There are some indie hits that sneak up on audiences. This especially appears to be the case in the horror genre, where smaller films can become big hits on home video. One of the best studios for releasing independent horror over the past few years has been A24, the home of “The Witch,” “Green Room” and this year’s “Hereditary.” A new film, now available on VOD and in select theaters, that should gain cult status will be “Slice” from A24 and director Austin Vesely.
The film boasts an impressive cast, including fun, comedic turns from Chance the Rapper (Chance Bennett), Zazie Beetz, and Paul Scheer. It also features a fun throwback aesthetic, not dissimilar to “Stranger Things” or “Riverdale” as a mystery tale. One of the important individuals in crafting this look is cinematographer Brandon Riley, best known to audiences as the cinematographer of HBO’s “The Shop” and several of Chance’s music videos. However, Brandon also received a producers credit on the film, helping with more of the big picture aspects. I sat down with Brandon to discuss his role.
Alan French/Awards Circuit: What led you to become a cinematographer?
Brandon Riley: Well actually, I started in the music business and I was producing hip-hop. There was a group of guys that I was producing music with, and they needed a music video. I took some of my college loan money and bought my first camera, and just started reverse engineering what I saw on TV. That’s kind of how it happened (Laughs).
AF: How did you first get involved with Chance the Rapper?
Well I first got involved with Chance in 2012. There was a CNN documentary that Robert Redford
was producing that came to Chicago, called “Chicagoland,
” and they were trying to cover every part of the city, good and bad. They were covering gang stuff, police, politics, and they also wanted to look at cultural things. We found Chance, and we kind of followed him around for about a month or two before “Acid Rap
” came out. He was on the cusp of breaking out, and I actually went skydiving with him on his birthday that year. The roots are kind of deep with him.
AF: “Slice” has a lot of people close to Chance involved with the film. Obviously, two that jump to mind are you and Austin Vesely. How did the process of creating this movie come into place? What was the timeline?
BR: So Austin had written this script, and he thought he was doing one of two things. He could have done it as a pilot or as a super-low budget film. When I say super-low budget, I mean like $60,000. I had just come off a project as well and was looking for something to do. I texted a few writers who I could have worked with, and asked them to send me scripts for things shooting in Chicago. Austin sent me the script for “Slice” then, and this was July of either 2014 or 2015. He sent it and we broke it down. We just started moving on it, trying to raise money, find a place for it, and put together a team.
AF: Was it always going to be Chance as Dax in this film?
BR: Yeah, Austin actually wrote the film for Chance to be Dax. That’s why the dialogue feels so close to what he’s like in real life. If you know him, he’s very laid back, and that comes through in his personality. So yeah, Austin had written it for him.
AF: You said you’ve mostly done a lot of music videos. How is the process of doing a movie different from that of a music video?
BR: Well it depends on the movie. There’s obviously more money, but there’s also a lot more to shoot. The way I’ve approached is to take it day by day. You take these scenes, and essentially that’s the music video I’m shooting that day. With some music videos, you’re not always trying to tell a story. Sometimes it’s just flashy and you’re trying to create beautiful imagery. In a film, you obviously want to make it look pretty, but you’re servicing a story first.
The time commitment is different too. My gosh, I’ve literally shot a music video without hearing the song before I got to set. This movie took us 4 years.
AF: One of the cool things about this film is that in addition to being the cinematographer, you were also a producer on this project. You don’t really see that very often. How is it different approaching a project as a cinematographer/producer versus projects where you are just the cinematographer?
BR: Well it’s obviously very different, but I had some experience. So with music videos, they were once million dollar endeavors. However, when the Canon DSLRs dropped in price, they became $10,000 endeavors. So when I first had my first music videos on MTV, I had to do everything. I had to produce it, direct it, shoot it, basically everything. I had to develop those skills just to survive. It was a natural progression for me, so now I’m cognizant of these things every time I shoot. I pay attention to the time frame, the budget, the locations and things of that nature.
AF: How was A24 as a support system for “Slice?”
BR: A24 was phenomenal. We mostly worked with Ali Herting from A24, and she was a champion for this film from the beginning. She discovered us and ushered through the process. I had done some features before, but nothing on this scale. There were always things that we needed a little push here and there, and she and Perri [Silver] and Lauren [Elmer] were always there when we needed it. Even as a creative, you just need someone to talk to, and they were very nurturing over there.
AF: When you were building the aesthetic of “Slice,” did you plan on going for an ’80’s aesthetic, or was that something you decided to go with during the production?
No, it was always that. I mean Austin wrote it that way, envisioned in that way, and kind of how he grew up that way. That was something we strove for from the locations we tried to use, the lenses we used, the set designs, the costumes. Everything was sort of geared to homage to that era.
AF: What were some of the films you looked at as reference points for the visual aesthetic?
BR: Austin was more in that world. He showed me “Blue Velvet” and he’s a big David Lynch fan. I kind of leaned more on early 90’s films I really liked, like “Se7en” and “The Crow,” and I watched “Sleepy Hollow” as well. I just felt like this movie had a bit of Tim Burton in it as well. I wanted just a little more polish and I think Austin and I met in the middle.
AF: I think that you do a great job of showing that ’80’s grit, but the polish comes out with the color choices. How did you factor in some of those colors into the shooting?
That credit goes to a lot of different people. Austin is one for sure. David Silverstein
did some of the early artwork for the film, and he picked some of the colors of the logos. Credit also to Megan Spatz
, who was the costumer, who brought these amazing things that she visualized and created. You look at The Big Cheese, with the blue jacket. There are the yellows and the pinks with the reporters clothing. It really makes my job easy and that’s a huge key to any good project with collaborators who make it look good and they make it look good.
AF: What was your favorite scene in the film to shoot?
Well I have a couple but there’s one that I think stands out. It’s a scene with Austin and Zazie. Astrid (Zazie) comes to this alley to find Sean (Austin) and help him. Some of the backstories were cut that made it even more powerful. Still, the way the sequence is shot and edited, a lot is going on.
You’ve got Dax breaking out of prison. Sadie is discovering the secret of the Witches. Astrid and Sean have this emotional moment where she realizes the entire reason she’s been pushing to find this guy is for naught because he’s basically a loser. There are all these emotions, and it’s kind of cool. We did a lot of montage stuff and that gives me the chance to change up the style so that each piece is more like a music video. It can become a moment to show off, and I really had fun shooting this.
AF: One of the other scenes that stood out to me was when Zazie meets Y’lan Noel. That was such a great scene, could you tell me about Y’lan’s scene?
So when I talk about every day being a music video, this was really what I mean. It was a huge scene for us. It was the most extras we had, it was a night scene, and we had this huge space to light. Hebru Brantley
and Alan Zhang,
those guys made all these extra delivery driver logos. You saw a montage going through with all the delivery drivers and some were even better that couldn’t quite make the film. They created like 12 different fictitious delivery spots and color schemes. Then we found all these vehicles and got these extras in there.
Y’lan had just been cast maybe two days before his scene. Honestly, I’m not certain we had seen a tape of him performing this part. We had seen some of his other work and just really liked him as an actor. He came in the day before, and when he started rehearsing the scene, you just knew. Sometimes I wish we had more scenes with him, and some have talked about doing a spin-off with him, but he just killed that scene. And then Zazie has that emotion of trying to find Sean so you’ve got that tension. It was just a great scene. Plus, we shot by the Joliet Prison which was used in “Blues Brothers” so that was a nice piece of movie trivia there.
AF: There was so much in the scene to help the world feel lived in. It was awesome. I also saw you’re working on “The Shop” with LeBron James. Tell me about that experience.
Yeah, so the first episode aired almost a month ago at this point. I had been working with the director Rob Alexander
on some Nike viral spots and stuff like that for a couple years now. He brought this opportunity to me, and it was amazing. We went in there and he was amazing. It was about a five-hour shoot, but it felt much shorter. We had LeBron, Jon Stewart
, Snoop Dogg
, and some other athletes. Candice Parker, Maverick (Carter), Draymond Green.
These guys just talked about the issues of the day in a really natural and interesting way. I was so excited to be there and be a part of it. We just shot the 2nd episode a couple of weeks ago in DC, and that will air sometime in October. That first episode is something I’ll never forget. Just meeting Jon Stewart and watching him and LeBron. I really hope it gets some attention when it comes around for awards next year.
AF: I think it was such an awesome idea, especially since it expands on what he was doing on “Uninterrupted.” I really hope it catches on too. What is next for you?
BR: Well I’m finding some things. There are a few scripts I’m producing, and if I’m the right guy to shoot them, I’ll also do that. Obviously, Austin’s next project is going to be amazing. He’s not done with the script yet, but it’s amazing. I’m not going to talk about, I’ll let him talk about it. I’m also working on another film that reminds of “Slice.” It’s called “Chop,” and that’s just a coincidence. It takes place in the near future, and it’s an allegorical film that addresses opioids in some way. People get addicted to chopping their arms off because there is technology where they can reattach the arms. It’s post-opioid in a way.
AF: That sounds really interesting.
BR: Yeah it’s interesting and it has a lot to say. Visually it should be really cool.
AF: Well thank you so much for your time, and helping to create a world you can just escape to for a little while.
BR: Thanks! We hope everyone really enjoys this one.
What do you think about “Slice?” How about Brandon Riley’s cinematography on the film? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
“Slice” can be purchased on VOD platforms now. A24 distributes.