Exclusive Interview: Hollywood Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski Talks GHETT’A LIFE Production, The Jamaican Rain and More
Written by Araya Crosskill
GHETT’A LIFE is an “against the odds” action drama set in one of Kingston’s (Jamaica’s capital) politically turbulent inner-city communities.
Shot by Hollywood cinematographer, Bobby Bukowski, Ghett’a Life chronicles the journey of a determined teenager (Derrick), who realizes his dream of becoming a champion boxer despite a country, community and family conflicted by a divisive political system.
A veteran of 57 films, including Arlington Road (1999) and The Messenger (2009), Bukowski flew to Jamaica to work with director Christopher Browne on what promises to be one of the best films to come out of the Caribbean.
How did you get involved with the project?
Bobby Bukowski: I first met Chris Browne in 1984 in Jamaica. Later, he came to film school in Los Angeles and I was living there at the time. We always vowed that we would make a film together. So when Ghett’a Life came up, we finally made good on that promise.
So it was the script, the island, the friendship?
Bobby Bukowski: My decision to work on the film was for all three equally. I have been traveling to Jamaica since the late 70s. I live in NYC and my favored escape from the harsh winter was to get down to Jamaica for a month or so. In those days, I carried my pack on my back and slept on beaches in my tent, getting around the island on mini-buses. A warm love for the country grew in me instantly. So any opportunity that arises for me to spend time in Jamaica is welcomed.
Certainly I would not shoot a film if the script did not appeal to me. I must be motivated by the material or my work is empty and unfulfilling. Chris wrote a dynamite script filled with danger and pathos. I was moved and energized by it the minute I read it and immediately wanted to be part of it.
As I have stated, I have known Chris for many years and the prospect of working besides friends who you believe in and trust is always a good option.
You typically work on larger productions. What was your approach to shooting a low budget film in a country with limited facilities and so many social and economic challenges?
Bobby Bukowski: The tools always define the methodology. Regardless of the budget, there are always limits: money, time, resources. Chris owns the Red camera that we shot on and a bunch of grip and electric gear.
It is good to be aware of the tools you have available to yourself and the devise a way to work. We had plenty to work with. Chris is a knowledgeable and experienced film maker and would not lead us down a deluded path.
From the very beginning he wanted to exploit the vivid colors that exist in the places we were shooting. The ghettos are filled with bright-colored houses and paintings. Even a market advertisement is often a hand-painted wonder. The palette existed all over our locations so it was not difficult to bring this film to life. Simone, the production designer, supplied a lot as well, hiring local artists to paint walls, locations and houses. She was unflagging in her efforts and her boundless energy and devotion made anything and everything possible.
What I had to offer was a love of the country of Jamaica and my expertise. At this point in my career I am quite confident of my abilities as a cinematographer and knew I could bring a focus and beauty to the film. As an outsider, I also felt I could lend a fresh eye to the film. Often, as natives, we do not see the beauty that a visitor sees. We grow used to our city/landscape and actually become inured to its beauty and wonder. Very common sites become wonders to foreigners.
So the trying conditions, the climatic obstacles which presented themselves (threats of summer storms for instance), none of these deterred you?
Bobby Bukowski: I was well aware of the conditions before I arrived, having spent much time in Jamaica. I have shot all over the world in many weather conditions. It is always a challenge.
The summer storms were expected and we tried to plan our days around them. The local crew members were quite aware of the varying micro-climates around the city and were very good at predicting the weather. I have a good nose for weather as well, so together we planned accordingly.
One thing I did learn was that Jamaicans (at least the ones on our crew) have an aversion to and a fear of the rain. Every time rain was threatening you would think we were hunkering down for a tornado! One day we were shooting in a culvert (waterway) in one of our locations. The rain was coming in from the mountains. Everyone got panicked that we were going to be washed away. I was the one calm voice that said we needed to finish the scene and then bail. In the end we finished the scene and climbed out of the culvert.
Ha. Its true Jamaicans are fearful of rain. I suppose the crew wouldn’t be any different
Bobby Bukowski: The crew was excellent! Experienced and hard-working. I have nothing but respect for them and their devotion to getting the work done, while remaining kind and happy. The beautiful results are a testament to their work. The film speaks tons for them.
How was it working with the actors? They were mostly novices or most of their prior work took place in the theatre.
Bobby Bukowski: The actors were very good. Particularly the young ones. Often much training brings with it the baggage of ineffective habits. The virtue of inexperience in acting is often freshness. I feel the young actors brought a realness to their performances, a freshness that was inspired and guided my own choices as a cinematographer.
Some would say, rightly or wrongly, that this is a boxing film. Do you feel the production would have been better off with more time to rehearse the fighting sequences?
Bobby Bukowski: I would not call this a boxing film, per se. I would rather say it is a human drama of the imaginary borders that are created around people due to institutions such as government, religion and ethnicity, which is framed in a story of boxing. The human drama is what drives the film, not the boxing.
We did have very little time with the boxing sequences and more rehearsal time and more shooting time would have been to our advantage. That said, I feel we accomplished what the story required, what the narrative needed
Now that filming is over how would you sum up the strengths and weaknesses of a Jamaican production and what would you change going into another project?
Bobby Bukowski: The first time I worked on a film in Jamaica was as a Production Assistant on Perry Henzell’s “No Place Like Home” (Henzell, now deceased, is Browne’s uncle and he directed the cult classic “The Harder They Come,” 1972). So, I was very aware of the method in which Jamaicans work with their limited resources. The strengths inherent in having these limitations are that you must invent different and new ways of approaching things. This enlivens your mind and activates your creativity. Often these solutions bring about unexpected and wonderful results.
Weaknesses? I don’t know… I endeavor not to harbor resentment of things that simply do not exist or that you cannot change. Every weakness can be converted into a virtue. It is what we do as human beings to survive. We should apply that to all aspects of our lives, including work. I will say it again: The film speaks for itself. I am proud of the moving and beautiful film we all created together. So in the end, whatever elements came together, be they perceived as strengths or weaknesses, we needed and used every one of them.
Photo Credit: Jason Maltz