Film Interview 2021
Jessica Young / DOP
What Drives Us
WHAT DRIVES US is a new documentary from legendary musician/director Dave Grohl that unpacks the early struggles of the world's biggest rock bands as they pay their dues, traveling the world in a collection of dilapidated tour vans. Featuring Members of U2, The Beatles, The Foo Fighters, The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, AC/DC & Metallica contribute their stories.
TNC spoke with DOP Jessica Young who recently worked on TWO DISTANT STRANGERS which won the 2021 Academy Award Best Short.
Hi Jessica, thank you for talking to TNC, how are you held up during these very strange times?
Hello! Hanging in there! Filmmaker’s by nature tend to be resourceful people, it seems like production is back and we’re managing with masks and testing and keeping everyone safe while still getting to do this job we love.
Has this time offered you any creative inspiration?
Oh yes, I was able to pick up some art projects that had been put on the back-burner. Finish some photography books and explore some old ideas I simply didn’t have time for prior to the shutdown. It was a refreshing break from the grind. Also, in the tumultuous summer months, I did a deep dive into African American Art. It brought on so many ideas from the point of view of the voices that have been repressed in this country. It was my own history lesson. Really opened my eyes and inspired me. Continues to inspire me.
You were the cinematographer on Two Distant Stranger which won Best Short at the 2021 Academy Awards, did you imagine a film you worked on would get such an amazing accolade?
No! Well, Yes!...From day one there was a projected goal to hurry up and make the film so it would be finished in time for the Academy Awards submission deadline. That line was drawn in the sand. I was lucky enough to have worked with Martin Desmond Roe on many projects prior, and when he sent me Travon Free’s script (which was written in just 5 days) and I read it - I was on-board immediately, there was no hesitation. It was timely, important, it had great writing, great structure - it was suddenly like - we MUST make this. I think that is essentially how it became possible - because EVERY person that read the script felt the same way. Believe me, the accolades are great, but I couldn’t be more pleased that the film is reaching people, getting SEEN, and starting conversations we need to have about police violence. It’s pretty rare that people outside of the film community have the opportunity to see a short film.
What was it like working on this project and will you continue to work on fiction films?
We shot the short in 5 days in late September. We were just beginning to crawl out of the shutdown and figuring out how to work within new limitations. A huge percentage of the budget had to go to Covid protocols. Once the thing started going though, it just charged forward - there was no stopping it. In my first conversation with Travon, he told me the script was based on a fable - about the scorpion and the frog. I knew it would be too easy to “pulp” up the violence with grit or typical crime drama look - plus, the first 10 pages are essentially a romantic comedy. So, I purposefully shot with the Blackwing Tribe7 lenses to achieve what I hope created a bit of a story-book feel. Very early on after reading the script, I put together a look book and was able to share that with the directors and the rest of the crew, and I’m happy to say the colour palette and tone carries through to the film. Our Production Designer, Keseh Morgan did such an amazing job! For me, “Two Distant Strangers” fused so much of what I love about documentary work within the narrative story-telling format. Fiction with a social message. If I could line up that kind of project one after another, I sure would!
"Whether it’s an athletic feat or a musical performance or an artistic endeavour, I think it comes down to being present in the moment in your surroundings."
How does it feel to have the World Premiere of What Drives Us on The Coda Collective?
Amazing! I love that Amazon now has a niche for music docs and live performances, it’s great. “What Drives Us” has such a great message and really taps into the thing that we all love so much about music - and are missing right now.
How did you get involved in this project?
I’ve had the incredible opportunity to work with Dave Grohl on several occasions, namely “Sound City” and “Sonic Highways” - so when this idea of his started to become a reality, his long time producers, Jim Rota and John Ramsay called me onboard. We shot sporadically in LA over about a year. Because the schedule was based on availability not just of Dave, but all the other musicians we interviewed, the shoots were tag-teamed with my DP colleague Todd Bell. The film was shot pre-pandemic and was scheduled to release at the same time as the next Foo Fighters tour in 2020, which obviously had to push.
What are the first steps you take as a cinematographer when you’re about to work on a new project?
I like to say ‘there are no rules until you make them’ (and then, you can always break them). In documentary work, there will usually be an interview element to the film or series. It’s easiest to start there - how to conduct the interview, eye-line guidelines, composition choices, lighting styles, etc. I love the conception part of the process and setting the look. I ask a lot of questions - is there verite? Is there a need for re-creations? Can we involve a portrait element? I like talking out the reasons for making these choices and love to hash out ideas with the director and other filmmakers on the project. Sometimes the theme of the story inspires the look. Sometimes the limitations of the budget make choices for you.
What is it about documentary filmmaking that interested you so much as a filmmaker?
Well, it’s the truth. And that’s not likely something I realized in the beginning, I’ve only discovered that along the way. I find so much reward in getting to that truth. It is fuel for the soul. Learning about something new, jumping into another world, looking at it wide-eyed can be refreshing and liberating. Whether it’s an athletic feat or a musical performance or an artistic endeavour, I think it comes down to being present in the moment in your surroundings. Occasionally, you catch lightning in a bottle. We’re always chasing that.
Can you tell me a little bit about What Drives Us, how did you get involved in this project?
We weren’t planning to re-invent any wheels on this one. “What Drives Us” was to be a talking head + archival rock doc. Through early conversations with Dave, I got the sense to take a “punk rock” approach. In a way - no rules - to err on the side of “not normal”. The subject matter was about musician misfits cramming themselves into vans and touring the country come hell or high water. They lived through crappy food, shitty sleep, dangerous road conditions, chasing dreams through perseverance! Inherently, there was a commitment in these early years for them to experiment and problem solve and cut their teeth playing live in front of an audience - even if it was 4 people. We kept lighting naturalistic and took liberties with some off-framing and stuffed close-ups. We always shot 2 cameras and a 3rd roving camera that would catch Dave in a follow-up question or laughing moment.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced bringing What Drives Us to life?
I suppose simply, the coronavirus put a damper on the original plan to release the film - now ultimately, in a way that was not intended, the film is giving us a taste of how good it was, how easy we had it. Going to shows. That feeling only live music can provide. The biggest challenge has got to be the weight on the shoulders of the people that make a living making music, or on those who support the music being made - because it all just came to a halt. Hopefully we can get back out there soon!
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
I didn’t pick up a still camera until senior year in high school. I liked it enough to decide to study still photography in college. I loved being in the darkroom and processing and printing images but I needed more, something was missing. I opted to take a filmmaking workshop in NYC over the next summer. We were shooting black and white reversal 16mm film, cutting and splicing it together and projecting it on a wall. It was a great way to learn cinematography! I’ll never forget the first time I pulled the trigger on the little Arri S camera and saw that flicker in the eye-piece - that moving image - literally moving through the tiny gate creating flicker - that got me hooked! I’ve never looked back.
How much has your style and your approach to your projects changed since you started out?
When you're young and starting out - you just have to say yes to everything. You’ve got to meet new people, you’ve got to experience the world, you’ve got to make some mistakes and learn from them - kind of just like the young musicians in those vans! And just like a band - filmmaking is a collaborative medium. Once you find your people - then you want to work with them over and over again. Always growing and challenging and pushing your own limits as well as your colleagues. My approach hasn’t really changed much, the enthusiasm is as great as ever. I’d say the choice in projects has become more calculated. Subject matter is more considered. There is a desire to want to reach more people with the work I’m doing.
Do you have any advice or tips to offer an emerging cinematographer?
You learn by doing. And you’ve got to keep doing it. I’ve noticed no pattern or formula for cinematographers - each has their own path. I got lucky out of the gate and had a camera on my shoulder charging into the field right out of film school and I never stopped shooting. There is always something to learn from every experience. There is always a shot you wish you got. Being curious about the world helps. Being a great listener is super important. Being a kind human will get you far.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from What Drives Us?
This film really makes you long to sing-along again. It also gives you a great perspective. These artists and bands only survived because they LOVED what they were doing. It’s about humble beginnings. It’s about running down your dreams. It’s about not giving up. We all need a little of that energy these days, don’t we?