Cinematographer Mihai Malamaire Jr. got his start the way many do. Working on short films and music videos. Eventually, all of that gave way to opportunities for feature filmmaking. Malamaire worked on several film projects before landing the opportunity that would firmly entrench him in the industry: Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 film, “The Master.”
From there, he moved on to other noteworthy and diverse projects before eventually being sought out to work as the Director of Photography for George Tillman Jr’s adaptation, “The Hate U Give.”
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Mihai, an affable, enthusiastic artist, about his work on “The Hate U Give,” and why its message particularly resonated for him. Please enjoy our conversation.
Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: Thank you so much for taking some time to talk to me today. I’m very excited to talk to you about “The Hate U Give.”
Mihai Malamaire, Jr: Oh, thank you.
KP: Just to start off, how did you get involved in this film?
MM: I remember…it happened really fast because I think I read the script and I met George [Tillman Jr] the next day. And a few weeks later, I was already in Atlanta prepping. It happened really, really fast.
KP: It kind of does happen fast sometimes, though, right?
MM: Yeah, totally.
KP: What was your first meeting like with George, when you sat down to talk about this film?
MM: It was great. I remember he had already prepped some really amazing visual references and some prints from color palettes and different photography. Some references from other movies, but he was so well prepped. I remember it was a really, really interesting discussion about the whole approach. And I remember some of the ideas came from that first meeting. Like, he knew from the beginning he wanted to visually separate the poor of the neighborhood and the private school. I remember pretty much the first day of prep was mainly a continuation of that initial meeting we had.
KP: Having watched the film, I’m really not clear on where these locations are in relation to each other. Was it pretty far apart or were they pretty close?
MM: There was one thing we struggled with because in George’s mind and in my mind as well when I read the script, we were hoping to find a location for the Garden Heights neighborhood that has at least three or four blocks where you can see everything from the neighborhood. What is happening in Atlanta, there are so many trees and green that are covering a lot. So we kind of had to piece together the neighborhood as well.
The private school was even further away. He was kind of recreating a puzzle, but there were so many good elements in each one of them that just taking enough photos during prep and during the scouting and trying to figure out how to piece everything together and if it can work. Just printing everything and looking at the photos, we realize we can actually make it look a three or four block stretch where the neighborhood is. They weren’t too far apart, but they were different streets, different parts of the city.
KP: And you just kind of blend them all together.
MM: I think there were so many good elements, and some of them our production designer created. I think if you have enough good elements then you don’t necessarily need a super wide shot to show the neighborhood and it can still work.
KP: And it does work so beautifully. It’s really well shot.
MM: Thank you!
KP: One thing I was struck by was that the way this is filmed, even though it’s filmed in Atlanta, it really could be anywhere. Was that an intentional decision?
MM: I think it was because I remember from a lot of meetings between George, and the production designer and I, George never wanted to be really specific on the name of the town or the location. It was his intention from the beginning that it could be Atlanta, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be.
KP: This is a very emotional and emotionally charged story. What was the atmosphere like on set as you were filming?
MM: With so many locations and so many characters, we felt a little bit pressed by the time. But I think everybody was so focused on their job and trying to get it right and not to hurt anything. We did so much work in prep and we came up with so many potential solutions and rules. We were in a hurry, but always had time to enjoy the performance which was amazing.
One of the rules we had and we realized that’s the right approach is that Starr’s character should guide us through the entire movie. And a lot of times, even if it was in the riots or in other scenes, our rule was that the camera should stay with Starr most of the time, if not the whole thing. Like in Khalil’s shooting scene, the way the camera is mainly inside the car and it’s showing the audience pretty much her POV, and the same in the riot scenes where the camera follows her the entire time.
I remember we were trying to figure out when was the right time to use handheld and when would be the right time to be more Steadicam. And one of the rules that helped us in making those decisions was the fact that Starr’s emotions should guide the camera movements. And then it became very easy for us. Because at the beginning we thought that we wanted to do more handheld for the Garden Heights neighborhood and Steadicam or static for the private school. But then we realized those things can be mixed and we actually did both in both worlds. Having this rule that Starr’s emotion will guide us and will pretty much determine if we have to be handheld or Steadicam, I think that helped us a lot.
KP: It makes a lot of sense because this is her story and so much of it is driven by her emotions. Is it common before a movie starts to sit down and draft some rules you’re going to stick to? Or was that unique to this film?
MM: I think so. I mean, sometimes you can improvise more. I think it depends on the project itself, but it was something that both George and I felt that the fact that we really need to be prepared and we wanted to be. Sometimes we changed a lot of things while on set based on how the location looked or the moment or the performance. But I think both of us felt that the more prepared we are the better.
KP: I’m curious about the scene where Khalil gets shot. First, how long did it take to film that scene?
MM: It was mainly one night. I remember we had two nights for the scene before that with them in the car and another night for the shooting itself. It wasn’t that long, but on the other hand, for us it was actually way easier than we thought because of that rule that the camera is always in the car and we barely see the cop. We just see a flashlight and a badge. The fact that we pretty much have to experience that moment from Starr’s perspective kind of made things a little easier for us.
One technical thing that we decided to do, but it helped a lot was the fact that we used—and it’s only one shot in the scene, but it’s really good we did this—we ended up getting a real dash cam and a real body cam instead of using any other small cameras. You can replicate that, but the fact that this one, both of them had the GPS and the hour and date and the fact that they switched to infrared mode. It’s such a specific look that the audience knows already that the fact we kept it as real as possible helped a lot.
KP: I remember thinking it looked exactly like what you see on the news, and it’s interesting to know that’s because it is.
KP: The other part I was really wondering about is the riot. How long did it take to film the riot scenes?
MM: We had four nights for the riots. And it’s always tricky when you have to deal with as many extras and as many characters and all those situations. We had three cameras to capture that, and we also used a bunch of found footage and we had some real broadcast cameras for that, because, again, we wanted to keep it as real as possible.
What helped us a lot visually, we watched a documentary about Ferguson. What was interesting about that documentary was that they didn’t use too much, if any, news footage. Most of the footage in that documentary was from peoples’ phones or amateur cameras. Instantly you got the feeling you were there instead of observing from far away with a long lens. I think that’s kind of the approach we took. Plus our rule that the camera should follow Starr all the time. There were moments where we’re running with Amandla, following her with three cameras, but being as close to her as possible. I think that helped with the entire feeling of the scene.
KP: In the scenes with the riots, then it culminates in a fire. How do you adjust or what do you need to do differently when you’re shooting something that involves pyrotechnics and those kinds of practical effects?
MM: It becomes a little too technical, but that’s where prep helps a lot because we had storyboards for both the riot scenes and the fire in the store. You have to be very careful when you’re working with fire. But being so prepared and knowing exactly what are the shots that we want to get definitely made our life way easier. But it’s amazing, like most of the times when you’re dealing with such complicated scenes, you would expect it would be really hard to achieve, but they end up being very easy in the end just because you’re doing most of the work in prep.
The way it was scheduled helped us. We did the fire after the riots and then the scene following, we kind of shot in the script order and it helped everybody.
KP: Now I have a two part question. What was your favorite scene to film, and then in the context of the movie, what was your favorite scene to watch?
MM: It’s so hard. I really liked, I mean, there are a lot of scenes I really enjoyed, and I remember one of the scenes that attracted me the most was the first scene, The Talk. It’s such a simple scene, but one thing George told me that was interesting was no matter what you will have to struggle sometimes in finding the right solution or the right camera position or the right angle. I remember George telling me if we get into such moments, our rule should be “Let’s keep it simple.” Because the story is on our side. The story is so great it doesn’t matter what we do, we shouldn’t over-complicate things. And that’s such a simple scene with them at the table and just observing Russell [Hornsby]’s amazing performance. I think that was one of my favorite scenes to shoot and to watch as well. Because I think it’s simple, but it’s so powerful in the same time.
I really liked the party because it was really different from anything else and it was kind of our chance to play and to make it different but real in the same time, because we had some visual references with a lot of practicals covered in red scarves and things like that. It’s hard, but I think The Talk might be my favorite scene.
KP: That was such a powerful scene especially to open the film on. Because, for me, being a white girl from California, I’ve never had to have any experience like that.
MM: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
KP: And it really pulled me into understanding the world that I’m going into now.
KP: It’s filmed so beautifully, being on the level with the children and everything. It’s great. I love this film. What do you have next? I see that you’re also the cinematographer on “Jojo Rabbit.”
MM: Yeah, we’re in the middle of post for “Jojo Rabbit.”
KP: I’m really excited for that movie. (laughs)
MM: Yeah! (Laughs)
KP: Overall to sum this up, what is something you learned from working on “The Hate U Give,” from working with George that you would like to take with you into future films?
MM: I’m trying to figure out… I guess it’s kind of the same as you said. It kind of happened while reading the script. I learned so many things and I realized just reading through the Talk scene, it’s so interesting for me. I have two little girls, and I just imagine having to have that conversation and just trying to put yourself in that situation. That was important.