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June 12, 2019

Exploring The Cinematography of ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ with DP David Mullen

Last winter, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel dazzled with a followup to its wildly popular pilot season. The story expanded far beyond the streets of Midtown Manhattan, providing gorgeous footage of Midge Maisel in Paris and the Catskills. Along with the funny new directions the story took, each scene was visually stunning. We talked to one of the cinematographers David Mullen (The Love Witch and Jennifer’s Body) behind the second season’s gorgeous cinematography and the wild camerawork that made the season so fun to watch.

What was it like filming the Catskills scenes?

It was wonderful to go out of the city and be out in the woods, have all that greenery and water everywhere. It was a nice change. We had to deal with some weather issues, rainstorms that would come in. There were some challenges because the property was right on the edge of the water and backed by trees and roads, which made it difficult to light at night. I couldn’t bring any big lifts to do any moonlight effect. A lot of night scenes had to be lit as if there were park lamps scattered through the property.

Then I had the fireworks show to light, and since the fireworks happen over the water, I originally was trying to get a lighting barge out on the water to put some sort of effect rig in the middle of the lake. We couldn’t get a lighting barge large enough up in upstate New York onto the lake property, so I had to light that scene with scissor lifts right on the edge of the water, on land. So, we had to push all the people sitting on the lawn watching the fireworks several feet further up on the hill away from my scissor lifts. They were closer to the lifts that I would’ve preferred, but there was no way to get the lights out on the water or even on the dock because it wasn’t strong enough to put any heavy lights on. That was probably the biggest lighting challenge I had there.

Take us through the shot in Episode 2 of the second season, where Abe and Rose are dancing by the Notre Dame. What went into making that shot happen?

The script described this dance and Amy Sherman-Palladino told me that she wanted the effect of Abe and Rose walking past bodies that are dancing in the foreground and background, but we can’t see distinctly what they’re doing. It would start in soft-focus and then we would gradually reveal that there are people dancing along the river there. Part of the problem I had was that the shot starts out as if it’s a long lens telephoto shot and it ends on a wide angle shot of the dancers on the river and we see the Notre Dame in the background. If we were going to do the shot in one shot, the problem became the light levels out on the river were quite low and I had to pan maybe 180 degrees on the river.

Then I had to light the dancers at a very low level to match the background, which was the Notre Dame and Paris. So I had to find a zoom lens that was very fast and for low light shooting. I remembered a T2 Fujinon Zoom Lens that existed and I found one in Europe. We had to get a different mounted Arri to put it on because all out cameras were set for Panavision lenses. So we got Alexa Mini and this Fujinon 18-70 mm Zoom lens. We started out at 70 mm and zoomed out to 24 mm by the end of the shot. It’s quite difficult in the wide open for focus, especially since the focus puller started on nothing and then Abe and Rose break the frame on the long end of the zoom. So, wherever the camera was on the end of the crane and where the actors came into the shot would vary take to take, and it was very hard to nail the focus just when they entered frame. As you zoomed out, it got easier and easier because it became a wide shot, but the first few moments of that shot were quite difficult to pull focus on.

Episode 202 Shot

Then I had to push the camera to about 1600 ASA in order to expose Notre Dame. To light the actors, I wanted the light to come from a backlit angle, which meant it would be coming from over the river. I couldn’t put anything on the island that had Notre Dame and I couldn’t put them on the opposite side of the Seine River because it was too far away. I had to put a Condor next to the camera actually and over the water, then point the lights back at itself so that the lights would come from over the water onto the dancers. Then I added a few more lights in the background to light the paths and the bridge connecting to the Notre Dame. Most of it was lit to a very low level so that the Notre Dame own lighting would be bright enough to read. They turn off the lights around midnight in Paris, but luckily we got permission for them to leave them on for a few more hours while we got our shot.

There was talk that if we had to we could break this shot up into a series of overlapping shots. We talked about panning them through on a long lens then having a foreground dancer wipe and reveal a slightly wider view of them dancing and having that happen again to reveal an even wider view. It just seemed unwieldy because everyone is dancing in circles and the idea that some foreground person would wipe and when they would reveal the dancing it would be in the exact same position as they were in the tighter shot, so it just seemed unlikely that way. That’s why I worked hard for it to happen in one shot on a zoom lens.

Would you say that was the most challenging part of shooting this season or is there another instance that comes to mind?

There were lots of challenges in shooting this season, but we had a scene on the bridge in Paris where I wasn’t allowed to bring any big lights and I just had to put lights on the bridge itself to light Midge standing there on the bridge while these lovers walk past her or kissing on a bench and it limited how far we could pan around. There was no way to light the whole length of the bridge and the water. That was about designing the shot within the limitations of what lights I could put on stands on the bridge.

When we got to some of the apartments in Paris, we had a scene that was more or less one master shot, a 360-degree master, in a low-ceiling apartment. That meant that almost all the light had to be natural light from the window. I was able to put one light on the upper floor balcony opposite the apartment building to shine some light down and into the windows. Otherwise, it was just available light and unfortunately, the view outside the window was of a white apartment building in full sun. It was quite bright and very hard to balance the two. In fact, I had to just live with the white apartment clipping on digit camera. Besides being a 360-degree shot in available light, the camera moves up to the window as Rose goes to put something outside and then comes back into the room. I had to do quite a lot of manual or F-stop pulls and hopefully bury them in the course of when the camera moves so that when she’s walking closer and closer to the window, I’m closing down the lens. Then as she turns around, her face is in silhouette and then we spin 180 degrees and I have to open up the lens for that action, so it was quite a choreography of the camera, F-stop changes, and the actors. There wasn’t much I could do with lighting. There were challenges like that on the show a lot because there was a lot of 180-degree or 360-degree shots that see a lot of the room.

Does filming on location in New York, Paris, or the Catskills make your job easier or harder compared to filming on a stage?

It’s always a mix because what the location gives you is a natural ambient light that you don’t have to recreate on stage. Sometimes it’s harder to do that on stage because if you put lights out a window to replicate skylight or sunlight, they are much closer to the window than they would be in reality. The falloff from that light is much faster. Where the lighting might look great four or five feet next to the window, by the time you get to the other side of the room it’s fallen off too much in exposure and you have to tend to light the other side of the room as if it is still digging across.

Filming on location the ambient light is coming from much farther away so the fall off rate is much longer and you get a much more natural look to the lighting. On the other hand, that light changes. Half the time on the location you still have to light it because the natural light is going to disappear on you. Then you have to light it as if it were a stage, but you’re somehow working outside a third-story window with lifts. It all becomes very difficult, especially if you have bad weather come along. Sometimes things go faster because you can shoot it in available light and sometimes it goes longer because you have to recreate available light.

How do you approach shooting a different era?

I don’t do anything that you would consider a period look when it comes to the lighting. The lighting tends to be naturally motivated by practicals and windows, but I still try to bring out the colors in the costumes and the design. That requires a little softer and bigger light sources so that the colors read. Then I’m trying to flatter the actors as well, so I try to keep the lighting on the softer side, too. Otherwise, I wouldn’t do it differently for a modern film as long as the goal for lighting the actors and the costumes were the same. One thing Amy and Dan (Palladino) told me is that they didn’t want a sepia-toned, faded, honeycomb-colored look to the show. They wanted it to have a vibrant, energetic quality to it. To me, that meant not using too much smoke, diffusion, or anything that might wash out the image.

Are there any other moments you particularly liked shooting in this season?

I think the end of the first episode where Midge is on the phone in Paris and hangs up to walk away in the Palais-Royal is one. We did a 180-degree angle pan with her when she hangs up the phone and walks away and disappears into this long row of columns in the night. I just like how stark and sad that image is. It’s not often that we do a kind of quiet, lonely moment like that on this show. Other than the 180-degree pan, it becomes a very simply composed, stark shot. I just lit through the columns, just like pools of light that she goes in and out of. It was a great location to be on. We had been searching for a while for a place for that phone call that was quiet, but that still felt like we were in Paris even though we weren’t outside seeing the streets or anything. We wanted to find a spot that would be quiet enough to record good sound and have an intimate conversation scene. We were just lucky to find that location. I actually had dinner with a fellow cinematographer who lives in Paris and he told me about this place. It was near where we were having dinner and we walked around there at night. I took pictures and sent them to Amy and everyone and they liked that spot.

It was also fun doing the telethon episode (Episode 9) because I have a fondness for the history of old studio work, both television and feature work. It was great to light a TV station the way it would’ve been done in the late 1950s, lighting the audience area and the performers in this kind of high-key style with lots of backlights and lots of key lights for shadows on the ground.

We also had to recreate the lighting of a Steve Allen TV show in Episode 10. That one we actually matched exactly the lighting from the original clips we were copying. That was interesting from a research aspect just breaking down how they must have lit the scene and then redoing it now.

You can stream Seasons 1 and 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon Prime Video now.

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