Last year, Checco Varese, ASC won his first Emmy--for lensing the “Breakthrough Pain” episode of Dopesick, the limited drama series which delved into opioid addiction in America, taking us not only to a distressed Virginia mining community and a rural doctor’s office but also the boardrooms of Purdue Pharma, and the inner workings of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Based on Beth Macy’s 2018 best selling nonfiction book, “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company That Addicted America,” the series spanned some 25 years with different storylines that personalize a drug epidemic fueled in large part by Purdue’s insidious behavior. The “Breakthrough Pain” episode was directed by Barry Levinson.
Fast forward to today and Varese may well be in Emmy contention again--this time for the recently debuted musical drama Daisy Jones & the Six (Prime Video), which centers on a rock band in the 1970s fronted by two charismatic lead singers: Daisy Jones (portrayed by Riley Keough) and Billy Dunne (Sam Claflin) who have palpable onstage chemistry and a tumultuous behind-the-scenes relationship. The 10-episode series, based on the best-selling book of the same title by Taylor Jenkins Reid, chronicles a high-profile rock band's skyrocket-like ascent to fame and then its precipitous fall.
While Dopesick and Daisy Jones & the Six seem worlds apart, Varese doesn’t regard them as such. In fact, they share a deep common bond--”human drama,” whether it be tied to the addiction crisis in Dopesick or the complexities of creative and personal relationships in Daisy Jones. Similarly Varese views his other credits in recent years such as Them as “a human drama with horror,” It Chapter Two as “a human drama about a clown who eats people” and so on. Varese observed that human drama is the thread that runs through assorted films, including this year’s Oscar nominees with settings ranging from “a trench in Germany” (All Quiet on the Western Front) to the concert circuit and “life in Graceland” (Elvis).
This common denominator of human drama also helped Varese come up with solutions to make producing Daisy Jones & the Six doable during the pandemic. While big crowds at a concert calling for numerous extras are typical in rock ‘n roll stories, Varese didn’t think they were essential as he mulled over how to bring Daisy Jones to fruition in light of COVID-19. “You couldn’t rely on the massive audience. You had to rely on the relationships within the band itself, their experience being on stage, the sounds they hear and emotions they feel.”
Maybe, continued Varese, a select shot or two suggesting a big audience would suffice--perhaps with the aid of visual effects. “With face masks and shields, putting 60 people in a bar, much less 5,000 in a stadium wasn’t realistic. That got me to start thinking even more about focusing on the human drama among band members.” He summed up the creative challenge posed by the movie as “to make the music resonate within a human drama.”
The cinematographer further observed that there is a solitude surrounding the singers and musicians that he visually had to convey, distill and sift through. This solitude is part of the drama as these performers come together to form a new, albeit often dysfunctional family, the band itself.
The pandemic also carried the silver lining of helping the cast to transform into a believable band. With shooting of the film postponed for some nine months, the actors kept rehearsing and became akin to a pod-like community. “They really became a band during that time,” said Varese who cited that dynamic as part of what has helped to make Daisy Jones & the Six so successful. “A smart producing team with the support of a smart studio made the right call--to keep them rehearsing and playing, to keep them working to be a better band.”
In that vein, to make a beloved band believable, it was important that the singers actually sang. Lip-synching to someone else’s vocals was not an option. The downtime from the pandemic was put to good use as it helped the actors to get where they needed to be musically including such performers as Claflin as singer Dunne and Suki Waterhouse who portrayed keyboardist Karen Sirko. The time to work on and hone their musical chops was also invaluable to Keough who didn’t rest on the laurels of her lineage as the granddaughter of Elvis Presley and daughter of Lisa Marie Presley.
Hello Sunshine, founded by Reese Witherspoon, and Amazon Studios were the lead production companies behind Daisy Jones & the Six. Witherspoon and Lauren Levy Neustadter were executive producers along with, among others, series creators and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber.
Varese also had to be conscious of the 1970s’ setting. He noted that ‘70s architecture is often located in surroundings reflecting a more recent era. A watchful eye had to be exercised to avoid the pitfall of showing a ramp for the disabled or other such physical giveaways that suggested something post-’70s. Varese takes us into Los Angeles music culture, shot on location, including bringing us a ‘70s Sunset Strip with iconic venues such as The Whisky a Go Go and The Viper Room. (The series also entailed shooting in New Orleans and on a Greek island.)
Varese set the look of the series, lensing the first five episodes (directed by James Ponsoldt) along with the seventh installment (directed by Will Graham). The other four episodes were shot by Jeff Cutter. The two DPs had a brief conversation so that they could coordinate properly without sacrificing creative latitude. “Jeff inherited the look of the show,” said Varese but still had the "freedom for adjustments to make it his own look.” Varese said it was analogous to a recipe for his mother’s pesto which he’s evolved, a genesis which makes it your own and can hopefully make it better.
Varese went with the Sony VENICE for Daisy Jones & the Six--in part because of much night work, which made that camera’s “latitude and ability to read in the darkness” an appealing choice. After testing several lenses, Varese opted for Angenieux Optimo Primes with an internal glimmer glass filter to help capture the allure of the 1970s’ L.A. music scene. Varese also deployed the Sony FX3 camera, which he referred to as “a younger sibling” of the Sony VENICE, with the same sensor and color space applied to a smaller camera. He had worked with the FX3 on Dopesick and found it ideal when working in confined spaces, which he found himself in, for example, in Greece, for Daisy Jones & The Six. He could carry the FX3 on his shoulder and go to work immediately in tight spaces.
In addition to the Emmy win for Dopesick, Varese has received such plaudits as a Golden Frog nomination at Camerimage in 2015 for The 33, a feature film directed by his wife, Patricia Riggen. The 33 followed the extraordinary real-life survival story that captured the world’s attention five years earlier--the collapse of the Copiajo gold and copper mine in Chile and the miraculous rescue of all 33 miners after 69 days of being trapped. Varese garnered a second Golden Frog nod in 2021 for the TV anthology series Them (directed by Nelson Cragg).
As for what’s next, Varese has embarked on Under the Bridge, a limited series for Hulu, which reunites the DP with Keough. “It wasn’t by design,” said Varese in reference to teaming with her again right after Daisy Jones & The Six. “But when I heard she was doing it [Under the Bridge], I was happy. She’s a wonderful actor and person.”
Also in the offing for Varese is another project directed by Riggen, a feature he was not yet at liberty to discuss publicly at press time.