“Someday We’re Going to be Shooting Through Coke Bottles Just to Get a Look That Isn’t Too Pristine”: DP Jeff Cronenweth on Being the Ricardos
According to their official credits, Being the Ricardos is the first time Aaron Sorkin has directed with Jeff Cronenweth behind the camera. Unofficially, that collaboration began a decade ago with a shot of an envelope.
On the final day of production on 2010’s The Social Network—which earned Sorkin an Oscar for best screenplay and Cronenweth a cinematography nomination—director David Fincher dipped before the final shot to avoid the emotional wrap goodbyes, leaving Sorkin and Cronenweth in charge of the last insert.
“It was the shot where [Mark Zuckerberg’s] partner is accepted into the social club and there’s an envelope slid underneath his door,” recalled Cronenweth. “It’s just like the yin and yang—Zuckerberg is on top of the world, but he cut out his best friend, who has now been accepted into this club that Mark wanted to be in.”
With Being the Ricardos, Sorkin and Cronenweth have reteamed on another true story. The Amazon Studios release traces the production of a single episode of I Love Lucy, beginning with Monday’s table read and culminating in Friday’s recording in front of a live studio audience.
Sorkin takes creative license with chronology to compress three significant events in the lives of the show’s married stars, Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), into a single pressurized week—Ball’s pregnancy, Arnaz’s infidelity and a damaging accusation that Ball is a communist.
With Being the Ricardos currently streaming on Amazon, Cronenweth spoke to Filmmaker about the similarities between Fincher and Sorkin, how Joker inspired his lens choice and why he’s remained loyal to Red cameras.
Filmmaker: You started shooting Being the Ricardos in March of last year. What was it like to be working during that period of the pandemic?
Cronenweth: One thing that I found really interesting was that it’s human nature for all of us when we do something to seek approval, or at least to gauge the reaction of other people. Especially if you are a performer, you look around after a take to get a sense of how that delivery resonated. [With COVID protocols], all you would see is people’s eyes, and sometimes you couldn’t even see those because of the reflections [on face shields]. Also, you can tell how somebody is doing or what mood they are in or their energy by looking at their face, and it’s a really weird thing when that’s taken away.
In the last month or two we’ve been doing screenings and premieres for Being the Ricardos. At the very beginning it took a minute for some cast members to recognize me, because some of them had never seen me without a mask on. Normally you spend five or six months on a set and develop this personal relationship with everybody. That’s been stripped away and it’s a little bit sad. You don’t get some of that camaraderie we’re all used to. There are certain crew members I couldn’t tell you what they look like. I wouldn’t recognize them if I saw them out at a restaurant, even though I worked side by side with them, because I’ve never seen them without a mask on.
Filmmaker: I’ve done a few interviews recently with cinematographers where the directors they were working with came in with basically the entire movie already storyboarded. With Being the Ricardos, you were almost working in the opposite way. Sorkin gave you a pretty free hand in designing the coverage and lighting. Did you enjoy that freedom?
Cronenweth: Yeah. For me, it’s always been about the collaboration, but that comes in a lot of different ways. I’ve worked with a lot of directors and had every incarnation of contribution. Aaron is so articulate and writes a script so structured that it’s really a road map to success if you follow it, provided you’re making the right choices. It’s different from what Fincher does but, in a way, it’s similar. Fincher is all about the Hitchcock school of filmmaking, where you make the film before you get to the set. It’s all about preproduction and scouts and rehearsals, then when you’re actually shooting you’ve eliminated a lot of potential things that could come up and can focus just on the story.
Aaron does that by virtue of writing such a tight script. Writer-directors are sometimes consumed by the words, and the delivery of those words, so you have to find a way to weave in some visual magic that supports and makes those words all the more important through camera movement and light. But with Ricardos, Aaron really wanted me to push him as a visual storyteller. It was an amazing creative experience, because he did allow me to run with things, then he would guide things back to what was important to him. I found it to be very liberating.
Filmmaker: Even though he has only started directing films in the last few years, there’s still a style associated with Sorkin’s work—especially his TV work—with things like long walk-and-talks.
Cronenweth: Aaron Sorkin’s style is to have rapid-fire dialogue where the actors interact and overlap each other. So, many times the only reasonable, logical way to approach it from an editorial standpoint was to get coverage of both sides at the same time, otherwise it would be much harder to cut together. That’s always a challenge for a cinematographer: you never want to look two ways at the same time because it messes up your light. So, designing those from a blocking and lighting standpoint is always challenging, but there’s just such a magic that happens when the actors are interacting that way and a natural fluidity to it. The words are usually so clever that it’s like a fun sparring match.
Filmmaker: You were an early adopter of RED cameras, which you used again on Ricardos. What is it about them that keeps you coming back?
Cronenweth: The evolution of digital cameras has come so far. There’s a lot of great choices, and I think every film will tell you what it wants to be, and then you figure out the best tools to use for that film. I’ve always loved the color science of the RED sensor from day one, when Steven Soderbergh first loaned us his two RED Ones [for The Social Network, and] my relationship with RED has been unbelievable. They’ve just bent over backwards and are so friendly and supportive of filmmakers. I know the camera so well. It’s very comfortable in my hands.
I wanted to give [Being the Ricardos] a large format feel, so we shot in 8K with the RED Monstro. We used Arri’s DNA glass, because I wanted 70mm glass but didn’t want to use vintage glass, because the coatings are different and sometimes you get veiling issues. I did that on Hitchcock and didn’t want to go down that road again. I loved the way that Joker looked and thought, “Why not give Being the Ricardos some of those aberrations and imperfections, but do it in a much more cosmetic world?” It just seemed like a great marriage. Those lenses are amazing. The sharper and higher resolution the sensors get, the more you want to shoot through something that takes some of that edge off. Someday we’re going to be shooting through Coke bottles just to get a look that isn’t too pristine. (laughs)
Filmmaker: The DNAs are rehoused lenses from different sources. How do you build your set when, for example, each 50mm might have a different look? How many do you test to figure out which particular ones you want?
Cronenweth: As many as are available, that’s how many you test. There isn’t a litany of choices. There were three or four sets and you try to find some that appeal to you, then you try to match the rest the best you can. I did a movie called A Million Little Pieces where we used K35 glass, which is old vintage Canon glass. I love the way they look. They have distinct personalities and flare beautifully. I’ve shot them a lot in commercials and music videos, but doing a commercial or music video is radically different than using them on a feature and trying to get them to match in a scene where you’re cutting from close-up to close-up, wide shot to medium and back. They all had different resolutions, different contrast values. I don’t think I’ll go down that road again.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about lighting the soundstages of the I Love Lucy set. There are wide shots of that space where you see dozens of period lighting fixtures rigged overhead. How much of the practical lighting work did those fixtures actually do?
Cronenweth: For all the stage work we essentially used almost all the same lights that would’ve been used [on the original show]. There really isn’t anything that couldn’t have been from that era, except maybe some Astera tubes up in the control booth. We used SkyPans, rectangular soft boxes, Big Eye 10Ks and 5Ks. We put eye lights on the dollies. We even had these photofloods on the bottom of the dollies that they used on Lucy—which kind of blew my mind, but they’re cool to look at.
Karl Freund, the cinematographer for the show, started in Germany and really came from the Expressionist era. He shot incredible movies [Metropolis, Dracula, Key Largo]. Because of his technical wizardry, Desi reached out to him to solve the problems of the show, which was doing a three-camera show on film with a live audience, which no one had quite done before. They had a contrast ratio of 2:1, which is basically flat, and the reason why was by the time the image went through the pipeline—which was film to Kinescope to broadcast to rudimentary TVs, because it was really the dawning of televisions in people’s homes—that process built in a lot of contrast along the way. So, they were doing everything they could to eliminate as many shadows as possible, hence the eye lights and footlights [on the dollies]. Plus, no one had really done an overhead lighting scheme where you could block out scenes and not have to relight anything. They would record the show in front of an audience in 40 minutes or something like that, and it would only take them like two minutes to reset for the next scene. They would shoot a master and two close-ups, and essentially that’s what’s still done today when you structure a sitcom. They were really innovative.
Filmmaker: When you are using these period lights, they’re probably harder sources than you would use now, and also they were being used with, like, 50 ASA film stock so they’re punchier. How did you take into account those factors when using the vintage units?
Cronenweth: The majority of the lights you see in the frame aren’t doing anything. They’re dimmed down, or ND’d or scrimmed down, to the point where they’re eye candy. I’d have one or two that were actually doing what I wanted them to do to give direction and contrast and style to it.
Filmmaker: The stage has a different look for each day of the production week. That includes a night scene where Lucy calls down the actors who play Fred and Ethel in the middle of the night to rehearse.
Cronenweth: Outside of the stage door there was just a wall. So, [for the shot where Fred drives up at night] there’s a green screen there with his car parked right against [it]. Those are the actual headlights of the car you see then I added to that to let the light carry further. We faked the arrival of Ethel’s car by panning some lights through the shot, then there’s a light change when the security guard closes that stage door. I really love the way that scene looks, because it was so stark compared to everything else [in that location]. Most of the lights are off and it’s mainly one top light source overhead. I find it to be, for me, one of the prettier scenes. The challenge with the film was that there were five days [in that space], so how do you evolve the on-set look? You want to feel that lighting change as you get closer to the shoot day.
Filmmaker: For the I Love Lucy clips—well, they’re not exactly “clips” but rather how Lucy imagines scenes from the script in her head—you used a RED Monochrome sensor. Why did you choose that sensor as opposed to shooting with a color camera and desaturating?
Cronenweth: I did a test where we shot color and took the color out versus the Monochrome, and to me it’s night and day. I’ve shot with the Monochrome before and there’s nothing like it. It looks like you’re shooting 50 ASA black and white film stock. It’s so rich, the blacks are so solid and deep and the contrast ratio is great. All the pixels are dedicated to light and dark and don’t have to mitigate color at all.
I was going back and forth as to whether those scenes should look identical to the original TV show, but in the end I decided that I didn’t have to do that because it’s not actually the show, it’s in [Lucy’s] mind. Also, you’re not showing this to a 1950s audience. You’re showing it to people who have grown up watching Game of Thrones and dragons fly through the sky. So, I think you have to visually support a modern audience and give it a little bit more of a look. If you watch those old shows, every time somebody gets close to a set wall there’s 12 shadows [from the multitude of overhead lighting sources]. I contemplated doing that, but in the end I just thought it would get lost on a modern audience and they wouldn’t appreciate why it was there.
Filmmaker: The film has a flashback structure that shows the early days of Desi and Lucy’s relationship. When they first meet on an RKO soundstage you introduce Lucy with this tilt up that starts on her shadow on the ground, then goes up to her standing in a doorway smoking a cigarette. It’s such a great femme fatale-esque intro. I have a lot of affection for the RKO movies of that era, both the Val Lewton horror films and the noirs like Out of the Past and His Kind of Woman. Were those films an inspiration for the flashbacks?
Cronenweth: We were already using black and white for the [I Love Lucy scenes]. so we couldn’t really use that again as an era-defining moment for the flashbacks. We needed to come up with another look. I fell in love with the 1940s and hard light. My grandfather was a portrait photographer for Columbia, amongst others. He won the last Oscar they gave out for portrait photography. He and his peers, people like George Hurrell, did these hard light slashes for eye lights, then strong backlights. I thought it would really be fun to tip my hat to that era and style for all of these flashbacks to the ’40s.
Filmmaker: Many of the day interiors are motivated by sunlight through windows. For example, in Lucy’s office there’s a giant bay window. What’s your approach for that type of scene and do you use any different units to recreate sunlight now compared to what you would have used maybe 10 years ago?
Cronenweth: Not particularly. That’s a fourth-story window for that location, and that scene took all day to shoot. The sun moves around quite a bit, so we made giant boxes on Condors with HMIs so that I could control the light all day long. But those sources—I think they were 18Ks—are the same units I would’ve used years ago. However, we did have a night scene in that location, and for that I used LED lights. Then I put lights outside the window to make it look like there were streetlights, and in post I had visual effects add some city lights further in the distance, so there was some depth out there instead of just falling off to black.
Filmmaker: Anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to talk about?
Cronenweth: I really had a dream team on this movie. I have an operator, Peter Rosenfeld, who I’ve worked with on six or seven movies now, and he wasn’t available [for Ricardos] because he was doing the latest Spider-Man and the schedules overlapped by two weeks. So I called another friend of mine, Lucas Bielan—and he wasn’t available either, because he was going to go do The Alchemist with Claudio Miranda. They are two of the best operators working. They’re never available because they’re so gifted and talented. Then our schedule pushed two weeks, and The Alchemist got canceled, and all of a sudden I had both of them available. So, I went to the producer and said, “Look, I know they are both A-Cam operators, but they’re both available and that will probably never happen again.” The producer said, “OK, let’s do it.” So, I was able to get both of them on the movie, which was a lot of fun.