Deep Fried Interview: Da Sweet Blood of Jesus cinematographer Daniel Patterson
When Da Sweet Blood of Jesus hits limited theatrical release and VOD this Friday, the narrative surrounding the film will largely focus on director Spike Lee as the most prominent filmmaker yet to make use of crowdsourcing to fund a project. The movie – a remake of Bill Gunn’s 1973 film Ganja & Hess – raised $1.4 million on Kickstarter, including sizable donations by Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah and filmmaker Steven Soderbergh.
But further down in the credits, below the line where you find the name of cinematographer Daniel Patterson, lies an equally compelling narrative. The story of a kid who grew up in the boroughs of New York just like Lee, followed the director’s path to success step-by-step and now finds himself working alongside the very man who inspired him to pursue filmmaking.
Patterson talked to Deep Fried Movies about the journey that led him behind the camera on the latest Spike Lee Joint.
The Plot: When a deranged colleague accosts him with a ceremonial dagger from an ancient African culture, urbane anthropologist Dr. Hess Greene (played by Stephen Tyrone Williams) develops an insatiable hunger for human blood.
Tell me about where you grew up and how you got into movies as a kid?
I was born in 1982 and raised in Jamaica, Queens. I loved movies as a kid. My family would occasionally go to the movie theater, the Green Acres Mall movie theater in Long Island to be specific. Going to the movies was not a regular event, so the experience was very special to me, because I felt (things) – emotions – with a bunch of strangers. The shared experience enhanced it for me, especially at a young age.
As long as I could remember, the movie theater had metal detectors. For many, many years, I thought all movie theaters had metal detectors, until I started high school. In high school I was able to go to the movies with my friends and because of that newfound freedom (I sought out) new experiences, new movie theaters. Important movies for me growing up were It’s A Wonderful Life, Stand By Me, Malcolm X, all The Twilight Zone (television episodes).
You left Queens to study theatre at Morehouse – Spike Lee’s alma mater. It’s a legendary school, but Georgia is a long way from New York.
I went to Morehouse College because it was my number one choice, my dream school. It is one of the best Liberal Arts Colleges on the planet. I even became senior class president at my high school, St. John’s Preparatory, because I knew that the leadership role on my resume would help me get into Morehouse. Morehouse’s alumni list is astounding, especially given the fact that it is a small college.
I knew that Morehouse did not have film as a major, but Spike Lee went there, so I decided to prepare myself for film at Morehouse. I did every job in the theater for four years – directing, acting, writing, Assistant Directing, Stage Managing, Lighting, Set Building, etc. I am forever grateful of my theater experiences, because they came in handy when directing actors, managing people, time, etc. I also must mention, 100% of my theater classes were taken at Spelman College. Spelman’s theatre department taught me drama, and how it connects/communicates with the audience.
After Morehouse, you worked as an intern on Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2002). How did you land that gig and what were some of your duties on the film?
I always knew I wanted to be in film. While at Morehouse, I applied to (Spike Lee’s company) 40 Acres and A Mule Filmworks for an internship. I initiated contact via email, phone calls (Spike’s assistant knew my voice) and USPS. I called once a week. I mailed my resume. Then, the “lucky” thing was when Spike Lee eventually came to (Morehouse’s) campus and I walked over to him with my friend, Kwabena. We both gave him our resumes and spoke of our film internship interests. We pitched ourselves to Spike. He laughed in delight at our enthusiasm. Our resumes showed that we had a significant amount of theatre experience and we landed our goal of getting the internship through approaching/applying from multiple angles.
I was a production assistant intern (on 25th Hour), working in the AD department. I did lock-ups, and thanks to the 40 Acres family, I learned a lot, fast. Lock-ups pretty much ensure that the only people in the movie, are the actors. PAs are often the first line of defense on set when it comes to interacting with the public, with their questions. We shot on location in New York City. I did whatever Spike and Mike Ellis – the best 1st AD in the film business- commanded. Trust had to be built/earned. I was always one of the first on set, definitely one of the last to leave.
Did you pick up anything from watching 25th Hour cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto work?
I thought Rodrigo Prieto was some kind of scientist. I had never saw a DP at work (before). I was in awe of how he and Spike and all the department heads ran the set like a well-oiled machine while making art.
Like Spike Lee, you ended up studying film at New York University – where Lee is now a professor. Did you have classes with him?
Everyone in the Grad Film Department takes Spike’s class. He was the biggest inspiration for me because no other filmmaker had his particular set of skills and sensibilities. He makes his audience feel and he makes them think, and talk afterwards. Some people are even inspired to take action. He is an important inspiration because of his art’s ability to connect his audiences.
Getting into Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, walk me through the tools you used. Obviously with a 16-day shoot and a $1.4 million budget, money is a big consideration in those choices, but what where some other factors behind your decisions?
We actually planned for a 17-day shoot, but we (finished) ahead of schedule. Small budget filmmaking is tough. On every level, every department is looking for a deal. The amazing people at Sony gave us our deal. Sony believed in crowdfunding, believed in Spike Lee joints, and they believed in their product serving us well. We shot with the Sony F55 and I fell in love with the camera’s image, especially in the color grade sessions in postproduction. Our dailies and postproduction were done by Nice Dissolve. (Selma cinematographer) Bradford Young introduced me to Nice Dissolve years ago and they have color graded every film (I’ve made since) since.
The camera shoots 4K RAW, as well as the Sony AVC codec simultaneously, to SSD and SxS cards. The robustness, dynamic range and latitude all allowed me to not have to use a lot of lights. Sony gave my team a wonderful two-day tech on the camera. We also shot small tests, and I was convinced. I wholeheartedly endorse the Sony F55 camera. It never overheated or had any strange software or other hardware kinks.
The whole film uses a Circular Polarizer (filter) to help build in-camera contrast. I like to soften digitally captured skin and soften hard highlights with some kind of softening filter too. On Da Sweet Blood, we also used a Hollywood Black Magic filter (1/8) with the Circular Polarizer for the whole movie.
For lighting, we mainly used HMIs and Lekos (my theater days “go-to” light was the Leko). I love negative fill and I use it as much as I can. For some scenes we didn’t use any film lights. For example, the scene with the house guest (who stabs Hess) is alone in the bathtub and then makes his way to the guest bedroom, NO lights. A Sony photojournalist was on set at that moment and was delighted when he heard me telling the gaffer, “We don’t need anything. Let’s just adjust these blinds.”
Mr. Lee won’t use the word “vampire” about the film and it really isn’t a horror or genre movie in the traditional sense. What were some of your visual references for the film’s look and did you take anything specific in terms of style from Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess?
I never saw Ganja and Hess. I’ve been meaning to see it. Spike asked me to watch it as well as approximately 15 other films for visual references. The thing is, I received the offer for the DP position a little over a week before we started shooting. There was not enough time in the day for all the prep that needed to happen.
Our visuals references were a combination of motivations. The forest scenes were inspired by Sergio Leone and the Forte Greene Project scenes were inspired by Spike Lee’s Clockers. The interiors of the project scenes were inspired by the work of (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind cinematographer) Ellen Kuras, by far one of the most versatile DPs working. I aspire to be very versatile, chameleon-like.
Daniel walks us through a few shots from Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.
The Shot: Da Sweet Blood of Jesus opens with a full credits sequence accompanied by four minutes of Charles “Lil Buck” Riley dancing. There’s certainly a precedent for Mr. Lee opening a movie with a dance sequence not essentially related to the narrative (i.e. Rosie Perez’s credit sequence dance in Do the Right Thing).
We had 4 hours to get everything. No do-overs because the dancer had to be on a plane leaving NYC and we had our schedule. We also wanted to not cut into too many close-ups during the dance. I think it is important to see dances wide, to see the full expression. I feel the same for fight sequences.
The Shot: The camera booms up from a close-up after Dr. Hess has been stabbed by the dagger.
For the boom, we used a jib with a 20mm lens (on the camera). For that shot we used plastic (underneath Steven Tyrone Williams, which slightly elevated him) and protected the floor from the special effects blood squirting and make-up. My frame here was (dictated) by the fact that we had to hide the blood tank and its tubes. The boom idea was amazing and it was Spike’s.
The Shot: A nearly five-minute unbroken handheld take in which Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams) – Dr. Hess’ lover and fellow blood-luster – seduces a female acquaintance.
We shot 90 percent of the movie with two and sometimes three cameras (rolling) simultaneously, but I love Spike’s choice here (to do this scene in one take). The tension in this scene needed that style. It felt suffocating at the end of that scene. The tension builds, like a musical crescendo, and is appropriately accented and pushed forward by the one-take style. Because that scene is a 360-degree view, we used no lights.
The Shot: A “Spike Lee dolly” shot in which an actor – seated on the dolly alongside the camera– is inexorably carried forward. In this case, it’s Dr. Hess toward the altar of his church.
The “Spike Lee shot” builds and mixes nicely into Hess’s “come to Jesus moment,” his “eureka” moment. It literally takes him to the pulpit in front of the entire church. When I see that (Spike Lee dolly) shot in Malcolm X, I still get chills. Sometimes tears.
The Shot: Another long, unbroken take of more than four minutes in which Ganja finds Hess seated in a sanctuary in the shadow of a hanging cross.
Spike cast amazing actors that you did not need to cut around. Stephen and Zaraah can hold a frame ALL DAY.
We used a Leko to light the wooden cross, which casts the shadow. Lekos allow for quick and easy light control/manipulation. We used a 1K open face to light the flag on the beach outside the window. As Ganja ascends the staircase, that is 100% practical light. In the adjacent room we used a 1.2K HMI for a little fill and to differentiate that space from the “sanctuary” room with the wooden cross.
Spike is an amazing visionary. He knew what he wanted, and I am constantly reminded of his mastery on my other jobs without him.
In addition to Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, you shot the short film Mulignans, which recently premiered at Sundance. You shot the film with Canon 5Ds and available light. What else can you tell me about the project?
Like Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus, we shot multi-cam on Mulignans. We shot three cameras all the time and (shot the entire short) in one day. We had the support of the community, because we filmed on (director) Shaka (King’s) parent’s front step and in an historic jazz cafe/restaurant around the corner. The movie is all daylight, so we must have shot for about 10 hours. No time for super stylized lighting – we went with a bounce board. I had never met the other camera operators before the shoot, but we trusted each other and listened to each other and made a poignant satirical film. I am super excited for Shaka King’s career. He has movies in his head that I really want to see because I enjoy just hearing him talk about them. I also like smart comedy, which we rarely see nowadays.
A few more frame grabs fro Da Sweet Blood of Jesus