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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? ​