With Season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Amy Sherman-Palladino decided to take her show on the road, leaving cinematographer M. David Mullen to adjust to new environments. Set in New York, the ‘50s Amazon comedy about housewife-turned-comedian Midge Maisel opened its second season in Paris before transitioning to an idyllic resort in the Catskills of Upstate New York. And while there was “a lot of fun” to be had with each location, Mullen had to grapple with new logistical challenges in each case, to do with available space, lighting, weather and more.
While navigating the complexities of these location shoots, the DP was also undertaking some of the most ambitious tracking shots to be found on television today—typically, without so much as a single storyboard, apart from the odd montage involving visual effects.
Speaking with Deadline from his office, with production on Season 3 currently underway, Mullen reflects on the series’ signature visual style and the many novel visual ideas that stem from the minds of its key creatives.
What exciting opportunities and challenges presented themselves, when you set out on Season 2?
Right off of the bat, we were going to Paris, which was the big new thing to deal with. They warned me in advance, of course, before I saw the scripts, but it wasn’t until I got the outline that I knew what sort of scenes we’d be doing there. There were all these questions about how we were going to recreate the late 1950s in Paris, because we’d gotten a handle on what we were up against in New York, but to do it in Paris was going to be interesting. Although in some ways, Paris was easier to deal with, because the architecture there is so much of a time.
In addition to Paris, you also handled episodes set in the Catskills at the fictional Steiner Resort. What kind of planning went into executing those episodes on location?
For me, the challenge of the Catskills was knowing that we were going up into the mountains and filming a lot in sunshine, at different times of day, on a location that was bordered by a lake. I’d looked at some other movies set in the Catskills, and seen some historical photos. The problem we were having was just that our property line was so close to the water that there was not much physical space to bring lighting equipment around the main buildings, because they sat just a few feet from the shore. So, if we had any big night exteriors there in front of the main building or the cabins, the question was whether I could get condors and other things in there to light them. And the truth is, we couldn’t for the most part; there was no place to park large condors.
I had to figure out how to light differently. Where I could, I put one condor in the parking lot to light one direction, but I had to pretty much light the rest of the buildings internally, as if they were self-lit with their own string lights and Malibu lights—putting lights up on trees, and things like that. I had to light a lot of things from the ground up at night there, which in some ways took more time. Instead of just one or two giant lights in the air, I had to put up dozens and dozens of lights on the ground to cover the property, and the biggest challenge was the whole fireworks sequence, because the fireworks were going off over the lake.
I originally tried to get a lighting barge out there on the lake, so I could light everyone on the shore with this colored lighting effect, but the access roads to that lake were so small. So, I couldn’t get a large enough barge out there to be able to light from, which then forced me to basically use scissor lifts, parked right on the edge of the water, pointed back at the crowd, and have the crowd sit further up the hillside away from the shore, so that they weren’t sitting literally three feet from my scissor lift. That was basically the only way to be able to do that sequence. I put two scissor lifts right on the edge of the docks, with SkyPanels creating a rainbow of firework effects on everyone.
The blocking in Mrs. Maisel is remarkably sophisticated, such that even simple scenes at the Catskills, with attendants packing up a car, become deeply engaging. How were the remarkable visual conceits on display throughout Season 2 conceived and executed?
The idea to do these complex shots comes out of the minds of Amy and Dan [Palladino, executive producer]. Amy has a background as a dancer, so she often has extras in our scenes that are played by dancers. And sometimes, we even bring our choreographer in, so that the crossing action in the foreground or background is timed perfectly for when the camera reaches them, or the actors cross by them. That way, we’re not doing multiple takes, just because someone mistimed their entrance or exit.
Basically, Amy or Dan will block the scene for where they think the cameras will be, and then we’ll bring in Jim McConkey, our steadicam operator. We have a device called the Artemis Pro, which is basically an iPad with our camera lens mounted to it, and we can walk around, so everyone can see what the actual shot is going to be, in terms of the framing. So, we’ll sort of do a pass where we block it to the lens. If we move this far and someone’s blocked by another person, we change their marks or move things over, and go through the whole shot with the Artemis, and then shoot it.
But a lot of the basic blocking, Amy and Dan do just with the actors. They pretty much know where the camera needs to be, and where the actors need to be for the camera.
In Mrs. Maisel, the camera is basically always moving. What was discussed in Season 1, in terms of visual signatures for the show?
We don’t shoot a lot of close-ups, or any close-ups, really. Things have to work in a kind of moving master, often with a minimal amount of coverage. The choreography, the pacing, everything has to be brought up to a certain speed, so that it keeps some interest and drives the humor forward. But all of this comes out of the talent of Amy and Dan, the way they see the scenes, and the way they choreograph and direct them. My challenge is essentially just to figure out how to pull it off, in terms of lighting, and getting the camera where it needs to go.
Often, I’ll hear, “I really need the camera to back up fast, faster than I’ve ever seen it backed up before,” things like that. Then, I’ll have to go through all of the different ways you could fly a camera back, and what’s practical within our sets, and what can go at the speed that we need to go.
There’s a shot in the opening of the season where we go through the switchboard room. [Amy] knew she wanted to go down the hallways and along the row of switchboard operators, but then when Midge kicks off her chair, she wanted to keep the camera up with Midge and not fall behind, so it was important that the camera be able to fly across the room fast enough with Midge and her chair. We had to watch her rehearsals first to get a sense of what speed that was, and then decide what could be done, and I think Jim McConkey convinced Amy that he’d be able to keep up with a MoVI or a steadicam, because the length of the room wasn’t that large.
Originally, when we weren’t sure how fast the chairs were going to go, we talked briefly about whether we’d have to use some sort of cable cam system. “But to do that,” I said, “We’d have to saw off the entire roof of the set, and then recreate it all in post.” Because we’d have to fly down a corridor and through the arches of the door, and the set itself had quite a low ceiling. So, it would have not only been a lot of work to recreate it digitally, but then where are my lights going to go? Because the set is lit by fluorescents that are dangling from that ceiling. Knowing that I was going to see 360 and come in the room and out the room again, I had to design, with the production designer and our set decorator, all the lighting into the set.
They’d hung fluorescents down the center, but I knew the operators’ backs were going to be to the center and their faces were going to be up against the consoles, so I asked them to build some sort of task light into each station that would light the operators’ eyes as they leaned into their workspace. They put a series of light bulbs on each side of the room, right around the switchboard, and the switchboard itself was a period prop, an actual working switchboard, so we couldn’t cut it open or drill holes into it. We had to figure out a way to mount these little light bulbs to the face of it that didn’t do any damage.
Are there a wide variety of tools you’ve used to achieve what you have with your tracking shots?
Yeah. When we can do something with a technocrane, we’ll do a technocrane. We’ve also combined MoVI and technocrane, like in the Copacabana shot in Season 1, where we start on the drummer, fly back on a 45-foot Movie Bird to a wide shot of the dance hall, and then disconnect the camera on a MoVI, and walk through the tables of the restaurant and into the kitchen. We’ve done shots like that.
We had a pull back in the Catskills episode—in the beginning, in the apartment—where we’re on Abe and his toy truck, and suddenly dollied back very quickly. Dan wanted a very rapid pull back, faster than we could do on a dolly, so we ended up doing sort of like a little go-kart. It was a little electric dolly on a wooden ramp, which essentially kicked into high gear and drove itself backwards, and then we disconnected the camera off of that again, with a MoVI and a magnet, to then move over to where the women are going through their clothes. Then, visual effects had to paint out the wooden ramp that the dolly was running on, and put the carpeting and things back in.
One of the standout moments of Season 2 is in the Catskills, with Midge on the dance floor, twirling her way from one dancing partner to another. What approach did you take, in terms of lighting and camera movement, to make that scene work? It seems like your camera operator must have had to zigzag his way through all the couples dancing on the floor.
Our choreographer worked with the background dancers to create the dance floor space, and then we rehearsed it on set. Often with these complex camera moves, in an apartment or something, I’m just dealing with trying to light it with a soft top light, or a practical lamp or lamp shade in the shot. But this was a dance space. I wanted to have theatrical cross lights and spotlights hitting her, but because it’s a 360, essentially I had to work out a very complex series of queues on a demo board, so that when we whipped around 180 degrees, her backlight wouldn’t become a front light. It would fade out, and another backlight would fade up. If I mistimed it, then you would see a camera shadow, as the camera was chasing her around the room, so it was very important to get these light queues correct, so we’re constantly in kind of a cross-lit, backlit situation.
To some degree, I thought, Well, if I’m slightly off with the timing and you see the light shift, it’s okay, because it’s a dance floor, right? You can imagine maybe some of the lights are fading a little bit up and down. But for the most part, I was trying to hide all the queues—except at the end, when Joel steps in, the whole room switches from white to pink. I had doubled up with pink lights and white lights, and queued between them, so that the moment he steps in and the music changes, the whole room switches color.