September 01, 2018
Artist Spotlight: Cinematographer RJ LaRussa
Writer, Director, & Cinematographer RJ LaRussa has an impressive résumé, with works ranging from narrative short films and music videos to documentaries and advertisements for a variety of companies. His latest directorial project, Donnée, explores the intersection of melodrama and documentary through Connecticut’s DIY music scene.
Aislin recently met with LaRussa to discuss Donnée, politics, and the future of film in a digital world.
Written & Photographed
by Jasmine Jones
JASMINE JONES: First off, I still think it’s crazy that we went to the same high school, graduated the same year, live very close to each other, have similar interests, and only just met a few weeks ago.
RJ LARUSSA: [laughs] Yeah, I know.
JJ: Did you do a lot of, or any extra activities in high school?
RL: No, I didn’t even pick up a camera seriously until after high school. I’ve always had cameras, like little point and shoots, and just sort of shot things. That transitioned into a cell phone when I got a cell phone to start taking photos, but once I graduated, that’s when I started getting really into it. So no, I wasn’t really active in any sort of extracurriculars in school.
JJ: So we would’ve just never met.
RL: Pretty much [laughs]. Unless we happened to have a class, like if you were in woodshop or electronics.
JJ: Even then, I don’t even know. I mean we could’ve had a class together I don’t remember enough from high school [laughs].
RL: I know I took one film class. It was Doc Taylor’s film & political cartoons.
JJ: I took that! We might have been in the same class.
RL: That was my last year, when I was a senior in 2011.
JJ: So what made you want to get into making films originally? Was there a moment when you just realized, this is what I want to do?
RL: In my gap years after high school, I sort of went through a very heavy movie watching phase. Way more films than I watch now, I barely watch anything now because I just don’t have the time. When I do have the time away from work or my own work, I don’t necessarily want to be watching movies, because it’s what I’m doing 99% of my time anyways. But, I guess I had an interest in the visual aspect of storytelling in films because I’m a very visual person. I kind of realized through paying attention to cinematographers that they pay attention to the same things that I pay attention to. Whether it be the pattern of light on a wall coming through a glass when the sun rises in the morning, or even something as simple as walking around campus at UHart and seeing which street lights have older bulbs than others because of the color difference.
JJ: So just the things you pay attention to in everyday life.
RL: Exactly. It fits with the observational quality that I have, and fits too with my social reservedness because, you know, being a filmmaker you have to be sort of a facilitator and a watcher and a listener, not necessarily the person who is driving the story through their own persona. You’re there with your vision to guide things. So I don’t think there was one day where I woke and was like, this is what I want to do, but over the 2 years that I took off, when thinking about what I wanted to do I knew it would either be politics or film.
JJ: So was it always mainly the cinematography that you were interested in? Usually people interested in film want to be a director, writer, or actor. They don’t immediately think of any of the other jobs associated with filmmaking.
RL: I’ve always been interested in directing, and I still do direct all of my own experimental work but I sort of grasped onto cinematography because the visual aspect is what spoke to me the most, and it felt like a tangible skill I can make money with. Even if I’m not shooting everything that I want to be shooting or getting paid to make narrative films, I can still sell my labor to someone to shoot an event. I’m still getting the satisfaction of being behind the camera, and I can support myself in that manner. I love filmmaking as a whole but cinematography was a way to say, this is something I can specialize in that’s marketable.
LaRussa poses at one of the locations from his short film, Donnée.
“...I’m a very visual person. I kind of realized through paying attention to cinematographers that they pay attention to the same things that I pay attention to.”
JJ: Do you have any films from when you were first starting?
RL: Before film school the only things that I have are some really strange videos that I made with some friends during a sleepover [laughs]. One of our friends couldn’t make it to the sleepover so we made a bunch of videos wearing masks and parodying him.
JJ: When you started studying cinematography, did you always look at it as a career option and not a hobby?
RL: It’s kind of both, because I love my job and it never really feels like work unless the project is really arduous, but I definitely went into it with the idea that this is going to be my job but I’m putting myself into this because I love it. Once I picked up a camera and started shooting again for real on film, and I had always shot on film when I was a kid. I still have a huge connection to the analog medium, it’s a huge part of my work. So when I started shooting on film again on my parent’s Pentax it felt like a very satisfying hobby. I was never interested in doing something for work that I didn’t enjoy, because I’m just not looking to spend my life doing something I don’t enjoy.
JJ: So you majored in both cinema and politics & government. What made you want to major in both?
RL: I originally picked up the politics major sort of for fun, as strange as that might sound. I’ve always been interested in politics growing up, and I thought I have all of this time at school, I have to take so many other credits. Why not put it towards something, and I may have to take a few extra classes but I did that because it was the only other thing that was a big enough part of my life where I knew I could do it everyday for school and then possibly for work. I always looked at that as another tangible thing that I could market myself towards. This intersection between politics and cinema, which when I started school it was very literal, like oh I can make political ads or run a campaign. My opinion of politics now is that they’re essentially the same process, very different from when I first started. But I essentially thought I love this thing and it’s with me everyday so I may as well just do this extra major.
JJ: Shorty after this past election, I read an article where the author stated that every film is a political film. Do you agree with that statement?
RL: Oh yeah, I think everything is political. Politics, at its core, is what dictates the relationships between every single person. Every individual relationship or group relationship, whether it’s a set of friendships, a cultural relationship, or a national relationship, those things are all dictated by politics. And film, at its core, is about relationships between things and especially people. So in that sense, every film is political because everything is political. That’s not a great answer, but… [laughs] every film is political, especially when you’re dealing with relationships and people. You’re going to be depicting some sort of interaction no matter what, even if you have one person and how they think of themself because the way we think of ourselves is so politicized.
JJ: As a cinematographer with an interest in politics, what do you believe is more important when making a film: the visuals or the message the movie is trying to make?
RL: Definitely the message. I, first and foremost, consider myself a conceptual artist, in that the concept precedes any sort of aesthetic concerns or my own personal preference. Obviously every artist has their own aesthetic preferences but I strongly feel that the artist’s job, or at least for myself, my job as an artist is not to let the things that I see and I feel define what I’m doing. Rather, the concept or what I’m trying to express should dictate what the aesthetics are and what the medium is. Then, my own artistic mindset shapes how those come into play. I do some work in sculpture, I do some still work [photography], a lot of different types of things and it all comes down to what the idea is and what the best way for that to be expressed is. Which is what led me to doing more sculpture, because I felt a lot of things could be represented very physically.
JJ: Do you have a lot of sculptures?
RL: I wouldn’t say a lot. I’ve had one collaboration piece with an artist, Carlin Morris. It was sculpture and photography about the nature of reality in the theater, and we did that for TheaterWorks. My most recent visual arts piece could be considered a sculpture. It’s a cyanotype print but it’s printed on a burial shroud and hung physically with a teacup sort of nestled in the knot in the shroud. It’s about a 7 foot long cyanotype so it sort of combines a traditional photographic printing method with a sculptural method. I chose that because I was looking to appropriate different languages of cultural memory in service of a victim of an act of U.S. military violence. Taking the languages we’ve built to represent certain tragedies in U.S. cultures, and then taking that language and putting it on a tragedy that was caused by the United States, which is something that I don’t think is really looked at. So I do a decent amount of sculpture when the piece is right.
Tea Time in Khataba (February 12th, 2010, 4:00am UTC +4:30)
JJ: Can you tell me more about your latest project, Donnée, and how it came about?
RL: In my junior year of college I was living with a number of people that were very involved with the music scene in and around UHart. One of those people, Brandon Rizzo who runs Tiny Box Booking, he wanted to start booking shows. When a show fell on our lap, ironically the apartment that was supposed to host it got shut down so they asked to relocate it and we offered our apartment. We hosted that show, and it just became a recurring thing to the extent that we were hosting shows every couple of months, having 50-80 people in a tiny little room. I didn’t know anything about the music scene in Connecticut until it was brought literally into my living room. I became really infatuated with it from there and it shaped a huge part of my junior year, so when I started thinking about what my cinema honors thesis would be, I had two options - to do a film about the music scene because it was so personal, or something related to my political interest. Since I was doing a political writing piece for my politics thesis, I thought it would be better to do a music scene film because it was more representative of my experience at UHart. I immediately asked my roommate Alix Rettig to co-write it with me because he was a creative writing major. We started probably about 2 years ago at this point, just drafting ideas. The film was so changed and evolved since then, but the core, that it’s a film about a relationship set in the music scene has always been there. Relationships are such a core part of the themes of a lot of the music that’s produced around here, it’s also such a universal experience.
JJ: And the title, what made you choose that? It’s french right?
RL: Yes, it is french. The central conflict in Donnée is the tension between these two former bandmates and partners who are each, for their own reasons, dreading the moment when they see the other person again, because they both exist in this tiny music scene so it’s bound to happen. I got that idea out of listening to this Modern Baseball song, I Think You Were in My Profile Picture Once, and it opens with: I saw you from the bottom of the stairs / Before you knew I was coming / And though nervous and scared / I lingered on. I thought that was really interesting because the narrator is having this moment of recognition where they’re realizing the situation they’re about to walk into, but they do it anyway, and that recognition becomes what the narrative is. I was reading this W.H. Auden poem with my co-writer, called At the Grave of Henry James. This poem is his narrativizing him standing at the grave of this other writer, talking about the idea of representing death through the image of a gravestone and this sort of somber scene. It’s this very recollective poem about imagery and what imagery represents in terms of death or past. There’s a line in the poem that goes: Startling the awkward footsteps of my apprehension, / The flushed assault of your recognition is / The donnée of this doubtful hour. To me, that went right back to the Modern Baseball song where the subject of the narrative is the recognition. I’m like, what the hell does donnée mean, so I look it up, and it means the subject or theme of a narrative. Or alternatively, a given, like a basic fact or assumption. It just fit perfectly and sat in the back of my head because the film is so much about the assumptions that govern our day to day lives. And it’s a very meta film, it’s about the filmmaking process, sort of experiencing yourself through art.
JJ: Since Donnée is a mix of narrative and documentary, how did that affect the way you approached making the film?
RL: It completely changed it. I have always been interested in the relationship between those forms, fiction, and documentary and reality. We think of documentary films as being truthful, but to put it very simply, they’re not because an artist is making it and the artist is defining what you see and don’t see, and how you interpret those things based on how it looks. Instead of starting with a script like most narrative films do, we started with an interview. We sat Paolo, the lead actor, down with Brandon Rizzo, and started with a basic interview of what is it like being a show promoter and what is it like being an actor, and then we let them talk for 45 minutes. We pulled out about 2 minutes from that and then from there, we started building the ideas of what the narrative would be. We wrote a basic script, leaving out a few sections that were specifically unscripted, and then started shooting. What was really unconventional about the process was that it wasn’t linear. It wasn’t conceptualization, script, shooting, editing, done. It was more like, conceptualization, research, writing, shooting, writing, conceptualization, you know, a lot of back and forth.
The two really big things that differ from a conventional narrative or documentary film is that the camera work and the actors have constantly shifting relationships with the two forms. For example, the script was never cemented, so if Sephrina didn’t like the way something was phrased, or didn’t feel she would say it that way, she didn’t have to say it that way. It was more like, here are the key points with some very basic language to get you from those points, just remember these two or three things we need for the plot and then say things based on your actual life or what you actually think. That aspect culminates in the final confrontation scenes, where it stays on the uncut wide shot outside of Blind Moose. In order to shoot that, I spent a couple of prep sessions with Paolo and Sephrina where we just talked about relationships, what we’ve experienced and what has caused breakups for us in the past. When the day came, we put them in the backyard, prompted a couple questions based on what we talked about previously. After about 5 minutes they were going back and forth off of each other. I started rolling without telling them I was rolling, and told them from now on don’t refer to my ex as my ex, make it first person. They talked for 44 minutes, and by the end they were just arguing [laughs]. We pulled 2 minutes out of that like before, taking the thing that fits out of something that’s totally real and improvised.
The camera work I tried to make a little more fluid. All of the lighting in the film is meant to evoke what’s actually there. We didn’t have a big light kit, I wanted it to look very rough and natural because you’re standing outside the back of a storage room, the lighting isn’t spectacular. Making it look spectacular would be really dishonest. So I think things can be very beautiful but also very rough, these things that you wouldn’t necessarily do in a film, but they happen in real life. With the camera work, it was really important to have the camera be static in a lot of situations and have the pacing be very slow. When you’re trying to create a feeling in a film, you have to create rules and follow them. Pick which variables you’re manipulating in which way, so time was a variable I wanted not to be manipulated when I want it to feel real. Early on in the film Sephrina is talking to Liz and as she’s getting more anxious talking about Paolo, rather than speeding up a back and forth cut, I gave her one blocking point - take two steps to your right and ash your cigarette. So I let her pick out how she would actually turn and face her body so that it’s natural, and I just slowly brought the camera in. So as she’s becoming more anxious, she gets closer and closer to the camera but it’s all one consistent cut.
LaRussa at the location where the climax of Donnée takes place.
“Instead of starting with a script like most narrative films do, we started with an interview... we let them talk for 45 minutes. We pulled out about 2 minutes from that and then from there, we started building the ideas of what the narrative would be.”
JJ: The film is set against Connecticut’s DIY music scene, so the soundtrack is understandably very immersed in it. Did you choose the songs first, and then base the mood of the film on the music, or did you choose songs that would fit with the mood you had already envisioned? Or was it a mix of the two?
RL: A lot of the music was chosen because the bands played at The Notch, which is what we called our apartment because it was a little notch on one of the village quads. The Notch at 7103 [laughs]. So they were chosen because they were connected to that place or that era. There was nothing chosen just because I liked the mood, it was all music that I was sitting with and listening to every single day. Some were chosen based off of the lyrical content, the Bilge Rat song Sneakers also jumps back to that Modern Baseball and W.H. Auden thing. The line in that is: I walked down to the basement, but you didn’t notice me. That plays out when Sephrina is taking the lighter from Carlin which foreshadows the confrontation at the end, where it’s like oh, now you have the lighter which isn’t really a lighter, it’s the emotional representation of their entire relationship that they’re battling for control over. So it was more so music that was the soundtrack for my life while the film was being made because those bands all mean a lot to me and they were all so gracious enough to let me use their music. The only one that sort of came out of nowhere was Leor Miller’s song The Fuck I Felt because we were filming at Best Video in Hamden and I’d initially had another song in mind but we couldn’t work out the rights. So we were filming there and Leor was playing in the background and I thought it actually sounded really good. I emailed Leor and I sent back a track and she told me that the song was about someone realizing the repetition in their life based on their dog taking a shit in the same place everyday [laughs]. And I’m like, that’s perfect because the film is about these repetitions and mundane modalities going through life.
JJ: I noticed a lot of very distinctive edits throughout this film. Did your experience with making experimental films influence those choices?
RL: Yeah, absolutely. I love surrealism. I think life is very surreal and through surrealism you can actually explain or experience things that being totally straight with something can’t. Those sequences came about because I wanted to represent the filmmaking process and my own process. A lot of the things that you see are smoke flashing in front of the camera because the film is so much about smoke breaks. I wanted to examine, if you will, the process of filmmaking by making effects out of all of the tools used while making the film.
JJ: As a cinematographer, what are your hopes when working with a director? Do you prefer when they have a specific vision in mind or when they ask you what you want to do with each shot?
RL: I always prefer having as much freedom as possible, and it’s not about, oh, I don’t want to listen to a director telling me what to do, because if a director has something specific in mind for a shot, I want to do that. The director knows the story and the cinematographer’s job is to serve the story. For me, the process works a lot better when everybody on set is given their space. When I direct something, I see myself more as a communicator and facilitator rather than the lead artist. Wong Kar-wai says the director is not the band leader, the director is the person who makes sure everybody’s instrument is in tune. So in that vein, I think people work best when given the space to express themselves creatively.
JJ: I want to go back to the smoking aspect of Donnée, which you brought up briefly, because there is a lot of smoking in this film.
RL: Yeah [laughs], so, in this idea of expressing the tension between documentary and fiction and reality, I wanted to look at ways in which we script ourselves and experience ourselves in predefined ways. I thought it was important in a film about a counter culture scene where people do smoke all of the time, to feature that because smoking cigarettes is so taboo nowadays. That doesn’t really affect the DIY scene where more than half of the people smoke, so I thought that was a good way to show that these characters aren’t necessarily connected to pop culture or what the current zeitgeist is in regards to that particular activity. All of this time that we’re seeing in this film, it’s all leisure time, people at shows after hours. And so the smoke break is the next level of that, the break within the leisure time. Also, smoking is very visually engaging. I love seeing a trail of smoke flow off the screen and they’re a good way to represent time. The idea of burning through cigarettes.
Stills from Donnée featuring Paolo Celentano and Sephrina Martinez-Hall.
JJ: What are some of your all-time favorite films?
RL: The ones that were most influential to this project were Harmony Korine’s Gummo, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror, and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. And you know, his season three, which - shout out to Kyle Turner - is… maybe cinema? [laughs] It’s a big contested debate whether Twin Peaks season three is cinema or not, but that’s a good general top three for me.
JJ: Any writers or directors you’d ever want to collaborate with in the future?
RL: It’s hard to pick one person, or to feel like I’m dreaming too much.
JJ: Dream! Dream big, why not.
RL: [laughs] I mean, I would love to work with Béla Tarr, but he’s retired. There’s so many big names that any cinematographer would dream of working with… yeah, that’s a really difficult question. That’s probably the hardest question, who would I want to work with more than anybody? I don’t know if I can even answer that because… I love working with different people and finding out what their views of cinema are through what they do.
JJ: There could be someone that you don’t realize, and then…
RL: Yeah, and then you meet them and it’s like, oh we’re actually perfect collaborators.
JJ: Exactly. So with all of the new options for filmmakers, like more affordable equipment and more outlets to showcase their work, are you optimistic or worried about the future of films?
RL: I’m optimistic and worried. I’m optimistic because there isn’t the barrier that there used to be, and that’s very important because film is the people’s art in a sense. It doesn’t require years of training to represent something as you see it. It takes years of training to build your own language and perfect that, but nowadays, this is the most repeated phrase ever, but anybody can pick up a camera and make a film. I think that’s a good thing at the end of the day because it exposes more people to the medium who wouldn’t have necessarily had that. What makes me worried is that it’s slowly killing off every other medium of filmmaking that there is with digital. Because there isn’t the industry to support film and other analog processes, such as tape. Tape is dead, film is dying. We have all of these ways to put filters on digital to make it look like these things but that’s not the same to me. So I’m very worried that by the time I’m late in my career, I’m not going to be able to use the tools that I like because, for me cinematography, like I said earlier, is about serving the story and you need to have all of the tools that are possible to serve the story depending on what that story is. A music video that I just shot for a local band, Donnie Alexzander, I shot on 16mm film. But not only 16mm film, it was this moldy ass expired film that had been sitting for a decade, and then I processed it all myself in a tank in my basement. Specifically to get this look of something that was neglected and then left in an attic to rot for decades, because the song is nostalgic and looking back on the writer’s childhood. In conversation with him, that look was right for the project. So I’m optimistic and worried because it gives anybody the opportunity to pick up and start, but slowly it’s sort of consuming all of the other mediums.
JJ: Anything planned for the rest of the year? Or for next year?
RL: Yeah, right now I’m working on a feature length documentary with a huge amount of local artists centered around Rob Santos, a local comedian and collaborator of mine. We have a huge crew of just, fantastic people. It kind of feels weird saying that we’re all making a feature, because as I’m giving this answer we just decided this in the last week or so. But I’m really pumped about that because it’s going to be a great celebration of local artists and local music, and it’s going to be able to give people a window into the people as opposed to just the content. My own personal piece I’m working on is SIGHT GREEN, an experimental short about the detention site that Gina Haspel, a now CIA director, ran. I’m really passionate about the subject because it’s kind of one of the biggest unspoken horrors, that the countries perpetrating this massive torture regime have gone and gotten swept under the rug. The people that have participated in and designed it were paid millions of dollars and promoted, and we can’t seriously consider ourselves a country that cares about human rights while we have all of these things that are just swept under the rug. This piece is going to premiere in September in New York with the Democratic Socialists of America. We’re doing a fundraising drive with some music, a couple of experimental shorts, that sort of thing. From there, I’m actually thinking about a sequel to Donnée, because the idea is evolving and I think I’d like to do another.