“If I’m Not Nervous About Getting Fired Between Wrap and Dailies…I Probably Didn’t Push Myself Hard Enough”: Cinematographer David Klein Discusses his Emmy-Nominated Work on Deadwood: The Movie
When HBO pulled the plug on Deadwood a dozen years ago, it left the denizens of the lawless South Dakota boomtown dangling at the end of a Season 3 cliffhanger. The show’s ostensible hero (marshal Seth Bullock, played by Timothy Olyphant) and villain (saloon owner Al Swearengen, played by Ian McShane) were left equally battered and bruised by a common enemy in ruthless mining magnate George Hearst. Imagine if the original Star Wars trilogy ended after The Empire Strikes Back and you’ll get a sense of the incompleteness that has haunted Deadwood fans over the years – myself included.
HBO has salved that wound with Deadwood: The Movie, a fitting farewell full of perfectly played grace notes that picks up ten years after the show left off as the town celebrates South Dakota statehood. Most of the cast is back, as is series creator David Milch and frequent series director Daniel Minahan. However, there’s a new face behind the camera in cinematographer David Klein, a veteran of television (two Emmy nominations for Homeland) and film (a bevy of Kevin Smith flicks, including Clerks, Chasing Amy, and Red State).
Klein spoke to Filmmaker about continuing Deadwood’s tradition of “warm light and cold hearts” and visualizing the movie’s preoccupation with the changes wrought by time.
Filmmaker: January marked the 25th anniversary of Clerks’ premiere at Sundance. What lessons do you still carry from that film?
Klein: That was such a long time ago. We were punks — kids right out of film school. I won’t speak for [director] Kevin Smith or [producer] Scott Mosier, but I was still a fucking amateur. It’s a miracle that Clerks was even exposed properly. The lesson I learned from Clerks — and many other films early on in my career — is that it’s all about the story. It’s never enough to just plant a camera and record what’s in front of it, which is basically how Clerks was shot. As filmmakers we are all storytellers and as a cinematographer my job is to use lighting, composition, camera movement, et cetera to tell the story. Sometimes it’s nuanced and complex and sometimes it just means getting out of the way and being completely invisible. If anybody immediately notices the lighting or camerawork above and beyond how it serves the story, I’ve failed at my job.
Filmmaker: One of the themes of Deadwood: The Movie is the toll exacted by time. How did you apply that theme to the film’s cinematography?
Klein: Every frame of Deadwood: The Movie should feel the passage of time. As much as some characters are angling for change, others are fighting against it and trying to keep it as it always has been. As the cameraman, I was caught squarely in the middle, intentionally so.
One of our main goals was to make the movie feel as authentic as possible and true to the era and the original series, which means some of it looks tired and worn out and some of it feels the encroachment of modernity. That includes the addition of electricity, which some see as an invasion and others as progress. The original series was shot on film with lighting sources based on oil lamps and torches. We have now gone to digital origination with more lighting options, but we still wanted to have the same feel as the original series even though [compared to the way things were done on the show] our approach to lighting was as dissimilar as digital vs. film. We used big, soft sources more than the series did and more ambient light. I hope we were successful in achieving the same sense of grit, mud and blood from the lighting as the original even though the design of our movie was distinct.
Filmmaker: What historical references were you able to get your hands on?
Klein: I had recently done a lot of research into the early days of electric lighting for two episodes of [the CBS All Access show] Strange Angel that I photographed during their first season, and I continued my research for Deadwood. I mainly relied on old photographs and books on the history of electric light in the US. Internet searches were about as useful as internet medical advice. Night exterior photographs don’t really exist of the town in that time and obviously all the photography is black and white – so there was a good bit of guesswork and basing ideas and color temps on instincts. The human element of modernity and its forced evolution in Deadwood was more our story so we chose to let the streetlights be less dominant so that the torches and oil lamps could play more.
Filmmaker: The Zeiss Supreme Primes had only been out a few months when you started shooting Deadwood. You’re the first person I’ve talked to who has used them. What attracted you to those lenses?
Klein: Early on we decided to shoot 2:1 (as our aspect ratio), but we weren’t quite sure about sensor size. We tested two cameras, the Alexa Mini and the Alexa LF. We also tested vintage glass versus contemporary glass. We tested the Zeiss Supremes because they are one of the prime lens sets that cover the LF sensor and even though we ended up going with the Mini instead (of the LF), the look of the Supremes was really what I was searching for. The vintage glass wasn’t right – it felt a little bit forced and strayed from the original series in a way we didn’t care for. The Supremes, coming from Zeiss, have a very mature look for a new set and are sharp without pointing out how crisp they are. What’s defocused in the background almost feels like an anamorphic bokeh and those lenses are dependable wide open. I didn’t want much depth of field, but I wanted that precious little [sliver that was in focus] to be sharp as hell.
Filmmaker: Did you have difficulties talking HBO into that 2:1 aspect ratio? They’ve traditionally required 16:9 for original content.
Klein: We were lucky enough to go into production just as the dailies for Chernobyl were coming in. That limited series was shooting 2:1 and HBO was thrilled with what they were getting. So the argument had been made and won for us already before we even had to start it.
Filmmaker: So why 2:1? It’s sort of this in-between ratio that falls in the middle of 1.78 and 2.39 widescreen.
Klein: Our inspiration for a semi-wide screen aspect ratio was the western in general. Even though we’re shooting Southern California for South Dakota and we might not have had as many vistas and views of the great expanses of the west, we still thought that the western leaned towards a wider frame. So we shot some tests and started the project Open Gate on the Alexa Mini so that we could shoot common top 2:1. We did that for many reasons, but mostly to protect our frame. Our argument was that with a common top frame the only thing that could ever happen with a 1.78:1 version was extra room on the bottom, which was filled with dolly track and other gear anyway so it was not very usable. It also allows the microphones to get right to the top of the frame, providing better sound. But Open Gate is a lot more data, and we started hearing about that so a third of the way through the production. [Executive producer] Gregg Fienberg and HBO assured me that there would never be a 1.78:1 version of Deadwood: The Movie and that our 2:1 aspect ratio would be the one and only master of the film. I trust Fienberg with my life and his word is as solid as anything so we abandoned the common top and went with a center extraction, allowing microphones and dolly track to invade both top and bottom. Back in the film days, we could have used a hard mask and eliminated the top and bottom of the full frame, but it’s not possible to do so with digital cameras. A lot of the things we used to be able to do to protect ourselves as filmmakers don’t exist anymore unless using a film negative.
Filmmaker: Break down your on-set color workflow for me. You didn’t use a DIT – what do you prefer about the process without one?
Klein: I wouldn’t say my preference is to work without a DIT, it’s just the way the process has evolved for me over the past few years. I shoot digital the same way I shot film and won’t do a project without a dailies colorist. So my on-set workflow turns into me sitting with the dailies colorist after work every night for the first week or two. My dailies colorists were Dan Yang and Jesús Borrego at Warner Brothers, followed by final colorist Scott Klein [no relation]. I have worked with these guys many times before so it might not have been necessary to go in every night for two weeks, but it’s addictive to get to make notes on that day’s work just a few hours after it’s been shot, and it creates a shorthand that continues throughout the project. I would absolutely prefer to have a DIT, but with a dailies colorist it’s less relevant than if we were generating dailies from set. I’ll use a LUT from my final colorist or use the classic REC 709 to monitor on set, but my directors and producers know to only use those monitors for framing and performance. That also allows the entire process to retain a bit of the mystery it used to have. It also keeps me nervous, which is a good thing. A rule I live by is that if I’m not nervous about getting fired between wrap and dailies coming out the next day, I probably didn’t push myself hard enough.
Below, David breaks down the process of lighting several locations from Deadwood: The Movie.
Charlie Utter’s Claim/Night Exterior
Klein: We shot these scenes just north of the San Gabriel reservoir near Azusa. This is the only place where we relied on a standard, maybe overused night exterior lighting approach. Mainly because of access and terrain, we used two sizeable Bebee trucks up on a two-lane highway, above the trees, and the company was several hundred meters below, across the creek. It’s a typical, big-gun HMI backlight situation that we’ve been getting away from over the past few years because it can tend to feel very lit if not done precisely. Our Bebee lights were heavily broken up by the canopy of trees, bringing us back to reality enough for me. Again, because of terrain and access, we tried to mainly use LED sources and battery power (closer to the actors) — Arri SkyPanels and LiteMats by LiteGear, all controlled wirelessly through the board. My gaffer, Jeremy Graham and his electricians also gutted a few oil lanterns from the prop department and created battery operated, wireless handheld LED ribbon lanterns that the actors carried for their story-based light sources. We’d generally have the side of the lantern that was facing away from the camera covered or gelled with ND so that the actors didn’t burn up, which is one of my standard practices with almost all practical globes in a frame these days. The handheld LED lanterns were augmented by stealthy electricians with handheld LiteMats and various other mobile sources.
Deadwood’s Main Street/Night Exterior
Klein: Electric street lamps had come to Deadwood, but it wasn’t really the story we were telling — we were more focused on the human element of modernity’s invasion. It was important for us to retain the same feel as Deadwood’s original series, so the practical firelight and our firelight sources (often 12’ x 12’, egg-crated Magic Cloth frames with multiple SkyPanels behind on a gag from the board) did a lot of the heavy lifting. Streetlights were a green/cyan color, which to the best of my research was as accurate and authentic as possible. One thing I added that hadn’t been used much during the original series was ½ blue backlight. We also employed 20’ x 20’ bounces on lifts above the buildings for a softer and more subtle backlight. It didn’t overpower anything, but had a nice color contrast to the firelight and picked up muted highlights in the puddles and mud that we created day-in, day-out. Flyswatter bounces tend to feel more realistic and natural to me even though, just like big HMI fresnels on a lift, they’re anything but.
Sol Star and Trixie’s hotel room/Day Interview
Klein: That was one of the few sets we had that opened up on to the main street. It not being on stage meant we treated it as a location. To be as natural as possible, we tried to bring as much as possible through the windows to unencumber the actors and give [director] Dan Minahan space to work with them. Two Mole Richardson 24K HMI’s pushed “sunlight” through the back windows from lifts — the most realistic looking sunlight you can get out of an HMI, in my opinion — and two 12’ x 12’ flyswatter lifts bounced light in through the remaining windows. Then everything got more diffused as we moved cameras closer for tighter shots. [Production designer] Maria Caso’s tin ceiling and dark walls made me want to keep the camera low in this room.
Klein: This might have been where I strayed the most from the original series in terms of rigging and application, but the soul of The Gem, its inhabitants and Al Swearengen, remained the same — warm light and cold hearts, mostly. Originally, there seemed to have been a lot of lights rigged on this stage, fresnels up high to be used as cross-edges and backlights, warmed up to simulate the torches and oil lamps, but our approach was different for similar results. We rigged two 12’ x 12’ soft boxes with two layers of full grid in front of SkyPanels above the set that could be pulled up and replaced with ceiling pieces if they ended up in a frame. It provided a warm, low ambience that allowed the actual torches to play and gave us somewhere to go with book lights and other sources from the side that were important for getting under the brims of hats. During the day we’d kill the torches, take 75% out of the already low soft boxes and push slightly cooler daylight in through the windows. I always like mid-day daylight to be about a quarter cooler than what we’re considering neutral — it’s like the blue dye in most bleach, making the whites crisp and clean. It helps on stage when everything is generally tungsten based. The firelight, softboxes and interior fill sources are obviously warmer than that, which made the slightly cool daylight pop a bit and feel slightly more like actual sunlight.
The Final Frame
Final episodes of beloved series often seem to disappoint fervent devotees, perhaps because deep down they don’t want to see something they love come to an end. Deadwood is a rare exception, culminating in a final frame that offers a fitting moment of grace. I normally try to avoid plot spoilers, but I wanted to give David the opportunity to tell the story behind that final Deadwood moment. I recommend those who haven’t seen the film stop here as it reveals the ending.
Klein: The final frame of the film – [Swearengen’s hand in Trixie’s as the life presumably flutters out of him] – was described in the script and was probably the first written moment that all things before it were reverse engineered for. It was the perfect ending to the story we were telling. It felt like [series creator] David Milch wondering, “What would Al Swearengen have to say to God right now?” We ended on a visual interpretation of his physical connection with Trixie and the world. We intentionally used less light for that set-up so that as the camera tilts down to the last part of the shot we could open up about a stop-and-a-half to [set the aperture[ wide open and have the depth disappear during the shot, pointing out this connection as the rest of the world went away. There’s almost always a single channel [wireless iris control] in my hand so I can go from a T2 to a T1.4 during emotional moments, providing the lighting can accommodate. [Opening up in the middle of a shot)]causes the periphery to fall apart in a cool way and all the weight of the story is committed to that one single thing we’re pointing out. I also like to do it because my focus puller, Dominik Mainl, would think something was wrong with me if I kept him north of wide open for very long.
Matt Mulcahey works as a DIT in the Midwest. He also writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.