The Suicide Squad Cinematographer Henry Braham on the Helmet Shot, Harley Fight, and More - VRGyani News and Media


Monday, September 6, 2021

The Suicide Squad Cinematographer Henry Braham on the Helmet Shot, Harley Fight, and More

Cinematographer Henry Braham is no stranger to magic. He’s lensed fantastical films like Nanny McPhee and The Golden Compass and Disney’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. But when it came to shooting James Gunn’s DC debut The Suicide Squad, Braham and the Guardians of the Galaxy filmmaker wanted to blend the fantastical with the real, resulting in a focus on “magical realism” for the R-rated Warner Bros. film. The result is a superhero movie unlike any we’ve seen before – it’s strange and relatable and grotesque and beautiful all at once, with that focus on magical realism ensuring that the characters are compelling no matter how odd or outlandish situations get.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Braham for an exclusive interview about his work on The Suicide Squad, which was his second time working with Gunn after the visually stunning Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Braham talked about what kind of a collaborator Gunn is, and how and why they hit upon “magical realism” as their guiding force for The Suicide Squad. He also talked about putting together the opening beach action sequence, that stunning helmet shot in the third act, and the challenge of the gorgeous Harley Quinn fight sequence. Braham also talked a bit about his work on the upcoming The Flash movie, which he was in production on when we spoke, and confirmed that he’ll be reuniting with Gunn later this year for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.

Check out the full interview below.

RELATED: James Gunn on 'The Suicide Squad' Deleted Scenes, Creating "Harley-Vision," His Filmmaking Process and More

Collider: You first worked with James on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and I was wondering what that experience was like for you?

HENRY BRAHAM: Well, it was fantastic. I mean, the interesting thing about cinematography is your task is to translate the director's personality and his visual voice onto the screen. Often, that takes a long process to really understand a director, so that you find that voice. Humans are all complicated in communication, but James of course is a writer as well, and his writing is so clear that it really helped along the process of communicating what he has in his mind. I thought he was fascinating to work with and he has such a clear voice, and these are two very different movies that you saw. I think that's even more interesting, because Guardians had its own style. I think having gone through that experience of doing a movie together, you start from a different place. You really benefit from that experience, so certainly for me, it was a huge help because although you start with a clean sheet of paper and say, "Okay, I want to see the idea we're working on," you already have a dialogue and an understanding of what's behind the conversations you have.

As you said, they're two very different films. When James first approached you about shooting The Suicide Squad, what were those early conversations like? What were kind of the visual touchstones he wanted to hit?

BRAHAM: Well, he did a very, very clear description of it for all of us on his vision, which firstly was sort of based around the genre of classic war capers like Where Eagles Dare and The Dirty Dozen and so on, which of course are fantastic movies. Thus, I think The Suicide Squad appealed to all generations. It appeals to a contemporary generation as well as a much older generation who'd like those kind of movies. At the same time, because you're dealing with the fantastical, he was looking for this world of magical realism. Magical realism is really about finding the extraordinary within the ordinary. The ordinary has to be totally believable. That was the start position, but then of course you say, "Okay, well, what is ordinary and what does that mean in terms of, obviously the setting, but also what does that mean in terms of how we photograph this?" That took a lot of work, a lot of work in figuring out what we already meant by ordinary. He'd been to Cuba, and that was his starting point for the world.

We were still discussing this when we all went to scout Panama, and I think seeing the slums in Panama, as well as the kind of patina of the buildings and stuff kind of cemented the idea in terms of what he was going to put in front of the camera, and it also cemented the idea that color was our friend here. I think there's a tendency in superhero movies — which I don't really think of this as a superhero movie, to be honest — I think there's a tendency that people are frightened of color, and sometimes they revert to kind of more traditional use of light and shade, or chiaroscuro, which it used to be called in painting. I'm always interested in mixing color and mixing color and light, because I think that's what happens in life. It's all those things coming together, basically.

Then there was also, how does the camera move? What is the style there? We looked at a lot of things, and so we wanted to develop a style that was immersive, very active, but it didn't draw attention to itself. If you go back to the idea of what is ordinary, I would say ordinary are things that don't draw attention to themselves, and that was definitely the idea about how we shot it.

I think the film really begins with this wonderful mission statement, which is that opening beach sequence, which I think blends what you're talking about, that magical realism, because you're kind of methodically, very patiently waded into this sequence by your introduction to the characters, and then all hell breaks loose and you have this madness going off everywhere. I was wondering what it was like to shoot and put together that sequence, because I believe you guys built that on a sound stage, correct?

BRAHAM: Yeah, the beach was a huge set with practical waves and water and everything on the backlot in Pinewood. That was shot over I forget how many weeks of nights, but James' process is that he has very specific sequences in mind, and he writes to music, and he writes either the music into the script, or if it's scored, he gets it scored before. We very often shoot sequences to live music, to playback. It really works, because some of these are very balletic, and from my point of view, it really helps with the rhythm of how the camera moves and so on. James is very, very clear in his choice of music, so that can be the key to unlocking all sorts of things about how the scene might be shown. It was happening for real, and those explosions were for real, and he would give me a lot of freedom in terms of the rhythm of moving from one thing to another thing. James is very clear about his storytelling intent, so that clarity enables a lot of freedom to work within that. It was a lot of fun to shoot. What's not to like about blowing stuff up?

Another scene I really wanted to ask you about is the one that everyone's talking about, which is Harley Quinn's big action sequence. How did you guys go about putting that together?

BRAHAM: Apart from the animation, most of that stuff is real. So I would say that scene is a really fantastic example of great collaboration between every discipline on the movie. James did map out those in the script and obviously he describes how he sees the progression of the thing, and then Guy Norris, who's the stunt coordinator, would work out the beats and the fight and the progression. The clever bit was, what James and Guy would then do was work with Margot, and Margot has spectacular concentration and focus and she can be very physical. She’s extraordinary. She really puts the work in, so that's fantastic, because you can photograph her doing the stuff for real and you can show that it's her doing it and not a stunt performer where the close-ups are with the actor. This is Margot doing all this stuff, so that's a dream from my point of view because we can really show that it's Margot doing it.

Then, going back to the point I made earlier, James always wrote this to the piece of music he had in mind. That piece of music is what we shot it to. I forget how many days it took to shoot, but actually not long. We shot with that music playing back, so it's like a dance, and that rhythm of performing to that and being able to shoot to that, so the choreography of the camera could tie in with all those things, means that you're all working literally to the same beat. From a design point of view, it works. From an action point of view, it works. But it all fundamentally comes down to really working out what the idea is before you go into shooting it. Then of course you have the freedom to work within that. I think that's what James is particularly good at, is he'll really work the ideas through so we can have the freedom to play with it when we come to shoot it. It wasn't a sequence that took long to shoot, because it was so well choreographed.

Was there one scene or sequence that was the most challenging to execute or put together?

BRAHAM: That was physically very difficult to execute, because the timing of the camera moving in sync with Margot was very strategic, but equally, there's a scene in the jungle with Idris and John Cena, where they're kind of showing off to each other who can do the worst damage. There is a very specifically timed choreographed move that, again, the style of shooting the movie was to be there and almost shoot it like a documentary. I'm not setting up shots where they march into the shot and then move on. I'm with them, telling the story from James' perspective, and just getting the timing of those things takes a lot of concentration, and being in sync with each other. Likewise, the fight with Flag and Peacemaker at the end.

Oh yeah, with the reflection in the helmet. That was great.

BRAHAM: Yeah. Well, I mean, that's a very kind of complicated shot. You have these key things which are core ideas, but then around that, there's a lot of freedom. That's great, because you know exactly what he's looking for in a scene, and what his intent is. What a fun way of showing something. It's a pleasure to do it. All these things, it comes back to, yes these are fantastical fights and all that, but the ordinariness of them needs to come through as well. I think that's why they work. It's because they're believable and they're truthful, even though the whole thing is fantastical.

Well, and so many other superhero movies nowadays, you're essentially watching an animated movie once you get to the third act. It's just a bunch of CG versions of the heroes flying around and stuff, so there's something to that kind of nitty-gritty-ness in this film that I think makes it far more impactful.

BRAHAM: Well, that and you're doing it for real, because the difficulty with the CG world is, however disciplined you are, the audience knows that you can push a button and do that stuff, and therefore they lose any emotional contact with the thing. I think that was almost the top of James' list of, in his direction, was to do as much practically as possible. A huge number of sets were built, and some pretty huge sets were built for this, and there were some great locations in Panama. The doing it for real makes a big difference. That's without a doubt, and if you can do it for real with performers who can perform these things, that's even better. I think that comes through. Look, I keep going back to the audience and saying, in some ways, the idea is you're making a documentary on IMAX, and you might think is a complete contradiction. That was the idea, was to have this contradiction between the ordinary and something extraordinary. It really is a movie that is worth going to IMAX to see in IMAX.

Well, I wanted to ask about the camera choice. Was this shot entirely on IMAX cameras?

BRAHAM: It was shot on cameras I developed with the guys at RED, originally for Guardians, with James. Then it's a format called VistaVision, RED VistaVision, which is the perfect IMAX camera. What interests me is the cameras being so small, because it means I can do all sorts of things with them, and put them in amongst ... Literally, right in the center of the story, so the whole thing is counterintuitive, because you think of IMAX as a massive great big camera, and of course the film cameras used to be. I used to do that era of stuff in IMAX, when the cameras were massive, but the inertia of the camera is impossible to navigate. There is no way you could shoot this movie on an IMAX film camera, but the RED cameras which are IMAX, they're perfect cameras for IMAX, there's no doubt about it. They enable you to do anything you want. I mean, literally anything you want.

I know you are also right now working on The Flash, which I'm really excited about. I was just curious how things have been going on that one.

BRAHM; Well, they're going great. I mean, it's a complex movie, and it's a fantastic concept of bringing in the generations of these kind of comic books. Again, it's not really a comic book movie. It's not based in reality, but it’s a much more kind of technically complex — I think all the filmmakers are really keen that the technical complexity of the storytelling doesn't get in the way of just good quality filmmaking. Hopefully, I don't think it'll ever come across as a superhero movie. It will come across as a movie, and that's what it is.

That's exciting.

BRAHAM: I think that's the way these things need to go. We need to be making great, great, great films that happen to have superheroes who have truthful characters behind them, with all the character flaws that we find in humanity. That's the beauty of James' writing, let alone his directing, is the flaws and the humanity of all his characters.

If The Suicide Squad was influenced by kind of the war caper movies, how would you describe kind of the tone or the vibe of The Flash?

BRAHAM: Oh, you'll have to wait for that.

That's fair.

BRAHAM: We're still right here.

I was curious because Michael Keaton said the other day he was just kind of wowed, and he said that the film was kind of reminiscent of Tim Burton's films. I was just curious what it's been like for you as a cinematographer, to just play in those different playgrounds.

BRAHAM: Well, A, it's a pleasure working with the cast, as they're fantastic. Michael, of course, is a genius, and it's wonderful to see him recreate that role but in the present day. It’s wonderful. I think the movie has a massive scope, and I'm lucky to be able to work on movies I'd like to go and see. I'm not really interested in comic book movies. I'm interested in movies that take me on a journey, an emotional journey and a visual journey. Yeah.

Well, that being said, your title character there has to run faster than the speed of light. Has that been challenging technically, to make that cinematic or to bring that to life?

BRAHAM: Well, I think it can be beautiful, and it can be emotional. On the one hand, you have the kind of technical thing of when, what, and how. But it's like all filmmaking, it's about kind figuring out an idea so that you don't really think about it. You don't think, "Oh." It becomes a natural part of the storytelling, so yeah. It’s fairly enjoyable, and fun to do.

Well, I can't wait to see that. After that one, are you reuniting with James on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3?

BRAHAM: I am, yeah. We’re talking about that.

That's exciting.

BRAHAM: Yes, and it'll be another journey.

KEEP READING: Michael Keaton Describes the First Shot of Batman in 'The Flash': "Whoa. This Is Big."

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