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  • Originally published on
  • Friday, Jun. 25, 2021
Joshua Caleb Johnson (l) and Ethan Hawke in a scene from "The Good Lord Bird" (photo by William Gray/courtesy of Showtime)
Lensing and Production Designing The Peabody Award-Winning "The Good Lord Bird"
Series creation a deeply personal, life-affirming family affair on HBO Max's "Genera+ion"; shooting ABC's "Big Sky"

Cinematographer Peter Deming, ASC was brought onto The Good Lord Bird (Showtime) by Albert Hughes, who directed the first episode and served as an EP on the limited series which is based on James McBride’s novel of the same title. Set in the mid-19th century, The Good Lord Bird is told from the perspective of the fictionalized Henry “Onion” Shackleford, a teenager freed from slavery by abolitionist John Brown. Onion joins Brown’s movement and goes on to meet the likes of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas. Onion then finds himself part of the historic Brown-led, three-day siege on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in October 1859, intended to help spark a rebellion of slaves in the Southern states. Ultimately, the abolitionists were defeated by a company of U.S. Marines, and Brown was charged with treason and hanged. But the consequences of the raid resonated, with Harper’s Ferry regarded by many as the first battle of the Civil War.

Brown was portrayed by Ethan Hawke, a four-time Oscar nominee, who made his first foray into TV showrunning with The Good Lord Bird, a seven-episode series. Hawke credited his wife with turning him onto Hughes. She had been impressed with his direction of Alpha, urging Ethan to see it. Hawke too thought Hughes’ work on that film was “brilliant.” Bringing that feature filmmaker into the TV arena also paid the dividend of DP Deming. “Albert hired Peter--which may have been the biggest single hire for the project,” said Hawke in a prior installment of SHOOT’s Road To Emmy Series. “They established a look, an interesting hybrid--part Western, part Huck Finn, part tall tale with elements of the Coen brothers and Tarantino. It was a very, very difficult razor’s edge to walk on in terms of tone for this material but they positioned us to succeed.”

Deming found working on The Good Lord Bird to be a gratifying experience, including being able to team again with Hughes, whom he goes back with nearly 20 years. Deming described Hughes as “a great talent and a good friend.” 

Also drawing Deming to the project was the story, richly dramatic material reflecting a time of great upheaval in the country--”not unlike present-day and shockingly over the same subject matter,” observed Deming who added that he and Hughes talked about bringing a certain noir aspect to the Western genre. 

“Once we started in on prep, we zeroed in on a look for the show,” recalled Deming. “Albert and I didn’t want to do a sepia or antique look of any kind. We wanted to find older optics to give it some character, make it a little rough around the edges.” Deming added that he and Hughes embraced “old-time camera movements, dollies and cranes, no Steadicam or hand-held work.”

Deming went with large-format Panavision DXL2 cameras. He and Hughes went to Panavision in Woodland Hills, Calif, to sift through its storeroom of glass, which led to the discovery of old B series anamorphic lenses, and anamorphic Pathe lenses. Dan Sasaski, Panavision’s lens guru, adapted them for wide format so they could be deployed on The Good Lord Bird. Originally designed for 35mm film, these lenses, explained Deming, don’t cover a large format sensor like the one on the DXL2. Sasaski figured out how to expand the field of view of these lenses to cover the large sensor top to bottom.

Deming is no stranger to Emmy proceedings. His cinematography on Part 8 of the new Twin Peaks, directed by David Lynch, earned an Outstanding Cinematography for a Limited Series nomination in 2018. And The Good Lord Bird has already been recognized on the awards show circuit for its cinematography, garnering a Camerimage nod last year in the TV Pilots competition. That marked Deming’s fourth career Camerimage nom, the others coming in 2001 for Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, in 2010 for Last Night, and in 2013 for Oz the Great and Powerful.

Hughes was one of six directors who worked on The Good Lord Bird, meaning that Deming as the sole cinematographer on the show was a source of visual continuity throughout, maintaining the look and feel to best do justice to the story while leaving room for each director to bring his or her imprint to the show. Also providing a measure of that continuity was the lone production designer on The Good Lord Bird, John Blackie, who too bonded with Hughes and Deming from the outset. Blackie stayed as true to McBride’s novel as possible, deftly handling the film’s multiple locations--from the woodsy Kansas Territory to Frederick Douglas’ house in Rochester, NY, to the trains Brown and a number of his followers boarded. Blackie oversaw the construction of sets which were in relatively close proximity in and around Virginia where lensing of the series took place.

Like Deming, Blackie too has an awards pedigree, having received an Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design Award nomination in 2015 for an episode of Fargo. His production design also won two Directors Guild of Canada Craft Awards in 2014--for episodes of Copper and Hell on Wheels.

The latter, a post Civil War drama with its share of work on the railway, had Blackie collaborating with exec producers Jeremy Gold and Mark Richard, who served in the same capacity on The Good Lord Bird. Gold and Richard gravitated towards Blackie for a return engagement when a production design opening emerged on The Good Lord Bird.

Blackie’s work on the trains which Brown and Onion took to their eventual destination, Harper’s Ferry, gives viewers a sense of the social strata at the time. Brown and Onion are traveling in cattle class. And as we see Brown walk through to first class where he delivers remarks on the travesty of slavery, we see a spacious and bright space which is a far cry from the crowded, poorly lit cattle class car. The great divide among the poor, middle class and the wealthy is reflected on the train itself, making for an insightful sociological study.

Blackie cited the productive and positive collaborative spirit on The Good Lord Bird, noting that Hughes and showrunner/actor Hawke were open to back and forth about varied aspects of the show, sharing what they wanted particular scenes to feel like, with Hughes articulating in detail regarding the grittiness he wanted to attain, particularly in select sequences.

Blackie added that The Good Lord Bird gave him an education on the South. “Working in the South was incredibly informative for me,” shared Blackie who conducted extensive research. “I hadn’t spent a lot of time down there before. I learned a lot from being in the cradle of the Civil War, places where battles had taken place, some of the people I met. There was an auctioneer who had some scenery elements we used--a fantastic person collecting all this stuff for years and years. He helped us stay true to the period. We met so many people and saw so much that was helpful to the drama.”

Earlier this week, The Good Lord Bird won a Peabody Award. A total of 30 programs received a Peabody this time around, recognizing the most compelling and empowering stories released in broadcasting and streaming media in 2020. A statement explaining the Peabody jury's selection of The Good Lord Bird read, “Part fiction, part history, and part dramatic satire, this Showtime limited series boldly yet humorously examines the enigmatic abolitionist John Brown. With Ethan Hawke’s rich and complex portrayal of a madman who would become a martyr, Brown’s competing legacies are given ample room to coexist. The miniseries can’t help but follow in his wake and give us an irreverent history lesson that feels fresh and pressing for our times.”

Daniel Barnz
Genera+ion (HBO Max), a dramedy that’s both dark and playful, was co-created and co-written by 19-year-old Zelda Barnz alongside her father Daniel Barnz, who also directed. Zelda and Daniel exec produced with Ben Barnz, Zelda’s father and Daniel’s partner. The show was sparked by Zelda’s coming out as queer in a letter to her dads at age 15 and then joining her school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. After Zelda shared poignant anecdotes about the club’s members, the family considered what these stories might look like as a TV show, authentically reflecting Gen-Z and the experience of LGBTQ+ teens today.

Daniel recalled that the initial realization that set in for him was that “the experience of being queer for our kids’ generation versus our generation was so different”--and that could translate into “an incredible world” for a TV show. But the truth, shared Daniel, was that when they embarked on this project, they weren’t counting on Genera+ion coming to fruition--simply because the chance of getting any show made generally is so slim. At the very least, though, continued Daniel, moving ahead would help teach Zelda about her dads’ work. “It seemed exciting as a dad to have that opportunity with your kid. It’s like take-your-daughter-to work day. But it kept going and did eventually become a show.”

Another golden opportunity, whether or not the show got off the ground, was Zelda getting the chance to work with Lena Dunham who was a big fan of Cake, a feature Daniel had directed which starred Jennifer Aniston in a lauded performance. As a result, Dunham reached out to Daniel about working together at some point, around the time that possibilities of Zelda’s series had emerged. “As a parent, I thought that this was just amazing,” related Daniel. “Our daughter gets to meet Lena Dunham. Even if that’s all that happens, it’s worthwhile.”

As things turned out, Genera+ion came to pass and Dunham took on an executive producer role; she is described by Daniel as “our guardian angel” for the show. “She’s looking out for us, offering her wisdom and advice.”

Then something unexpected and life affirming came for Daniel and Zelda. “What I realized in beginning to work with her is we are great partners,” said Daniel. “I could bring my storytelling experience in TV and film. She could bring the authenticity of what it is to be a teenager right now.”

Those teen insights, continued Daniel, made it imperative that he “listen very carefully to the stories she was telling and how she was telling them. I had to let go of what should happen in an episode or what the arc should be. Sometimes those traditions can get in the way of the story. For the show to be successful she would have to be brutally honest about her life and her friends’ lives. She was talking about herself and her world, opening up new pathways.”

As for what resonates most for him relative to Genera+ion, Daniel shared. “Creating a show with my daughter and husband--there’s nothing more exciting and fantastic than to be able to work creatively with your family. You go to work together and come home together. The experience has been such a blessing for our family. We began this conversation with our daughter when she was a teenager and it’s opened up such a level of communication and honesty within our family.”

Daniel added that it’s been “ a real blessing” to work within this world and this age group. “There’s a kind of boldness and fearlessness to Gen-Z and the way they walk through the world. It’s extraordinary to live in that world, particularly during a moment in time surrounded by so much difficulty. That has translated into my work. As a director I think I’ve pushed myself more out of my comfort zone as a result. I’ve embraced that boldness--a boldness we see in these series characters.”

Oliver Bokelberg, ASC
Based on a C.J. Box crime novel (“The Highway”) adapted by series creator David E. Kelley, Big Sky (ABC) stars Katheryn Winnick as an ex-police officer and Kylie Bunbury as a private detective who go in search of young sisters missing in Montana. Big Sky marks the return of Kelley to broadcast network series television (his track record includes the hits Ally McBeal, The Practice and Boston Legal) after successfully transitioning to premium cable (with HBO’s Big Little Lies and The Undoing). Oliver Bokelberg, ASC has served as DP on the lion’s share of Big Sky episodes. He even directed a season one episode of the series.

An accomplished cinematographer, Bokelberg is no stranger to direction. His directorial credits also include 10 episodes of Scandal, a Shondaland series for which he served as the primary cinematographer spanning seven seasons.  Bokelberg lensed the pilot for Scandal, which was directed by Paul McGuigan. And when McGuigan was tabbed to direct the pilot for Big Sky, he gravitated to Bokelberg as its DP.

Bokelberg sees directing as “a natural evolution from cinematography. We are storytellers. Once we get familiar with working with actors, it becomes the same kind of problem solving in some respects,” observed Bokelberg who noted that his directing has been aided in great part by the “strong meter” he developed for authenticity as a cinematographer.

Bokelberg added he was drawn to Big Sky by the script that McGuigan shared with him, the opportunity to reteam with that director as well as the chance to work with Kelley. Big Sky also reunited Bokelberg with executive producer Matthew Gross who served in that same capacity on Dirty Sexy Money, for which Bokelberg lensed the pilot. 

As DP, Bokelberg had hurdles to clear on Big Sky, most notably the pandemic which delayed production that was originally slated for Albuquerque, N.M. When the lockdown eased, Big Sky headed for Vancouver, B.C. This necessitated securing new locations and adopting different color schemes and aesthetics. “You sort of have to reset,” related Bokelberg. “What we had prepped and had in our mind in Albuquerque didn’t work in Vancouver. We had to find a new color palette. In the end it was a blessing, Vancouver was a better match to Montana,” assessed Bokelberg who went with the Sony VENICE digital camera in tandem with Leica Summilux-C and Angenieux zoom lenses for Big Sky.

Bokelberg enjoyed the experience of connecting with a great crew in Vancouver, coming together with a new group of collaborators. “As much as I loved being on a show for seven years, it was wonderful to create a new look, to be part of a new language,” said Bokelberg. 

For the Big Sky episode he directed, Bokelberg collaborated with cinematographer whose work he admired, Jon Joffin, ASC. Back in April, Joffin won the ASC Award in the one-hour episodic series in commercial television category for the “Up is Down” episode of Motherland: Fort Salem.

Bokelberg himself is a two-time ASC Award nominee--in 2008 on the strength of the pilot for Raines and in 2009 for the “Breakdown” episode of My Own Worst Enemy.

Editor’s note: This is the seventh installment in SHOOT’s 16-part weekly The Road To Emmy Series of feature stories. The features will explore 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 then be followed by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners in September, and then the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on September 19 broadcast live on CBS and streaming on Paramount+.

Category: Road To Emmys Annual Series

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