There is more than one path to becoming a cinematographer. Just ask Rodney Taylor, who first broke into the business by shooting sports. Eventually Taylor decided that his ultimate dream was to work in the film business, and as a result of hard work and a willingness to learn the ropes (he is largely a self-taught DP) Taylor has worked on a variety of films. From the acclaimed—2010’s “The Fighter”—to lighter fare, such as “She’s Out of My League,” Taylor has carved out an impressive career.
Film Slate Magazine caught up with Taylor before the release of the latest film on his resume, “Supremacy.” Written by Eric J. Adams and directed by Deon Taylor, “Supremacy” is an intricate tale which takes on race and bigotry, as a white supremacist parolee (Joe Anderson) and his girlfriend (Dawn Olivieri) kill a police officer and terrorize an African-American family in their home—much to the consternation of his still-jailed gang leader. The patriarch of the family, an ex-con himself (Danny Glover), has to try to win his family’s safety and freedom while examining his own prejudices.
Film Slate Magazine: First, how did you get interested in film? Was there a particular moment when you picked up a camera and thought, ‘This is what I want to do,’ or was it a more gradual process?
Rodney Taylor: Initially I was interested in music and recording, but while I was at UNC-Chapel Hill I looked through a camera viewfinder in a very basic TV production class and it completely knocked me out and I decided I wanted to become a cameraman. I didn’t really know what that meant at the time. I loved films, but I came from a very small fishing village on the North Carolina coast, Sea Level, and I didn’t know you could actually work on films in Hollywood.
I started shooting sports and ESPN was pretty new so there were a lot of opportunities. I fell in with a crew out of Chapel Hill and shot live sports for a few years. Later on I realized what I really wanted to do was to become a cinematographer, so I moved to Los Angeles and began working as a camera assistant at Roger Corman’s. I’m mostly self-taught and came up through the ranks.
FSM: How did you become attached to this project?
RT: I had just worked with production designer Michael Fitzgerald on ‘Live at the Foxes Den,’ and he told me that Deon Taylor was looking for a cinematographer for his film ‘Supremacy.’ Michael had worked with Deon before and thought we would work well together. He told me about the script and Deon. I thought both were incredible so my agent set up a meeting. I met with Deon and Roxanne Avent, his producer.
FSM: What attracted you to this film? Was it the subject matter or did you think you could do some interesting things visually or was it a mixture of both?
RT: It was both. I really wanted to do a film about the issue of race because it’s an important issue to me. I think this film had a way of getting a message across in a way that was also entertaining. That was cool. Also, I really wanted to work with Deon after meeting him. I thought he was a wonderful filmmaker and could make a really great film.
I felt there was going to be a lot of visual potential, but not only that, Deon was interested in the visual elements and wanted a strong collaborator. Ultimately while we shot, he gave me a lot of freedom with the visuals and I gave him and the actors freedom to improvise their actions. Deon is an incredible director on the spot. Every decision he made while we were shooting enhanced the film greatly.
Visually, I wanted to shoot on 16mm film because the story could really benefit from the grittiness you can get on 16mm film. I knew we would be shooting the entire film handheld, and I wanted a small camera without cables going to a DIT monitor so we could stay mobile and move fast.
I wanted to use color in the film. For instance, when Tully (Joe Anderson) entered the house I wanted him to be entering a warm home environment, even though he was a dangerous character. But I didn’t want the characters to have a warm look, so I mixed the light. Then I made the cooler lights on the actors neutral in the color-timing, so the house would look warm and inviting.
I also used a lot of green, but again with mixed lighting, so it doesn’t become monotone. Green was used at the prison and the store Tully robbed. I also used it in a small hallway near the kitchen. I always posted Tully and Doreen (Dawn Olivieri) in that small hallway, which worked geographically for the film so they could hide, but it also was kind of a nasty light. Mr. Walker (Danny Glover) was never in that space. He would only go through it very quickly.
Hiding Tully’s eyes was important at times too. This is nothing new of course, because Gordon Willis, ASC, did it a lot in ‘The Godfather.’ I’ve been very influenced by his work and the great Polish cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, who shot ‘Three Colors: Blue.’ His use of color in that film is influential and bold.
FSM: What sort of discussions did you have with the cast when it came to blocking or what was expected in how to get the shots you wanted?
RT: The cast in this film was really great. I wanted to give them as much freedom as possible. We would do a simple blocking rehearsal with Deon and the cast. After that, I would mostly light the rooms, but also add light for specific things I saw during the rehearsal. You have to place the camera to take advantage of the light you’ve put in. We were working very fast.
I found out on the first day, Joe in particular, was very interested in the light. I remember shooting some stills with my 5D while he was rehearsing, and he said, “Can I see that?” I thought to myself, “Oh boy, here we go. He wants to see what he looks like.”
This is a film where I used light to tell the story, so there was no glamour lighting. I showed it to him and he said, “Great, I see what you’re doing.” Because his character wanted to be in the dark, sometimes I would show him where he could use that in the room and it turned into a great collaboration. For instance, there’s a frightening scene when the deputy comes to the house and Tully is in a hallway right beside the door with a gun – the hallway with the green light. Before we rolled [the camera], I showed Joe the different levels of darkness he could play, and he very much used that in the scene. That was incredible and I felt the use of light really elevated the scene and his performance.
FSM: I ask this question of a lot of the cinematographers I talk to because many have such varied resumes. Is there a certain type of film or project that you like shooting? Comedy vs. thrillers; documentaries vs. features? Does shooting all types of projects keep you constantly on your toes?
RT: I like shooting all kinds of films, that’s what’s so cool. This year I have ‘Supremacy’ and two documentaries coming out: ‘The Wrecking Crew,’ which I began shooting 16 years ago about session musicians in the 1960s; and ‘Holbrook/Twain,’ which I shot in black and white.
At the end of last year, I shot ‘Getting On’ for HBO. I think they each have their own look. I don’t want to be known for a certain type of film. You are making cinematography that tells that particular story and that’s what’s so exciting. What I’m really looking for is a great script and a director that wants to collaborate about the look and the story. I’m a storyteller who uses a camera.
FSM: Any final thoughts on ‘Supremacy?’
RT: I think it’s a great film, and I’m fortunate to have worked with Deon and such a fantastic cast and crew. Ultimately I hope it can add to the dialogue about race in this country.