On July 16, Netflix’s Russian Doll pulled off a somewhat magical feat, garnering 13 Emmy nominations and breaking in as a contender for Outstanding Comedy Series with its first season, after gaining a following as a word-of-mouth hit. Given the otherworldly nature of the series, these results were all too appropriate.
Created by Leslye Headland, Amy Poehler and Natasha Lyonne, Russian Doll centers on Nadia (Lyonne), a cynical New Yorker who dies on the night of her 36th birthday, only to find herself caught up in a Groundhog Day-like time loop, struggling to understand the nature of her situation and growing profoundly from her encounters with the unreal.
Shot in New York City—both within a soundstage and on location—the series was one of palpable magic, obvious to cinematographer Chris Teague (Broad City, GLOW) from his first read of the pilot script. Joining a creative team overflowing with ideas, the DP’s challenge with Russian Doll was to achieve a kind of magic trick himself, bringing a dark, idiosyncratic and highly cinematic version of New York City to life on screen with little prep time and even less money.
To create “a sense of scope and production value” appropriate for the series, the first-time Emmy nominee would engage in close collaboration with a tight-knit group of artists, working through questions of worldbuilding logic while expertly applying color, light, split diopters and all the other tools at his disposal.
What were your first impressions when you read the pilot script for Russian Doll?
I knew, from reading the pilot, that it was something special. The writing had a very unique voice to it, and it felt like a version of New York City that I had never seen before, which was exciting to me. Having lived in New York for 15 years and having shot so many movies there, it was cool to see something that was kind of an idealized and magical realist version of New York City—which is not to say something that was picture perfect, but more that the grit of the city was part of the beauty.
What was discussed in early conversations with the series’ creators, in terms of choices that would inform the visual language of the series?
Talking about what version of New York City we were creating informed a lot of what the look of the show would be—that it would feel like layers of the city, and the city itself is so layered. There’s such history there: these old buildings that have been remade over and over again; schools that have turned into lofts, that have been knocked over and then turned into condos. All that stuff living side by side, and all these inherent contradictions in worlds that live on top of each other, we thought was exciting, and could inform the kaleidoscopic effect that were using with all the colors we were incorporating. The idea that there’s so many different worlds and lives happening all at once, at the same time, the camera can be influenced by that, and the lighting can be influenced by that.
So, the city was a big topic of conversation. It’s funny: On TV, when the prep is so short, it’s like every discussion can become a big-picture conversation. I show up on my first day and we’re location scouting, talking about very specific things, [and] you use those opportunities to talk about how that might inform the world of the show, and allow these specific decisions that you have to make to balloon into bigger-picture discussions about what the whole feel of the show should be.
As part of your prep, you created a lookbook of references for this series. What did that contain?
There was some surrealist artwork in there. We were looking at Coen brothers. Coen brothers is interesting; the show doesn’t feel like a Coen brothers movie in any way, but what we took from what they’re able to do is how they can mix comedy and drama, or comedy and thriller elements, within the same narrative, and use one to twist the other, in a certain sense. And sometimes those references are not about, “The show should look this way.” It’s more about a feeling, or about giving [yourself] permission to know that you can make a show that’s dark and moody, and also very funny. It’s been done before, there’s examples of that, so it frees you up to push things in that direction.
When production designer Michael Bricker spoke with Deadline, he explained that he was trying to capture a sense of magic with his sets, in support of the series’ worldbuilding. Were there ways in which you used the tools at your disposal to similar effect?
One of the things we pursued in trying to bring a sense of magical realism or magic to the show was our lens choice—shooting with very fast lenses, wide open, so that our background could bloom and blur, and we can create these really painterly separations between foreground and background. That, mixed with saturated color, heightens that otherworldly feel that we were going for.
Any project you work on, you look for these gifts that might help motivate what you’re trying to bring to the show, and I feel like the loft apartment was one of these gifts, the idea that Maxine’s apartment is this artist’s loft that is just littered with art from all these different friends of hers. For Michael Bricker and I, [there] was have an opportunity to invent what we might want to bring into that space, and use it in a way that will serve our purposes. He found all these great green neons, and he had this other neon made—this deep blue that shifts to purple—that’s just outside the bathroom. Then, I had this idea that we should do an art installation that’s like the kind of work that Dan Flavin does. He’s done all these sculptures with fluorescent tubes, so we incorporated that, and that could be any color that we wanted.
Having that character backdrop to build from allowed us these opportunities to motivate all these things that we might not otherwise have been able to, and then again, the streets of New York give you so much permission to introduce different color and qualities of light into a space, and darkness and contrast. You feel like you’re always looking for those kinds of opportunities when you’re prepping a show or reading a script. Luckily, I feel like this material’s so rich, it was so full of chances to take advantage of those things.
Could you elaborate on your approach to lighting the loft set? You made great use of well-placed practicals.
Practicals were of ultimate importance, and obviously the actors aren’t necessarily lit by the practicals in any active way. It’s more passive lighting, but what the practicals do is they motivated our sources. It is obviously a stage—it’s a built set—and the temptation and challenge with a stage set is, you can hang all the lights that you want from your grid and have light from overhead, but it just doesn’t feel like how that space should be lit. So, we ended up doing very minimal lighting from the grid, using a lot of our practicals to motivate light, and then lighting off of the stands inside the room whenever we could. Having all these existing fixtures to work with not only filled the frame, but gave us a lot of color and a lot of inherent shapes, so that even though we did have to light off of stands inside the room, we didn’t have to work that hard to build up a frame with light and color.
How did you bring such a richness of color to Russian Doll? In past interviews, you’ve discussed how challenging it is to achieve a beautifully saturated look while shooting digitally.
Nat Jencks was our colorist. He’s a close friend of mine, and he’s such an amazing talent. We’ve worked on many projects together, so we entered this project so far along, in terms of our creative evolution, that it was very easy to develop a language with him for what the show would be. We typically start from some kind of film emulation LUT so that you can work with saturated colors, but the colors still feel organic. They feel like something that you’re subconsciously familiar with because they’ve been represented on a film stock before.
But the way that we honed in our look was honestly from our camera tests with Natasha, where we globally decided on a film emulation LUT, but fine-tuned it, looking at her skin tone, her hair and her wardrobe, making sure that her skin looks great, her skin is properly separated from her hair, and there’s enough texture within her wardrobe that it didn’t just fall off to blackness. It’s such a great wardrobe and it’s a huge part of the show, so it’s great to have this one focal point to base the rest of the look around. It reminds me of Punch-Drunk Love, how they basically picked their film stock based on [Adam Sandler’s] suit. It sounds crazy, but honestly, in this world when you have infinite options, it’s nice to have something to narrow things down.
So, that was how we designed our LUT or look for the show, and that stayed consistent throughout. Then, out in the world, you start looking at what you have to work with and how you can create color contrast. Shooting on the streets of New York, the sodium vapor lighting was such a huge component to our night exterior work that we knew we were going to be working with that. To try to contrast that, we would pick the color—like a blue-cyan color—that would look nice paired with sodium vapor, and find ways to sneak that in the backgrounds or back lights or things like that. Some of the spaces, particularly Tompkins Square Park, can tend to feel a bit monochromatic because it’s all sodium vapor lighting in there, so we did what we could to bring more color into that space and not make it feel so flat.
Was it challenging to achieve visual continuity between your stage and exterior shoots?
Absolutely. It was a challenge, but it’s also nice to have full control over one space and then have that as your inspiration to draw from, and figure out how to bring that out into the world. So much of that is about choosing locations and scouting, seeing what things look like at night—shooting on avenues instead of cross streets as much as we could, so that we could take advantage of the existing light on the avenues from awnings, neons and all those things. Then, we would add whatever we could. We had these amazing little LED tubes that were battery powered that we could just tuck behind doors, on stoops, wherever we could hide them, and add washes of color wherever it felt appropriate.
Michael Bricker gives you a lot of the credit for Season 1’s memorable final sequence, suggesting that the tunnel location and idea for converging split screens both came from you. Can you explain what went into honing that sequence?
That tunnel location was extremely difficult to find, and it was conceived in many different ways. Something just clicked when we were scouting that spot. I was shooting a little video on my camera, and realized the symmetrical nature of the tunnel—that we could have one pair of characters entering from the downhill side and one pair of characters entering from the uphill side, and that when you put those together, it will complete that half circle.
So, it was one of these great collaborations where the idea is in the air. The whole concept of the script was written in these split screens, and we didn’t know how we were going to join them. I think it’s just about having those ideas in the air so that you’re all looking out for solutions, continuing to have a dialogue about it and throwing ideas out there, knowing that idea one might not be the best idea, but it might lead to idea two.
We scouted and I asked some people to stand in and do the walk, and then went home and edited it together on my laptop. It was a very crude representation, but it got the idea across of a way to merge these two pairs. Then, Laura [Weinberg] did some work on it, I think, with inverting one of the frames. So, again, it becomes this further collaboration where the editor adds to the idea, or solidifies the idea with a different concept that wasn’t something that we had initially conceived of.
There were a lot of pieces to that sequence that didn’t make it into the cut because it was one of those situations where there’s a lot of ideas, and you don’t quite know what’s exactly going to feel right until you piece everything together. We actually did some body-mounted camera work for that finale in the tunnel that never made it in there. It was a language that we really liked, and that Natasha loved, and it was like, “Maybe there’s a way for this to be in here somehow,” but I think it works great how it is. It’s very tight, distinct and powerful, and it ends on this great note. I just don’t think it needed to be elaborated upon any more than it did.