For two seasons, director of photography M. David Mullen has been responsible for inviting the audience into the world of a housewife-turned-comedian on Amazon Prime Video’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” With often naturally-lit 360-shots, oners and long, wide shots of real locations, he captures the beauty of the somewhat simpler time of 1950s New York (and in the second season, Paris). Now, he sees his second consecutive Emmy nomination for cinematography of a one-hour, single-camera program for his work on the second season premiere entitled “Simone.”
“Simone” includes a couple of intricate oners. How collaborative is the process to decide what scenes call for such a visual technique?
They’re almost always from [co-creators] Amy [Sherman-Palladino] and Dan [Palladino]. After having worked with them for awhile, you can tell when you read the scene. They don’t write it in the script that it’s a oner, but the way it flows, it’s obvious if it keeps going and going and doesn’t have a cut point. When you read a scene that’s a phone call conversation or it’s someone in a room and someone appears at the other end of the room, you figure there’s probably going to be a cut. But the way they they write, particularly Amy, you can read it flowing from space to space to space without a need for a cut, if it’s possible, to connect it all. Even in the outlines you get a hint, but Amy then usually warns us in advance that there’s a certain sequence coming. It’s often not just a oner, but she also often wants the camera to fly very fast through very small spaces.
It sets a very specific tone to launch a season on such a complicated shot style, but since you’ve been working with Amy and Dan awhile now, do you still see such things as challenging or are they more rewarding at this point?
I was really excited by the opening in the switchboard room. I hadn’t done as complicated a camera move as that [before]. The lighting is more or less the practical lighting in the room because we fly in and fly out and there’s nowhere to hide lights, so I had to work with the art department to get the right fixtures in there so the scene would be self-lit. I was very proud of what we were able to pull off. But the ending of the episode, I really liked, too, because it’s sort of bittersweet, and it’s very simply done. It doesn’t have big, elaborate camera moves, but it takes advantage of the Paris locations. The sequences starts with Midge leaving Madame Arthur’s, then with the Pont des Arts and people kissing around her. She ends up at a phone booth talking to Joel, then hanging up and walking away, and we pan 180-degrees and see her in a wide, static shot. And it’s unusual for our show to have something that dramatic and stark and moody, but it just worked emotionally for the ending of that episode.
Speaking of Paris, how did working there affect your process?
We took our gaffer and our camera operator and my camera assistants with us to Paris, but we had a different grip and electric crew and B-camera team. We had two challenging locations in the apartments, and we didn’t do too many 360 shots on the streets of Paris because we couldn’t control the modern elements in the frame. We could dress a block of Paris in two directions for 1959, but not 360-[degrees]. We had to have crowd control and other things, as well.
Which locations were the challenging ones at which you just hinted, and how did you make sure the space could still work for you?
We had a very small apartment that Rose had moved into, and it was a master shot when we came into the room and followed Midge as she looked around the room — pulled back with her, spun around — while Rose went to the window and followed her back to the door. So, we saw pretty much the entire room, and it had a low ceiling and a smooth ceiling, so there was nothing to rig off of. I had to use mostly available light, and I had two lights to do that one shot. Originally I was going to put some kind of lift outside the window, but as soon as I said that, they told me the sidewalk couldn’t take the weight of it because it was hollow underneath, so there was nothing to bear the weight. There was an apartment across the courtyard and it had a window that was one floor higher, so I had to get permission to go into that apartment and put one light in the kitchen window shining back into our apartment, which helped a little bit. And then right over the door, we had a fluorescent tube, but 90% of the lighting was natural.
Then, in the second episode [of the season] we go with Rose to an empty apartment she wants Abe to buy for them, and it was right on the Seine River, and again it was a 360, so every wall had a window or giant mirror on it. That had to be available light because if I put any light on a stand, it would appear in one of the mirrors, and I couldn’t rig to the ceiling because it was a historical building. So it’s all available light except for a little handheld fill light I used for one angle. I was going to have someone handhold and walk it back and forth, but even that guy would have appeared in the mirror, so I put it on the floor and hoped the camera operator wouldn’t step on it.
How much room is there to influence or alter a vision for such a shot if you’re on set and it’s just not working?
Amy described that in the second episode, Abe and Rose walking along the Seine at night and end up dancing in front of Notre Dame, and she wanted to see out-of-focus dancers blurring in the background and foreground around Abe and Rose when we start following them, and then pull back and reveal that the embankment there is full of dancers. We talked about maybe doing it on a small series of cuts where the lens got wider and dancers wiped the frame, but the timing to get the dancers to match between three different angles and cuts seemed like it was going to be a nightmare, so I figured the only way it was going to work was to do it in one shot — which was what Amy wanted to do initially. We did use a big zoom lens on a crane, which we normally don’t do on the show. Even though I could have done the pullback just on a crane move, to get that effect of the soft dancers in the foreground and background, I told her it felt like it had to be a telephoto shot, but the wide shot still had to be wide angle, just because we can’t pull back on a long lens on a small embankment and still see Notre Dame. But because I was shooting in low light, I had to find a very fast lens to allow me to shoot with the most available light, because Notre Dame has its own lighting, so I had to balance everything else there.
Visually, how did you want to specifically differentiate Paris from New York?
I thought a lot about what look Paris would have compared to New York, and [Amy and Dan] don’t want a sepia-toned look for the show, but all sandstone, limestone buildings and brick have a very warm look to it in general — not a lot of saturated colors because it’s all period architecture. My impulse is to go very golden, and what I had to do was make New York look bluer by playing up the winter aspect. And then they added some more colorful aspects into Paris in the art direction and costuming and even some visual effects in the storefronts and things to add some vibrancy. A lot of it is, you go into the space and you see the space they’ve picked and the way they’re art directing it, and you say, “Well, this has got brown wooden walls and red leather chairs, so I don’t think red lighting is going to make any sense here.” So you try to pick colors that work inside the space.
How did the real-world location of Madame Arthur’s, where Midge ended up performing in the premiere, inform how you lit and shot her set?
It has a neon sign and a red door in front, so it seemed to me that it had to be colorful, whereas other places she performs, such as the one in the second episode on the Lower East Side, were in a turn-of-the-century, wood-paneled space, so it felt like an old bar. That’s only a stand-up performance, where as the Paris space also included a musical performance, so the musical performance seemed to call for colored lighting, but a comedy performance generally doesn’t.