Filming the New York-set HBO thriller series “The Undoing” presented the challenge of getting inside the head of Nicole Kidman’s character, Grace, as her world flies apart and she doesn’t know what to believe, says Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle.
The British DP, known for an artistic approach and a fascination for macro-level detail, used some of the same techniques he’s developed over the years, whether filming “Slumdog Millionaire” for Danny Boyle or “Antichrist” for Lars von Trier, he says.
“I use tools that for dramatic reasons help affect the focal plane and the rendition of the image depending on the psychology of the idea,” says Mantle, adding that he’s often fascinated with manipulating and diminishing areas of focus.
The setting for “The Undoing,” amid the dark, secretive world of New York’s super-rich, also presented opportunities to immerse viewers in murky intrigue, Mantle says.
“I talk about breaking down the DNA or the image,” he adds, explaining his approach.
Shot on several real locations in the city’s most posh neighborhoods, the visuals suggest a shadowy, sinister landscape where characters carefully guard secrets about who may have killed the artist mother of a private school boy. Writer-director Susanne Bier (“In a Better World”) was quite particular about which settings she felt could work and which would not, says Mantle.
Together, they painstakingly capture the decadent demi-monde of Grace and her fabulously successful husband with a secret, Hugh Grant’s Jonathan – along with the bohemian world of the doomed mother, Elena, played with haunting obsessiveness by Matilda De Angelis.
The series, enriched by Lester Cohen’s production design, features nuanced screenwriting by David E. Kelley that extends well beyond the original storyline of “The Undoing’s” inspiration, Jean Hanff Korelitz’s book, “You Should Have Known.”
All of which kept Mantle busy, he says, working closely with Bier, often intensely focused on her actors on set, while he simultaneously managed a second unit filming emotive details of a wintry New York, which is blended seamlessly with the studio-shot scenes.
On his close work with actors, Mantle says, “I also use old lenses to break down whatever I do,” including a rare vintage Leica Thambar. “It was quite important to damage the world around Nicole sometimes.”
Bier, who is co-chair of the AMPAS International Feature Film Executive Committee, described the teamwork in a live-streamed chat following the screening of “The Undoing” in the EnergaCamerimage Film Festival’s First Look TV Pilots Competition.
“The main idea for the visual language had to do with the psychological issue,” said Bier. “The main character played by Nicole Kidman is sort of in this state of feeling that…she doesn’t know what is right or wrong. She doesn’t know what to believe. And there is a kind of extreme sense of confusion.”
Bier and Mantle chose to suggest that off-kilter feeling with lenses that subtly warp, along with tilt-shift techniques. “We used a lot of Lensbabies, a lot of slightly distorted – not super distorted – but things that were slightly distorting our sense of reality, visually,” says Bier.
In adapting the source book, she adds, “the dramatic tension needed to have a different arc in the TV series because it’s living images. So the characters are sort of taken from the novel but what happens to them in the consecutive episodes is way different.”
A big part of the characters’ evolution comes down to giving actors the space to create, says Bier.
“I think for a director to create an environment where the actors feel they can be free and be very intense and honest with what they do, you need to create a very secure environment.”
She adds, “That’s what I’m trying to do but I don’t know whether I’m always being kind by doing that because I think in a way I’m very direct. I’m always super, super direct. And being direct is not necessarily the same as being kind.”
With a body of work that spans both TV and film, Bier says she’s equally at home in either format.
“You could say a feature film is very precise – it’s almost like a short story. It takes a very precise, accurate take on the story. And you’re also somewhat limited. I mean you could have an ensemble piece with a lot of characters but then you never get into real detail about them – you don’t have the time. With a TV series you have that luxury of having a lot of space. I am very tempted by the richness of a TV series – it is like a huge, big novel and for a director it’s a lot of fun because it’s shot like a feature film.”
She added that a regular source of ideas for her work is the world around her. “I think I get most inspired by looking at people. Walking in the street, looking at people, sitting in a café. I kind of get inspired by watching.”
It’s not just visuals that inspire Bier, she said. “I also get inspired by the senses which you can’t necessarily portray directly in my medium. The sense of smell in an apartment makes me know what it’s gonna look like.”
Wardrobes are also crucial in building her characters, Bier said.
“I’m obsessed with the costumes always. They’re always like a key for me to understand the character. That might sound superficial but I’m more preoccupied in a way with what they’re wearing…because I feel that once you get the costume right you know who they are.
With the characters Grace and Jonathan, she said, clothes were telling – especially the signature green brocade coat Grace wears. “Although they are dressing expensively and nicely – there was also a sense that they didn’t fit into the archetype of the kind of upper class New York. I kept saying to the costume designer ‘We’ve got to find the right coat.’ And it took a little while to figure that out. But it’s sort of become iconic so it was very useful to do that.”