Images courtesy of A24.
A new film, now available on VOD and in select theaters right in time for Halloween, Slice from A24 and director Austin Vesely, follows some of the best supernatural beings we know and love — from ghosts and witches to werewolves.
One of the main factors that went into crafting the look for the film is cinematographer Brandon Riley, best known to audiences as the cinematographer of HBO’s The Shop and several of Chance the Rapper's music videos. We talked to Riley about his work on the film, A24, working with Austin and Chance and more.
ProductionHUB: Can you talk a little about the concept behind Slice and how you got involved?
Brandon Riley: The film takes place in a world where ghosts, witches and werewolves cohabitate with humans. Ghosts are treated as second class citizens and framed for the murder of pizza delivery guys for political reasons.
I got involved in 2014 when I asked a few writers around town to send me some scripts they thought could be shot in Chicago. Austin Vesely’s Slice was far and away the best. Once he and I sat down, it was clear that we could work together long term.
PH: What was the pre-production process like?
Brandon Riley: It was lengthy. Austin and I started planning the production basically as soon as we agreed to work together. We started shot listing in late 2015, when it became clear that we’d be making the movie at a certain level. We had a lot of time to sit down with each other and really plan the mood and tone of the film.
PH: Did the tight budget and schedule and make for a stressful workflow? What were some of the things you did to work with these challenges?
Brandon Riley: Budget and schedule always make indie films complicated. Movie making is so fun, so really the only stress comes from the fact that you want to make the best product you can. We were able to work with our location guys Alex Hughes and Tom Lounsbury to minimize the number of physical locations. We found an old warehouse that we utilized for 8 or 9 locations. That sort of stuff, along with our savvy and responsible line producer Kevin McGrail, and the dedication of basically all of our crew women and men, gave us a film that should have cost much, much more. It’s the type of project you can only pull off if people give everything they have, and it was a blast.
PH: How did you create the look for the film? What were some of your inspirations?
Brandon Riley: Austin’s vision was based on films of the 70s, 80s and 90s. He really wanted something vintage looking. It’s worth keeping in mind, we started this project 2 years before Stranger Things was released. He spoke often of David Lynch, and one of the first films he showed me was Blue Velvet. For me, visually, I went back to mid-early 90s films. Seven was one in particular that I re-watched. I just love the neo-noir vibe of that film, and that's really what I tried to bring to the world that Austin had created in his mind.
PH: As a cinematographer, did you feel any pressure to balance the film’s tones of comedy and horror?
Brandon Riley: Not necessarily. For me, the mandate was pretty clear: give the world a dark, noir tone and let Austin’s amazing script and direction, and the actors, do the rest. Gaffer Brian Dailey and I just worked to keep the look as consistent as possible. I think the comedy resonates rewards you upon multiple viewings because the look of the film is at times so serious and dark, and Austin’s humor is so layered.
PH: This is also Chance the Rapper's acting debut. Was he fun to work with?
Brandon Riley: Chance was amazing. I’ve been doing various projects with him and his team for about 6 years now. He’s always so creative in everything he does. No one knew exactly how his charisma would translate, but he came to this film with a ton of presence and focus, and he nailed it.
PH: Did you find that your previous collaborations with both Chance the Rapper and director Austin Freeley on numerous music videos helped the production process?
Brandon Riley: 1000%. Austin and I had been working on various projects leading up to the film so we had developed a very trusting relationship. Same with Chance. We all felt very comfortable with each other.
PH: What were some of your favorite experiences while working on the film?
Brandon Riley: Working with Zazie Beetz was one of the best parts of production. She was on the cusp of stardom when she came to do our little movie. She took Austin’s character and made it her own. She was unbelievably pleasant to work with and even did her own stunts. And then there is just the experience of making the film as a whole. There's the day to day problem solving that is inherent in filmmaking. That's really what keeps you going: the constant mental exercise. Then there's the comradery of filmmaking. It’s like summer camp.
PH: What equipment helped you get the job done and why did you choose it?
Brandon Riley: We went with an Alexa Mini and an Amira. Both of those cameras give you the ARRI look in compact physical form. The Mini allowed us to quickly transition to some gimbal work here and there, and the Amira gives you a really nice handheld balance. I’m not sure why more people don’t use that camera for narrative work. It’s phenomenal. For lenses, we used a vintage Zeiss Standard Speed set. The 2.1 aperture across the range was nice and the size allowed us to minimize AKS and keep things lean.
PH: What are some other upcoming projects you have in the pipeline?
Brandon Riley: I’m working on an HBO show called The Shop. It stars Lebron James. The first episode already aired, and the second will be out later this month. On the feature film front, I’m preparing a film called “Chop”. It's about a young teenager in the bleak, near future rural US south who becomes involved in a high school trend of teenagers cutting their arms off, and using regenerative technology to grow them back. Its wild. And of course, I’m excited about working on Austin’s next project.
Watch the official trailer for Slice: