When I spoke to cinematographer Ben Richardson shortly before the season finale of Mare of Easttown, the first thing I said was, “Don’t tell me anything that happens.”
Anything is the operative word here. I didn’t want to know the outcome of the show’s central mystery—who killed young mother Erin McMenamin—before I had a chance to watch the climactic episode. But, equally, I didn’t want to know the conclusion of the domestic dramas surrounding detective Kate Winslet and the denizens of her blue-collar suburban Pennsylvania town—a region with an accent so distinctive Saturday Night Live built an entire sketch around its vowel pronunciation. That’s the beauty of Mare of Easttown: the everyday drama in the relationships between siblings, friends and parents and their children are as compelling as finding the culprit in the death that propels the plot.
With the entire season now available on HBO Max, Richardson talks the difficulties of a six-month COVID-19 pause, how Leitz Summilux lenses final lured him away from Zeiss and his tricks for assigning the right level of suspicion to your red herrings.
Filmmaker: Were the scripts for all seven episodes of the series completely finished when you started shooting?
Richardson: Yes. This was a somewhat unusual scenario in that we didn’t actually start shooting with the first episode. Instead, we cross-boarded the entire season, visiting many locations only once (and shooting every scene there) for all seven episodes. Because there was a single DP and a single director, there wasn’t any need to go in strict episode order. To make the logistics work with actor availability and some of the locations that were featured throughout the whole show, it made sense to block shoot everything.
Filmmaker: That plan makes a lot of sense, but it definitely complicated matters when you had to shut down halfway through the shoot because of COVID. When you went back to finish, now you still had scenes from all seven episodes to shoot.
Richardson: The challenge was that we had set out to make something not only scheduled more like a movie but also with that same sort of scale, which is something I think the story demanded. The real challenge was maintaining that scale we’d been able to establish while working within the new restrictions that COVID required. Our fantastic assistant director, Kayse Goodell, was instrumental in making sure that the entire machine could be put together without compromising what ended up on screen, then we all just came up with ways to limit the number of people we had around and limit the number of locations we had to go to, while also giving us continuity with what we’d done before. We were among the first shows to restart, so we had fairly extreme COVID precautions in place, and rightly so. We were all very grateful that our concerns were taken so seriously. But the interesting thing for me and director Craig Zobel was that we had to have a lot of our creative conversations on set ten feet apart over a walkie talkie, which is a very challenging way to work. It was a tough change because so much of filmmaking is about long days, and part of what makes those long days enjoyable is the camaraderie of that core group of people who are driven to keep things moving forward and keep the crew motivated. Without that face time and that closeness, it definitely was tough.
Filmmaker: You had almost six months of down time from when you were first shut down to when you picked back up, and you probably didn’t know for a big chunk of that exactly when you’d be on set again. Were you able to disconnect and mentally step away while you waited, or were you just obsessively thinking about what you still had to shoot and how you were going to accomplish it?
Richardson: It was a mix of both of those things. We’d have these periods where you’d read something good in the news and think, “Maybe they’ll be able to work out the logistics now and we can go back.” So, you’d sort of pick everything up again and get all excited, then it wouldn’t happen.
It’s so rare that you get the opportunity to reconsider and recontextualize the work you’ve already done on a project when you still have a substantial amount left to do. It did give Craig and I the chance to really reevaluate the most successful parts and some of the slightly less successful parts of what we had already done and play to our strengths when we came back.
Filmmaker: You mentioned that you shot all the episodes of the show. There was a time when that was unusual, but it’s become more common to have just one voice behind the camera. Who actually makes that decision? Does the network or streamer decide? Do they ask if you want to bring in another DP or shoot them all?
Richardson: I’ll be honest, I don’t really know how they come to it. I got this show as an offer to do the entire thing. I think a large part of that was because of the decision to block shoot. But from my perspective, I think in terms of each project as an overarching visual evolution where I am trying to find ways to nuance the photography from the beginning, through the middle and to the end in ways that will support the story. So to be shooting a show like a giant seven-hour feature, that’s just kind of the way my brain works anyway. I’m not quite sure how to do it any other way, to be honest.
Filmmaker: It feels like for a certain subset of HBO dramas, there’s almost a house style in the same way that in Golden Age Hollywood many of the studios had discernable looks for certain types of movies. If you showed me an adult drama from HBO and one from Netflix, I like my chances of being able to tell you which show came from which company.
Richardson: That’s interesting. All I can say is that has to be a credit to the HBO team in who they hire. Certainly there were never any sort of mandates or any conscious discussions about a house style. I do recognize what you’re saying and you are right. I can see similar qualities. One of the things that Craig and I talked about most often was, because it was such heavy subject matter and so grim in certain parts of the story, we absolutely didn’t want it to be this overly desaturated, overly monochromatic universe where people felt heavy coming into it every week. So we made a conscious choice, particularly in Mare’s home environment, to keep the light and the life in the color and the contrast as much as we could. Obviously we’re working within the palette that we’ve already picked, so it’s never going to look as bright and saturated as Paddington, but I do think we were able to have some fun with that and I do think people have really been enjoying those scenes, particularly the scenes with Kate and Jean Smart (as her mother) that give you these moments of levity.
Filmmaker: One of the things I love about the show is that the relationships between the characters and the everyday drama of their lives is every bit as interesting to me as the murder mystery that drives the plot. But that doesn’t mean you’re foregoing the traditions of the murder mystery, like a town full of red herrings. How do you use the camera and lighting to cast the proper amount of suspicion on certain characters without overdoing it?
Richardson: It’s a matter of degrees. You can think of the most extreme example where you light someone like Nosferatu to raise suspicion, but I feel like you’re being dishonest and disrespectful to the audience if you go that far. You have to ensure a level of plausible realism to the lighting and camera choices in those scenarios so that in hindsight, if it turns out that a person who you were suggesting may have had some other motives turns out not to be who the audience thought, they don’t say, “Oh, come on. They made it look so obvious.” So it really was always a matter of degrees, trying to find these little nuances, which were often to do with the color temperature, a little difference in contrast or a slightly different camera angle than we’d been using. But yes, we were consciously trying to pepper those things in so people were constantly playing the guessing game, which you can see from the way the audience has responded, they very much have been.
Filmmaker: The shot that specifically made me think of that question is in episode three, when the town’s deacon tosses the murdered girl’s bike off an overpass. He’s shot from a low angle with his face underexposed and a hard backlight coming from a streetlamp.
Richardson: Yeah, the streetlight there was the motivation to be able to do something like that. I think that’s what I’m always trying to do is look for ways to root dramatic lighting or storytelling lighting in naturalism from a plausible source.
Filmmaker: The interiors and exteriors really blend seamlessly. How much of this was shot on stage versus practical locations?
Richardson: I think it’s probably about 50/50. Though the exterior is real, the interior of Mare’s house is a build. Actually, the little stairwell [next to the split-level home’s front door] was duplicated on stage to match the one in the real exterior location, so we were able to do stairwell scenes looking out the real location’s front door to get the background, then do the reverses on the set build. Frank and Faye’s was entirely practical. Lori’s was entirely practical. It was a real hybrid and that ends up being a little bit challenging in a fun way, because there are some logistical differences between shooting location interiors versus stage interiors. You don’t want the stuff done on stage to feel much more controlled or contrived compared to the location stuff, which may have a few more rough edges. But I like the rough edges, so I’m always looking for ways to break the lighting a little bit and make it imperfect on stage.
Filmmaker: Has the move toward more controllable, smaller LED units affected how you go about matching practical interiors and stage work?
Richardson: Yes, it’s definitely an improvement, not least because the lighter-weight units and the higher sensitivity cameras we have these days mean you don’t need quite the raw wattage on stage or location, and that gives you flexibility. That allows me to bring similar lighting approaches to practical locations and sets that would be more difficult if you were relying on heavier installations on stage. That said, we were pretty old school in our lighting approach on this. I don’t think there’s a ton that you wouldn’t have been able to do with a few Kino Flos and basic tungsten and HMI heads. But that’s really just a symptom of the type of lighting that I find myself drawn to.
Filmmaker: Attention is being paid to Kate Winslet’s deglamorized look in the show. How did that extend to the way you lit her?
Richardson: The last big [television] project I’d done was Yellowstone, which is set in Montana in these vast landscapes. On that show I leaned into that and made that vastness part of the visual language, but in reading the scripts for Mare I became acutely aware of just how much was going to take place in these smaller domestic interiors, particularly in close, intense, personal conversations. I realized there was going to be an opportunity here to make the visual language about the landscape of people’s faces. The casting throughout is fantastic and there are so many rich, beautiful and complex faces to look at in this show and I really just tried to find ways of lighting them that were supporting those looks and supporting Kate’s look. There were a handful of little technical tricks I used—nothing terribly elaborate, just lighting direction and light quality and a certain softness throughout. But my overriding goal became to make the mediums and close-ups the anchors to the look of the show. By the end of the shoot, my gaffer [Nina Kuhn] and myself had a lot of little shorthands. We knew which character took a certain kind of toplight nicely and it modeled their face well, so we would start out from that and then finesse it. With another character, they might need a slightly softer wrapping light, but it was always trying to find that balance to make sure that it never felt lit. It’s a little bit of a trick, but I like to have plausible deniability. I want to be able to almost claim that it’s just how the lighting fell off the truck, barely designed at all. I want it to feel that way to an audience, but obviously we’ve sculpted it and shaped it as much as we can within that framework.
Filmmaker: Were there specific tools that you didn’t use on the show—for example, filters you might normally put on the camera for close-ups?
Richardson: Not really. I’ve never been a huge filter person. I’ve tested filters on every job, then never take them out of the box again. But they definitely weren’t appropriate here. We didn’t want there to be any of those little clues of glamourization going on.
Filmmaker: I like how you employed emphatic camera moves sparingly. It makes them stand out all the more in moments like the discovery of Erin’s body at the end of episode one or the long pullback as Mare recedes into the distance of her suburban street in the final shot of episode three.
Richardson: I’m really glad you noticed that. We tried to use camera movement with a certain degree of nuance. I feel like good camerawork and those kinds of camera moves give the audience the opportunity, whether they realize it consciously or not, to ask themselves questions or to discover new pieces of information. Then we have the choice to give them the answers or not to —or to give them an answer that maybe they weren’t expecting.
Filmmaker: The only handheld shot I remember in the show is the episode six flashback to the suicide of Mare’s son, which tracks from outside to inside her house.
Richardson: That shot actually ended being quite a complex thing to pull off, because it’s two shots stitched together between the location and the stage set, and also there’s a speed ramp at the end. It became a very interesting technical challenge to be able to marry those shots in a way that, hopefully, nobody will ever notice and I think we pulled that off pretty well. Very early on we discussed that there needed to be this urgency for that moment. It’s one of—if not the—biggest reveals of the show in terms of Mare’s personal story arc, so that energy felt absolutely appropriate. There is one more handheld moment where Mare is being led with her bandaged arm through a scrum of reporters. In a slightly different way, that moment had a sort of similar feeling, this moment of Mare being out of control.
Filmmaker: Looking through your filmography, you’ve tended toward mainly using Zeiss glass. How did the Leitz Summilux lenses lure you away for Mare?
Richardson: That’s very true. I am a big fan of the old Zeiss Standard Speeds. They’re these tiny little nuggets of a lens and there’s something about them that is similar to what I like in my lighting approach—they have enough imperfections to my eye to make the world feel real. They make it feel tangible and tactile and that’s basically what I’m always looking for. I don’t want something that is too flawless. So I love those Standards, but they’re in these tiny little, older housings and the blunt truth is they’re just impractical for a fast-moving, television-based set. So, a few years ago I moved over to the Zeiss Ultra Primes, which have a lot of the same qualities as the Standards but in a more modern housing.
I started to notice over the last job or two that there were some flare characteristics and some contrast issues with the Ultra Primes that I was finding frustrating. So, I did a deep dive before shooting Mare and tested probably 12 different lens sets at Arri and there was just something about those Leitz Summilux lenses. They’re a very modern lens. They’re very clean and very sharp, but the background rendering is also a little imperfect. You get a few little aberrations that stop it from feeling as clean as some of the other modern lens designs. They’re kind to faces, you can get nice and close on the wider lenses without distorting too strangely, skin texture renders beautifully, and then the backgrounds fall off in this really delightful way. It just sort of tickled something in my brain and I’m actually using them again right now for that same reason.
Matt Mulcahey works as a DIT in the Midwest. He also writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.