As soon as the very first frame of All of Us Strangers emerges onto the screen, it’s hard not to find oneself moved by the storytelling. It’s an emotional journey that plunges deep within the soul, illuminating the lost connections of the past that leads to a powerful catharsis. The film has continually demonstrated to have a profound impact on audiences that have been able to see it, and cinematographer Jamie D. Ramsay is undoubtedly one of the many talented artists responsible for crafting such an inviting world.
Ramsay’s career started in South Africa, beginning with frequent collaborations with director Oliver Hermanus. Their steady partnership was fruitful, particularly when 2019 saw the debut of Moffie. The film tracked the story of a young man drafted into the oppressive South African military, and the striking visuals captured a visceral intimacy that left a sincere impression on the viewer. It’s what earned Ramsay his first British Independent Film Award (BIFA) nomination for Best Cinematography and elevated his status to be recognized as a great talent to celebrate. Since then, he has worked on several notable films like Mothering Sunday, See How They Run and Living, where he returned to working with Hermanus.
He once again conveys the English landscapes in All of Us Strangers and utilizes a vibrant color pallet to communicate the swirling emotions at play within this narrative. It’s stunning work that earned him his second BIFA nomination. I had the pleasure to speak with Ramsay about what drew him to this material, his methodology of creating an effective intimate space and discovering the complicated process it takes to manifest true movie magic on screen. It was a particular joy to be having this conversation on the very day he won the BIFA for his work. “Good news travels,” he remarked in an endearing manner that was a comfort to someone conducting their very first interview. “This is a good day for you, man, and for me,” he retorted. No doubt this will be one of many good days for Ramsay receiving recognition of his beautiful achievements on this film.
Josh Parham: Thank you so much for joining me today, and I do want to first start off by saying that obviously this movie is very special to a lot of people. I’ve seen it myself and – cried multiple times watching it. It’s just such a moving film. I was wondering what was the thing that initially drew you to the material in the first place?
Jamie D. Ramsay: Whenever I look at a script that’s going to be a potential project for me, I always keep my eye open for particular triggers within it that are emotional triggers for me, perhaps with binary and binary concepts that will allow me to sort of channel like a personal creative energy into the project. And when I read All of Us Strangers, it was very apparent that it was dealing with loneliness and loss in a very delicate way. And I thought to myself, what a beautiful question to answer visually, what a wonderful emotional journey that could be for somebody. Everybody’s got some level of trauma in them from their lives, but if you’ve ever dealt with loneliness or loss, you understand that these binaries that are locked up inside you can really generate a creative flow that can be really beautiful. So it was those two things that really interested me, above and beyond the fact that the script is a curious journey, a beautifully written love story. But I really felt those two binaries, and I knew that they would carry us through.
JP: It’s such a really important text, and so powerful when you read it. I was also wondering, when you do decide to enter into this kind of project and start to work on it, what’s the most important conversation that you want to have with somebody like Andrew Haigh, the director, to really formulate what the artistic process is going to be like?
JDR: Getting to know the film, for me, first and foremost is about getting to know the filmmaker. And those conversations with Andrew before we even broached the subject of the film was about getting to know each other and forming our relationship. And in that formation of our relationship, we passively slid into the conversation about the film. And without knowing it those conversations of getting to know each other really built his and my shorthand and the shorthand of being able to react to the subject matter of the film instinctually.
And after we got to know each other, we went through hours and hours and hours of getting to know the film and getting to know the characters. And those are questions from me to him, questions from him to me, throwing ideas, discussing, maybe arguing about concepts, and really basically just building the fundamental understanding of the film. And the reason why that is so important is that once that’s done, it becomes part of your psychology in approaching the movie and it becomes a subconscious. And when it’s in your subconscious, it just becomes a reactive journey so that when you’re shooting the film, everything just becomes about reaction and you don’t have to think about it anymore.
JP: I can imagine that, as you said, getting the reactions out of yourself and that process is so important. And in that reaction, you also have to create this really great sense of intimacy, which I find that you really have in a lot of the movies that you’ve worked on. Is there a particular process that you go through in trying to establish that sense of intimacy with the actors and eventually how that has to be presented to the audience too?
JDR: One thing that’s as important as getting to know the director is also getting to create a presence with the actors. Meeting them beforehand, understanding what their sort of personality types are, and basically just shaping myself as a presence that’s understanding, that’s soft, that’s a warm landing for them because it’s so important. Intimacy with them is so important. If my energy ever distracts them from a moment, then I’ve lost it. So for me to invite it into that hallowed space, which is that three foot bubble around the performance, it’s so important that my presence is accepted by them, and ultimately what they’re giving us is why we’re all here. The magic that they give and how difficult it is for them to develop that presence when there’s cameras and lights and focus pullers and grips and gaffers all around you, sound men with their booms. It’s a difficult place for them. So if I can do my best to create a hallowed space of love and respect around them, then what they give will always be better.
JP: Right. It’s about creating that kind of hallowed space. And I think in relation to that, I do wonder if that is the most challenging bit, and what is the scene that you would say was the most challenging to actually try to execute in this film?
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JP: Wow. It’s a lot of choreography going on in that moment. It’s also one of my favorite moments in that movie. Is there a very intensive rehearsal process? I can imagine for that scene in particular, but was there usually a great attention to rehearse for this film?
JDR: You know what, there wasn’t much of a rehearsal on this pre-shoot day. I think the idea evolved, and on our timeline, we couldn’t really put much time to pre-rehearsal, but it all sort of happened on set and it was all wrapped up in the actual blocking of the scene, and we found the scene in its blocking, and then obviously we had to work out the ballet within the blocking.
JP: It’s just a wonderful sequence. Another scene that is really fascinating to me is everything that happens in the nightclub, which then goes into this very dreamlike sequence, and I was just wondering what was your methodology of creating this really vibrant color palette and trying to communicate all of these really fascinating pieces of imagery in camera.
JDR: I think what was important in the nightclub scene was to represent the journey of a night out and how inebriation affects your experience, how the music amplifies that, how the crowd amplifies that, and ultimately how the group experience of a night out culminates in whatever way sort of fits the evening. Obviously, in this case, the boys take some drugs in the bathroom, and then that results in his psychology degrading, going back to his parents. So for us to represent that, we wanted an evolution in the camera movement, so starting a little bit more responsibly, and then the camera movement representing the feeling of how the inebriation takes hold of the actors. We also wanted to represent it in the lighting. We had multiple stages of different levels of lighting. And obviously the most important choice was the music and how the music affected all of that. So all of those sort of tools came together to represent how his journey that night ultimately led to him sort of passing out and his mind going back to his folks.
JP:. Oh, it’s really fascinating. Well, the last thing that I want to ask you right now is just what’s on the horizon? What’s next for you in terms of what you’re working on?
JDR: I’ve done two movies this year now. I did a film for a director named Hallie Meyers-Shyer called Goodrich with Michael Keaton and Mila Kunis. That should come out later on this year or early next year. Then I did a period drama called William Tell. And I’m now sort of in a holding pattern waiting for the next wonderful, wonderful script to choose.
JP: Well, I’m sure it’s going to be another wonderful display of your work. I’ve been a big fan of yours for a while. I loved Moffie, by the way. It was one of my favorite movies, and I thought that the look of that was also wonderful.
JDR: Thank you, Josh.
JP: And with the success of this movie. I know it’s going to be a great ride for you.
JDR: Thank you, brother.
All of Us Strangers will be released in theaters from Searchlight Pictures on December 22.