Having a mission

Steve McQueen and Shabier Kirchner on working together in Mangrove

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Letitia Wright gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Altheia Jones-LeCointe in Steve McQueen’s Mangrove, shot by Shabier Kirchner
Letitia Wright gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Altheia Jones-LeCointe in Steve McQueen’s Mangrove, shot by Shabier Kirchner

In Lovers Rock (Opening Night Gala selection of New York Film Festival) there is the Blues party, in Mangrove (London’s Opening Night) there are the police raids, protests, and courtroom scenes, and in Red, White And Blue (Main Slate) there is the intimate family dynamics and the harsh reality of being a Black policeman. Shabier Kirchner is the master of filming crowd scenes, the communication of enjoyment, as well as rage in these three films (in the Small Axe anthology), directed by Steve McQueen.

Micheal Ward and Amarah-Jae St Aubyn in Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock
Micheal Ward and Amarah-Jae St Aubyn in Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock

At the New York Film Festival Making of Small Axe Free Talk presented by HBO with screenwriters Courttia Newland and Alastair Siddons, Mangrove stars Shaun Parkes and Letitia Wright, Steve McQueen and Shabier Kirchner and moderated by Director of Programming Dennis Lim, I sent in a comment In appreciation of the work of the cinematographer.

Steve McQueen: I just want to start, Shabier has some of the best hands I’ve ever seen. He’s a skater and a sailor and his sense of balance is ridiculous. That’s what I wanted to say. In that blues [in Lovers Rock] in that riot scene [in Mangrove], it’s because his sense of his centre of gravity is unbelievable.

Shabier Kirchner: Thank you. Yeah, I mean, technically, I don’t know, that’s such a difficult question to answer because it’s so dependent. You know, some of it is quite intuitive. A lot like some of the hand-held work in Lovers Rock , it’s very hard to explain looking back on it.

SMQ: You were in the dance! You were in the dance!

SK: We were in the dance and like something spiritual happened. It was like jazz, you know. Steve had a headset on so he was in my ear and the rest of it was just like dancing. To this day I still try and think back on it and it’s a very difficult thing to … Yeah, it was just spiritual. It just like came. Whatever happened just happened.

Protest in Mangrove - Steve McQueen on Shabier Kirchner: “Shabier has some of the best hands I’ve ever seen. He’s a skater and a sailor and his sense of balance is ridiculous.”
Protest in Mangrove - Steve McQueen on Shabier Kirchner: “Shabier has some of the best hands I’ve ever seen. He’s a skater and a sailor and his sense of balance is ridiculous.”

And the choices were very instinctual as well. I mean as far as the camera moment goes and the way that we sort of participated. I think that last Kunta Kinte track, we pulled that out like four times, back to back. It was the third time that everybody was just like possessed by the music and possessed by each other. And by the last track - I don’t even remember shooting the last take of that. We would finish and Steve would be like “pull out and come again!” You know, get back, and everybody would just start over and we would just start filming again.

SMQ: Rewind that! Rewind that!

SK: Yeah, rewind that, like pull it up. That was quite a special moment to try. It’s very hard for me to explain. The riot sequence, you know, the protest sequence in Mangrove, Steve and I had just talked about. We had this one shot, set up on a crane, right? And we quickly figured out that that was not how we wanted to express the sequence.

And so, the rest of it was again - we just decided that for this scene, for this moment here and now, the camera needed to feel alive. It needed to feel attached to the Mangrove. And that’s what we did. We just kind of went in. It was raining that day as well. Again it was one of those things that everything was just happening quite quickly. And we intuitively decided that this was the best way to go about doing it. I have never really answered questions like this before. I don’t know if that’s enough information.

John Boyega as Leroy Logan in Steve McQueen’s Red, White and Blue
John Boyega as Leroy Logan in Steve McQueen’s Red, White and Blue

SMQ: Letitia, talk about the bit when you were in the courtroom, the bit when Frank [Crichlow, played by Shaun Parkes as if he were carrying all of humanity on his shoulders] wants to possibly, forgive me for being bold, when he wants to possibly say that he is guilty.

[From my Mangrove review: When a lawyer (Richard Cordery) tries to convince a drained and exhausted Frank [Shaun Parkes] to plead guilty, Altheia [Letitia Wright] becomes enraged and explains that “they try to divide us”, that undermining solidarity is the goal. Like vampires, the unjust return. But this is for the future, she states, for her unborn child. And the future of what is shown in the film is ours now.]

Letitia Wright: Yeah, for us really, what we really appreciated was we knew we were shooting on film. For me that was my first time shooting on film. And I could sense just the importance. It’s not just about having 5000 takes, it’s about coming with the reality, like that truth, in your spirit. And just being ready. And I loved how I saw Shabier and Steve work. It was like music, just the chemistry between them. I picked up on that very quickly. And they didn’t make it technical. It wasn’t this “Stand on your mark here! You have to take five steps.” It was “Have your character. Know who you are. Tell the truth and we will work around you. We will pick it up.

I remember there was a scene, a very prominent scene. You know, everything is truth that we do here, so it actually happened. Shaun’s character was in a place of jeopardy over what to do and the decision to make. And I remember just preparing for this at home and coming in and Steve is very particular about making sure that emotions are not wasted. Every take it’s like everybody needs to be ready because we need to grab this. This needs to be special.

Mangrove courtroom scene shot by Shabier Kirchner
Mangrove courtroom scene shot by Shabier Kirchner

And I remember he would be very sensitive to how I was feeling. You okay? Cool? Are you ready? Cool, good, everybody set, let’s go. I remember doing that take and I forgot the camera was there, I forgot the boom guy, I forgot everything. I remember just having a mission and having something to say and something that I prayed would echo to our audience members and would be prominent. Not only for us in the room but for everybody that watches it. And they got in like two, three takes, I think, and it was over.

When I watched it back earlier this week, the work that Shabier did to capture every moment! To capture the shoes flying, to capture everybody’s reaction in that moment was beautiful. And the same with the riot scenes too. I don’t want to call it a riot, but our protest scenes, we were just our characters and they just worked around us. It was never the headache of the technicalities that filmmaking comes with. We respect the technical aspects of it, of course, and be one of the artists in that sense, but the freedom that they gave us to just be. That they worked tirelessly to capture every moment was in a sense freedom for us.

SK: Thank you. I don’t know if you know, but that scene between you and Shaun having that discussion in the basement of the court, Steve was very clever, he didn’t let me see a rehearsal at all. He was like, just be ready. Light wherever you think you need to light. I had no idea where people were going to land.

Shaun Parkes as Crichlow in Mangrove
Shaun Parkes as Crichlow in Mangrove

LW: Focus puller!

SK: Steve, you really encouraged us to trust. For me, I went home and that scene had just happened. Again it was one of those things that unfolded. I went home and I don’t think I slept for a couple of days. Like, when are the rushes going to come out? Just processing that whole style of filmmaking. From that moment on it was like, this is how we’re doing this. It was quite magical.

SMC: Everyone has to be ready. You’ve lived your whole life to be here with that camera with this situation. It’s like an Olympic athlete, your whole life has been to get to this point. When the gun goes, you’ve got training, this is it. When I met with Shaun, same thing, he had to be ready. And you were and gave the most beautiful performance. It flowered. You know, to trust one’s own ability just to be. To present oneself, I think Shaun you’re extraordinarily beautiful.

Shaun Parkes: Thank you. Just to add to that, it does start at the top.

The 2020 New York Film Festival runs through October 11.

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