<I>The Color Purple</I>
Issue: November/December 2023

The Color Purple

The Color Purple, from Warner Bros. Pictures, presents the novel by Alice Walker as a theatrical musical. Directed by Blitz Bazawule (Black Is King, The Burial of Kojo), the film was produced by Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Scott Sanders and Quincy Jones. 

Taraji P. Henson stars as Shug Avery, alongside Fantasia Barrino, who portrays Celie, with Danielle Brooks taking on the role of Sophia. The film also stars Colman Domingo, Corey Hawkins, H.E.R., Halle Bailey and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor.

Bazawule (pictured) partnered with director of photography Dan Laustsen (John Wick: Chapter 4, The Shape of Water) for the shoot, and Jon Poll (Bombshell, The Greatest Showman) for the edit. Here, the director talks about his first major studio feature and how the film’s music, choreography, sets and performances all came together.

Blitz, this film is obviously very dependent on the music for the production. What shape was the music in when you began filming?

“Absolutely! I preferred to have my music as complete as possible. Some of that music is exactly what we shot to that appears in the film, maybe with a little mix and a little mastering. I believe in doing that because it allows the artist, the musician, the performer to perform with conviction. If the music isn’t weighty (or) finished…it’s very difficult for the performer to believe. And it wasn’t just about my actors. It was also about my dancers. We had big musical numbers with upwards of 100 dancers, and it was very important that they believed that this music was actually happening in the right context. To do that required us to — very early — make sure that our music was solid. It’s very difficult to go back and rejigger music and performance, so I wanted to prevent all of that by starting with a clear idea of what the music was going to be — tone wise and scale wise — and then we shot to that.”

How closely does the film’s music follow that of the Broadway show? 

“It’s music that is absolutely inspired by the Broadway show. But, as you know, Broadway music doesn’t have to adhere to any timestamps or any real realism. The audience kind of suspends disbelief, and in film, you don’t have that privilege. You have to be time conscious: When is this music happening and what’s the historical context in which it’s happening? 

“One of the biggest and earliest things I did was split the music into three parts: gospel, blues and jazz, because I felt those would be the clearest arc of African-American music and how I could create the film around that arc. Then I went and found practitioners of those genres of music. I brought in Ricky Dillard for gospel. I brought in Keb’ Mo’ for four blues. And I brought in Christian McBride for jazz. They worked together, but also separately in bringing realism to the music. So it wasn’t Broadway. It was really lived-in music, which was something that we did a lot — not just musically, but in production design and camera work. I wanted everything to feel lived in.” 

Can you talk about shooting the musical sequences. Is there a lot of starting and stopping?

“It started first with Fatima Robinson, my brilliant choreographer. I like long takes as a director. I’m not big on that kind of abbreviated approach, so I made sure that our dance sequences were long. We rehearsed that the whole sequence, and we could do it in a take. Then we reset a camera and we do that take again. It’s hard work and laborious, but for me, it’s the most believable, and it’s also an old-school way in how musicals were done…These days you don’t have a lot of that. Some of it is just time and money. We really focused on making sure that these dance sequences were seamless and they were the full thing. Maybe not the whole song, but half of the song would be fully rehearsed so we could shoot.
“Then there was also a lot of camera choreography, so it wasn’t just the dance. (Cinematographer) Dan Laustsen and myself spent a lot of time in rehearsals with the dancers, finding our scenes, finding our shots and finding when this is a good point to cut after a minute of dancing. We could stop them, reset to do another minute of dance and such and such, so it was a very fluid process. And I think it also it puts the artisans’ work on display. It also makes it easy for my editorial staff to find the best bits from long sequences.”

When it came to cameras, were you relying on Dan Laustsen for input?

“Dan and I worked very closely to pick everything: lenses, camera format, everything. We debated, and we shot different formats, and went and watched it and asked ourselves, ‘What is the best way in which this film should exist?’ Dan was very helpful there, and incredibly knowledgeable. His resume is up there, so he was like my guide in that regard, but also very open to try new things. 

“We shot with an Arri, and we also understood that we were going to be shooting in the American South and wanted those tones. So a lot of our work, (and) a lot of the choices were based on location. We also knew that the camera was going to be fluid. It’s a lot of Steadicam work, and there was a lot of crane work that allowed us to find big, big dance sequences. One of the things Dan and I talked about very early was: How do we stay away from one of the things that plagues most musicals? Here are these rambunctious dance sequences, where the camera’s liberated and flies around, and here are these static narrative scenes, which kind of end up being almost conflicting styles that have to live together?

“Dan and I were very thoughtful about that, and making sure that we were choreographing with Fatima. So it wasn’t just the actors moving around in within a frame. If it was a big dance sequence, the camera was doing a similar thing so that when it all cuts together, it is very rare that we have static scenes. And when they’re static, they’re static for a reason.”

I understand the production took place in Georgia. What was shot on-location versus a stage? 

“The shoot was 72 days. We did easily 30 percent on physical location, and about 70 percent on a stage. A lot of our movie takes place indoors. Some of our bigger exteriors live outdoors, so that was kind of the balance.”

This isn’t a visual effects film, but nowadays, every film has some amount of VFX. What were the needs for this film?

“A lot of it went to skies and sky replacement, because when you’re shooting physical locations for that many days, it’s hard to keep your skies consistent. That was one of the biggest things. When you have an overcast day and she needs to be sunny, you know, you have to do that. Dan and I are very practical filmmakers. Along with Paul Denham Austerberry, our production designer, we built a lot of practical effects. Our giant gramophone, which Celie sings to Shug Avery, was built practically. The only thing we added was the horn of the gramophone, but the entire apparatus is actually spinning. I like to do that because, again, it gives the cast a huge amount of believability and buy in, and they believe it’s happening and it makes the performance even better.

“Shug Avery, coming to the juke joint, that was a real swamp! We drained the swamp. It takes two months to do that, by the way, and two months to fill it back up. We built the juke joint in the middle of the swamp and we filled it back up. Thankfully, it was filled by the time we needed it.” 

I would have imagined that was on a stage? 

“All that Spanish moss is real. All that water is real. So there was a lot of practicality. VFX — I will use the right word: ‘invisible’ visual effects — you take for granted. It’s a lot of work, but it seamlessly blends. I don’t like the audience to be distracted (or) taken out of the movie because of a visual effect. I think how you do that is you offer up enough reality, and then you let the invisible hand of VFX take it over the top and complete it. There were a lot of moments like that. Period clean up — that’s where a lot of it went. They are there, but it’s meant to be disguised as just part of our tableau.”

Which studios provided VFX services?

“Cosa (VFX) was big for us. And Pixomondo, we worked very closely with.” 

How closely were you working with editor Jon Poll? Was he close to the production? 

“Jon and I started way before production. I bring everybody in early. When you’re making a film of this scale and scope, technically, it is a lot of work, and I think the biggest challenge is everybody being on the same page. It’s the Achilles' heels of this medium. You give a script out to 100 filmmakers, and you’ll get 100 movies back. Everyone sees the world differently, so one of the things that I did very early was, I storyboarded about a thousand frames of the film. I cut it all together. I scanned and cut it all together. I hired voice artists — all the dialog work. I even added some sound effects just to make it as real as possible.”

So you had a structure of what you were aiming for?

“The film existed, and actually, everybody will tell you, it was mandatory for everyone who worked on my film to sit through a two-hour cut of the film — pencil sketches with some dance rehearsal footage in there. I did it with Jon Poll. I did it with Dan Laustsen. I did it with Paul Denham Austerberry. I did it with (costume designer) Francine (Jamison-Tanchuck). I did it with actors. And the reason I do that is, then there’s no doubt the movie we’re making, one; two, we know the structure; and three, everybody has a jumping-off point. Of course, when you hire the best, you know that storyboard goes away very quickly. It just lets everybody feel it. And actually, I remember people sobbed watching these pencil sketches. People laughed out loud. And I go, ‘Well, if my pencil sketches are doing this, then Dan Laustsen’s work. Paul’s work, Jon Poll’s work is just going to take it over the top. I’ve always done that as a filmmaker. Every film I’ve made, I’ve sketched all my storyboards, and again, they don’t end up being the same, but they end up helping us know the sandbox we’re operating in. And that sandbox is very critical for film, certainly of this scale. I don’t know if it’s good for every movie, but I definitely knew it was going to be very important for this one.”

Did the film turn out the way you thought it would, and is there a sequence that you would call attention as one of your favorites?

“Yes, the film is 1,000 percent how I envisioned it. Without a doubt! In terms of scenes, there are several, but I think 'Push the Button,’ where Shug Avery performs in the juke joint, [that] scene is the most reliant on a well-oiled, collaborative machine. You’re talking about the levels of production design and timing it takes to get the set functioning right. I told you about draining the swamp. Filling the swamp. That was all hard work. Then there is Dan’s masterful work in how he captures the arrival. 

“And then we lose the light. It was practical because the song is quite long. It’s over three minutes, so I knew that the audience will get bored watching Shug just perform. Turning off the lights, and going and changing the entire atmosphere of the juke joint gave us another lease on the excitement level. And then, of course, Fatima Robinson’s phenomenal work, and how the choreography itself is functional and tells a story throughout the narrative. And then there’s Francine Tanchuck’s amazing costume work and that red dress. Shug Avery’s got on the red headdress. I look forward to that moment because it is a true confluence of real collaborative talent, where everybody’s job is at the highest level. And it makes for a great introduction for Shug Avery.”

What’s next for you? 

“I’m actually enjoying this phase…beginning to show the film and getting a fantastic response from audiences and press, like yourself. I like to just stay in there. And then when it’s done, I’ll figure out what I’m going to do next.”