Alexander Yellen — Cinematographer and Director

Alexander Yellen shooting Toby Forrest in Daruma
Alexander Yellen shooting Toby Forrest in Daruma

Alexander Yellen is a cinematographer and director in Hollywood. He has worked on feature films, television shows, and has won awards for his work in the industry. He is currently working on a project that he shot a concept of, Daruma. The two main characters in this film happen to have disabilities. It was important to Yellen, and others working on this project, that the actors portraying these characters have the authentic disabilities themselves. The decision not to have ‘name’ actors in the film is resulting in an all too common theme—the money people don’t want to take the risk. So how does a film like Daruma get made? Finding the money has taken a creative twist. ABILITY Magazine caught up with Yellen and discussed Africa, Daruma, and what Hollywood needs to know about hiring actors with disabilities.

Shelly Rohe: Tell me a little about growing up.

Yellen: I had in some ways a very normal childhood and in other ways a very abnormal childhood. I grew up in Washington DC, but my parents are paleoanthropologists. They study human prehistory. I spent time with them on excavations in southern and eastern Africa.

Rohe: Nice! I was going to ask where.

Yellen: When I was very, very young it was South African Botswana, and later we spent a number of summers in the Congo. It was Zaire at the time, and now it’s the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Rohe: How long would you be there for?

Alexander Yellen: I think it was about seven or eight weeks at a time. I lived in Botswana as a small child for about a year. Have you ever seen a film called The Gods Must Be Crazy?

Rohe: Yes, I have.

Yellen: The Khoisan, the bushmen who find the bottle?

Rohe: Right.

Yellen: We lived in the Kalahari Desert with the Khoisan.

Rohe: Wow! What was that like for you?

Yellen: I was very young, so I have limited memories of that particular experience. The first thing is, when you’re a kid, you think whatever your experience is is normal. You don’t process that you’re having an unusual experience for children more broadly. So, it was like, “OK, sure, we’re going back to Africa.” “OK, sure, here are people who have cultural differences and with whom I don’t share a language, but they’re kids. They like to play. Awesome. I’ll play with them.”

Going back as an adult, there was nothing particularly shocking or surprising. The only thing that threw me a little bit was, in Khoisan culture, there really isn’t a concept of personal space. We went out to do some work during the day, and the first day when I came back, there were four people sitting in my tent, just because that’s the spot with the best shade. It was like a nice spot to hang out. “You’ve set up communal space for everybody.” That’s how it works. It’s not like first-come, first-serve on sleeping space. They acknowledge that that’s where I sleep. That was the only thing culturally that threw me.

Rohe: After childhood, tell me about school.

Yellen: I went to private school in Washington DC from pre-K all the way through high school. DC public schools are historically not great and were particularly not great in the 1980s. My parents were fairly committed to my sister and myself having a good education. They never pulled me out of school to go to digs with them. There were stretches where I lived with other family members or stayed in a dormitory. But I went to a great school and got a fantastic education and also developed a love of photography. And I have to thank my mother largely for that. I played with her cameras. She has been an amateur photographer her whole life. I can remember playing with her cameras at a fairly early age. She got me my own when I was 13, and I don’t think I put the thing down for the next five years.

Rohe: Do you have a favorite picture?

Yellen: A favorite picture that I’ve ever taken?

Rohe: Yes.

Yellen: No, is the short answer, but I have a collection of special images that are particularly meaningful to me. There’s a picture of my father that I took in Botswana. He’s standing on the porch of a platform fence staring out along the delta that I particularly love. Do you know what a Polaroid transfer is?

Rohe: No.

Yellen: Do you remember old-school Polaroids, not the kind that come out as a square, but the kind where you have to peel two pieces of paper apart?

Rohe: Yes, I do.

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Yellen: If you take the side that has the wet chemicals on it and you press that side down on a piece of paper, you get a secondary copy of the same image on whatever medium, but it has to be at least a slightly absorbent medium. I did a Polaroid transfer of the flags at the Washington Monument when I was in high school, and it ripped a little bit as it came up, so it has this, very weathered, damaged texture to it that ends up imbuing the image with a secondary meaning that I think is ever more relevant as you look at it, like the frayed fabric of national political life.

Rohe: That sounds hauntingly beautiful.

Yellen: Those are two that jump to mind. And I’d say the picture I took of proposing to Kelli (Kelli McNeil is the writer of Daruma) is one that’ll rank as an all-timer.

Rohe: Tell me about that one.

Yellen: I had been planning for some time, I had always imagined getting a great proposal picture with Kelli that looks like, “How did you execute that?” I know some people have had friends take pictures, but one, there was no way I could think to do that that wouldn’t be creepy—

Rohe: (laughs) Right!

Yellen: —and two, I tend to be fairly particular about photography, and rarely do I trust anybody else to take a picture that I really want to take. I proposed to Kelli in Hawaii, and I had gotten a miniature tripod the week before the trip. She asked, “What is that for?” I said, “I’m going to up our selfie game.” She said, “You don’t take selfies.” I said, “Yeah, I know. I hand my camera to other people and I’m always disappointed, so I’m going to do it myself and do it right.” So, I spent three days looking for the right spot and the right opportunity to propose. It was the story of three days of missed opportunities. Either there would be too many people or the vibe in the atmosphere was wrong or the weather wasn’t right. But I’d still set up this tripod with my camera on it and we’d take some self-portraits everywhere, so she got fairly desensitized to the operation. On the third day, we found a beach at the very western end of the island that was deserted, the sun was going down, the light was absolutely gorgeous. I set the thing up on a timer. It was taking one picture every second. I walked her out into just the right spot, walked out next to her and we stood there. It had been a normal routine of self-portraits that she had gotten used to at that point. So. when I went down on my knee to propose, she was completely stunned, totally, totally surprised. It’s this picture against this absolutely stunning backdrop of beach and ocean with glowing orange light.

Rohe: Wow!

Daruma pool side
Toby Forrest and John Lawson in Daruma

Yellen: And I have this very sweet, hopeful look on my face with a ring and her hand brought to her mouth in total surprise. It’s one of those things that you couldn’t hope to execute much better.

Rohe: That sounds amazing! Congratulations!

Yellen: Thank you. She probably told you we just got married.

Rohe: She did.

Yellen: So, you were asking me about school. I got a good education. I developed a love of photography. I went to Wesleyan University in Connecticut thinking about a career in photography. I wanted to be a National Geographic photographer. That was my passion, my dream job when I was in high school. The photography department at Wesleyan and I just didn’t click. But I started taking some film classes, and that really clicked with me. It turns out that there is not an enormous—or I should say, it turns out that many of the skills from still photography translate well to cinematography. I shot a couple of guys’ thesis films. One of my best friends lived in LA and offered to let me stay with him while I got things sorted out, figure out if LA was a place I could live. I tried to make some inroads, but I didn’t have any clue what I was doing when I moved to LA. I didn’t know anybody, at least anybody in the industry. I didn’t have a jumping-off point. I started from scratch and found my way.

Rohe: When you were moving to LA, did you have other jobs you did?

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Yellen: Initially—during college, I had a summer job selling knives. I was a Cutco knife seller for a couple of summers, which is a thing a lot of college kids did. I think they still do.

Rohe: Yup, I think they do.

Yellen: I had saved up some money from doing that, and even though it gave my father deep anxiety—my father has had a government job his whole life. He’s had security and job stability, so the idea of a free-lance art job was absolutely terrifying to him. But my parents were both fairly supportive of my career choice. They said, “If it all goes south, you can always come home. We’ll make sure you can get home, so don’t worry about that.”

Rohe: That’s a great thing, that support.

Yellen: And things like, “We’ll make sure—you’ll have health insurance. Don’t worry about that.” They were supportive. But no, I never had another job. I didn’t do the waiting tables thing or take on a side hustle to make ends meet while I was trying to get a film career going. I got my first paid gig about two months after I moved to LA. I spent a lot of time doing student films. The American Film Institute and USC have renowned film schools, and their alumni want to do bigger and better things. Once you develop a reputation for being somebody who’s a hard worker, who shows up, shows up on time, has a good attitude, and maybe even has a decent skill set, people will recommend you to their friends. It really is a network-based business.
Rohe: You’ve told me a little about how you started in the industry. Can you talk about what you’ve done?

Yellen: Are you asking how I moved forward in the industry or the work that I’ve done?

Rohe: Both?

Yellen: From the get-go, my goal was to be a cinematographer. Again, I love cameras, I have always loved the visual storytelling aspect, the power of the image to tell a story. I gravitated towards the camera department right from the get-go doing all these student films. Once people realized I had an aptitude for camera work, especially the ability to pull focus, which is a very niche skill set and one that’s in demand, those were the jobs I was offered. I spent some time also in other departments. I tried to work in just about every department, just to understand how they all worked, which would let me do pretty much any job better. I still very much believe that anybody who works in this business should spend time in every department, so they understand all the components that go into making a movie.

Rohe: I do, too.

Yellen: Camera was my first and favorite home. I worked my way up as a first assistant, starting on short films and music videos and growing into the independent feature world. I got into the union that way and was building that career, still with the goal of ultimately becoming a cinematographer, and to further that end, any opportunity to create images of my own. Whether that was working with other friends from various sets who were aspiring in other areas, aspiring directors, actors, editors, assistant directors, producers, all these creative people getting together and combining their talents to create content they were passionate about on the weekend. People are fairly supportive of that kind of thing, especially when you’re not undercutting them or competing. And then I would offer to go do second-unit work on some of these features I was assisting on for the credit. I wanted to start building up a list of credits. Some of the B-rolls that they couldn’t get, establishing shots, cityscapes, sunsets, driving shots, stuff like that, I would go do for the credit. I built up a reel that way. I had a couple of projects that earned some notoriety, most notably the film Quinceañera, which was a Sundance winner I believe in 2006 or 2007. That gave me a degree of credibility. So, when an assistant director I’d worked with said, “Hey, a buddy of mine is directing a movie. It’s a low-budget sci-fi film. I think you guys might get along,” I had a reel and a résumé and enough credibility that the company, which turned out to be The Asylum, took me seriously and ended up giving me the job. And now they’re a famous or infamous company, depending on how you look at them.

Rohe: (laughs) I know of them.

Yellen: They’re now most famous for the Sharknado movies. At the time, they did a lot of straight-to-video horror movies and mockbusters, movies that have titles that sound like blockbuster films but are just a little bit different. My DP (Director of Photography) career really took off with them. That was in a lot of ways film school on wheels for me. They required certain things to meet their delivery standards, but beyond that, they really gave me a lot of space and freedom to experiment and to create looks for films and to take some risks. The great benefit of that was learning what doesn’t work—when you can do that on a smaller budget, lower-scale productions, then when you get to bigger-budget things, you really understand what works and what doesn’t and also how to create and intuit your way out of a corner. So when something doesn’t show up, or you wind up with different weather than you were hoping for, or the set doesn’t look like you want it to, or isn’t as big, you already have a huge tool kit of fixes for all the problems that you’re likely to encounter on a small set.

Rohe: Tell me of one you now have in your toolbox.

Yellen: I think the thing I probably encounter most frequently is just not having the set, as it were, not having a location that reflects what’s in the script. You’re supposed to be on an aircraft carrier and what you have is a parking lot by a beach. How do you make the one look like the other? A lot of that comes down to your field of view. The audience doesn’t know what’s outside the frame of the image. There was a famous behind-the-scenes documentary about Seinfeld, where they showed the apartment building that Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment is in. They said, “If you’ve ever wondered why this is the only shot we ever have of this building, here’s why.” And they panned the camera to the left, and it’s this obvious LA tableau, with all the trees. For years and years, all you ever saw was this building, and your mind says it’s in New York.

Rohe: I used to live in New York, and people would ask me all the time where the Jerry Seinfeld building was.

Yellen: Absolutely. And the answer is, “It’s in Los Angeles.”

Rohe: Exactly. They didn’t want to hear that.

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Yellen: So it was, in the case of the aircraft carrier, it was getting a gray piece of foam, like a movie flat, like a 4×8 piece of foam, painting it military gray and moving it around so it feels like different bulkheads on this aircraft carrier and then having a $20 party fogger so there’s smoke moving through the background and shooting out towards the water.

Rohe: Wow!

Yellen: So, you can see the ocean in the distance, your mind says, “OK, we’re on the water.” You see this wall that says, “This is the right color for an aircraft carrier,” and you see the smoke coming through which is something you imagine from seeing catapults. And with the right sound design, you can create a fairly convincing illusion.

Rohe: Suspension of disbelief. Tell me about where you’re at and what you’re doing right now.Toby Forrest in Daruma

Yellen: As I spent time building a cinematography career, that created opportunities to direct. I worked for a number of inexperienced directors, so I was sort of a major support element for them to learn and feel comfortable and be successful. And people around you notice that when you’re helping directors out. They say, “Maybe this person would be a good director.” First, I got two features, one was a werewolf movie and the second one was a haunted house movie, both for TV. And then through the zombie series that I spent five years as the DP of, I got some additional opportunities to direct episodes for television. I built a fairly strong reputation as a director, in addition to being a cinematographer. But by far the bulk of my work has been in genre- horror, science fiction, disaster films, Westerns, and war movies. I haven’t done a ton of rom-coms (Romantic Comedies), or a ton of certain melodramatic pieces. One of the fun things about genre is that you can craft subversive messages. You can have a moral or a point, but it’s sort of buried under the mask of mindless entertainment. I’ve always wanted to tell stories that are meaningful and that are meaningful to me and hopefully say something about what’s important to me in the world to a broader audience. There are some other projects that I’ve played around with, but when Kelli showed me the script for Daruma, which by the way was the first piece of her writing that she let me see, other than her kids book, within two pages I was laughing. She came in from the other room and said, “Why are you laughing? Is it bad?” I said, “No, it’s funny.” She said, “Funny bad?” I said, “No, it’s funny!” It’s these two cantankerous characters who are—it reads like grumpy old men yelling at each other, and it was really funny. I connected with the characters right away. I saw the potential in the story. It said something important to me. It evoked in a lot of ways things that I want to say, that I care about for the rest of the world.

Rohe: Wow.

Yellen: That was three years ago now that she showed that to me, no, two and a half. I said, “The story and the logistics of this aren’t especially complicated. We could make this movie.” And she said, “OK, but we have to cast authentically. We have to cast actors with disabilities.” My first reaction was, “Wow, that’s really powerful. Do you have any idea what’s out there?” She said, “No. But we have to do it anyway. I have to believe that there are talented actors with these conditions in the world. We just have to find them.” I said, “OK. Let’s see what’s out there.”

Over the next year we built up a game plan. We reached out initially to a number of our contacts. We have different overlapping Venn diagrams of contacts in our networks. The reaction we got was generally, ...
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In the next issue we interview our friends Toby Forrest and John Lawson

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