After starting as a camera assistant for National Geographic Films in Peru and getting a couple of dozen NatGeo documentaries under his belt, he became a news cameraman for NBC, CNN and BBC. For 14 years he filmed in war-torn areas under sensitive circumstances — an occupation that required him to be a fixer as well as a gatherer of images. He would drop into a location and get things ready for the rest of the crew to come in and help him tell the story.
While building the visual DNA for a new series isn’t exactly the same as working in a war zone, the ability to be ready for anything has made Varese the go-to guy for TV pilots. He shot his first with Davis Guggenheim on “The Unit.” After that came the pilot for HBO’s “True Blood,” which ended up running for seven seasons. Other credits include A&E’s “The Returned,” ABC Family’s “The Fosters,” “Melrose Place” for The CW and “The Defenders” for CBS. He’s now shot 20 pilots and counting.
Varese likens working on pilots to making a fantastic meal. “I’ll cook a wonderful lamb,” he says, “a Peruvian-Japanese fusion dish, and if you ask me to do it again the next day, my answer will be no. That’s sort of how I see them.” The high-pressure environment of working on pilot after pilot requires a certain personality, which Varese has in spades. “You have to have an intense passion for it in order to push everybody to their limits,” he says.
Varese — who has shot his share of feature films as well, including “The 33” and “Replicas,” and is prepping the upcoming “It: Chapter 2” — isn’t sure if being known as “the pilot guy” is good or bad, but he gets a satisfaction out of the form that he finds lacking in a multi-episode scenario, where, for him, boredom can set in.
“I set the look,” he says. “I’m responsible for the [DPs] coming in after me in terms of thinking about their parameters as well. They’re most likely going to have 30% less money and time, so I don’t [go overboard] with technocranes or aerial shots and things like that, because there’s nothing worse than a pilot that looks extraordinary and then Episode 2 looks like it is done on $25.”
And when it’s time to move on, Varese never feels like he’s letting go of his newborn, but rather like he’s sending a teenager into the world. “It’s like when a child goes to university,” he says. “If you think of it as a baby, then it’s impossible to let go. But an adult son, that’s OK; he has to grow up and work by himself.”
Though there are cinematographers he greatly admires for creating an inventive visual environment week after week (he cites “Scandal’s” Oliver Bokelberg), Varese insists he doesn’t feel he knows how to shoot episodic series. Yet that’s not really true. He recently wrapped three episodes of the first season of “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan,” starring John Krasinski, for Amazon, which debuts Aug. 31. Sealing the deal was his friendship with “Jack Ryan” executive producer Carlton Cuse, for whom Varese had shot six pilots, including “The Strain,” “The Returned” and “Colony.”
And there was a final enticement to bring him on board: Cuse hired Varese’s wife, Patricia Riggen, to direct the series.