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From The River To The Streets: Shooting “Rubicon”

Cinematographer Michael Slovis has had a very full year.  A good deal of time was spent down in New Mexico, shooting season three of ““Breaking Bad”” that have earned the show, and his work, 2010 Emmy nominations.   When the season of ““Breaking Bad”” ended, Slovis found himself returning home to New York and shooting the first season of ““Rubicon”,” a new series on AMC that involves political intrigue and conspiracy theories.

411 Publishing recently sat down with Slovis to discuss his work on the new series.

411:  Congratulations on your nomination for “Breaking Bad,” I was really excited about that!

Michael Slovis:  Thank you very much.

411:  I wanted to speak with you primarily on the style you’ve developed for “Rubicon.”  I was able to see the first four episodes, and the style is so different from “Breaking Bad.”

MS:  Let me tell you something Marj, from that point on, the show just picks up momentum and speed.  I think it’s kind of a new way of telling stories.  I think it’s very interesting,


411:  When you received the script for “Rubicon”, what inspired you to get involved?

MS:  My first contact with “Rubicon” was not even the script, it was the pilot.  It was the mood of the pilot and the intellect and complexity of the story that really intrigued me.  And because it’s so 180 degrees off of what “Breaking Bad” does, that also really piqued my interest.

411:  Is the pilot that aired on AMC the same pilot that you saw?

MS:  Well, we shot an additional three to four days of material.  The gentleman who played the original Ed passed away between the point where the pilot was shot and the show was picked up, so they recast that part and fixed a couple of little things.  When you make a pilot it is very difficult because you’re laying the foundation from which a lot of work is going to build.  Often things change, people change, and stories make themselves aware to you, and that is your chance to get all your ducks in a row.

411:  In developing the way “Rubicon” was shot, can you talk about crafting the type of shots that we see?  It’s very interesting when the camera will linger in rooms or corners.

MS:  There were two major factors that have affected the way that the show is being shot.  One was everyone’s, including AMC’s affection for films of the early 70s and late 60s.  The Allen J. Pakula films and the sort of wider, detached kind of photography seen in movies like ”Three Days of the Condor,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” and that kind of style.  They wanted an eclectic feel, and that’s carried over not only in the way that it’s shot, but when you watch the show, you’ll notice when our lead guys are in API, they almost never use computers.  In fact, there are no computers in the conference room; they are using paper, pencil and their brains.  The other thing was, quite literally, the budget and the schedule.  When you work on television, part of your obligation is to make things happen in the schedule and in the allotted budget that they give you.  And so we came up with an approach that was a reasonable approach to shooting a drama in seven days, which is really very difficult to do.

411:  It strikes me, especially between the way it’s shot and the way it’s edited, that a lot tension and suspense is captured within the framing and within the style.  What were you focusing on, in addition to the references of the films and the inspirations of the 70’s?  What were some of your thoughts for crafting the shots that we see?

MS:  You know, the show is shot primarily in on location.  All of that API building is a practical location.  There’s no grid in there.  We shoot it as if you moved in for the day.  Also something interesting to me about this show is the inclusion of the environment around our people.  That’s a real motivating factor to the kinds of shots we construct.  If you look out the windows, you’ll see lights going on upon the river.  You’ll see cars going by on the highways.

Everywhere we go, there’s a tie to the environment the people are working in.  Instead of going with very long lenses that isolates people within a shot, we often go with wider lenses that include the people within the environment.  I also love all the geometry in that place.  I can’t get enough of all those square walls and windows and we use them to create a feeling of separation.  Very often we’ll shoot through windows where you can hear what’s going on, but we as an audience are separated from what’s going on.  We’ll often put things in between us and the characters.  You’re sitting there wanting to know what they are talking about and wanting to get closer but you can’t.

411:  It must be very tricky lighting the rooms and lighting the actors, especially with a lot of the window shots.

MS:  It’s very complex, especially when you have to move quickly and it’s bright outside.  The disparity between the light levels outside and inside is a cinematographer’s nightmare.  So everything that I did was built around being able to shoot quickly and being able to see outside the window.  We use a 1960s or 70s approach.  There were no helium lights, which are daylight balanced lighting instruments.  Everything was tungsten based.  And so we have to gel the windows, which I haven’t done in a while!  My grip department came up with a clever system for changing gels.  We use hard gels with the color or the neutral density that we want, and then we made frames that these gels can slip into and out of so we can change these very quickly.  And inside, we don’t’ have to use very much light, which helps us move along much faster.  We also use two condors and a light called the LRX which is a remarkable:  it’s a remotely controlled sort of robotic light at the top of a condor.  Even if it is raining or uncomfortable outside, we can set this thing up and we can continue to shoot.

411:  What are you shooting on, is it a film?

MS:  Indeed, we shoot on film; we’re dinosaurs in that way.  I have nothing against digital, I love digital, the next show I’m going to shoot is going to be digital.  I shot “Royal Pains” last year digitally.  Film is one of the reasons we are able to move so quickly, it’s a huge asset to us   It’s also an aesthetic asset; it fits the tone and the texture of the show.  The blacks are solid blacks and rich.   The highlights, the dynamic range, are a huge advantage to me.  And Kodak has been remarkable.

411:  It must be great to be able to shoot two different TV shows on film.

MS:   I’m a very lucky person.  If you‘re going to shoot two shows on film, well, look at the ones I get to shoot!

411:  That’s true.  And speaking of “Breaking Bad,” we spoke before about utilizing the colors of New Mexico and incorporating them into the story line.  Are you doing a similar thing with New York and the cityscape there?

MS:  Absolutely.   There’s a real eclectic feel to the colors they are using.  It’s a completely different palette than “Breaking Bad”.  There’s almost nothing in the orange or warm tones, which the desert cries out to me with.  This is much more in the whites and the grays and the institutional sort of greens and yellows.

411:  That must add a certain complexity to it, especially where you have to have some unique challenges with lighting, in the situation where you are trying to operate, and being surrounded by all those pale, grey, lighter colors.

MS:  It’s sometimes a pain (laughs,) it really is.

411:  You must enjoy the world where the Miranda Richardson character lives, with the very rich interiors.

MS:  To me, the frame comes alive and feels enriched when we go to the gigantic estate that she lives in at the beginning of the series.  She’s surrounded by very lush, very expensive looking oak, mahogany, and cherry paneling that’s just very rich.

411:  Are “Breaking Bad” and “Rubicon” on two different schedules?

MS:  This year they were (laughs.)  I don’t know what will happen with them next year.  I prefer not to think about it.  I would hope that they stay complimenting each other which would be a really nice situation for me, wouldn’t it?

411:  Well, yes it would, to have the two very different subject matters and the very different characters to work with.

MS:  Absolutely!  And they also both have been nurturing me as a director: I’ve directed once for “Breaking Bad” and I’ve directed “Rubicon.” So it’s really a very nurturing situation for me with both.

411:  Would you like to move a little more in the direction of directing?

MS:  I love to shoot, I love to shoot good stuff, and as long as I’m shooting good stuff, I don’t see where I have to give up my cake to have my pie.  It’s really good because I know these shows extremely well.  I helped build “Rubicon” up from the ground and I certainly am now integrated into “Breaking Bad.”  I think directors who are adept at working as guest directors have a real skill in getting to know the culture of the show.  And if you are already part of that culture, it just makes it a lot easier.

411:  I just want to make sure I understand one thing, Michael.  With the pilot, were you involved with the reshoots of it?

MS:  Yes, Jonathan Freeman shot the pilot and he did a phenomenal job.  It was quite intimidating to go in and know that I had to live up to that in seven days and not let there be a distinct downgrade in the graphicness in the pilot and the subsequent episodes.  Was there?

411:  No, absolutely not.  The way that everything is introduced in the pilot, there’s sibilance:  with the rooms, with the corners, with the shadows.

MS:  Yes, Allen Coulter, who directed it, did an unbelievable job in creating a world that you get right away, in the first 45 minutes of watching the pilot.  And obviously they did, because it was subsequently picked up and carried for another twelve episodes.  It’s really smart, you can’t not pay attention.

To learn more about “Rubicon,” please visit: