In this 75-minute episode, interviewer Shelly Johnson, ASC; cinematographer Andrew Dunn, BSC; and producer-director Lee Daniels discuss the making of this period drama focusing on the life of legendary jazz/swing singer Billie Holiday (played by Andra Day).
Even today adored by fans around the globe, Holiday’s career in the 1940s and ’50s was not without controversy, as her heart-wrenching protest ballad “Strange Fruit” addressed the horrific lynchings taking place in the southern states and resurgent racism. Her defiance in the face of those who would suppress her voice helped usher in the civil rights movement, yet she also struggled with an addiction that opened her to persecution and would ultimately cut her life short.
Cinematographer Andrew Dunn photographed The United States vs. Billie Holiday on 35mm film (and select scenes in Super 16), seeking to echo the aesthetic of the 1930s and ’40s, the height of the Jazz Age. Shooting with Panavision cameras and anamorphic lenses, the goal was to establish the look and vibe of the period without seeking nostalgia. The cinematographer gave each song/performance a different visual approach, with camera movement designed accent to Holiday’s emotional state at each point in her life.
In this episode, Dunn and producer-director Lee Daniels discuss their early successes, their inspirations, the importance of a close director-cinematographer collaboration, and their use of full-spectrum color photography in shooting Billie Holiday, among many other subjects.
Growing up in London, Dunn began making 8mm and 16mm films as a teen, inspired by his father’s work at MGM Studios, spending plenty of time on the set observing the making of such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey.
He studied at the Harrow College of Technology and Art, and later found a position at the BBC as an editor — while still making his personal projects and gaining experience. His first credits as a cinematographer came for shooting TV documentaries before earning his first narrative credit, on the BBC Scotland telefilm Andrina (1981), directed by Bill Forsyth. He worked steadily in television through the decade — honored with multiple BAFTA TV Award nominations and winning for Threads, Edge of Darkness and Tumbledown— before shooting his first U.S. feature, Chatahoochie (1988), directed by frequent BBC collaborator Mick Jackson.
Dunn followed with such films as LA. Story, The Bodyguard, The Madness of King George, The Crucible, Practical Magic, The Count of Monte Cristo, Gosford Park, Mrs. Henderson Presents, Miss Potter, Extraordinary Measures, Crazy Stupid Love, The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Bridget Jones’s Baby.
In 2009, Dunn photographed the acclaimed drama Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire for Lee Daniels, who earned Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Picture. They followed up with the historical drama The Butler — another hit.
Daniels began his film career as a casting agent and then manager, later founding his own production company and producing his first feature film, the critical and box-office hit Monster’s Ball (2001). He parlayed this success into projects including The Woodsman, and made his directorial debut with the crime drama Shadowboxer (2005).
Daniels’ credits as a producer also include the features Tennessee,& Pimp and Concrete Cowboy, as well as the popular TV series Star and Empire.
Interviewer Shelly Johnson is a California native and graduated from the Art Center College of Design in 1980. Inspired in part by the camera crews his father worked with as a television director, Johnson focused on cinematography, soon establishing himself with an impressive array of television series, movies and miniseries, including the 1997 retelling of Stephen King’s The Shining. He was nominated for ASC Awards for his work in the telefilms Everybody’s Baby: The Rescue of Jessica McClure and The Inheritance, as well as the series The Others and Training Day.
Johnson parlayed his success into the feature film realm, with credits including Jurassic Park III, The Last Castle, Hidalgo, Sky High, The Expendables 2, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, The Wolfman, Captain America: The First Avenger and the recent World War II drama Greyhound.