L. Jackson, who performs a handful of solo blues numbers inspired by the late R.L. Burnside. "The musical performances were challenging for Sam," she says.

Because of the story's extremes -- a petite white girl (Ricci) overcomes painful memories of sexual abuse by hopping on the nearest male but is redeemed by an old black singer (Jackson) who holds her hostage while preaching fire and brimstone and playing the blues -- Vincent and Brewer decided to take a fairly classical approach.

"We could have photographed it with random hand-held swish pans and hard light," she says. "But I think if there is a deliberate, careful, specific choice in each frame, it forces the audience to believe that the decisions the director is making are conscious and guiding the story in an intended direction." Much like "Hustle & Flow," Brewer and Vincent's first collaboration, which starred Terrence Howard, "Black Snake Moan" is most dramatically compelling in its musical scenes.

"There's definitely an Amy Vincent-Craig Brewer visual style," Brewer says. "We're learning as we go along. But the musical sequences are the most unique thing we do. We love this one shot of Terrence when he's singing into the microphone and you can see his gold teeth -- he's so defiant." Brewer calls their signature shots "chokers." They recur in "Black Snake Moan" when Jackson is singing in juke-joint sequences and you can see spit fly from his mouth.

"Those were my favorite shoot days," Vincent says. "It's darker, moodier, sexier, sweatier, a more lustful time of night. Those are tougher technical and emotional sequences -- certainly for Sam."

Sundance has been good to the filmmakers. "Hustle & Flow" won the audience award and earned Vincent a cinematography prize in 2005.

"Amy is a lot like myself, Terrence Howard, John Singleton and Stephanie Allain," says Brewer. (Singleton financed "Hustle"; Allain was a producer.) "When I met her, I think Amy was at a point where she was assisting a lot of other cinematographers and she hadn't had a movie where she could stretch as an artist. Terrence felt that way about his career; he paid his dues, but he had never been given a role where he could swing for the fences. John was a filmmaker about to become a financier. Stephanie was a studio exec who quit her job to be an independent film producer, and I was a first-time filmmaker. We were all making a change, and there was a lot on the line for us."

Vincent also helped guide the first-time director through the complex byways of professional motion picture production. Vincent shot Brewer's $3 million picture on location in 24 days in Memphis, and, according to Brewer, she carried the working aspects of the production for him.

"I imagine it must happen with a lot of first-time filmmakers," says Brewer, who still remembers the initial frenzy around the film when it premiered at Sundance. "After the hurricane passes, there's this eerie silence. In that silence, I realized how Amy pulled me through."

And Vincent describes Brewer as if he were a brother.

"If Craig came to me with material even more extreme than 'Black Snake Moan,' I know it's ultimately going to be a story about love and redemption. So yes, I would go anywhere with him."

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