When best-selling author James Frey (A Million Little Pieces) approached Prime-Time Emmy-winning writer Lena Waithe (Master of None) about developing a story revolving around an African American couple on a first date, and in self-defence killing a white police office during a traffic stop altercation, the inciting incident laid the foundation for Queen & Slim starring Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith. Pleased with their collaboration on an episode of Master of None called “Thanksgiving,” Waithe approached two-time Grammy Award winner Melina Matsoukas about making the project her feature film directorial debut. Matsoukas in turn teamed with British cinematographer Tat Radcliffe BSC, who shares her background in music videos, commercials and television but has also lensed movies such as ‘71, Pride and Jawbone.
Except for a week and three nights in Cleveland, Ohio, the shooting took place in and around New Orleans. “I came onboard in late November with a two-week hiatus and then principal photography was eight or nine weeks,” states Radcliffe. “The way that Lena had written the script was very specific. The Shepherd’s house had to have a garage in the back and be a corner house.” Only one scene was not shot on location. “There was one day that we recreated the floor of the Shepherd’s house onstage.” Visual effects were not extensive. “There was some crowd replication in the protest.”
Storyboards were created for the production. “The process of storyboarding is an important element as it feeds your thoughts,” observes Radcliffe. “When actually shooting that scene weeks later, we didn’t have to stick to them. Melina would come up with a shooting list every day. We wanted to keep it free and loose. There was a lot of handheld work. My second camera operator Chad Chamberlain also did Steadicam. I like to vary it according to the scene rather than stick specifically to a camera style. Some scenes would be much looser. On the whole we wanted to keep it fairly static or locked frames at the beginning of the movie when they first meet and then towards the end we move more into handheld.”
An important part of the visual aesthetic was film. “Nothing would move Melina away from the importance of shooting on film as a statement of intent,” states Radcliffe. “On a highly refined creative aesthetic level if you want to be seen as a highly sophisticated and intelligent artist then celluloid is the way to go. Melina has a detailed specific eye. She picks up on the tiniest details as every great director does.” Key crew members were B camera operator Chad Chamberlain, 1st assistant camera Christopher Flurry, gaffer Mike McLaughlin and key grip Jimi Ryan. “I needed someone who understood the film cameras, like the loading aspect as fewer people know how to do it. Chris was my point man on that. He helped me with getting the right people onboard who could work with film. Jimi Ryan is local guy from New Orleans. There were a lot of car rigs that he sorted out efficiently and fast.”
KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 was used for the nighttime exteriors and KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 5207 for the daytime scenes. “I was keen to experiment with how the highlights subliminally work on everything from streetlamps to skin; that to me is what shooting on film is about,” states Radcliffe. “It is intriguing to me that film still has this extraordinary pull even though digital has become [the medium of choice].” Based on previous experiences with Panavision on White Boy Rick and Lovecraft Country, Radcliffe decided to use the company for Queen & Slim. “We wanted to shoot anamorphic so it was a no-brainer to go to Panavision for the glass. The lenses were the G-Series and included 35mm, 40mm, 50mm, 75mm and 100mm. It was a mid-range fairly classic in terms of our size of lens with 40mm, 50mm and 75mm being our workhorses.”
Queen & Slim is showcased in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio with the majority of the footage captured with two Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2 cameras while an aerial shot was photographed digitally with a drone. “For some handheld work Chris Flurry and Chad Chamberlain cleverly slotted an Aaton 35mm camera into the Trinity rig,” states Radcliffe. “That is the first time we believe it has ever been done.” LEDs provided the lighting. “LEDs are remarkable not only in the energy efficiency but the ability now with newer ones to have a cleaner light and you can alter the color remotely. Like with all of these things it’s exciting to work at that speed because it gives the whole energy of the film an immediacy.” Minimal tungsten lights were utilized. “Practicals as much as possible. There was a sequence in Uncle Earl’s [Bokeem Woodbine] kitchen which for scheduling purposes had to be shot over two separate days that had completely different meteorological conditions. In that situation, we used some M18s and M90s.”
Queen & Slim is essentially a road movie with numerous car shots. “The biggest challenge was getting the cameras into the cars,” explains Radcliffe. “We went every which way. There were a lot of hard mounts, a process trailer where we had one camera on the front and another on the side, and also had something like a Biscuit Rig and pod car.” Most of the color pallet was captured in-camera. “That’s the wonderful thing about film. You’re 80 percent there. There’s evening and ironing out, whether it’s celluloid or digital. Essentially, it is a much more straightforward grading process in the DI when you’re working with film.” The financial costs of shooting on film was not a concern. “It was more a question of the practicality of being able to do rushes. It has been a long time since I’ve worked on film so I had to reacquaint myself with that whole process which I must admit was quite a shock having spent the last few years in the digital format. But it was a breath of fresh air on many levels.”