I had the chance to speak with cinematographer John Rosario about his work on the film A Lot of Nothing, which premiered this week at South by Southwest 2022. Rosario’s past credits include the film Son of the South, alongside numerous other projects.
A Lot of Nothing begins with a single seventeen minute long shot which is a breathtaking technical showpiece for Rosario’s skills both as an artist and craftsman. The camera bobs and weaves through a home as a black couple discuss the shooting of a young boy and how they might respond to the revelation that their next door neighbor is the shooter. It’s a scene made more remarkable by the subtle ways Rosario heightens and emphasizes the emotional connection, and disconnection, between the characters with smart, creative choices. I really appreciated John’s openness and willingness to joyfully dive deep into his creative and technical process. It’s resoundingly clear that John Rosario is a talent on the rise.
The following has been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.
John Rosario’s Relationship with Director Mo McRae
Thank you very much for the taking the time to speak with me. I’m curious how you came to be involved with this project.
Rosario: I met the director Mo McRae on another film set. His wife, Lex Scott Davis, was acting in it and she was an actor in a film I did in Alabama called Son of the South. Mo came to visit Lex one of the weekends we were off and Lex told him “you really should meet John Rosario. I think you guys would get along.” She set up this meeting between the two of us. We actually went to see a baseball game in Montgomery, a Double A team The Biscuits. We went and got some dinner and we talked about art, philosophy, our journeys. We talked about things that make us as artists and we carried that relationship even after our meeting in Montgomery. Even after that we would text each other pictures we thought were interesting from other photographers. We would talk about films we were watching that were really bizarre and niche and the things that stood out. All this wasn’t with the intention of “I have a movie! Let’s talk creative stuff!” It was just a true creative friendship. When his film came along, he hit me up about it and I said yes before even reading the script.
What’s the on set collaboration like with Mo? How do the two of you work together in terms of planning out the shot structure and planning what you want to do – obviously I want to talk about the one-shot to kick off for awhile here – but I’d love to hear how you guys work together?
Rosario: I’ll start by saying that collaborating with Mo is, for me, incredibly fulfilling. He gives you the ability and the platform to express yourself and really contribute your part and your edge to it. I’m a big fan of pre-production. I think it’s one of my favorite phases in the whole process. Through pre-production you’re able to discover the core of the philosophy of the story and the core of the visual language of the film. Mo and I were really specific, really deliberate – everything was important, everything needed a purpose. We looked to add subtext to every visual choice. For example, there’s a moment in the film where our two leads James (Y’lan Noel) and Vanessa (Cleopatra Coleman) were having a tense discussion. James is feeling trapped and suffocated. In the house where we shot, there’s a second floor with some railings and so we decided to shoot through the railings with this foreground to show how trapped these two people are. To take it to another level, there was some circular design on the railing and we put James’ head within that railing to show he’s really trapped and suffocating. We looked for opportunities to add these visual metaphors and subtexts to add weight and interest to the story and visual language. Throughout the process, we searched for those moments to really say something with the visuals. It was never “here’s a cool shot, let’s do it,” it was always “what does this shot mean? What is happening in this scene? Who is this scene about? How can we use the camera to reinforce the feelings that the characters are feeling?”
The Best Shot of SXSW ‘22
I did want to ask you about the one shot which kicks off the film. It’s incredibly impressive technically but it’s also what you’re saying about the plot purpose. There’s an immense amount of skill in making a shot like that but it feels like it’s almost a building of pressure to the outlet of the sex at the end of the scene. So I’m curious what it was like, and what was your process, in planning and constructing a shot with that level of technical depth and artistic depth?
Rosario: The one-er was always there. It was always in the back of our mind when we were getting close to shooting it. We kind of dreaded going there :Laugher:
Rosario: It is a big undertaking. As we approached and got closer, it started to become more real. During pre-production, day one, we decided to talk about the one-er. Philosophically, we cracked the code of what we wanted to say on that day. We’d sprinkle conversations to further what the camera needs to do and what we want it to say. We went in dissecting this 17 page, 17 minute one-er looking at what the actors are saying and dissecting moments. It’s a two person scene as they move around the house. In this moment or that moment, who is the scene more weighted on? Who is the scene more about? With those discussion and discoveries, we would decide the camera would not stay in a two-shot. It would go onto James as we hear what Vanessa is saying and see what James is feeling. And vice versa, we would go to Vanessa as we see what she’s feeling based on what James is saying.
We made these deliberate choices in favoring actors at different parts of the scene. There’s one moment where Vanessa moves to get a drink and we leave James completely. We stay on Vanessa and see James soft in the background as Vanessa is having this moment. James is speaking and we don’t even pull the focus to James because this is about Vanessa. It’s her moment about what she’s feeling. Eventually, Vanessa says something that triggers James and the camera moves past her and lands on James. We can see how that really affected him. Throughout this process from a philosophical point of view, we took these deliberate choices and tried to add these levels of subtext. We used a lot of reflections. There’s one moment where James is going to leave and Vanessa says “Why don’t you get a gun?” We’re on James the entire time, but we hear Vanessa say this and see James’ back. We have this moment of anticipation: “what is he going to say? What is he going to do?” He turns around and says something to her and instead of going to her, we go to a reflection of her in a mirror that’s a bit disoriented. It’s indicative of the wild request she just made.
Throughout this whole process, it was a lot of finding these interesting and subtextual moment in the photography to further enhance the feeling. From a technical standpoint, lighting and shooting a 17 minute one-er is… :Laughter:
Rosario: i’m in pre-production and there’s a moment in the script where things are intense and the script is flipped. Mo leans over to me and says “What do you think if we went handheld in this moment? And while I agreed with him fully – it was the right choice in that moment – my mind was working through how do we detach the camera from the steadicam and go into handheld mode without hiding a cut? We didn’t want to hide a cut. We wanted it uninterrupted and continuous. We called our steadicam operator, Aaron Gantt, who is incredible at what he does – he pulled off this one-er which is bold. We expressed to him what we were looking for so he and the key grip, Phil Collins, came up with an incredible idea. Phil Collins is also a great human being. We discovered that the best way to transition from the steadicam to handheld mode was a six-handed operation. I had an easy rig, which is a camera support system, and I’m hiding in the corner out of sight. Aaron is on the steadicam doing his thing. At about minute 15 or so, he gets into position and Phil and I sneak up behind Aaron on the steadicam. Aaron is holding the steadicam steady because there’s a transition and we don’t want it to shake. Phil then disengages the camera and with the other hand is connecting me to the camera. Both of my hands are holding the camera so now we have a six-handed tradeoff. Eventually, they go back and I continue forward in handheld mode and get really close with them, really intimate, really subtle handheld fishing for these moments. It was just a really beautiful experience.
We did nine takes. I discovered yesterday that take seven was the one that we used. One of the producers, Inny Clemons, said after take seven people at Video Village were in tears because of how great everything worked for them. Pulling this off, a 17 minute one-er with the actors requires so much: the actors, moving furniture, sound department being out of shots and reflections. The crew did an incredible job hiding our lights, and just hiding in general. Our focus puller, Aaron Cheung, pulling that off going from steadicams to handhelds – it’s just unbelievable what he was able to pull of from a focus standpoint. And kudos to the actors for never breaking character while all this madness is happening around them. When it finally clicked and the producers and every saw this, they were tears and couldn’t believe we pulled this off.
The Process of Working with Actors During a Long One Shot
I wanted to ask about Cleopatra and Y’lan in that scene and how you have to work with them to give them the space that they need both physically and emotionally for their performance while also getting what you need from a technical perspective. How does that planning and workshopping happen?
Rosario: It was a beautiful dance between everyone involved. The actors were so gracious in not only performing incredibly but also giving us the ability to request certain things of them. Can you eventually make your way here and there and there, and then remembering those things in the moment? You’re right we did want to give them the space to perform but we also wanted to hit specific marks that would help us with this subtextual, philosophical camera choice that we’re making. It was really generous of them to allow us to make those requests of them. We pre-lit and rehearsed in a full day. We took half a day to pre-light everything around the house and then the other half of the day we did a rehearsal with the camera and the actors. We were able to work out the kinks before we went to shoot it the following day. It was great, a full collaboration, and we discovered what worked, what didn’t work, things that the actors needed, and things that we needed. We all worked together to make it happen. It was really great. The following day we went for it! I was very nervous the start of the day!
The Deployment of Color in A Lot of Nothing
I did want to ask you about the lighting too. In that shot in particular, the first shot of them on the couch when you have the pink on Cleopatra and the blue on Y’lan… I thought that was a really remarkable and sharp deployment of color in that scene. I wanted to hear your thinking in terms of color.
Rosario: From the beginning, Mo really wanted the look of the film from a color standpoint to have its own texture, weight, and philosophy behind it. You usually hear that red and blue are opposites in certain environments, and we took to that. The pink on Vanessa not only made her soft and subtle, but there’s a quiet fire in her. On James, the blue is interesting because he’s a bit cold to her in the beginning of this scene and kind of indifferent. He’s very cool and neutral and precise. It’s also a softer blue too. It gave these characters a softer feeling of opposites with some quiet forces that were ready to erupt. The pink in Vanessa will eventually turn fire red. The subtle blue in Y’lan will eventually be ice. We tried to find those moments where certain colors said certain things. Hopefully, it translated! Some things don’t get translated, but hopefully these did.
Rosario Shows a Very Different Skill Set Later in the Film
Another shot from later in the film I thought was really remarkable was during the birth scene with the focus on Shamier Anderson’s face when he’s reacting to everything around him. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you were going for and what Mo was going for in that sequence. It’s really beautiful with the light coming in behind him, just remarkable.
Rosario: Mo and I have this thing where the pre-production was so important and allowed us to be fully in sync with each other’s thoughts and feelings. There were incredible moments on set where I would be thinking exactly what he’d be thinking and vice versa. In that sequence, we have some extreme close-ups and we switch to slow motion. I really don’t remember how we came to the choice of going to slow motion for these textural parts of Shamier, but it just felt right. I think it was a decision on set where Mo said “Let’s do a pass in slow mo and really emphasize what Shamier is going through.” It’s the birth of their child but also a re-birth of Shamier and the start of his journey. It felt right to be really close on him and have this slower ethereal feeling. We actually did increase the light outside of the curtain to glow him a little bit and give this feeling or rebirth not just just of his child, but for him as well. It was a beautiful scene. Even there, I operated that shot and just being close to Shamier and receiving his energy and giving that back to him and dancing with these actors… it was just a beautiful poetic experience.
John, I really appreciate you taking the time today. I think you’ve done some remarkable work here and I hope a whole lot of people get the chance to see it soon. Congratulations!
Rosario: Thank you. I appreciate that, Bernard.
A Lot of Nothing premiered at SXSW ‘22.