Emmy-Nominated Cinematographer Tony Miller, BSC, on Fleabag. Interview
with Beth Marchant of Studio Daily.
Tony Miller had never shot a single comedy when he interviewed for
and was swept up into the production of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s
tour de force, “Fleabag”. Based on her one-woman show
of the same name and co-produced by BBC Three and Amazon Studios,
the series returned for a second season this spring with an even steeper
roller-coaster ride of hilarity, connection and cringe-worthy moments
of bad behavior. His choice, shooting mostly handheld on the Alexa
Mini, was to make it look both cinematic and simple, although he admits
it wasn’t easy to shoot at all.
We grabbed Miller on the phone after a long day on set filming an
episode of Amazon’s gothic detective fantasy series “Carnival
Row”, which debuts August 30. We talked about his immediate
connection with Fleabag‘s star and showrunner and how the camera,
itself a main character, helped deliver the show’s message and
sell its signature Fourth Wall-breaking format.
What was your production schedule like?
The first season was shot as a sort of one-off production, then we
added quite a few scenes to it. I basically shot the whole lot from
the beginning. This season was seven weeks.
Did you change up your camera kit for the second season?
No, I didn’t. I wanted it to be anamorphic and shot 2.35:1.
But comedy ain’t my bag; I’ve never shot it before. We
didn’t want this to be comedy, we wanted it to be cinematic.
So choosing a 2.35 aspect ratio seemed the right thing to do. If I
look to the people who’ve shot comedy who I admire, like Woody
Allen, Wes Anderson, and the Coen brothers, they all shot 2.35. You
have multiple relationships within the frame. I really wanted to play
against the genre and make it cinematic. And there was another reason
for that, too, which is, Fleabag herself does these ghastly deeds,
so we really wanted it to have a naturalism because we wanted all
our audience to relate to it themselves. We wanted them to see themselves
in this character, and in her behavior, and her neuroses and psychotic
behavior at times, so in a sense, it was a contradiction of wanting
it to be cinematic and also wanting to be very close to the characters.
How did lighting play into those choices?
To achieve that naturalism, I avoided any form of theatrical lighting
whatsoever. I also operated the camera myself, because I wanted us
to feel ferally close to Fleabag every time she breaks the fourth
wall. I knew I had to really feel it emotionally and hence I did two
things: I decided that it had to be 100 percent handheld, which Harry
(Bradbeer), the director, and Phoebe both thankfully backed up. Just
about every shot is handheld; there are three Steadicam shots in the
entire series. Secondly, that I must light and operate, despite what
the union said, because this was a show where I had to be emotionally
engaged all the time with the camera.
The chemistry and beautiful dance that arcs in this season between Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag and Andrew Scott’s hot priest is simply divine. It just crackles with intensity. What was important to you, Waller-Bridge and the director when capturing those particular scenes?
I’m very close to Phoebe on two levels. As a person, she is
just so generous and empathetic. She wanted her co-stars to have as
much time as they need to make it work. She would always let Andrew
Scott do 10 takes and then just do one herself because that’s
all the time we had left. But because we’re close, I also understand
emotionally what she’s trying to do. And I think I did from
the get-go. That really helps me light around the characters, and
I can literally light around the emotions that are often not said.
The second thing is, again, we’re breaking the fourth wall.
Phoebe as Fleabag is having a relationship with the camera - and to
be clear, not with me but with the camera — and that relationship
she has with the camera is at the core of much of series two. In the
end, she tells the camera to stay and not follow her. The camera is
her shrink and her alter ego, so I wanted every time she turns to
me that she look absolutely radiant and at all times I’ve captured
it all beautifully. I shot Phoebe in tests from all different lenses
and from different heights and ways of lighting her. I did loads of
tests on Phoebe’s face, so that I kind of have a shorthand of
where to be at the best time when she turns to face the camera. I
wanted it to look natural and simple, and it’s not. And I think
it’s something I’m very proud of. I found Fleabag harder
to shoot than “Carnival Row”, even though “Carnival
Row” is a massive show, one of the biggest I’ve ever done
in my career. But this was hard because it was so sensitive and it
relied so much on very careful emotional nuances from Phoebe that
I had to pick up as the other main character, the camera. So it was
very exciting to shoot, too.
What were some of the lenses you sampled during those early tests?
I tried all of them, really. I ended up using the Cooke Anamorphic
because they had a contrasty, good-looking feel to them. I used a
little bit of diffusion, but that was it. And the rest was all in
the lighting, in terms of trying to strike this balance between being
naturalistic and not heavily backlit or using hardly any backlighting
at all, and yet still giving it that cinematic look. The audience
experience has to feel, immediately, this is a movie. But on the other
hand, it has to feel like real life. We have to see our own behavior
on the screen. I remember being so embarrassed when I fancied this
guy, so I recognized this family’s dysfunctional trauma. And
those are the things that I think work because they’re universal
for all of us.
What else did you do to prepare for production?
I spent an awful lot of time reading the scripts. That’s an
essential part of understanding what Phoebe is after, both the text
and the subtext. Sure, the technical experience kicks in, but really
understanding the scripts helped us do a lot of things bravely that
were pretty tricky. For example, when she’s in the confessional
we tried to shoot that as one shot. She’s at her lowest point,
almost, and confesses all this stuff that is shocking. If we’d
put lots of cuts in it, it wouldn’t have had that impact. Thoroughly
understanding where we needed to go helped me encourage that kind
of choice, for example. Another example is the scene in Claire’s
office. Those long shots between the two girls where we don’t
really cut are all handheld. What’s so exciting is that Sian
Clifford, who plays Phoebe’s sister, Claire, is such an amazing
actor. We’d do these takes and you’d get to take four
and realize, every single one is phenomenal. I got very tired, of
course, shooting handheld for seven weeks confidently all day through
multiple takes. But I had a brilliant crew round me.
How did you work with Phoebe and Harry on set?
We’re very much an ensemble. In addition to being very generous
with other actors, Phoebe is also very clear about what she wants
and was very much the showrunner and person in charge. Harry helped
her with performances, but she’s really running the show. It
is a team effort and Harry is very collaborative as well. We sort
of work it out. If occasionally things don’t work, we’ll
try something else. Phoebe is a force of nature, and she’d be
rewriting it every night, then coming on set and performing it. But
she so inhabits that part. She’s also so kind and empathetic
and just treats people very, very well. She’s a superstar. There’s
no one like her. Consequently, there’s a great vibe on set at
Interview by Beth Marchant
- Studio Daily