Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople in the industry. In this entry, we chat with cinematographer Tami Reiker about how she freed the performers of One Night in Miami to commandeer the set.
Cinema is where we turn when we want to shake the dust off the textbooks. Understanding icons as creatures of flesh and blood often requires the electricity of performance and a fresh perspective injection. Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown: these are men trapped in the amber of bedroom posters. They embody transformative action and represent the very best of us, determined to leave the world better than how they met it.
One Night in Miami is a fictionalized account detailing a singular confrontation between the four titans and how this one encounter shaped them into those icons on our walls. Set in the aftermath of the legendary bout between Ali (or Cassius Clay at the time) and Sonny Liston, the film reveals how a celebratory drink can ignite into philosophical war. Director Regina King relied on cinematographer Tami Reiker to ground her film in a recognizable, historical frame but also give her the freedom to let these imagined personalities tear through their environment.
When you have legends wrapped around the talents of Eli Goree, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Leslie Odom Jr., and Aldis Hodge, the last thing you want to do is constrict them via aesthetic choices. One Night in Miami bounces around several culturally significant locations, but primarily, the movie maintains its magnificent what-if within one tiny hotel room. Not wanting to lose an ounce of tension or exhilaration from this colossal conversation, King refused to stage the exchange, asking her actors to carry their bodies where the dialogue took them.
For Reiker, this meant she and her team had to improv and be ready for anything. The hotel room was lit for every possible angle, every possible corner. Reiker mounted her camera on a jib system, allowing her operators to float along with the actors easily.
With the jib method in play, the actors could follow the theatrical roots of the script. King would ultimately cut the scenes in the edit, but she wanted to shoot as continuously as possible on the set. There would be no escape from the headspace of the moment.
“That’s daunting for a crew,” says Reiker. “These actors are moving all over the place for lighting, for the boom, for focus pullers, but it worked. It was really the only way to do it because they would build up to these performances and you couldn’t just say, ‘I’ll pick it up halfway through Kingsley.’ He actually was such an inspiration for all of us. His dedication was incredible.”
When it came to lighting the shot, the room itself was not particularly forgiving. Again, it was oh-so-tiny. Some lightmaps were utilized, but Titan Tubes were primarily employed to capture the image. These LED tubes emit a robust tuneable light, giving Reiker even more leeway to cinematically ad-lib.
“The Titan Tubes turned out to be our key,” she says. “These actors were so tall, they’re all over six feet and the ceiling was like eight and a half feet. We placed Titan Tubes in the corners and at different key places and we would watch the rehearsal. We always wanted to, as much as we could, keep them barely backlit and not just beaming.”
When King would call cut, Reiker would have some time to adapt, but by the very nature of the spontaneous performance style, what’s done was already done. Reiker’s greatest weapon was the plan already in motion.
“We would run in in-between takes and adjust a little bit,” she explains. “Add more magic gloss to soften something, but I have to say, this is where the 6K came in. It’s so incredible in the color timing. For every ten-minute master, there was always one corner where you’re like, ‘Please don’t go in that corner. Don’t go over there; there’s no light.’ Thankfully, you could dig out so much in the transfer. It was incredible, and you could also pull things down.”
Reiker fell in love with the Alexa 65(6K) and the Prime DNA lenses while sitting in a theater watching another cinematographer totally dominate the screen.
“It’s so beautiful,” she says. “I remember watching Joker. I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ I felt like I could just touch it. The way it was so visceral and beautiful. So, I went to ARRI Rental and I knew it was over our budget range. I did my presentation. I sent them the script. I begged, and they loved it. They loved Regina, and they loved the script, and they worked with the producers to make it happen.”
At the beginning of March, King and Reiker were supposed to complete the final two shooting days. As you can already guess, production shut down as COVID-19 started to spread. After the murder of George Floyd, King felt compelled to finish her film. She could sense that many would find value in the charge for advocacy and internal turmoil exhibited by the Black heroes of One Night in Miami.
“We were actually one of the first films to pick up shooting,” says Reiker. “Both the liquor store and the Fontainebleau hotel room were shot in LA.”
As we enter 2021, productions are starting to understand the new world order of operation, but when One Night in Miami started back up, the learning curve had not quite swung. COVID-shooting presented a myriad of new problems. Solutions needed to arrive quickly.
“One of the craziest things to happen was that night at the liquor store,” she continues. “It’s an all-night exterior. I get to set at 5:00 PM. The producer comes to me and says, your gaffer has to go home. I’m like, ‘Whaaaat?” And he said, ‘Well, one of the rigging electric, he came here a couple of hours early to check on things and had heatstroke and threw up. Your gaffer was within six feet of him, and now the COVID lady is making him leave.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, what a start to a night.'”
When stress went high, her director came in with a sigh of relief. King knew from the moment they met exactly what she desired out of Reiker and how to will the film to her vision. She’s a purpose-driven filmmaker.
“Regina is fantastic,” says Reiker. “She absolutely knew what she wanted. She’s an amazing collaborator — an actress-director. She knew what she wanted out of these performers and also the mood and the feeling. One of the amazing things about working with her is that the crew absolutely loves her, and when you’re working on a film that really drives everything. We had a lot of very long nights and we needed that energy from the crew.”
One Night in Miami is a film inspired by the legacy of great thought, and it hopes to spark some in return. Change comes from one individual talking to another individual. It doesn’t matter whether that happens behind four hotel walls, within a movie theater, or in front of a television. The conversation comes. Ears are pricked, ready, and waiting.
One Night in Miami opens in select theaters on December 25th before streaming on Amazon Prime on January 15th.