Written and directed by Miles Warren, the feature Bruiser takes an unflinching look at the role that hand-to-hand combat plays in a boy's maturation into manhood. The film, available to stream on Hulu, follows 14-year-old Darious (Jalyn Hall), who struggles to reconcile the non-violent values of his upbringing with the painful reality of recurring bullying at school. Darious suddenly finds himself on solid ground after building a bond with Porter (Trevante Rhodes), a maligned newcomer to town who’s working through his own history with violence.
Cinematographer Justin Derry's intimate understanding of Bruiser’s visual storytelling stems from his collaboration with Warren on the story’s first iteration as a short film, which premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival (and which Panavision featured here). Derry credits Marni Zimmeran at Panavision New York and Steve Krul at Panavision New Orleans for helping to see Bruiser's visual refinement from prep on the short through the wrap of the feature. From his love for vintage Panavision optics, Gordon Parks’ photography and the collaborative process, Derry retells the making of Bruiser through the lens of inspiration.
"We wanted to embrace the different and opposing character traits between the two father figures in Darious' life by allowing our camera to embody their personalities," Derry explains. "For Porter, we used Steadicam and a loose tripod head when operating his scenes with Darious so that they would feel fluid and relaxed and in contrast to the scenes with Darious' father, Malcolm [Shamier Anderson]. Malcolm was framed with very static and rigid compositions and only subtle dolly moves, but as he begins to unwind, the camera becomes frantic and loose."
Thanks to having served as cinematographer and executive producer of the short version of the film, Derry was able to help Warren build the look of Bruiser from a formidable visual framework. "We wanted to take the blueprint we established in the short film we shot two years prior," Derry says, "but with the texture and warmth of the rural South ingrained throughout.
"We mixed a lot of colour temperatures and utilized green fluorescents as well as sodium-vapor and mercury-vapor streetlights," Derry continues. "Sometimes I would choose a cooler streetlight look to make the audience feel lost and alone, or I would use warm sodium-vapor streetlights to evoke a sense of aggression and violence. I like using colour to portray emotion, but it always has to be grounded in the reality of the environment."
The filmmakers also found visual inspiration in a considered selection of films and photographs. "Some of our key references were Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Cold War, George Washington and The Place Beyond the Pines,” Derry says, “but we also spent a lot of time looking at Gordon Parks’ photography of the rural South. Parks often isolated his subjects in a way that made them feel like they are the sole individual in an expansive world. You can feel a gravity in his images that draws you in and makes you feel like nothing outside of this intimate moment matters.
"I love to look at many references throughout the prep process," Derry adds. "The more references I take in, the more I develop instincts that don't necessarily directly copy anything specific, but instead form a subtle alchemy that defines our look."
For the short version of Bruiser, the filmmakers had worked out of Panavision New York, but for the feature, they went south to source their parcel from Panavision New Orleans. "I've worked with Marni Zimmerman at Panavision New York for almost 10 years now, and she's always supported my vision," the cinematographer says. "On this film, she connected me with Steve Krul out of Panavision New Orleans. Our prep was very rushed because we lost some time due to the pandemic, but Steve was very supportive and set up a last-minute camera test for me that was instrumental in discovering the look of the film.
"Panavision is always my first call when I'm starting to prep a film," Derry continues. "I love that over the years, I've developed a relationship with Panavision that feels like family. They support filmmakers and prioritize the creative choices we make when choosing equipment for a film."
Derry's lens parcel for the feature included Panavision's vintage Super Speed and Ultra Speed optics, which, he shares, "are probably my favourite spherical lenses of all time! They have the perfect blend of soft, bloomy highlights and beautiful flares whilst maintaining decent contrast and sharpness. They’re also very fast, so I can make a lot of creative choices about depth of field. For me, they also go back to Gordon Parks, reflecting the character in his photographs. If you look at a lot of his photography, there’s a soft creaminess to the highlights and shadows and often a very shallow, creamy depth of field.”
Reflecting on the years he spent working on Bruiser across the story’s short and feature-length versions, Derry notes, “This is the first feature I’ve shot where my collaboration with the director was developed over several years of working together. I’ve shot all of Miles’ short films. We know what stories inspire each other, so discussing the look felt organic. It's always my goal to support the director's vision, so I usually react and adapt my style to create a look that I'm excited about whilst also reflecting what the director envisions for the film. With Miles, I know that we always share the same vision, so it was just a seamless, fluid way of working.”
All images courtesy of the filmmakers.
Learn more about Justin Derry’s work on the short-film version of Bruiser in this article: A Question of Strength