“Fleabag” the Look

What attracted you to “Fleabag”? How do you decide what project to work on?

Screen Shot 2016-09-09 at 12.57.28“Fleabag” was an easy choice! Phoebe Waller-Bridges scripts were inspirational and so is she. You get the sense she has put a down payment on becoming a superstar. The scripts were so taught, inventive and rude and this was obviously comedy writing in its highest form.

I have never really shot a comedy, and the closest I have come was a movie for director Oliver Parker called “I really Hate my Job”, which did not really go anywhere. So I wanted to expand my pallet, from the darker Hopperesque environments that I do frequently, to something brighter. I also felt it was a serious challenge as there is a subtext and dysfunctionality to “Fleabag” that I was interested to underscore with cinematography.

My wife often reads scripts for me and said this mirrored much of her experience as a middle class woman in her thirties. Woman’s experience is rarely shown like this on TV.

Amazon Studios were involved, and I had just finished watching “Mr. Robot”, “Preacher” and “Transparent”. These are the guys you want to be working with, – left of field and brave.

Lastly, I had wanted to work with Harry Bradbeer and this was an opportunity.

Fleabag actually talks to us?

Fleebag4At the centre of this drama is Fleabag herself, who has an intimate relationship with the camera, addressing us directly. I tried to create a style where the camera becomes another player in the company and we are hopefully unaware that it is shot completely handheld. The direct relationship with the camera makes us elemental to her story.

This could easily be very clunky, but we tried to create a fluidity and angle of view that enables the audience to forget about the camera, as it moves in a verite style totally linked to Fleabag herself.

In prep, I shot Phoebe from many different angles and heights on all focal lengths, and It was interesting to learn what worked best. She is incredibly photogenic, but often the wider lenses – especially the anamorphic 32mm Cooke worked great, just above her eye line. It made us feel complicit.

What was your strategy for lighting “Fleabag”?

Despite Fleabag’s often dastardly deeds, we need to like her. I tried to light her at all times radiantly–in a way that makes her attractive to us. The thought was that this again helps to make us complicit in her journey.

Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 09.56.58I looked at Audrey Hepburn in “Sabrina” – radiant as she is, this is theatrical lighting and exactly what we did not want. But I did try to make sure that Phoebe’s high cheek bones always had a hit on them. I was very careful with makeup and tried to avoid her being over made up and toned down the bright lipstick.  Again in tests, I lit Phoebe with some hard light – which she takes so well. She has amazing skin.

I then looked at the masterly work of (high priest) Gordon Willis ASC in “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan”. All is cross keyed. I tried to avoid backlight, unless it was naturally motivated by a window or other. Backlight is often used to create separation – the illusion of the third dimension. I prefer to do that tonally and with colour on this project.

Lastly, I looked at Wes Andersons work which I love, but it felt too stylized and constructed for this project. What was interesting is the use of the anamorphic frame.

I tried to maintain contrast and although obviously lighter than my other work, underscore the drama of the scene. Even though it was a comedy, it has a dark and ironic side to it.

There is a premise in the UK that comedy must be lit, light at all times. (I stress not in the US). I think it is a flawed premise and I hope in “Fleabag” series two there is a slightly braver attitude towards creating more contrast between scenes.

I tried to keep a naturalistic realism to the mood of the lighting – sourced from windows and practical’s – as stated, no backlight, unless naturally motivated. We wanted to feel the real world at all times.

Why and how did you shoot cinemascope and get away with 2-39-1 aspect ratio?

The original pilot was shot 2-39-1 on a miniscule budget and we just carried on with that.

Most of the great movie comedies shoot 2-39-1 scope, from Woody Allen, to Wes Anderson, via the great films of the fifties. TV is becoming more like cinema everyday, and Amazon Studios encouraged us to be bold.

2-39-1 allowed us to often cover scenes in one shot, to use the width of the frame for multiple relationships and tensions to exist in that same frame. It is often the complexity of the relationships within the frame that makes this so exciting.

I used the new Cooke anamorphic lenses – they have a very beautiful look, with all the characteristics of the S4’s in anamorphic form. They are not perfect and distort – the whole point of anamorphic lenses. I used mainly the 32mm and 50 mm.

Why did you shoot it all handheld?

We wanted it to feel real, and not to have the soft feel of much theatrical comedy. But as stated previously the camera is like a player in the drama – directly connected to Fleabag, and so it felt right to be dancing around handheld, with that little bit of movement.

Occasionally we used a Steadicam and I made quite a lot of use of Optical Supports Mantis dolly – which allowed me to sit in a wheel chair for longer tracking shots.

I used a custom built Easyrig with a Klassen Steadicam vest for handheld and played lots of tennis prior to the shoot. We shot with the Alexa mini, but it was still a heavy rig.

We all had great fun making this series and it was a very happy shoot. Producer Lydia Hampson and line producer Adam Browne, gave me more lights and kit then they could afford and were continually supportive.

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