“To be very honest, it’s because they wouldn’t give me a chance in Australia,” comes rising cinematographer Matthew Chuang’s surprisingly straight-up reply when FilmInk asks the Sydneysider what prompted him to decamp to the US. “They wouldn’t really let me work on films and I couldn’t even get a TV pilot. There are a lot more projects happening in the US, so they’re more willing to give people a chance. There’s so much work there. In Australia, things kind of boil down to if you end up on a list. If you do, then you’re kinda good, but if you’re not on that list, if you’re not one of the usual suspects, then y’know…”
A lack of work and a desire to chase it has paid off for Matthew Chuang. The cinematographer is talking to FilmInk on the line from Italy, where he is currently lensing the action thriller Assassin Club for director Camille Delamarre (Brick Mansions, The Transporter Refuelled) with a cast that includes Henry Golding (GI Joe: Snake Eyes, Crazy Rich Asians, The Gentlemen), Sam Neill, Noomi Rapace and Daniela Melchior (The Suicide Squad). “It’s like a John Wick action kind of thing,” Chuang laughs. Also in the can for Chuang is the supernatural horror flick You Won’t Be Alone (starring Noomi Rapace and Alice Englert) and the revenge drama Devil’s Fruit, alongside already released indies like 2020’s My First Summer and 2019’s The Mandela Effect.
With a number of short films, music videos and TV episodes in Australia to his credit (as both cinematographer and director), Matthew Chuang had scoped out the situation in the states before decamping properly. “I knew a few people in LA, and I’d done a trip there six months prior,” the cinematographer explains. “I wanted to feel it out and that really helped. I did meet a lot of other filmmakers from film festivals around the world, so that helped and they really looked out for me. As soon as I landed, I started working, at least on music videos and commercials. My agent in Los Angeles knew that I was coming and wanted to start me off running, which was great.”
Chuang’s next film to hit cinemas is the stylish, deeply emotional Blue Bayou, from writer, actor and director Justin Chon (The Twilight Saga). Co-starring Oscar winner Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl, Tom Raider), the film follows a hard working Korean-American man from Louisiana suddenly faced with the very real but utterly confounding possibility that he may be deported from the country in which he has lived and worked his entire life. Curiously, Chuang shares cinematography duties on the film with fellow shooter Ante Cheng.
How do you co-DP a film?
“Ante had worked with Justin on his previous two films, Gook and Ms. Purple, which played at Sundance. They were great films. He was on Blue Bayou, and then, because the film kept being pushed back, and pushed back, he took another film. Then I met Justin and he thought that I could bring a lot to the table, so we worked on our own version of the film. Time passed and then the film got a lot bigger when Alicia Vikander came on. Justin brought quite a lot of people from his previous two jobs on. He’d obviously worked with Ante, and then I built on top of what they’d done. Justin eventually asked me if I would partner up with Ante. He said, ‘Can I have the both of you on this, and we’ll see how that goes?’”
So you weren’t just working on different units?
“No. I had a lot of respect for Ante and Justin because they’d worked on two films together, but he really wanted us both. None of us had done a film of this size. It comes down to making sure that we do our job, and do it great, and make sure that it’s up to the standard of work that we think this film could be. The producers trusted us. If this film was in Australia, we wouldn’t have got the job. You have to be on that list. Full credit to Justin: he’s very, very loyal to the people that he works with, and if he’s building his career, then he wants to bring everyone up with him.”
So the doubling up worked for you?
“Ante and I are like brothers now. We spent so much time together. I’m just talking to him now and he’s doing a small film with Justin right now, in Hawaii, and Justin’s speaking to me about something else. It worked out great for Blue Bayou, and I’m open to the chance to do it again.”
Had Justin seen your previous work?
“Yeah, he’d seen the 2018 short film Yo! My Saint, which I’d shot for director Ana Lily Amirpour. He had a lot of respect for her, and he really loved what we did on that film. At the time, I hadn’t really done a lot of films, or any films that he’d seen. But we met and really got along, and Justin knew that I could do it. It was more about convincing producers and so forth.”
So, who made the choice to shoot the film on 16mm?
“Justin had thought about that quite early on. We all love film and creatively what you can shoot on that format. It’s a lot more difficult for us on a technical level, but on a creative level, it also opens up quite a lot. You are more focused on set because shooting film is a very costly thing. But a lot of our influences were from the ’70s and Mexican cinema, and there’s a thick, visceral, textural quality to that. The film is set in New Orleans and we wanted to capture that. It has a certain feeling when you’re there that we really wanted to capture. We were shooting a lot of it in the sun, and film captures sunlight really well. Once again, it was really about convincing the producers, but once they started seeing the footage, they were fine. We definitely wanted this film to have its own feel.”
Some of the best cinematographers in the world are Australian, right? Does that help?
“Of course. We Australians always work hard and we’re very practical. If we need something, we just figure out how to get it done. Ante and I were both born in Taiwan, but obviously I grew up in Australia and Ante grew up in Toronto. We’ve both been in the US for only a few years. We had a lot of life experience in that, which fits well with Blue Bayou too.”
How did you get the gig for You Won’t Be Alone [an upcoming Australian Causeway Films production shot overseas]?
“They were looking for a DP but [director] Goran Stolevski wasn’t really excited by a lot of people that he was seeing. Once again, it’s a standard list, and Goran was never on that list, so he knows what that felt like. He didn’t want to fall into that and he didn’t want to buy into that system. My friend Bethany Ryan, the production designer, put my name forward. The short with Ana Lily really helped, and he had heard of Blue Bayou.”
My First Summer, which you shot too, is a fascinating film…
“I hadn’t done a lot of films, so when My First Summer came along, I was like, ‘Oh wow, this is kind of interesting’ and I liked that it was small. We shot that for like $50,000 or something…super tiny. It’s gone quite well.”
Is there a signature to what you do? Or do you feel more like you’re at the service of the director?
“I’m definitely at the service to the director. It’s their film. When I meet with a director, I always ask questions. I’m asking them how they want to work, and what pushes them, and what they’re really into and what they’re obviously not into. I build off that, because that’s the director’s job, and I’m just there to help the director, and to be there for them and push them as well. With Blue Bayou, Justin had a very specific idea, but I was free to push the look.
We didn’t really quite know how to shoot You Won’t Be Alone, but through the time Goran and I spent together, we built on that and the film has its own particular look. I don’t think I’m gonna film like that ever again. It’s a Terrence Malick approach, where the actors can just move where they want to move. It felt very looped in and naturalistic. Crazy shit happens, but everything felt grounded and earthy. We tried that on Blue Bayou as well…we didn’t want things feeling too staged, or too pretty, or too designed. They even kept the hairs in the gate!”
“Yeah, we kept these hairs in the gate and everyone was trying to figure out what it was. We embraced it, and it has a certain quality to it. Apparently, the French loved it. I’m pleasantly surprised that they kept it in the film!”
It would’ve stayed in a ’70s film or a Cassavetes film…
“Well, that’s exactly right!”
Blue Bayou will screen at The Sydney Film Festival, which runs from November 3-21. Click here for all session, ticketing and venue details. Click here for more information about The Sydney Film Festival.