Cinematographer David Klein Delves Into "Deadwood"
David Klein, ASC (photo by Warrick Page/courtesy of HBO)
HBO telefilm makes him a three-time Emmy nominee, the first two coming for "Homeland"
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David Klein, ASC is a three-time Emmy Award nominee, the latest coming this season for best cinematography for a limited series or movie on the strength of Deadwood: The Movie (HBO), directed by Daniel Minahan. Klein’s first two Emmy nods came in 2014 and 2016 for the respective Homeland episodes “The Star” and “The Tradition of Hospitality”--both in the Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series category.

Earlier this year, Homeland--specifically the “Paean to the People” episode--garnered Klein his first ASC Award nomination.

Deadwood: The Movie and Homeland are among the highlights of a TV lensing résumé for Klein that includes the likes of True Blood, Pushing Daisies, Law & Order: The Menendez Murders, Strange Angel, and State of Grace.

Klein has also been active on the feature filmmaking front, most notably spanning work shot over the years for director Kevin Smith, including Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Clerks II, Zack and Miri Make A Porno, and Red State.

SHOOT connected with Klein to discuss his current Emmy nomination along with backstory on, lessons learned from and the challenges posed by Deadwood: The Movie, which has earned a total of eight Emmy nods, including for Outstanding TV Movie.

SHOOT: What does this latest Emmy nomination for Deadwood mean to you personally and professionally?

Klein: Homeland came with a certain cache already, so it always felt like those two nominations were based as much on the show as on the work we had done on those individual episodes. Not to diminish the honor of being nominated, but we were definitely riding a wave of popularity that didn’t hurt our chances. With Deadwood, even though there was also a cache from the previous seasons, it had been so long, and our story was being told in such a different way that the nomination felt much more specific to our work on the film. In every case, it’s been an absolute gift to be nominated and humbling to be in the company of the other nominees, but in the case of Deadwood, the news came two weeks before I finished an extremely long and grueling shoot in Morocco, so it was a wonderful surprise that fueled the final push of that production. Luckily, two of my top lieutenants, focus puller Dominik Mainl and A camera operator John Joyce, were with me and were able to share the nomination. No cinematographer is an island and the art of cinematography is not something one can accomplish alone, so all of these nominations are not just mine, but the entire camera, grip and electric crews that I’ve worked with on all three projects. 

SHOOT: Provide some backstory. How did you get the opportunity to work on Deadwood and what drew you to the project?

Klein: Gregg Fienberg and Alan Ball hired me to be one of the alternating cinematographers on True Blood, so I’d worked with Fienberg for four seasons, during which Daniel Minahan directed three or four episodes that I shot. When they called asking about my interest in Deadwood, I literally jumped at the chance and flew back to LA from mid-vacation to meet with them. Had always been a huge fan of (Deadwood creator) David Milch and the show, and had never worked on a western before, so between those factors and working with my friends Dan and Gregg again--seemed like we’d all get going like a house on fire. My past six years has been spent all over the globe with Homeland in mostly urban locations mixed with some various, remote villages and rural settings--so I always had any number of light sources available to me and Deadwood was going to be limiting in that respect, which was interesting and exciting. 

SHOOT: What was (were) the biggest creative challenge(s) that Deadwood posed to you as a cinematographer?

Klein: One of the biggest challenges was also one of the things that drew me to the project, the limited lighting sources and limitations on our approach to lighting each set and location. In the 13 intervening years since the third season of Deadwood ended, electricity and electric light had been brought to the town. We weren’t really telling the story of how electric light was invading, but more a story of the human element of modernity taking over and the parasitic nature of the wealthy forcing this takeover. A lot of research was done to figure out the type of streetlights and color temp they would have been, but because that wasn’t a big part of our story, we chose the color that was closest to our research while being careful not let them overpower too much, so that the torches and oil lamps would play more and it would feel like the Deadwood that we all remember from the series, while also staying true to the electric and telephone lines Hearst was dragging across the territory. 

SHOOT: Don’t know if this is applicable but can you discuss how the original series influenced your approach, if at all, relative to its cinematographers (James Glennon and Xavier Grobet were among the DPs on the original series).

Klein: In cinematography, there are so many ways to get to the same ultimate goal. The original series influenced our work by instructing us to be as natural as possible, relying on torches, oil lamps and active, simulated fire light. The changes in technology from film to digital mainly affected the sensitivity of origination, and so what was once probably nine-lights and maxi-brutes became Arri SkyPanels and LiteMats by Lite Gear behind 12x12 frames of diffusion. What was once a lot of fresnels rigged into stages became a soft, top ambient source augmented by floor units, actual oil lamps, and torches. Jeremy Graham (gaffer) and his electricians also outfitted a few oil lamps with Lite Ribbon that was wirelessly controlled by the dimmer board op that provided good, realistic output from a source we could have on tables, in the frame. They also outfitted a couple of lanterns the same way for two of our actors to carry out in the woods for a night exterior. 

Essentially, we wanted everything to look and feel as real as humanly possible. Big, soft sources and actual fire providing ambience while staying out of the way of Dan Minahan and the actors was important. For day interiors, we’d try to put big sources outside the windows and only bring in as little fill as necessary, but if there was enough of the right quality of light on set after we’d slammed a couple of Mole-Richardson 24k HMI’s through the windows, then we’d sculpt it a bit and shoot. The sensitivity of cameras these days allowed us more flexibility than the maximum 500 ISO that the original series would have been shooting on with Kodak stocks. Having said that, I would have loved to have gone back to film for this, but it wasn’t in the cards. 

The original being on film did push us to rely on Suny Behar’s LiveGrain for the final color grade. Gregg Fienberg and I used LiveGrain when we switched True Blood from film to digital during its final season and were really happy with the results. I’ve used Suny’s grain on several projects intending to appear originated on film, with great results. The most amazing thing about his product is that it puts overexposed grain in the highlights, normally exposed grain in the mid, and underexposed grain in the lows, based on actual film stocks he used to create all of the different grains within the LiveGrain platform. It’s also highly tunable and one of the most intricate secondaries I’ve ever used in a final grade. It always feels organic and true to film. 

SHOOT: What was your choice of camera(s), lenses and why?

Klein: We chose the Alexa Mini paired mainly with Zeiss Supreme Primes, Canon Cine Primes and Canon Cinema Zooms. Used a 2.0:1 aspect ratio and initially went with common-top framing to protect for an eventual 1.78 master. After a couple of weeks and guarantees from HBO and Gregg Fienberg that there would never be a 1.78:1 version, we switched to a center extraction 2.0 frame and allowed equipment to invade top and bottom. 

During our brief testing phase we looked at the Alexa LF and also some rehoused, vintage Canon glass provided by Christopher Probst, ASC but both elements started to feel like we were forcing a look on the project that the story wasn’t really asking for, since the original series had been shot very straight forward, with contemporary glass. The LF also limited our choice in lenses to mostly zoom lenses, and the support equipment was going to snowball into more involved rigs and stabilized heads, so all roads led to the Mini. I didn’t much like the idea of adding weight to camera assistants and grips who would ultimately be carrying the equipment through the ankle deep mud we were creating on a daily basis, either. 

SHOOT: What was your biggest takeaway or lessons learned from your experience on Deadwood?

Klein: Same takeaway learned from every job as cinematographer that I ever have - it’s all about the story. We’re all there to tell the story and no cinematographer is an island. What we do is not something one can do alone, and if our work is noticed above and beyond servicing the story--if somebody says “look at the amazing lighting” before they comment on the story, then we’ve failed at our job. One of the main things is that we should be is invisible, go unnoticed. We always put our hearts and souls, blood and tears into every job, and the mark we leave should be indelible, but cinematography should be like the silence between the notes. Without it, there’s no music, but it’s there in service to the story, not the other way around.

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