How “Gaslit” brought Watergate’s image into the present

Cinematographer Larkin Seiple tells IndieWire how the series created a sharp look that shows how all of this has happened before and all of this will happen again.

There is something pleasantly distant about history. Grainy black-and-white film stock can look incredibly alien, and even when something is in color, the more limited options that older film stocks worked with to replicate real life (only, you know, maybe without a lot of cyan in it), this kind of patina compared to digital paint. It’s easy for a modern audience to use the look of something as an emotional abyss – that thing looks different than the world today, so it doesn’t apply to us. But “Gaslit,” Starz’s take on the Watergate scandal (adapted from the first season of the Slow Burn podcast), doesn’t offer viewers a way out of the hubris, incompetence, and immorality of those in power on the outside. This extends to the show’s visuals, which bring back immediacy to an event that is now considered history.

“We wanted it to feel like you envisioned the ’70s but in a modern way,” cinematographer Larkin Seiple told IndieWire. “We want it like a [’70s] thrive, but we didn’t want it to be nostalgic, like it would grimace in a way.” Indeed, the show begins with a dramatic harshness that fans of Sam Esmail’s “Mr. Robot” should feel right at home with: a mustachioed Shea Whigham as G. Gordon Liddy, shrouded almost entirely in darkness save for an open flame hungrily licking his outstretched palm, addressing the camera directly with almost psychotic eagerness .

The color balance that Seiple and series director Matt Ross wanted to achieve—avoiding the look of “All the President’s Men” without veering into wan Fincher thriller territory or the intensely digital blue-orange combinations of “Transformers”—results a cool freshness for the Washington world of Martha Mitchell (Julia Roberts). (Even with the period cars, clothes, and hair.) But it’s emphasized in the other choices Seiple made for filming, giving certain characters their own distinctive feel when in control of a scene.

Gaslit Starz Series Watergate Dan Stevens

Dan Stevens in “Gaslite”

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle / Starz

“We’ve used about six different sets of lenses throughout history,” Seiple said. “Martha had her own lenses. We used a mix of Canon K-35 and Speed ​​Panchros with glass from the 1970’s. As you start opening the lens, they soften a bit. But then for John Dean (Dan Stevens) or the more villainous characters like Liddy, we used something called Super Speeds, which is more modern glass that has a little more bite and contrast and it’s a little harder on the actors.” It’s especially hard when Seiple comes close, as he often does when government cronies on all sides of the Watergate burglary are snapping and shooting at each other, struggling desperately to save face or their own skin – who look roughly flowered in the eyes of Seiple’s camera.

The other decision the series made to snag a little closer to its timeline was to avoid green screen wherever possible. “All sentences are carried out practically. So if you look at Martha’s penthouse outside the windows, we went to the actual Watergate facility and photographed slabs of the Potomac River and the skyline and then made a huge backdrop out of it,” said Seiple. “We basically printed them onto this giant drop cloth material, which is actually kind of new and allows you to light it up in a very natural way.”

The natural look of the series is all the more impressive considering how Gaslit ended up being shot. “Originally, we wanted to take a one-camera approach,” Seiple said. “But the actors are really, really strong and really funny, and they kept changing it up between takes. They kept finding things and exploring [things, so we] I started doing two cameras, you know, and by the end of that third week we were about to shoot three cameras at the same time because we didn’t want to lose performance.”

Gaslit Starz Series Shea Whigham

Shea Whigham in “Gaslit”

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle / Starz

Switching to a multi-cam approach required Seiple and Ross to change the blocking in individual scenes in a way that proved interesting for both actors and cinematographers. “[Camera setups were] like a camera on top of a camera and then someone underneath. Or we shoot in the middle of a circle. We have three cameras, all sticking out and pointing at different actors.”

Seiple said he had different cameras follow different actors through a scene and then made compromises at key moments, but since the series focuses primarily on interiors, all of which were practically built, they were free to get very creative with how they used the spaces , built by production designer Daniel Novotny and his team. “We spent a lot of time figuring out how to make performance the primary choice for these [interior dialogue] scenes,” said Seiple.

It was a mission the actors responded to, too, and their movement and sharpness with their eyes went a long way in guiding Seiple’s camera — and keeping morale up among the crew, too. Whigham would sometimes delve deeply into the role of Liddy and improvise, and he developed a habit of saying “Stay with me” when trying to get a scene going again. “And he would stick his hands in like a rewind motion and then we would start the scene over,” Seiple said. “He kept saying it’s so much that by the end of the show everyone had mugs that said ‘stay with me’ with their mustache on it.”

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Lindsay Lowe

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