Cinematographer Kira Kelly won’t be at the Academy Awards this weekend. Although she shared DP credit (with Hans Charles) on Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated masterful documentary 13th, she’s in Louisiana, prepping for season 2 of DuVernay’s Queen Sugar (OWN).
13th is a powerful film about the 13th Amendment, which the doc posits essentially took the USA from outlawing slavery to the immediate mass incarceration of African-Americans and a booming prison industry today. It’s a provocative message, and one that was driven home even more so with the help of Kelly’s (and Charles’) cinematography.
Before Kelly headed to the Queen Sugar set, cinemathread booked an early call with her to talk about creating the perfect shot, how Kelly got the call from DuVernay, and why Wong Kar-wai’s aesthetic continues to inspire.
cinemathread: Let’s start with 13th — how did you get on Ava DuVernay’s radar?
Kira Kelly: Weirdly enough, through social media. I hadn’t met her in real life. But I post about my life and work through various social channels, and so does she, so we connected that way. Suddenly I got this email from her assistant: “Ava is interested in meeting you.”
CT: One of those really good email in-box moments.
KK: (Laughs) Right!
CT: So where did you meet? Some Hollywood powerhouse lunching spot like Chateau Marmont on the faded velvet squishy sofas against the mullioned windows?
KK: Ah, no. For some reason, due to our schedules and location, we ended up meeting at a Pinkberry in L.A.
CT: Pinkberry is now the new power spot. Did she have a gig in mind, or was it more of a “getting to know you” over a small seasonally-appropriate fruit flavored frozen yogurt?
KK: Yes, it was initially about a VR project she was lined up to make — which ultimately fell through — but we stayed in touch. Then, when she was approached by Netflix and brought 13th to them, she already had Hans Charles on board, who had worked with her before, so he did most of the East Coast interviews, and I handled the West, including those with Michelle Alexander, Henry Louis Gates, and Angela Davis.
CT: Not to detract from its incredibly hard-hitting message, but what’s noticeable about 13th is how astonishingly elegant and powerful the shot compositions are.
KK: Thank you. Well, Ava didn’t want the classic “talking heads” interview blandness, she wanted artful composition; beautiful portraits in effect. Plus Hans and I had to make our locations work really hard, as we were shooting several in one day, in the same place. My first shoot was Michelle Alexander. We set her in a vivid vermillion chair, almost like a throne, against huge windows framed with trees in a sea of gray tones. Then we went to Ohio and, after that, we came back to California for Angela Davis. Now, I don’t get starstruck on set, but I have to say Angela Davis has such a powerful presence. We wanted to give her a “hero background” to honor her role in history. We found this old rundown train station in Oakland — but, inside, it was just gorgeous — it gave real weight and majesty to that interview.
Well, Ava didn’t want the classic “talking heads” interview blandness, she wanted artful composition; beautiful portraits in effect.
CT: And now you’re working on DuVernay’s TV series, Queen Sugar, for Oprah’s OWN?
KK: Yes, I just arrived in NOLA this weekend so we’re in prep. I’m alternating as DP with Antonio Calvache, who shot season 1, and I’m excited to be working with him. It’s my first time shooting in Louisiana, which has some weather challenges as it can change in a minute, so quickly, so we’re trying to “control the sun” — making our own shade when we need it.
CT: You made your name as the cinematographer on all four seasons of five-time Emmy nominated East Los High. That was a ground-breaking show, portraying teens in East L.A. with a gritty visual feel and exhilarating but fierce dance sequences. Can you name some of your aesthetic influences that you drew on for that, and perhaps continue to use today?
KK: I am very drawn to the work of Rinko Kawauchi, her work is beautiful. Martina Hoogland Ivanow inspires me too. I find myself drawn to sit in front of Cy Twombly’s paintings whenever I go to LACMA — I remember seeing his series The Four Seasons when they were at the Philadelphia Museum of Art years ago. I’ve brought Instant Light: Tarkovsky Polaroids with me to New Orleans to feed my eye.
CT: Let’s go right back — what made you want to be a cinematographer?
KK: I was in high school when Godfather: Part III came out. For sure, it’s not the best in the trilogy, but it got me hooked so I saw the other two. At that point I had no idea what a director of photography did; never heard of Gordon Willis, but there was something inside me that said, “I want to do that.”
CT: You actually started in the film industry as an electrician, in New York.
KK: Such a great foundation. Starting as an electrician, you watch, and learn, how a set works. By the time I became gaffer, essentially being head of the department, I knew how to organize myself, my time, build a relationship with the AD and DP, give an accurate time estimate for each set-up — that’s invaluable. It was a wonderful education, especially as I got to see how the best DPs work — we learn through emulation and example.
CT: As a cinematographer, is there a movie you’d love to remake and bring a different feel to?
KK: I’d never want to remake someone else’s movie. But if we could rewind spacetime, I’d love to have been on In the Mood for Love — that would have been amazing to work with Wong Kar-wai, an all-time inspiration.
CT: Last question: what’s next for you?
KK: Going to be here on Queen Sugar until August. But the next project that’s due out is called Skin in the Game. After East Los High series 4 wrapped I wanted to do something smaller, like an 18-day single camera feature. Howard Barish, who was a producer on 13th, approached me with exactly that — which was spooky — an ultra-low budget indie project, about human trafficking in L.A. The director, Adisa, has just completed the first cut and I can’t wait to see it. It was thematically dark and a real palate cleanser, professionally speaking. I usually shoot with two cameras and a full crew, mainly on Alexa. But this was just me, a Sony F55, and a light meter — perfect.