John Rosario Cinematographer for A Lot of Nothing at SXSW

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John Rosario is the cinematographer on Mo McRae’s feature directorial debut ‘A Lot of Nothing‘ which premiered at the 2022 South by Southwest Film Festival. While in Austin, Texas for SXSW, John stopped by the ibble Studio to talk about his work on Mo McRae’s new movie and his road to becoming a professional Director of Photography and working with Mo McRae.

Claudia Giunta: So why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and why you are here?

John Rosario: Yeah. So it’s actually it’s my first time at South by Southwest, first time in Austin, and I’m really excited to be here, really excited to see a lot of nothing on the big screen with my peers and just people that haven’t seen the film. And I’m just thrilled to just see it on the big screen and to meet everyone. I was the cinematographer on that film and, yeah.

We did a 17 minute oner. 17 minutes, no cuts opening the film. Very bold. Mo, he got a lot of pushback back. And there’s some folks that didn’t want him to do it, but he stuck with it. And I’m glad he did because it was a very special achievement. – John Rosario

How did you get started in cinematography?

John: Well, it was actually by chance, really, because I so I grew up in New York. My folks were emigrated from the Dominican Republic over to New York. I’m a first generation American. And with that, they brought us a set of values with them that was very like intertwined with you know. Very blue collar mentality, working hard and not really involved in the arts. And so their whole philosophy on career and work was always, find a job that pays well, you know, and that’s it. And so I carried that with me. And after high school, I look at a list of things and I picked out civil engineering and I was like, OK, going to school for civil engineering.

And here I am. One year in a civil engineering course, and I have a conversation with a friend of mine who’s a musician. And he he asks a very simple question. He goes, You know, “Hey. So do you see yourself being happy with with the choice that you’ve made with being a civil engineer? Do you see a future of happiness with that? And my world just crumbled and everything, just my foundation was just everything, just like crumbled because I never, never thought about happiness and work and career. Like, I wasn’t raised that way. It was always a career job is something that pays well. So to be happy with what you do, that just didn’t equate to me, and I really reflected on that question.

And I said, No, I honestly, I won’t be happy being a civil engineer. And he goes, Well, what makes you happy? And I said, You know, well, I like watching movies. You know, it’s something that I really enjoy doing. I mean, I never really thought about a career in cinema. I didn’t even I didn’t have access to to even thinking that that was possible. And I said, Yeah, so I like watching movies and he goes, Well, why don’t you go to film school? And I did. I went to film school. I dropped out of civil engineering and and attended a school in Long Island, New York. And like most people you know that don’t really know exactly what they want to do in film. I went in thinking I wanted to be a director. You know, I would write things and just like, focus on that aspect of it. But then I realized through doing little projects in school and through mentors that I had in school, that I realized that I had an affinity for the camera and cinematography.

And so I learned early on that this is what I love. You know, I love the idea of like just creating images and crafting images and lighting and composition. And I was really thrilled by that and so I was lucky that I found that thing in film school that I gravitated towards.

 That’s awesome. How did you get involved in this particular film?

John: So I was shooting a film in Montgomery, Alabama, called ‘Son of the South’. The director was Barry Alexander Brown. He’s actually an editor. He’s Spike Lee’s editor, a long time editor. And he decided to direct this film. And I was shooting that film, and one of the actors on it Lex Scott Davis, she’s married to Moe McRae, the director of A Lot of Nothing, and he came over to visit her in Alabama and she said, “Hey, you should really meet John. You know, I think you guys will get along.” And so she set up kind of encounter between the two of us, and we went and had dinner and we just spent the night talking about, you know, just films and philosophy and upbringing and just a lot of like, just a deep conversation. And it was really wonderful and engaging, and we kind of maintained a friendship after that meeting.

 You know, we would just text each other constantly, call each other and just talk, you know, just talk about anything, really photography, film, things that really make us tick. And then his film came along and he called me to do it. Uh, and I immediately said yes without reading the script. It’s one of those things, you know, you know, sometimes you say yes to the person that you’re collaborating with. And then because you know how great that person is or the type of artist that person is and so you you’re just inclined to work with that person no matter what and you know that whatever that story is, it’s going to be, you know, special and deep and done in the right way. And so, you know, I immediately said, yes, I was like, Yeah, if it’s you, I’m in. And then I read the script and connected with that. And so that was a bonus for sure.

OK, so obviously the director true to the script. After reading the script, getting a feel for the tone, was there anything else in particular that you were like, “Oh, this is why I want to do the movie?”

John: Yeah so reading the script, I knew it was special. You know, it’s a very unique story. As you’re watching it, you think you know what this story is about but then things take a turn and things keep taking a turn, and they just keep it just takes you for a ride. And so as I was reading the script, I was on this ride I was like, You know, OK, you know, it starts in a way where it bates you in, you think you’ve heard this story before, you know you think it’s predictable but in fact, it’s not. It’s like things happen in a very, you know, abstract and bizarre way, and they take a wild turn and immediately, that was just super attracting to me.

“the great thing about Mo is that he gives you the platform to express yourself as an artist. And you know, it’s not a dictatorship. It’s a collaboration. You know, he expresses his intentions and what he wants to say, and then he opens the door for you to interpret that in your own special way and contribute to the image, contribute to the project. ” – John Rosario

So tell us a little bit about working with the director. What was it like and why do you like him? 

John: I think that this is one of the most fulfilling collaborations that I’ve had in a very long time. You know, the great thing about Mo is that he gives you the platform to express yourself as an artist. And you know, it’s not a dictatorship. It’s a collaboration. You know, he expresses his intentions and what he wants to say, and then he opens the door for you to interpret that in your own special way and contribute to the image, contribute to the project. So throughout this process, he made me feel, you know, super involved in crafting this thing with him. Not necessarily just, you know, I’m a cinematographer shooting this for him. It was no, I’m a cinematographer collaborating with him to craft the image, to craft the the philosophy and the visual language. And it was very much a collaborative effort and that was special. And he does this with everyone in every department. So it really felt special, you know?

So in terms of working on a collaborative team, how did you guys achieve in terms of film technique, suspense through the camera?

John: That’s a great question, because when during pre-production, we really wanted to involve philosophy in every choice that we made. In every compositional choice, in every lighting choice and in how the camera speaks subtextual and how that can reinforce what the characters are feeling. You know, we would look at a scene, dissect it fully and ask ourselves questions like, who is this scene about? Who is it favoring? What do we want to say subtextual? And then we would find ways to position the camera and move the camera in ways that that kind of gives you that subtext. We did a 17 minute oner. 17 minutes, no cuts opening the film, very bold. Mo, he got a lot of pushback back, and there’s some folks that didn’t want him to do it, but he stuck with it. And I’m glad he did because it was a very special achievement. And so 17 minutes in. No cuts. But even in that process, since there were no cuts, we needed to be deliberate in how we move the camera and why we move the camera and then not just document these two actors moving within the space around the house, which is, you know, it was a lot to just light and keep the continuity of the camera and everything. But we made choices. We said, you know, in this specific moment, the camera should favor this person and we shouldn’t see the other person. We should just hear what they’re saying and just reflect on this one person as they receive the information from the other person. So it’s really special, just making these deliberate choices on where the camera needs to be and how it needs to be, and how it needs to move. And, so it’s just been a really careful, deliberate and calculated approach to the visuals really.

And did you have your own ideas that you came to him with or was like this bouncing ideas off each other?

John: It was absolutely a bouncing of ideas, you know, it’s incredible, really as I reflect on that, it’s a great question because it just brings me back to those times of us making the film. And, you know, I would just get a call from Mo, you know, just for no reason, you know, during pre-production and after after the day’s done and he would just give me a call and we would just talk and honestly, the call wasn’t about anything specific or particular wasn’t anything like pressing, it was just to talk. And through these talks, we would discover new things and it was like, you know, I was thinking, maybe we should do this and that would inspire me to to add to that, I was like, Oh, that’s great and we can do this also and, you know, do it in this way. And so it was great. It was really a beautiful collaboration because we would just just bounce ideas off each other and really improve each other’s ideas, you know. I would pitch something to him and then he would take that and make it better. And I think I did the same when he would pitch ideas. And so it was a beautiful collaboration. 

Well, obviously, as a civil engineer initially, you kind of made the switch and jumped. So you’re like proving that anybody can really kind of do this. Do you have any advice for aspiring cinematographers?

John: Absolutely. I think that it’s important to just keep working. Frustration will come and that’s OK. Embrace that but keep working. Keep developing your skills. Keep getting better. Be your biggest critic, you know? Never settle for an incredible image, even though even if you produce a beautiful image or a beautiful scene. Dissect that, see how you can improve on that and with that, you’ll continue to become better at your craft. I think it’s important to stay a student always. I’m always looking to improve and I never want to hit that ceiling. I want to keep going above and beyond and and keep pushing. And yeah, so I guess to sum it all up is, you know, just stay a student, stay hungry. Keep improving on your craft.