The number of people who have said “no” to Beyoncé can probably be counted on two hands, maybe one. Chayse Irvin is one of them. The young Canadian cinematographer, who shot the performer’s Grammy-winning Lemonade video album, received a request to work on visuals for Renaissance, the pop sensation’s acclaimed new album. But, currently working on a longtime friend’s feature debut, which stars Ellen Burstyn, Irvin was too busy. Chayse told AwardsWatch: “Anyway, I prefer new challenges, and to work with new people.”
Irvine has, of late, only gone from strength to strength. Since winning an award at Poland’s prestigious International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography Camerimage for 2013’s Medeas, his first feature, Chayse has gone on to shoot a short for Kendrick Lamar, 2018’s BlacKkKlansman with Spike Lee, and celebrated work on commercials for Louis Vuitton and British department store John Lewis. He is now one of America’s most in-demand cinematographers.
That makes him a good match for Andrew Dominik, the Aussie director who is thought to be one of Hollywood’s most demanding. Dominik’s intense Marilyn Monroe biopic, Blonde, has proved about as divisive as the firebrand filmmaker himself, even if Irvine’s part in the project has received only positive notices. Describing Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford as his “number one or two” film of all time, Irvine simply couldn’t turn down the opportunity. He said: “Andrew had seen some of my work and [frequent collaborator] Khalil Joseph’s art pieces. Maybe he saw Lemonade, I don’t know.”
Called in to shoot Ana de Armas’s screen test, Irvine was, unusually, “a little bit nervous”, in large part because of how much he enjoys what he calls Dominik’s ‘cinema of insistent questions.’ “As someone who was getting into movies when Jesse James came out, I really took some of the grammar that was used in the film”, Chayse said. “It became part of my DNA: I’ve been birthed out of certain ideas that were in that film.” It didn’t help, either, that Dominik’s recent DPs have included living legends Robbie Ryan, Greig Fraser, and – on Jesse James – Roger Deakins.
Yet one of the first things Dominik told Irvine upended his expectations: “Andrew told me: ‘Everything that’s in that film is not what I want.’” It soon became clear what that meant. The moral grays that dominate Jesse James are, in Blonde, blacks and whites – and, tragically often, reds. Deakins’s masterful sense of form, Chayse explains, was exactly the wrong idea for adapting Joyce Carol Oates’s radical novel.
“In a way, Blonde flips everything that movie did. Roger creates a window and a perspective in which continuity is established. I was trying to do something formless. The structure, if one exists, is constantly decaying. We were trying to create a harmony between Marilyn’s tragic and alienating psychological experience, and the film. We were violating the traditions that cinematographers established. It almost felt like anti-cinematography.”
Chayse has no interest in settling scores, insofar as they exist, nor does he weigh in on reported conflicts between Dominik and Netflix. Blonde was intended to premiere at last year’s Venice Film Festival, but the streaming giant made clear its unhappiness with the cut it received. Editor Jennifer Lame (Manchester By the Sea) was even hired to help “curb the excesses of the movie”, Dominik told Screen Daily in February. He added, with unusual diplomacy: “I have nothing but gratitude for Netflix.”
Chayse’s view is a little different. “Those requests from Netflix, I think they had a need to…” He starts again: “To be honest with you, the type of filmmaking an auteur like Andrew does will always clash with a corporation like Netflix. For any company that is distributing content to mass audiences, their philosophy is consumption and consensus. Their goal is to create something that won’t upset anybody.”
“That’s antithetical to the type of film Andrew is making. I’m not trying to express a judgment on either, I just see that that’s what was happening. Andrew is making a film that’s going to shock, disturb. Reviews have gone into politics and the meaning of the film. That’s the point. That dialogue. That other way of making films is not the one we ever had in our mind.”
Chayse is by now on a roll, and frankly not worth interrupting. He continues: “Any artist trying to make this type of film needs a uniquely strong will. [Andrew] did what he needed to protect the film and commit to his original Intentions. Film financing is a speculative investment. The only way to avoid that [risk] is to make something on the Marvel platform, where you’re just pacifying the suffering people have in their lives. You just watch the movie to calm yourself, to get out of the banal or the mundane in your life. Other filmmakers are seeking to challenge people’s point of view or alter their perceptions. I work in commercials sometimes and I try to have these conversations with various directors in that realm. One way I felt it was phrased perfectly to me is that art and advertising are antithetical to each other. They’re almost a direct opposite. Art is about posing questions and advertising is about giving answers. Filmmaking in the advertising realm is there to satiate.”
Another issue on which Chayse weighs in, this time unprompted, is de Armas, whose performance (and method) have provoked plenty of talk. The DP said: “I have great admiration for Ana.” (This, incidentally, chimes pretty close to Dominik, who told Screen Daily: “She is fucking amazing.”) Irvine’s compliment precedes a discussion of another divisive talking point: Dominik’s filmmaking process, which on Blonde might generously be called “organic.”
“We chose not to do a digital intermediate”, Chayse said. “Andrew insisted we don’t do a color grade, either, though we later did. Still, Andrew rejected every one presented to him. The results offended him. Part of me thinks Andrew was trying to raid the budget and spend as much of it as he can”, Chayse said, chuckling, but only half-joking.
Chayse wouldn’t have seen the final version of Blonde till the Venice Film Festival, which he didn’t tell Netflix or even Dominik he would attend. When Dominik spotted Chayse seated in the premiere, he playfully accosted him: “Why the fuck didn’t you tell anyone you were here?” Chayse explains it’s not really his scene – at least not the publicity side. “There’s such an overwhelming need for interviews and all sorts of things.”
If one of Hollywood’s trendiest DPs hopes to make his awards chances a reality this season – and there’s every indication he can – he might need to get used to the fanfare.
Blonde is currently in select theaters and will stream globally on Netflix Wednesday, September 28.
Photo: Matt Kennedy / Netflix