We caught up with cinematographer Justin Derry just after his latest feature, Bruiser, was released on Hulu. The film premiered at TIFF last fall and we've been eager to get our eyes on film ever since. Justin takes us through his experience of shooting the film alongside director Miles Warren, as well as his approach to his craft in both the narrative and commercial spaces.
Let’s get right into it… Bruiser just came out on Hulu, what are your feelings on the film now that it’s finally released? Briefly walk us through what the experience was like with your crew shooting in Alabama?
Man, it’s surreal. I’ve been attached to this film since 2019 and have always known the potential this story had. It’s really empowering to see this film finally find such a vast audience and to see people embrace the story the way I did when I first read the script 4 years ago.
Alabama is a beautiful place to shoot. There is a nice small film community there that is also supported by New Orleans and Atlanta. From the beginning, we felt very welcomed. Maybe it’s because they haven’t been tainted by the experience of a larger film rolling in and taking over, but our relatively small film had a lot of support from the local community.
Your cinematography on this film is gripping, evocative, and down right beautiful. How was it working with director Miles Warren, and how did you strike that balance bet ween getting the shot looking the way you wanted in camera while capturing the performance that was needed for the story?
Thank you. I’ve been working with Miles for several years now, so the creative process feels fluid and seamless. We both share a lot of the same instincts and our vision for the film aligned from the start. Miles is a very visual director, but once he gets on set he focuses mainly on performances, so we spent most of prep diving into the look of the film and creating a detailed shot list with diagrams and reference images for every frame of the film. In my opinion, this is the best way to be supportive of the performances while still achieving a deliberate look. As a cinematographer, you have to understand the script on a deeper level and know why each choice is the right one for the film and what the characters are going through. That way, when you arrive on set, you know where the camera needs to be to embolden the performance and support the actors’ choices.
What did the experience of shooting Bruiser leave you with? Are there any takeaways from your time on set and with the story of this film that you think will have a lasting effect on you?
The biggest take away was learning how to be creative and improvisational in an environment where you don’t really have enough time to shoot the film. Bruiser had an extremely challenging schedule because we were just coming out of a big wave of COVID as a result of the Omicron variant, and we were working with a 15 year old lead actor in the majority of the film, so we had to adjust and be smart about our schedule to make sure we were abiding by all of the guidelines. So I spent a lot of time working with our brilliant 1st Assistant Director, Josh Montes, shifting and manipulating the schedule to make sure we could achieve our goals and still shoot the film Miles and I had imagined. I’ve never worked with a 1st AD that worked as hard and cared so much about a film as Montes did. He’s become a good friend and we were very lucky to have him.
"A great film has the power to inspire everyone who is a part of it. I love the camaraderie of working with an amazingly talented band of eccentric and unique individuals all striving to achieve the same vision."
Shooting a feature has got to be like training for a marathon. There aren’t any shortcuts. It may sound glamorous from the outside, but it’s got to be a grind while you’re in the thick of it. How do you prepare for a film like Bruiser to ensure you will have the endurance to keep your eye sharp through the final scene?
Anyone who has worked on a feature film knows, it’s not easy. It can really push you to your limits mentally and physically. I usually have moments on a film where it feels like all hope is lost, but then once you push forward and overcome that obstacle, you feel like you can accomplish anything. A great film has the power to inspire everyone who is a part of it. I love filmmaking and I love the camaraderie of working with an amazingly talented band of eccentric and unique individuals all striving to achieve the same vision. I think it’s the most rewarding experience you can have in this industry. In order to stay focused throughout the marathon, you have to really care about the project and the people involved in making the film. I think that is even more important than all of the prep work.
What is one of the most important things you look for in a collaborator?
A collaborator needs to inspire and support those around them. They need to consider the crew as family and know that in order to be creative, everyone needs to be taken care of and supported. I think a collaborator needs to trust that the team they’ve collected and hired to carry out their vision has the best interests of the film in mind and are as dedicated to the story as they are. The best collaborators believe in collaboration and inspire everyone around them.
"Something I try to always build on with each new film I shoot is my ability to find beauty in the messy reality of available light."
You work in both the narrative and commercial worlds, which can be vastly different. What do you like about working within each? What is the ideal ratio for you to split your time?
Honestly, I really enjoy both experiences. I just love working as a cinematographer and exploring my craft. Feature films have always been my passion. I love movies, I started in this industry crewing on over twenty feature films. So my narrative work is probably the most important to me. That being said, as I’ve mentioned, narrative filmmaking is an extremely arduous endeavor. You have to give it 110% of who you are and it takes a lot to make it to the finish line. I think I would burn out quickly if I only worked on narrative projects.
Commercials on the other hand are usually a great environment to learn and try new things. I love commercials because you can really choose to try something bold because in commercials, you need to really grab people as quickly as possible. So I find it exhilarating to experiment and use bold imagery to grab the audience's attention. Commercials also allow you to work with many different people and meet people around the world. I usually shoot dozens of commercials a year, often with different crews and different directors, so I find it really fun to constantly find the nuances of each team and learn what each director’s tastes and expectations are.
How does being a cinematographer influence how you go about your day to day life?
I think it influences the way I view the world. As I walk around New York, I am constantly observing and learning from the light, the colors, the interactions. I love to walk around with a camera and travel to new places and see the world through a lens. Something I try to always build on with each new film I shoot is my ability to find beauty in the messy reality of available light. I think it’s really interesting to utilize the green color of old fluorescent lights or to embrace neons or cool winter overcast light.
Conversely, I love when warm sunlight blasts through a window and is almost too bright for your eyes, but bounces off the texture of a wooden floor or the colorful fabric of a rug and that light ends up motivating the scene. So as I wander through the world, I’m a constant observer of light and shadow. I am always looking at texture and how objects and windows and doorframes can obscure our vision or limit our view of the world focusing our gaze. I love the quote from Sven Nykvist, “You have light. You needn’t feel alone.”
Bruiser is now streaming on Hulu.