Chris Manley Reflects On Lensing "The Romanoffs"
Chris Manley, ASC (photo by Owen Roizman, ASC)
DP continues his longstanding collaboration with series creator/auteur Matthew Weiner

In Prague to shoot the Knightfall series for the History network some time back, DP Chris Manley, ASC, phoned his wife one night to check in and find out what was new. She noted that a package came to him from his longtime collaborator, Matthew Weiner. Manley asked her to open it, revealing the Blu-ray release of the Dekalog series. From director and co-writer Krzysztof Kieslowski, Dekalog was a show on Polish television consisting of 10 hour-long films, drawing from the Ten Commandments for inspiration, dealing with moral and existential questions concerning life, death, love, hate, truth and unrelenting time.

“I was very busy at the time and didn’t reach back out to Matthew,” recalled Manley. But a couple days later the DP received an email from a friend with a link to a trade paper article announcing The Romanoffs (Amazon). 

Suddenly the package sent to Manley out of the blue made complete sense. Weiner was going to do his Dekalog. “Kieslowski’s Dekalog was an inspiration for Matt and he wanted to try to do something similar but personal and unique to him,” related Manley. “I immediately sent him a note letting him know that if he wanted me to be involved, I would clear my schedule.”

Manley explained he made an instant commitment “just because anything that Matt does will have great writing. He’s my favorite director. He’s part of a group of directors who are so happy and thrilled to be doing their jobs, to be able to make film or TV and loving every minute on set. That kind of joy is infectious. You want to work with people like that.”

Indeed the collaborative bond between Weiner and Manley has yielded joyous brilliance, the first and foremost example being the groundbreaking Mad Men which Weiner created. Manley earned Outstanding Cinematography Emmy nominations four times over a five-year span for Mad Men. The show also landed Manley a pair of ASC Award nods. Weiner additionally entrusted Manley with directing select episodes of Mad Men. In fact Manley, whose focus remains cinematography, made his professional directorial debut in 2012 with a Mad Men episode. Furthermore when Weiner directed his first feature, the comedy Are You Here, he turned to Manley to shoot it.

The latest chapter in the Weiner-Manley pairing is The Romanoffs, a one-hour contemporary anthology/ancestry series featuring distinctly separate, different stories about people all around the world who believe themselves to be descendants of the Russian royal family. Weiner directed and Manley lensed all eight episodes.

Manley was initially hired to alternate with another DP and lens four of the eight installments of The Romanoffs. Weiner was set to at first direct just four of the eight as well. “I was going to shoot the episodes he directed,” recalled Manley. But in pre-pro Weiner decided he wanted to helm all eight episodes. “That was a bold choice,” assessed Manley. “Yes, there’s a trend lately where you have someone directing every episode of a series--like Maniac, Homecoming, True Detective. But those typically involve one ongoing story throughout the series. Matthew wanted to direct every episode of an anthology series which tells an entirely different story each time out. From my standpoint, I thought I’d be unhappy if I didn’t get to shoot my favorite episodes. So then, I wanted to shoot them all.”

Through some creative scheduling within a tight framework, the co-EPs on The Romanoffs, Kathy Ciric and Blake McCormick, were able to make that possible. Still the logistics and time crunch were daunting. “Each episode is in a different city (far-flung locales worldwide),” said Manley. “Day one of shooting would be inside the week of arrival. I knew it would be the biggest challenge of my career. I’ve shot a lot of pilots over the years. Pilots require a lot of prep. Sometimes on a pilot you get three weeks prep--and that still doesn’t feel like enough. For The Romanoffs, we had a lot of episodes that had a week or less than a week. I suspected the show would feel like shooting eight pilots back to back with no prep--and that pretty much is what it wound up feeling like.”

Additionally, continued Marley, there was virtually “zero continuity” in the crew from one episode to the next. “I had a new gaffer, key grip, a new camera department in every city.” However, the saving grace was the large measure of continuity that Manley enjoyed with Weiner. “I know Matt so well and worked for him for so long. I know his tastes and his ideas about filmmaking.”

There was another bit of continuity that came in the person of Steadicam operator Guillaume Quilichini. Manley described him as being “a lovely, sensitive filmmaker and a gifted Steadicam operator. Matt fell in love with his work.” So much so that after working with him on an episode in Paris, Weiner and Manley brought Quilichini to Prague for the following episode. Later, they called on him to come to Bucharest. Quilichini worked on three episodes of The Romanoffs

“Because this guy was so good, it changed Matt’s feelings about the Steadicam,” related Manley. “Matt started using it as a major tool in the series (The Romanoffs)--which was something antithetical to Mad Men.” Manley recollected that Weiner did three Steadicam shots in seven years of Mad Men, and only because what he envisioned couldn’t be done any other way.

Alexa’s influence on Weiner
Manley and Weiner went with the ARRI Alexa on The Romanoffs, marking a continuation from the last three seasons of Mad Men, which deployed that digital camera. (The first four seasons of Mad Men were shot on film.)

Manley observed that the Mad Men experience on Alexa changed Weiner’s directing style. “He didn’t have to cut. He could talk to the actors while they’re performing, keep them in the moment in a way he wasn’t able to before on film. He loved the camera. I loved the camera. Amazon agreed to let us use Alexa (for The Romanoffs) which, like on Mad Men, was paired with Panavision Primo lenses.”

At the same time, Weiner is game for change when he sees the need. Manley related, “We had discussed but decided against anamorphic for the show (The Romanoffs). Then we were scouting in Mexico City. The locations were so beautiful and Matt asked, ‘What if we do this one in anamorphic?’”

Manley had to scramble in that shooting was set to start in five days. He arranged with Panavision to have a set of T Series anamorphic lenses shipped to Mexico City. That episode of The Romanoffs, titled “Panorama,” was the lone one shot anamorphic.

As for his biggest takeaway from his experience on The Romanoffs, Manley observed, “The similarities in terms of filmmaking in different parts of the world are so much greater than the differences. We all kind of speak the same filmmaking language.” At the same time, there’s always something new to learn. “Every place we went to around the world had a piece of equipment or a way of doing something I hadn’t seen before. At times, it might be better than the way we’re used to, especially grip equipment. I took some pictures of it, filed it for reference, showed my key grips. ‘Look what they do in Hong Kong, in Romania. Maybe we can learn something.’”

While Weiner figures prominently in Manley’s career, the cinematographer has turned out plenty of notable work outside of that relationship, as reflected in a primetime Outstanding Cinematography Emmy nomination for The Secret Life Of Marilyn Monroe, “Part 1” episode, and ASC Award nods for CSI: NY and Threat Matrix. Manley’s other episodic work includes Homeland, American Horror Story, Fear the Walking Dead, and Masters of Sex.

This is the first installment in a 16-part series that explores the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, cinematography, producing, editing, music, production design and visual effects. The series will then be followed up by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners on September 14 and 15, and the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on September 22.


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