Netflix’s ‘American Son’ Is Just 1 Way to Turn a Broadway Play Into a Film

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Photo Source: David Lee/Netflix

How do you take a play and reimagine it as a film, while still keeping it intact as a play? For starters, you call director of photographer Kramer Morgenthau, who shot the Broadway production-turned-movie “American Son” for Netflix. Here, the six-time Emmy nominee (“Boardwalk Empire”) explains why the piece (written for the stage by Christopher Demos-Brown) is unlike anything that has come before it, and how he and director Kenny Leon helped stars Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale, Jeremy Jordan, and Eugene Lee adjust their performances from back-of-the-house projecting to “the camera is inches from my face” intimate. 

Was shooting “American Son” different from other projects you’ve done?
What attracted me to the project was that I’d never done anything like it. I don’t even know if anything has ever been done exactly the way we did it. It wasn’t a play and it wasn’t a film; it was sort of a hybrid of the two different mediums. Usually, when you do a film version of a play you spend weeks shooting it, something like “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Or you do something else, where you just film a play onstage. We only had five days to do this, but we didn’t want to just point the cameras at the stage. I had to, in some ways, reinvent anything I had ever done and go back to my earliest roots in doing documentary [film] and apply that approach. The actors were so tight and so well-rehearsed because they had been doing this on Broadway for three or four months, eight times a week, so they didn’t need anything. We just needed to get it right and get it quickly—and have a point of view and make it cinematic. 

Was there a balance of shooting this like a film while acknowledging its roots as a play?
Yes, for sure. Normally, on a short-scheduled movie, you’re shooting four pages a day on a brisk schedule. On a TV show, you might be doing more, sometimes up to seven pages a day. For this, we were doing 25 pages a day. You can’t set up traditional shots and expect to get the project finished, you had to shoot with multiple cameras but have them dance around on the floor with the actors and move through the space and get multiple passes that would be fused together.

Did the actors also have to adjust their stage performances for the camera?
Kenny worked very closely with them, adjusting their tone and their presence for the camera, because it’s so different, projecting for the back row versus the camera [being] inches away from your face. The actors are such experienced television and movie actors that they also knew how to turn that switch themselves, but Kenny really worked that muscle with them to get them in the right place. But they were just ready to go. The project was everything I cared about, everything that I got involved with filmmaking for in the first place. This is a very political piece and a deep piece about social justice and policing and all the things that are obviously super hot topics today. I was like, “This is something I want to be a part of. This is why I wanted to make films.” It’s why I jumped when Kenny asked me to do it. 

How much did you collaborate with Leon to find the tone for this filmed version?
In prep, we worked together and built a mood board that we would pitch images back and forth, and I pitched images to the producer, trying to get what the tone would be, that it would have some mood to it. The production designer, Derek [McLane], was on the set for Broadway, and we built a special set for this with four walls and created an environment where we could have it raining the entire time, which is a huge civil engineering exercise, a plumbing situation on a soundstage in Brooklyn. They wanted a vibe and, hopefully, we achieved that.

READ: How to Become a Director of Photography

How did you decide how you’d actually shoot it? 
How Kenny and I figured out how to shoot the thing was, I went and studied the play on Broadway. I think I watched maybe six performances, just sitting in the audience from different perspectives, seeing how to visualize it and trying to crack the challenge of doing it so quickly and trying to make it cinematic.

Going way back, how was it that you got into cinematography? 
Originally, I was interested in music. My father was a documentary television producer in Boston at WGBH, so I was around it a lot as a kid, and I didn’t want to do that because that’s what he did. Through the gift of a liberal arts education, I discovered it on my own. I stumbled into a film history class and it all just clicked for me. I felt like it was a similar side of the brain as music. It sounds clichéd, but I saw “Citizen Kane” in that film class and I was blown away. I had no idea film could be so powerful and so political and so complex, fusing a lot of the great artistic movies of the last century or so, all coming together in a crescendo. Filmmaking is an exciting art form. I gravitated toward what I thought was my strength, which was the visualizing part of it.

How would you describe what a DP actually does? 
The DP collaborates with the director, visualizing the story, giving it a cinematic viewpoint. A lot of it has to do with light, but it also has to do with movement and texture, emotional response, but purely on a visual level. If you think about the monks who wrote the illuminated manuscripts in the 1500s, they visualized illustrations. That’s kind of what we do. We bring visuals to storytelling. But different directors bring different things to the table, so every relationship is different. Sometimes they’re very specific about how they want to visualize it and sometimes they want to see what you bring to the table and sometimes it’s somewhere in between and you meet them there and bring it out of them. It’s a really fun job.

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 13 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Casey Mink
Casey Mink is the senior staff writer at Backstage. When she's not writing about television, film, or theater, she is definitely somewhere watching it.
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