Sundance 2019: Director Alma Har’el And Natasha Braier, ASC, of “Honey Boy”

This year’s Zeiss Art Motion Event has attracted prominent cinematographers to discuss their approach to the craft of shooting on set, including Natasha Braier, ASC and director Alma Har’el, who broke down the production of “Honey Boy,” which stars Lucas Hedges, FKA Twigs and Shia LaBeouf, who also wrote the screenplay. The film is currently in competition in the US Dramatic Competition.

Noah Jupe appears in Honey Boy by Alma Har’el, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Natasha Braier.

“I made the mistake of watching ‘Bombay Beach,’” says Natasha Braier, on why she joined the production of “Honey Boy”. “I had to work with Alma after that.” Braier is referring to Har’el’s innovative documentary about a glitzy holiday destination, once the playground of the rich and famous on the shores of the Salton Sea, in California. “Once I met her and saw her work, it just felt right—plus I loved the script.”

However, Braier admits the shoot was difficult, revealing the experience was, “almost a therapy session for everyone involved, and very challenging in a number of ways.”

Braier explains: “We gave Shia the freedom to go anywhere when we covered him. He was channeling feelings and doing whatever he felt was right. So, we lit extensively. He needed the freedom to do that. It became like a dance on set because he wouldn’t tell us before we shot what he was doing.”

Har’el says that coming from a documentary background helped her frame the film. “There’s a huge amount of flexibility in documentaries because there are no lights. So, you can go anywhere,” she says. “It was the same on this project. We needed the freedom for Shia to move around. It was all about shooting the film with the same freedom as a documentary, but making it look much better.”

Braier quickly developed a method to cover LaBeouf’s movements and secure quality footage. “I had to distribute lighting in different areas of each set on-location,” she explains. “We had everything lighting-wise on wireless. A lot of LEDs. I felt like we could jam this way and felt a bit like a DJ. Wherever Shia went, I could easily tweak the lights in that part of the set.”

Har’el adds, “It was more about catching movement and intuitive moments as we couldn’t advise and guide the camera operator. Most of the time it was only one or two takes, especially the emotional scenes, and you had to capture it right there in the moment. It was exciting because we had to discover a specific way to work on this film. It was great. Every day was unknown.”

Har’el also noted that she chased Braier in order to get her work on the picture as her cinematographer. “A lot of DP’s have a certain style that they know how to do really well, but outside of that style, they hit a wall. But Natasha can shoot any style. There were a lot of planned out shots, and stylized shots, but we’d jump back into this documentary-narrative thing most of the time. I knew she could handle that.”

“There was a lot of tension because we were jamming,” continues Braier. “At the end of every day, we were exhausted—but every day we caught fantastic footage.”

Discussing her style as a director, Har’el says, “I am very direct, and I don’t mind admitting that I don’t have a fucking clue what crossing the line is,” she quips. “I never went to film school, and I hate rules. So for me, it’s all about communication. Sure, we had clashes on set when I was trying to get something I wanted, but we always figured it out. Film is sometimes about jumping in, about putting your ego aside and make your dreams come true. You just hope to have talented people around you. We were always happy with the results. We knew we were killing it.”

“I always like to work with artists who are very particular, and I don’t know the ‘normal’ way either,” Braier says.

Having been a DP on her early films and commercial work, Har’el has a particular approach to shooting, but explains that she learned a lot from Braier, bonding with her and the whole crew. “Natasha is so inventive at painting with light. So, it was an amazing experience,” she says. “I felt like it was a big dysfunctional family with many difficult moments. The creative process was so visceral, and everybody genuinely cared. I’d rather fail than not try things. I believe that you need to fall because you will get to the solution.”

Har’el adds that 95 percent of the film was not visualized: “Some scenes we needed to plan out with visual effects, but a lot of the stuff wasn’t storyboarded, so we had to meet the film. You wake up the monster! As much as you plan it out, you haven’t met it yet. So, it took a number of days to find the film. Then we knew how to shoot it. We all had to learn how to dance together…”