Friday, June 22, 2018
  • Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017
Yves Belanger, Alix Friedberg Help Tell "Big Little Lies" For HBO
Cinematographer Yves Belanger
Cinematographer, costume designer reflect on their collaborative relationship with director Jean-Marc Vallée
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Among the 16 Emmy nominations earned by Big Little Lies (HBO) are Outstanding Limited Series, two for Lead Actress (Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon) as well as Supporting Actress (Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley), and one apiece for Directing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special (Jean-Marc Vallée), Writing (David E. Kelley), Cinematography (DP Yves Bélanger) and for Outstanding Contemporary Costumes (costume designer Alix Friedberg). 

Vallée, Witherspoon, Woodley, Belanger and Friedberg are all first-time Emmy nominees.

SHOOT connected with Bélanger and Friedberg to get their reflections on Big Little Lies which is based on The New York Times number-one bestseller of the same title by Liane Moriarty. The seven-part limited series is a darkly comedic drama that takes us to the seaside, seemingly tranquil town of Monterey, Calif. But much is percolating beneath the surface. Told through the eyes of three mothers--Madeline (Witherspoon), Celeste (Kidman) and Jane (Woodley)--Big Little Lies paints a picture of a town fueled by rumors and divided into the haves and have-nots, exposing the conflicts, secrets and betrayals that compromise relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, and friends and neighbors.

Bélanger is gratified over his first career Emmy nomination, particularly because it’s for his first American TV series. “It felt like a winner from the start,” Bélanger recalled. “The script was so good. The cast was so good. And of course, working with Jean-Marc.” 

Vallée’s feature directorial credits include Dallas Buyers Club, Wild and Demolition--all lensed by Bélanger. (Vallée earned an Oscar nomination for his editing of Dallas Buyers Club.)

Bélanger first worked with Vallée on commercials in Montreal. “Jean-Marc was a young filmmaker who had just done a short film,” recalled Bélanger. “I was working with a commercial production house. We were matched together, starting on commercials in 1991 and 1992.” Vallée diversified into features and the plan was for Bélanger to shoot them for him. But scheduling conflicts and other stumbling blocks got in the way. “Three times I was supposed to do it but something would happen--a postponement, a commitment I had elsewhere," said Bélanger. "Finally he told me, ‘We have to make the next one work.’"

That “next one” was Dallas Buyers Club which garnered six Oscar nominations in 2014, including one for Best Picture. Dallas Buyers Club ended up winning three Oscars--for Best Leading (Matthew McConaughey) and Supporting Actor (Jared Leto), as well as Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling.

Bélanger himself went onto assorted accolades, including three coveted Camerimage Golden Frog nominations--for the features Laurence Anyways (directed by Xavier Dolan) in 2012, Wild in 2014, and Brooklyn (for director John Crowley) in 2015.

For Big Little Lies, Bélanger noted that Vallée “wanted to bring to the TV world the same technique he used in features--photography that is very free, hand-held, little or no artificial light, all helping the actors to be free and flexible, to try things and see if they work.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Bélanger involved the work done on soundstage sets for Big Little Lies, meaning that he had to fake natural light through inventive use of artificial light. “You work hard to make sure it doesn’t look lit,” said the DP.

Bélanger deployed the ARRI ALEXA on Big Little Lies, in concert with old Zeiss high-speed lenses which are “almost wide open always...That takes out the digital aspect, making the look smoother and softer.” Bélanger added that the ALEXA is the only digital camera “that kind of reproduces the complexity of skin tones like 35 millimeter film.”

As for lessons learned from his first American TV series, Bélanger shared that the biggest takeaway was similar to the one he experienced when he had wrapped features like Wild for Vallée. “The human face is the most beautiful landscape. The same is true for television. Faces tell the story and have great beauty.”

Regarding what’s next, Bélanger just wrapped for Vallée another HBO series, Sharp Objects starring Amy Adams and based on the novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn.

Alix Friedberg
Costume designer Friedberg said of her first career Emmy nomination, “I have been lucky enough to be doing this job for over 20 years. I started as an assistant, right out of fashion school. I had some incredible mentors. We all work really hard, incredibly long hours away from our families because we are passionate and love the craft. To be recognized by my peers and those I have enormous respect for is the greatest honor. I am beyond thrilled that we were nominated, It means the world to me.”

Friedberg was drawn to Big Little Lies based largely on her love for the book. “The opportunity to help bring these complicated, multi- layered, messy, realistic takes on motherhood, relationships, and community was very exciting to me. The clothes play an important role in defining these characters not only socioeconomically but also emotionally. I was always a fan of Jean-Marc Vallée’s films. I was so lucky that we hit it off in our very first meeting. We were very much in sync in where to take the characters visually.”

Relative to the prime creative challenge she encountered on the Big Little Lies’ episode, “You Get What You Need,” which earned her the Emmy nod, Friedberg related, ““The finale of the show takes place at an Elvis/Audrey [Elvis Presley/Audrey Hepburn] themed Trivia night. We had over 200 extras, 40 day players, and 10 principals. All in their own unique version of Audrey and Elvis. It was important that the looks feel iconic, and unique to each character’s distinct personality and income level. For example there were the wealthier parents that had custom made looks, juxtaposed with others that thrifted their looks. I wanted the reality of some that went all out and others that just wore sunglasses and chops. The shoot was over two weeks, all exterior, all nights! We had a team of stitchers on the day shift just doing repairs.”

Friedberg’s colleagues and fellow Emmy nominees on Big Little Lies are assistant costume designer Risa Garcia and costume supervisor Patricia McLaughlin. Discussing their contributions to the series, Friedberg related, “Risa Garcia and I have worked together for the last six years. It’s such a gift to find someone that just understands you. We talk at length about every character and brainstorm together on where to shop and where to dig for the right stuff. She brings a lot to the table creatively. 

“Patricia is a rock,” continued Friedberg. “Big Little Lies was a huge shopping show and she really helped keep on top of the crew on getting merchandise back and flowing through the department so we could stay on top of the next day’s work. The amount of paperwork on that show was staggering. She kept on top of it all with such grace!”

The Emmy nomination is the latest recognition Friedberg has received. In 2011 and 2012, she was nominated for Costume Designers Guild Awards in the Outstanding Contemporary Television Series category on the basis of her work on ABC sitcom Modern Family.

Friedberg’s other credits span such notable shows as True Detective, Enlightened, Hung, Friday Night Lights, and the aforementioned Sharp Objects which again had her collaborating with Vallée and Bélanger.

This is the 13th installment of a 15-part series of feature stories that explores the field of Emmy contenders spanning such disciplines as directing, cinematography, producing, editing, music, visual effects and production design. The series will then be followed up by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy ceremonies on September 9 and 10, and the primetime Emmy Awards live telecast on September 17.