Television remains an exercise in control: Manicured sets, rapid-fire scripts, fixed kliegs, as many as three cameras, and, for the jumpy actor, cue cards remain fixtures of the industry.
But in 1999, Tony Soprano shook things up. The Sopranos, the single-camera drama about a gangster who visits a shrink more often than he collects on a vig, raided American TV. With its violation of almost every rule of small-screen scripture, it introduced a novel concept: cinema on television. Natural lighting, grisly violence and unnerving handheld camera-work gave the show a palpable menace that would ultimately earn it 21 Emmys, 111 nominations and a place among TV’s all-time greats.
Other cinema-esque shows followed. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Lost and Boardwalk Empire underscored a seismic shift in reality TV, one that hailed the antihero and flexed cinematographic muscle normally reserved for big screens and buttered popcorn. Suddenly, characters weren’t just figuratively dark; they literally could be made shadowy.
While those shows are headed to the syndicated afterlife, the revolution continues. And it will be televised. Three new shows—Better Call Saul, Bloodline and The Last Man on Earth—have planted a flag as Hollywood’s latest forays into a cinematic world writ small. And each illustrates an evolutionary step for television: Saul represents one of TV’s first prequels; Bloodline rarely rehearses, hoping to catch happy accidents onscreen; and Earth is that rare comedy that is lensed more like a drama.
Better Call Saul
For Better Call Saul, AMC’s prequel story of Saul Goodman’s rise from petty thief to crooked lawyer, cinematographer Arthur Albert had a singular mission from creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould: Make Saul look like its predecessor, but not too much.
“Breaking Bad was about outlaws out in the desert,” Albert says. “Our character is a lawyer, a public figure. It’s more genteel storytelling. There are characters and motifs that honor some elements of Breaking Bad. But this is a different world we’re creating.”
Indeed, Breaking Bad’s cinematography was nothing if not dizzying. Albert, also a cinematographer on that show, placed cameras atop—and under—anything that gave the series a frenetic, anxious energy: on top of shovels, beneath corpses, falling from planes. “Everything was about movement,” he says.
But Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), the future Saul, survives in stasis. Though he still uses a handheld camera, Albert said Saul takes a more deliberate pace in storytelling. “There is no unmotivated movement,” he says. “He’s a lawyer, so he’s inside a lot. We still shoot in New Mexico. But our characters are in tight, enclosed places.” Saul’s office, for instance, is the size of a broom closet. His car is a cramped Suzuki Esteem (not the capacious Cadillac Deville he drove in Breaking Bad).
And Saul isn’t afraid of shadow boxing. Much of the show is shot at night, outside, in alleys and bars. Gilligan and Gould “really pushed for a dark look,” Albert says. “Because we already know who many of the characters are we don’t need to see them fully lit all the time.”
Bloodline also lives in the shadows, though in this case it’s the Florida Keys. The Netflix series starring Kyle Chandler and Sissy Spacek centers on a band of adult siblings who are haunted by past family sins and the arrival of a black sheep brother. For cinematographer Jaime Reynoso, who got his start in film in his native Mexico, the lure of cinema-like TV proved irresistible.
“I never saw this as a TV show,” he says. “The concept the writers had was they wanted it hyper-realistic, almost documentary style.” So Reynoso approached the show as a continuum of nine, hour-long docu films, which included shooting the unexpected. “I discovered things I might not have otherwise,” Reynoso says. “What I like is imperfect stuff.”
The Keys are ripe with imperfect stuff, from insects to alligators to an unpredictable weather system. “I hadn’t been in the Keys before,” he says. “There’s a transitory aspect to it. If we had to wait five minutes for a cloud to pass, we’d wait. We learned to embrace high noon.”
And first takes. Reynoso preferred not to have actors rehearse to maintain spontaneity on set. “The first take was usually the best,” he says.
Reynoso’s impression of the small screen adjusted as he saw the big-screen landscape shift. “Cinema is seen more on the iPad,” he says. “You can have any film you want, in the palm of your hand.”
But it doesn’t mean a viewer’s thinking needs to be small. Reynoso took his visual cues from breakthrough films. “What we did draws from Touch of Evil and Quest for Fire. When you commit to telling (a series) of 50-minute stories, it’s more accessible.”
The Last Man on Earth
If Saul and Bloodline seek chills, Last Man looks for laughs, perhaps the toughest trick in TV cinema verite. The Fox show, created by star Will Forte, is a mix of Mad Max and The Simpsons. The population of North America might have been all but wiped out by a virus, but the survivors in the show are downright neighborly: they’re more likely to cook you dinner, not you.
That apocalyptic twist drew cinematographer Christian Sprenger, a Kroll Show veteran who made his splash with the cop parody Eagleheart. Sprenger initially was skeptical that a big network would go for something as darkly comic as Last Man. “When I saw other cable shows do it with Mad Men and Breaking Bad I thought, ‘If cable can do the super cinematic thing, why can’t the networks?’ ”
Sprenger’s inspiration came from dark sources. “Our main visual references are There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men,” he says of the Oscar-winning crime dramas. “Both of those movies are sort of classic Westerns, following one lonely man.”
Last Man, shot in Chatsworth and Simi Valley, also “is about emptiness and solitude, except we add a tour van,” Sprenger says of the automobile that protagonist Phil Miller (Forte) fills with plundered Picassos, baseball memorabilia and the White House Oval Office rug. Because the series creators wanted a sense of reality to the comedy, they left the hero dependent on generators and itty-bitty book lights to find his way at night.
Sprenger found something freeing in easing his grip on variables like lighting and over-explained backstory. “In most shows, you have the perfect image—crystal clear, so you can see everyone’s face.” But when you leave some storytelling elements in the shadows, “you’re giving the audience credit that it can fill in things. (Audience members) can participate more in the show.”
Still, cinematic TV can be frightening footing for those behind the camera. “On the first day of shooting, our first scene was in a bar, lit only by a candle,” Sprenger recalls. “The crew and I were having this long talk about how we were going to shoot it, the kind of exposure we were going to need, all of that.” Suddenly, as he and crew members puzzled over lighting an entire bar with a candle, they realized they were breaking new ground. Unfamiliar ground. “We just kind of looked at each other and said, ‘What are we doing here?’ This is insane. We’re all going to get fired.’ ”