Given Laura Valladao’s friendly demeanor and thoughtful conversational style, it’s no surprise that the young cinematographer has already stamped her name on the Sundance-screened “Fremont” (2023) and the Oscar-nominated short “My Nephew Emmett” (2017).
“I was really interested in lighting. I liked the physics of light and the philosophy of how lighting could change the way a space felt,” Valladao spoke of her early interactions with the field of cinematography in an interview with The Daily Californian. “The more work I did in grip, electric and lighting work, the more I got pulled towards cinematography. I realized I could really develop the vision and voice that I wanted.”
But for the 2009 San Francisco State University graduate, opportunities to explore this passion were initially few and far between. While schools like the University of Southern California and New York University offer ample avenues for cinematically inclined youth to pursue their creative interests, the filmmaking resources of small state schools, such as Valladao’s alma mater, pale in comparison to those of ultra-funded private universities with world-renowned film programs.
“I was working on a lot of low-budget music videos — little indie films out in the woods. Really, really small stuff,” the filmmaker said. “For a lot of the formative projects that I did at San Francisco State, there’d be a student project where someone would have an idea, and we’d all rally behind it and figure out how to do it. At a state school with limited resources, (we were) trying to figure out affordable creative solutions.”
In the era of “nepo baby” discourse — the slang term “nepo baby” referring to a child gaining success from nepotism — up-and-coming filmmakers often feel discouraged when their roots are outside of Hollywood. But for this young cinematographer, a Bay Area upbringing has proved beneficial. Though Valladao grew up in the cozy suburb of Fremont, California, her work on the indie film “Fremont” for the London-based, BAFTA-nominated Iranian filmmaker Babak Jalali was an act of pure fate.
“A mutual friend recommended me for the film. I met with the producer first, and that meeting went well. So, she set me up with Babak; we hit it off, and it went from there,” Valladao said. “My collaboration with Babak has been one of my favorites so far. The relationship (with a director) is different every time, which is something I like about my job. I like that I get to be someone’s ride-or-die for a few months to tell a story. It’s just a process of figuring them out every time.”
The cinematographer smiled as she reminisced on her work with Jalali. She loves teamwork, and is capable of altering her creative strategy with each new director in order to create the best outcome possible. To determine the nature of her collaborative workflow, Valladao analyzes each director’s mannerisms and preferences.
“Babak has this really strong creative compass for the direction that he wants the story to go, either emotionally, aesthetically or from a story capacity. And he feels really strongly about it,” the videographer said. “He was really open to suggestions and ideas as far as developing the look. But one of the things I also appreciated about Babak is that he was really comfortable telling me if something I was suggesting wasn’t correct, also. So that way, I could come up with a lot of ideas and I didn’t feel like I was stepping on any toes.”
It’s a good thing that Jalali’s open attitude allowed the Fremont native’s creativity to shine. With a vast knowledge and an intimate understanding of the film’s shooting grounds, Valladao was able to call the shots on set (literally).
“We definitely ended up shooting in a bunch of locations I had gone to as a child. For a lot of the scouting, we would need a location in a pinch. I’d say, ‘Okay, how about this place over here on the corner?’ It didn’t always work out, but a lot of the times it did. So that was very cool,” she explained.
But thankfully for Valladao, the filming process involved a lot more than just memories and nostalgia. “Fremont” follows a refugee from Afghanistan who makes her way writing fortunes for a local fortune cookie factory, its unique premise enriching the filmmaker’s perspective on her home city.
“Reimagining a familiar place from the perspective of someone else was a really exciting challenge for me — to think, ‘How would this feel? And how should this look? And how can I do this through the cinematography?’” the artist reflected. “We did a big day with our main character, doing some following shots, handheld shots and having some private moments for her. And it just felt really different, as if I were experiencing Fremont for the first time.”
Carefully shot in black and white, the heartful film owes its beauty to the city of Fremont and to its passionate cinematographer. Local viewers will love this upcoming indie sensation, a chilling portrait of the San Francisco Bay Area.