Lensing and Production Designing "Mare of Easttown"
Ben Richardson, ASC
Insights from Ben Richardson, ASC and production designer Keith P. Cunningham; DP Lincoln Else discusses "Rebuilding Paradise"

Ben Richardson, ASC enjoyed a couple of significant firsts on Mare of Easttown. Last month the cinematographer earned his first career Emmy nomination for the HBO show which garnered a total of 16--including in the marquee category of Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series and spanning, in addition to cinematography, such disciplines as casting, production design, contemporary costumes, picture editing, hairstyling, makeup, acting (leading and supporting performers), writing and sound mixing. 

Mare of Easttown also marked Richardson’s first collaboration with director/executive producer Craig Zobel, who also received his first Emmy nod in the aforementioned directing category. In an earlier Road To Emmy interview, Zobel explained that the approach to Mare of Easttown was to take on the limited series as if it were one big feature film, preserving a continuity of story by going solo throughout in key roles--such as Zobel being the lone helmer of all seven episodes, Richardson the cinematographer, Amy E. Duddleston the editor and so on.  This approach lent a best-of-both-worlds dynamic to the show. On one hand, a single creative artisan in each key discipline infused the project with a feature filmmaking feel. At the same time Mare of Easttown was not confined to a couple of hours on the big screen but rather had the luxury of some seven hours for character development and to create a portrait of a small town.

Zobel noted that he has long been a fan of Richardson, citing the DP’s independent film work. A Best Cinematography Independent Spirit Award winner for director Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild (which additionally earned Best Cinematography honors at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival), Richardson has also been active in TV, as reflected in an ASC Award nomination in 2019 for Yellowstone.

Zobel said that he and Richardson were simpatico on the approach toward Mare of Easttown. “It needed to be naturalistic, all about the acting. We weren’t trying to make a show with an aggressive visual style that would impact the naturalism of the acting.” At the same time, continued Zobel, the style of the show grew “out of the two of us interacting with each other.”

In Mare of Easttown, Kate Winslet plays Mare Sheehan, a small-town Pennsylvania detective who investigates a local murder as life crumbles around her. Brad Ingelsby, who served as showrunner and EP, created and wrote the series which delves into the dark side of a close community and examines how family and past tragedies can define our present.

Mare of Easttown also stars Julianne Nicholson as Lori Ross, Mare’s best friend since childhood; Jean Smart as Helen, Mare’s mother; Angourie Rice as Siobhan Sheehan, Mare’s teenaged daughter; Evan Peters as Colin Zabel, the county detective called in to assist with Mare’s investigation; Guy Pearce as Richard Ryan, a local creative writing professor; David Denman as Frank Sheehan, Mare’s ex-husband; Joe Tippett as John Ross, Lori’s husband and high school sweetheart; Cailee Spaeny as Erin McMenamin, an isolated teen living with her volatile father; John Douglas Thompson as Chief Carter, Mare’s boss at the Easttown Police Department; Patrick Murney as Kenny McMenamin, Erin’s father; James McArdle as Deacon Mark Burton; Sosie Bacon as Carrie Layden, Drew’s mother and Kevin’s ex-girlfriend; and Neal Huff as Mare’s cousin, Father Dan Hastings.

Winslet is up for a lead actress Emmy while Nicholson and Smart are supporting actress nominees and Peters is nominated for supporting actor.

Prioritizing the stellar acting performances and the story was paramount as Richardson and Zobel defined their visual approach to the show. Richardson described that approach as rooted in “allowing the camera to take the audience where the performance and script dictates without trying to put too much of a visual stamp on it.” The DP explained that he didn’t want viewers “to feel the hand of the creators, the role of the camera.” Everything, he affirmed, had to be “in full support of the performances and the story.” At the same time, Richardson related that he and Zobel sought out “occasional moments” where “a little flourish” should be brought to bear, the key being to incorporate that into the work so that the audience doesn’t feel any deviation from the narrative.

As for lessons learned from his experience on Mare of Easttown, Richardson said he came to more fully appreciate the value of slowing things down and letting “the camera look and take a breath with a performance, a character, a moment.” He noted that the show takes place in small town homes and the exteriors aren’t the grand vistas that marked some of his previous work. Still, “the scope of the story is enormous” and he had to figure out how to best represent that in these smaller scale scenarios.”

Richardson noted that he decided to take on the lensing “almost like portraiture” centered on the characters, their faces, the nuances of the actors. “That portrait approach in a way suggested that things can slow down, that things can just look,” that very subtle little moves can be telling, “giving us a moment with the inner thoughts of the character,” allowing the audience to feel those moments and perhaps bring their own understanding of the events into focus. That was particularly effective in scenes between Winslet and Nicholson, observed Richardson, who added that conveying a sense of intimacy was instrumental in why audiences responded so well to the show. “They got to feel as if they know these people,” observed Richardson.

The DP went with ARRI Alexa as his camera of choice for Mare of Easttown, relating that he has had a long successful track record with Alexa, valuing its consistency and reliability, as well as its performance in a wide range of lighting levels. 

Richardson recalled being drawn to Mare of Easttown from the get-go upon reading the scripts for the first three episodes. The DP said he was “mesmerized by the quality of the writing” and “the complexity of the characters.” He added that he asked to be sent the last few scripts even if he didn’t get the gig; he was that enthralled with the story.

Keith P. Cunningham
Like Richardson, production designer Keith P. Cunningham is a first-time Emmy nominee for Mare of Easttown. Bringing him into the fold was series creator/writer/EP Ingelsby. The two had previously teamed on The Way Back, a feature directed by Gavin O’Connor, written by Ingelsby and starring Ben Affleck. There were some narrative parallels between that feature and Mare of Easttown in that both took place in a blue collar town and centered on hard knock sort of people. 

Personally, those roots represented common ground in real life for Ingelsby and Cunningham. “We both share that blue collar modest working class family upbringing,” related Cunningham who was raised in Chicago while Ingelsby grew up in Philadelphia during around the same timeline. 

That common bond also blossomed professionally between the two. Cunningham described Ingelsby as “such an easy-going smart guy,” whom you could always approach if you had a question or concern. When looking to delve into the backstory of a character, for instance, Cunningham said that Ingelsby would always have something which in turn might motivate decisions relative to directing and design. “He is always ready with thoughtful reasoning, a rationale for characters, their part in the storyline. 

Cunningham worked closely with DP Richardson and costume designer Meghan Kasperlik to do justice to a blue collar town as a character--and to the characters within that town. A design framework was developed for the unique nature of each character--their living and/or workspaces--yet at the same time those individual environments had to mesh in order to fit into the overall world that was created. And the character of Mare Sheehan is at the heart of this world which had, said Cunningham, to be “parsed out over the seven episodes.”

Helping Cunningham do the parsing were his compatriots who shared in the show’s production design Emmy category nomination--art director James F. Truesdale and set decorator Edward McLoughlin. The former is a long-time collaborator with Cunningham over the years. Cunningham described Truesdale as “great, humble and super talented,” with extensive experience that was needed to help navigate a show as complicated as Mare of Easttown. Cunningham has garnered an Emmy nomination each of the past three years--for Escape at Dannemora in 2019, The Morning Show in 2020, and now Mare of Easttown.

Meanwhile Mare of Easttown marked the first time that Cunningham had teamed with McLoughlin. Cunningham felt fortunate that McLoughlin was available, having admired his work over the years, including the movie Hostiles and the miniseries Watchmen. The latter earned McLoughlin his first Emmy nomination; the second coming for Mare of Easttown. Cunningham felt simpatico with McLoughlin from the very beginning when they met over the phone. “We clicked right away,” recollected Cunningham who described McLoughlin as having “a great love of film design,” being “a great collaborator” and “wonderfully patient.” These attributes were essential, continued Cunningham, to solving “the big puzzle” posed by Mare and the many different characters, their backgrounds and stories, and “how we were going to dress their sets.” Cunningham noted that it all came down to the details, a layering of set decoration and surroundings that reflected “the density of real lives.”

Among those who have influenced Cunningham over the years are directors David Fincher and Steve Soderbergh. As an art director, Cunningham worked with acclaimed production designer Donald Graham Burt on a pair of Fincher films--The Social Network and Zodiac. The Social Network earned Cunningham one of his five Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design Award nominations. He described Burt as a friend and a bit of a mentor--”so talented, so patient and so disciplined.” Working in tandem with Burt on Fincher features was an invaluable education. So too was learning from Soderbergh as Cunningham came up the industry ladder working on several of that director’s films, including Ocean’s Eleven which too garnered an ADG Excellence in Production Design nod.

As for what’s next, Cunningham at press time was slated to embark on season two of Perry Mason. He has some big shoes to fill in that production designer John P. Goldsmith earned an Emmy nod this year for his work on season one of that series.

Lincoln Else
Lincoln Else is also a first-time Emmy nominee, earning distinction in the Outstanding Cinematography for a Nonfiction Program for director Ron Howard’s Rebuilding Paradise (National Geographic). which centers on the community of Paradise, Calif., as it tries to recover, clean up and rebuild after being ravaged by a wildfire in November 2018 that killed 85 people, displaced 50,000 residents and destroyed some 19,000 buildings. Howard follows several wildfire survivors as they try to piece their lives back together. We see the emotional toll the fire has taken on folks who still maintained incredible resilience in the face of adversity. While the documentary touches upon the culpability of Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and its faulty equipment which sparked the fire, and climate change that fueled the spread of the flames, Rebuilding Paradise primarily spotlights the people impacted, how they coped with disaster, what they regained as well as permanently lost.

Howard has said that the documentary captures “what survival looks like,” including the ability to heal. Rebuilding Paradise introduces us to the likes of Steve “Woody” Culleton, the mountain town’s former mayor and councilman, who put the finishing touches on his new home nearly two years after his original residence was wiped out. His dogged determination got the job done. We also meet Paradise schools superintendent Michelle John who scrambled to maintain learning for students. She somehow managed to keep Paradise students together and by the end of the school year pulled off a high school graduation ceremony that seemed impossible just months earlier. But there was tragedy after the triumph. Just a few days after the graduation, John’s husband died of a heart attack. She believes the trauma of the fire contributed to his passing. Rebuilding Paradise also follows a heroic police officer who went out of his way to help residents in the wake of the fire. Sadly, the crisis also put a strain on his marriage, which ended.

Else received the lone nomination bestowed upon Rebuilding Paradise, and found the nod to be gratifying personally and professionally. On the later score, he noted that the Emmy recognition for vérité  lensing means a great deal. “That’s a style of documentary filmmaking I grew up in and enjoy above any other kind of camerawork.”

Else was drawn to the prospect of shooting Rebuilding Paradise based on his passion for the subject matter informed by his real-life experience--and in turn producer Xan Parker was drawn to him for the depth and breadth of that experience. “I have been in and around and familiar with wildfires my whole life,” related Else who worked as a ranger for the National Park Service (NPS) for years before moving into cinematography and documentary film work.

Else had shot some documentary projects for Parker over the years. She knew of his wildfire acumen dating back to the NPS, as well as his style of cinematography which was just the brand of verite that she and Howard were seeking. This marked Howard’s first vérité  sojourn though he had some documentary endeavors in recent years with The Beatles: Eight Days a Week--The Touring Years, and Pavarotti. Of course Howard is best known for his narrative features such as the acclaimed dramas A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13 and Frost Nixon, as well as comedies including Parenthood, Splash and Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. He earned Best Director and Best Picture Oscars in 2002 for A Beautiful Mind, which told the poignant story of Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash.

Howard’s storytelling pedigree brought an immediate credibility to Rebuilding Paradise. Citing Howard’s name recognition and the public’s familiarity with him, Else noted that the people in Paradise trusted the filmmaker to tell their story. “They knew we were there for the long haul, not just a news cycle,” said Else.

Else opted for the Sony VENICE digital camera to lens Rebuilding Paradise. Though it’s not a traditional verite camera, the VENICE, said Else, was up to the task while capturing beautiful imagery. He felt that the VENICE was able to stay true to the vérité  concept in a truly cinematic way.

At the same time Else affirmed that it was imperative that the story be told as honestly as possible--and to not take away from that with the inherently compelling images of the fire and its impact on nature’s landscape. “Oftentimes our challenge was to remove ourselves and our artifice” from the work, focusing on the people and what they were going through. 

Another challenge was deciding which people to focus on in the documentary. Spending an extended time in the community, Else said that he, Howard and the crew got to know many compelling characters at a compelling moment in their lives. Selecting which people would best represent the big picture story was daunting.

Else also gained an important civics lesson based on his experience on Rebuilding Paradise, observing, “When your community gets obliterated, you are faced with rebuilding things that most of us in society take for granted....building codes, zoning, sewer systems. These things we all depend on take compromise and long, exhausting, boring meetings--with each of us not getting exactly what we want.” Rebuilding Paradise afforded Else with the opportunity to see people grappling with those issues. But when seemingly many people today are looking out for themselves at the exclusion of others, Rebuilding Paradise carries the lesson that the only way we can live happily in society, noted Else, is “to function together.”

Editor’s note: This is the last installment in SHOOT’s 16-part weekly The Road To Emmy Series of feature stories. The features explored the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, writing, producing, showrunning, cinematography, editing, production design, music, sound and visual effects. The Road To Emmy series will be followed by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners on September 11 and 12, and then the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on September 19 broadcast live on CBS and streaming on Paramount+.

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