Exclusive Interview – Hustlers cinematographer Todd Banhazl

Tai Freligh chats with Hustlers cinematographer Todd Banhazl…

Todd Banhazl is best known for his work on the film Hustlers, starring Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu, and the psychedelic horror cult film Braid. Recently he won Special Jury Mention for Cinematography for the seaside noir Blow The Man Down. He is also known for his music video and fashion work for Janelle Monae, Muse, Lorde, Imagine Dragons, John Legend, Asap Rocky, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Death Cab for Cutie. He lives with wife and dog in LA & NY.  Flickering Myth’s Tai Freligh caught up with him to talk about his work on Hustlers.

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Talk about the plot of Hustlers.

Hustlers is based on the true story of a band of strippers in New York in the mid 2000’s that drugged and robbed their Wall Street shark clients. It’s about the pursuit of power, the American dream, it’s about gender politics and a system that has set up one group of the population to succeed and another group to fail. It’s also a love story between two friends.

Explain what you mean by shooting the strippers like athletes? How was this accomplished?

Working the pole is an incredible feat of athleticism. We usually shot the pole work handheld and from up on stage with the dancers so you could feel the physicality of working the pole. The strength it takes to hold yourself up and work the pole. And also how it feels to be watched by 100 eyes while you’re doing it. It was about being on the “field” with them, not watching them from the seats. We also spend a lot of time with the dancers in the dressing room. We designed the dressing room to look like a sports locker room, including fluorescent lighting and colored stripes in the halls that lead to the stage. The audience is meant to hang out with them in all of their real shit, the beauty products, the band aids, the tampons, the camaraderie…. the same way you would in a locker room with dudes with their jockstraps and sports gear.

You have also said that you shot the characters like superheroes. In what ways?

There’s a lot of heroic low angle shots on the characters. We used wide large format lenses in 8k resolution to make them feel larger than life. We wanted their world to be as visceral as possible. We wanted the emotions to be as strong as possible.

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Tell us about the techniques you use when conveying different emotions on screen, say desperation versus empowerment?

It was always about aligning the camera with the character’s emotional experience. One of the reasons we used the Panavision DXL2 camera is that I loved that we could modulation resolutions. We could shoot big closeups in 8k when the women felt like they were on top of the world, and we could shoot 5k or 4k or longer lenses or zooms when we wanted the women to look like the system was crashing down on them. The script calls for all these shades of emotions. Confidence…. Doubt…. Like any good movie the characters run the emotional gamut. I don’t think there are universal rules for how to do any of this visually, but for this movie this was the vocabulary we created.

Describe your film-making philosophy.

I try to let my philosophy change with every movie. Perhaps the overall philosophy I have now is that I want the film-making experience to be as close to my values in my outside life as possible. Can we operate at a very high level of kindness, generosity and trust with our fellow collaborators?

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What overall look were you going for with Hustlers?

We nicknamed it “Gritty Glamour”. We wanted to strike a balance between epic pop, the deliciously bad style of mid 2000s, with a visual style routed in our favorite crime dramas from the last 30 years. We jokingly called it Goodfellas meets Clueless. But actually seeing it now, I do think that’s what it is.

How did you get attached to the project?

I was recommended to the director Lorene Scafaria by Mitchell Travers, our brilliant Costume Designer who I had worked with previously on The Strange Ones. I fell in love with the project immediately, and Lorene and I hit it off right away. I’m very lucky. Lorene is a true artist and fighter. I have so much respect for her.

What upcoming projects do you have?

I’m currently shooting a pilot for HBO directed by Adam McKay about the Lakers in the 80s. In many ways it also deals with issues of race, gender, and the American Dream.

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Speed Round:

How do you survive the zombie apocalypse?

Act like a zombie around the zombies. Pretty sure they can’t tell the difference?

If not a cinematographer, what would you be?

I would be a DJ for sure. It’s kinda the same thing as being a DP. Sculpting emotional narrative experiences for people.

Who are your cinematography icons?

Harris Savides forever and ever and ever for his black levels and his quest for the truest image. Jordan Cronenweth for the sexiest images ever produced by humankind. Lance Accord for his awkward headroom and loving handheld. Robby Muller for breaking all the rules. Darius Kondji for showing us a movie can look like a renaissance painting. Ellen Kuras for so many masterpieces especially Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. John Schwartzman for The Rock.

What’s better- filming music videos or movies?

Movies are where my heart is. But we’ve had a lot of fun on music videos. I wish the music video industry took care of it’s filmmakers better. Often directors and the entire crew are forced to work under bad conditions, putting their own blood + sometimes money back into projects to make something of quality. I’m not trying to sound ungrateful for all the opportunities I’ve had in music videos… but I’d love to see the whole industry shift towards respecting the time and ideas of the filmmakers more.

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Favorite lead actress in a recent movie and why?

Florence Pugh in Midsommar knocked me out. She inhabits that role so completely. Watching her journey from broken trauma to finding her own power is just overwhelming. Can I put a spoiler here? Any movie where you’ve got the audience screaming at the screen for the main protagonist to order the execution of her awful gas lighting boyfriend… you’ve got my support.

We thank Todd for taking the time to chat with us here at Flickering Myth.  He can be found on Instagram.

Tai Freligh is a Los Angeles based writer and can be followed on TwitterFacebook and Instagram and can be found on his website too.

Movie stills courtesy of Motion Picture Artwork.

(article originally appeared on Flickering Myth)

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