DP Laura Valladao on Lensing Sundance Film, 'Fremont'

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Recently we spoke with Laura Valladao, the Cinematographer of Fremont, starring Jeremy Allen White, which was shot in black and white, and follows a former Afghan translator named Donya, played by real-life Afghan refugee Anaita Wali Zada, whose life changes as she gets promoted at a fortune cookie factory.

Laura’s recent credits also include Interscope’s upcoming doc series Outlaw: The Saga of Afeni and Tupac Shakur, directed by Allen Hughes, and the Oscar-nominated short film My Nephew Emmett, directed by Kevin Wilson Jr. 

PH: Hi Laura! Can you share a little about yourself and your production background?

Laura Valladao: I am a Director of Photography, based in Brooklyn New York, but originally from the San Francisco Bay Area. I did my undergrad in Cinema at SFSU, where I became interested in lighting, worked mostly in Grip and Electric, and then went on to get my MFA in Cinematography at NYU.

PH: How did you become involved with Fremont?

Laura Valladao: A mutual friend of one of the producers recommended me for the project. Once I met with the Director, Babak Jalali, and the team, it seemed that our visions for the film were aligned and we got to work.

PH: Can you describe your process for developing a strong visual language - which was rooted in shot lists, visual references, etc.?

Laura Valladao: It always starts with the script. The first time, I try to read it all the way through, just to absorb and experience it, see what about the story really resonates with me, without taking notes or looking anything up. I think about whether or not I am the right person to shoot this film, whether I have something specific I can contribute. The second time I read it, I begin to underline and make notes about overall themes, moments I’m particularly moved by, and if any specific images come to mind at this point, I make notes. Then I do a deep dive, I research the world of the film, if it exists in a genre, I make sure I have a strong understanding of important works in that specific canon of work. I listen to music, I look at still photographs and other visual art. I look at the semantics of films that make me feel a similar way to the script. Not necessarily which are similar in theme or tone. I think about the visual language and rules of these films - how are they using cinematography tools? As I’m collecting these adjacent works, some become part of the visual language of the film, and some do not.

At this point, I usually get to meet with the director. I share my initial thoughts and feelings about the script and they share their vision. I make sure that I really understand the themes, characters, and world of the story. We talk about where our ideas overlap and where they differ. Often at this point, the director and I are still getting to know each other, so we might also talk about our own experiences and how they relate to the characters/story. After meeting with the director, I do another deep dive into any references they’ve mentioned which I hadn’t thought of initially.  I then read the script a third time, this time as I read it, I start to connect visual ideas to specific characters or story moments. As I do this, the visual story begins to evolve parallel to the story on the page. I go back to the director, we talk about the overall approach, we talk about specific scenes, and specific cinematography tools we might use to execute the look and feel. I like to write a manifesto based on our conversations about what is important in the visuals or process above all else. Reminders as we move into production. 

PH: How did you find balance in naturalistic and classically striking lighting?

Laura Valladao: I prefer to light a space rather than a close up, even if I know we’re only shooting the close up. Allowing light to be shaped and textured by architecture and various elements in the location makes it rich and realistic.

PH: How did you study changes in light? What were you able to discover through this research and how did you leverage it in Fremont?

Laura Valladao: One of the main light studies that I did in prep for Fremont was at the mechanic shop location. I spent hours posted up across the street watching the way the shadows moved throughout the day. I noted their angle, speed, and position. I used this information to make a plan with my gaffer and key grip for how we would keep the lighting consistent, using available light rather than working against it.  

PH: Can you describe the documentary-style approach you took (and why you took it) to compose shots that involved the factory employees and machinery?

Laura Valladao: In order to capture the process of the cookies being made, we filmed actual employees at work. They weren’t able to stop, reset, or adjust to our frame, so we approached it as if we were shooting a documentary. We kept these moments on sticks (which felt right to us for how they are used in the film) and we used a long range zoom. Once I found a composition I was happy with, we’d hold on to it for a while and once Babak had what he needed, I’d reframe or find a new camera position and move onto the next step in the cookie making process. Once the factory has used its batter for the day, there is no batter or cookies that can be made - this made it difficult to anticipate just how much time we had remaining at any given moment.

PH: What was your experience like working with first-time actor Donya? What pointers did you give?

Laura Valladao: Working with Anaita Wali Zada, who plays Donya, was a humbling experience to say the least. She had such a strong presence on screen from day one and picked up technical acting chops like hitting marks and standing in for eyelines very quickly. 

PH: Can you share any upcoming projects you have in the works?

Laura Valladao: I have a handful of exciting projects in the mix right now, but it could go in a few different directions. We will have to wait and see.

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