“We’re dealing with slavery and slave content. How are we approaching this material and what’s the unique way of doing that?” “Augustus” filmmaker Jon Alston asked when making his documentary short feature which is gaining awards chatter and hoping to make the shortlist.
Alston’s short tracks a slave’s fight as he stands up for his rights just before the Civil War, and seeing slavery evolve into today’s racial injustices and inequality.
Below Alston and cinematographer, Matt Edwards discuss the film’s journey and how filming on location helped serve the story.
Where and how did the journey for “Augustus” begin?
It was a wild time. Ayinde Howell, who plays Augustus, had this idea for a screenplay that he started in 2017. I worked with him briefly at USC on a short film, and I looked at it; at the time, it was different.
It jumped around time frames, but I thought if we make it more protagonists centered, we can hone in on what we’re trying to say in the story.
How did you figure out the period elements of the film?
Alston: We watched a lot of films to get ideas. We watched “12 Years a Slave” and new films to get a sense of how camera movement affected things.
We went out to scout on the weekends because we were working on things. Matt went down before we started shooting.
Matt Edwards: There was an embarrassment of riches for locations in Richmond. So, it was easier to schedule and make things look amazing.
Break down that opening sequence with the present and then the flashback to the past.
Edwards: Jon was pushing me to do something a little different. But we had some rain breaks and had to stop, but that gave us time to talk about the shots.
Some of my favorite frames are frames that I had set up, and Jon would suggest, ‘Tilt it up,’ and we did, so all credit goes to him.
The idea was not to classically frame the memories, we wanted them to feel otherworldy which all came together through framing, lighting and music to capture the essence of the story and something that was a bit extreme.
Alston: With the dungeon sequence in the tunnel, Matt found a way to open up that tunnel and that dungeon. He brought that angelic light into it and that visual with the light at the top said, freedom is on its way. It was one of the great iconic images in the story.
Edwards: These plugs went up to the exterior. I don’t know when the last time anybody ever took them out. But, that’s another thing that you can do. If you have time to scout, you just see those things. My next problem was, ‘Can I talk this location into pulling the plugs out?’ and they let us do it. But it was about the lighting design and this one light.
What about the end, when the speech is being given, where you have a crowd of people inside the house, listening as Augustus gives this talk?
Alston: First of all, the house and that tunnel were connected; it was the same location. That’s the same house. The backstairs lead from the house to the dungeon.
So, we shot it at 2:30 in the morning, and we had three and a half days to shoot 18 pages of script. It was hectic. We spent so much of the day in the dungeon to get that sequence, but when it came to shooting in the house, there was no sunlight, and it’s our finale, it needed to be in the daylight. We rigged it [using lighting] to get that out and to make it look like it was a Sunday afternoon.