“All of Us Strangers” Cinematographer Jamie Ramsay on Lighting a Lonely Life
Based on Taichi Yamada’s 1987 novel Strangers, writer and director Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers takes place between a barren tower block in London, where Adam (Andrew Scott) leads a solitary existence, and his childhood home in the suburbs, where he frequently visits his parents, who died thirty years earlier. In London, Adam spends his days alone, until his neighbor Harry (Paul Mescal) appears outside his door, proffering whiskey. The closer the two men get, the more preoccupied Adam becomes with his parents (Claire Foy and Jamie Bell), with Harry’s initial appearance seeming to trigger Adam’s first visit back to his old house. Mum and Dad, frozen in both style and attitude from approximately the early 1990s, are thrilled to see their son again and to learn he’s become a writer. Subsequent visits, as they discover that he is gay, admit their own parenting faults, and react in confusion as Adam begs them not to go out on the night of the car crash that took their lives, are much tougher.
Whether these encounters take place in Adam’s mind or represent an earth-spirit crossover realm is open to interpretation.“You know what’s funny?” asked Jamie Ramsay, the film’s cinematographer, “so many people have come up to me and asked me about this. There are so many little conspiracy theories — is Adam also stuck in the middle world? Did Harry ever exist? And that’s the beauty of it.” Having left behind Australia for London, Ramsay leaned into his own experience of loneliness for inspiration — “I thought, what’s a more beautiful way for me to exorcise this grief than to channel it through making this movie?” — and then worked to visually separate Adam’s London present and his suburban past using different technical tools.
Ramsay lit Adam’s childhood home and the suburbs with incandescent lighting and neon tubing that may not have been intentionally from the late 1980s and early 1990s, but given the film’s shooting schedule during a post-Covid flurry of industry activity, “we really had to struggle to put our package together. To be honest with you, I think our lighting package actually was vintage, but still beautiful,” he said. To set Adam’s contemporary life apart from his journeys back into childhood settings, the cinematographer shot against an LED wall with a digital backdrop and matched the natural shifting of exposure outside Adam’s apartment. The effect is realistic and a bit cold and feels a world away from the light, dreamy aesthetic at home with Mum and Dad.
“Any sort of decisions that we decided to take were led primarily by our director Andrew’s interest in keeping everything as quiet as possible,” Ramsay said, and so when we return to Adam’s past, he simply arrives, stepping into the halcyon lighting of his parents’ kitchen. “For me, having that ethereal presence of a spirit that washes through the windows and wraps around the characters was just a way to put this home in this idyllic position, which is, I think, how we often position memory and good moments in our lives,” Ramsay said.
Quiet in dialogue as well as in spirit, the cinematographer felt at ease responding to whole scenes devoid of chatter, using linear, more guarded camera movement in Adam’s contemporary life, which becomes more organic and reactive as the walls between his past and present start to break down. “When it’s layered and nuanced like this, it’s much easier for me to develop a sense of honesty with how the camera responds and how the scene feels and looks,” Ramsay said. The cinematographer stays tightly focused on the characters, keeping the audience close to Adam and Harry as their relationship deepens and as Adam reestablishes a family dynamic with his parents, winding up nestled between them in bed.
“The obvious thing to do is to frame characters in big wides and leave them really small in the frame. But if I thought about it logically, loneliness is experienced from the inside out,” said Ramsay, who instead conveys the isolated nature of Adam’s life by staying close. The effect keeps the audience in Adam’s bubble, seeing only what he sees. And having seen no one, save for Harry and the ambiguous presence of Mum and Dad, you come away with the sense that for Adam, there isn’t anybody else out there.
All Us Strangers is in select theaters now.
Featured image: Paul Mescal and Andrew Scott in ALL OF US STRANGERS. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.