Ben Kutchins is the Emmy nominated cinematographer of the heralded Netflix crime thriller, Ozark. We discussed replicating the Ozarks in Atlanta, working with Jason Bateman and Laura Linney, along with some hints about season 2 – premiering on August 31.
How did you come to the show?
Jason and I did a movie together years ago (The Longest Week). We hit it off, became friends, and when Ozark came around we jumped at the chance to work together. For me there was no hesitation. Having seen him in front of the camera, and his process, and how he was thinking about the work when we were shooting. Clearly, he was very capable as a fully rounded filmmaker. When I read the pilot, the script was fantastic. It was a no-brainer.
He had already directed a couple movies (Bad Words, The Family Fang) of his own before Ozark.
I had seen Bad Words. That was the other part of it. I just thought it was incredible. The tone of that film is such a hard thing to pull off. Given my personal experience with him and having seen that film, I was very excited.
One of the things I’ve always thought about Jason Bateman as an actor is he’s really good at reactions. Which makes me think he’s a good listener.
Jason has an amazing ability to act and simultaneously clock everything that’s going on around him. Including other people’s performances. He is a great listener. I think that influences his performance and him as a director. When I’m working with him, I feel heard, and I think the other actors working with him feel heard. He has the ability as an actor to live in the moment, be aware of where the camera is, and what the best relationship is between actor and camera. I think him and I share a very similar aesthetic. And also a love for blocking and camera movement, and how it relates to performance. In lensing him, he’s super aware of how close the camera is. How much we can see of his face. How much he needs to do. If he needs to do less. While we are shooting Ozark we are very aware of creating a safe space for the actors to perform in. It’s really just the collaboration of all of us. I think the beauty of Ozark is it doesn’t feel like there’s a separation between the actors, and the camera operators, and myself. All of us are sort of jamming along like a good jazz band and enjoying each other’s riffing. I really feel that on the set of Ozark more than I have on other sets I’ve worked on.
When I spoke to Trevor Long (Cade Langmore on Ozark), he said something similar about Jason’s ability to wear two hats at once. Both director and actor. I assume there has to be a high intelligence level to manage that.
There’s a high film IQ (there). I think we share a similar love for film language. Him and I are huge film nerds. We spend a lot of time talking about movies. Some obscure movie that we saw and a particular camera movement that we loved. We love breaking it down and discussing the nitty-gritty of what they were going for. What worked. What didn’t work. The people who love film that much to dig deep like that are few and far between, Jason is one of those total cinephiles. He, like myself, studies the things he watches rather than just watching them. He’s fully consuming them to make himself the best filmmaker he can be. All of us on Ozark share a love of storytelling. Which is what I think makes it so great. I’m glad people have responded in the way that they have. People love the show. It means a lot. We make the show in a bubble and we have no idea whether people are going to love this or hate it. It’s a good feeling.
Jonathan Tucker once told me you work just as hard on things that don’t work and nobody sees as you do on stuff that reaches a wide audience.
(Laughs). It’s true. One of the interesting things is Jason encourages everyone to make bold choices. Including myself. The show is extremely dark in both tone and photography. Jason encouraged all of that. To go darker and more naturalistic and embrace it. That’s hard to find in television. We live and die by those choices. You either make something fantastic, or you’ll make something unwatchable. If there’s anything I’m proud of, it’s that. That the show continues to be bold and be distinct.
One thing about Ozark that sets it apart is the camera movements and the style feel more like a film than what you often see on TV. Nothing is rote.
We’re always going for the more subtle version of what anything could be. You never want to hit the audience over the head. The most cinematic, slowburn version is the most interesting version to us. We’re always looking for that thing that’s just beneath the surface that’s a little darker than what you might see at first glance. We want to make the most cinematic version, while also keeping the camera close, and therefore keeping the audience close. So that it feels like a first-person experience. To never rely on the objective viewpoint. That’s pretty common in TV. We want to put the audience in the room and make them part of the conversation rather than the casual observer. The stakes are heightened, and the tension rises when you feel like you are in the room. It instills a new level of fear in the audience, if they feel personally involved in the scene. I’m always trying to put the camera in that place where the audience feels like it’s personal.
I think that goes to the way interiors are shot on the show too. When characters are sharing a smaller space, the way the camera moves from person to person and how tight the shots often are, it really ratchets up the tension.
That’s indicative of the film language we’re using. We shoot in mostly practical locations. We try to get the camera in there and move the camera in a way that feels like that first-person experience. The audience is invited into the stage of Ozark, rather than (be) an outside observer. We don’t want to give the viewer a moment to catch their breath. They should feel Jason’s fear as he steps into another situation where he might lose his life. We want you to feel like you are in his shoes and you can hear his wheels turning as if you are in the room with him.
In terms of the show’s visual palette, it made me think of a mixture of Winter’s Bone and the cold, steely blue of many of Michael Mann’s films. Am I on to anything?
There’s a lot of references I draw from when shooting a scene. Certainly, those are some of them. Winter’s Bone is definitely a movie where I really respected the photography and the fillmmaking. And Michael Mann is somebody…especially his early movies, that I’ve studied. Bateman and I talk a lot about David Fincher’s work and his use of cool color palettes and also the cold worlds his stories often inhabit. There’s a certain way that David Fincher gives respect to the audience in the way that he reveals information. In terms of camera movement and camera placement. It’s simultaneously respectful (of the viewer) and manipulative. That’s one of the things Jason and I buy in on. I think that’s a really important thing when you are operating in the thriller genre. You don’t want to give away too much too soon, but you want to give enough away to make people lean in just a little bit further.
I was surprised to learn that most of the show was shot in Atlanta.
I would say 99% of the show is shot in Atlanta. The only Missouri Ozarks stuff that appears in the show is some helicopter work. The establishing over the water shots are done in the Ozarks. But other than that, the show is shot in Atlanta. It’s a testament to the work of the production designer and location scouts and our effort to control the audience’s view into the world to make a believable Ozarks out of rural Atlanta. It isn’t always easy. (Laughs).
Being someone originally from Appalachia, I was fooled.
That’s great to hear! Especially since we are shooting a lot of the show on location. It’s not a stage-based show. We spend most of our time out on, or near, the water, in the woods, or at the Byrde house. Which is a real location on the lake.That house has huge windows and it’s essentially like shooting an exterior location. It’s an unfriendly camera environment. But I think it lends itself to the authenticity that you’re speaking about.
You shoot on the water a lot. I imagine that’s very challenging.
It’s interesting shooting out on the lake. It’s been a great experience. It is really hard. If you can imagine having two boats adrift in the lake and you were trying to get them to stay the same distance from each other just to get a close-up of somebody from one boat to another. To make even the simplest filmmaking choices happen on the water is a trying experience. At the same time, it’s given us some of the most beautiful moments in the show. Also. things that you don’t see on camera. I’ll remember for the rest of my life riding on a boat with Laura Linney at 4 in the morning, wrapped up in five coats trying to stay warm, and just watching the sunrise. Turning to each other and saying, “this is magic” and the audience doesn’t even get to see this. We are so lucky to be here and be able to do this. So, a lot of the beauty gets captured on camera and a lot of the beauty happens for us when we are just there making the show. It’s a great gift to be out in nature. I think that’s one of the reasons the show works. There are these calming, grounding natural elements that also can be terrifying. It’s an interesting balance. This beautiful lake that people drown in all the time.
I imagine it’s not the worst gig to be shooting Laura Linney. She’s such a great actor.
She’s one of my favorite actors and one of my favorite people. She’s a fantastic actress and one of the kindest people that I’ve ever met.
Season 2 is dropping on the 31st. Without giving too much away, what can you tell us about it?
Here’s spoiler number one! Spoiler number two! (Laughs). I think the reason season number 2 is so interesting is it ratchets up the tension of the constant threat against the Byrde family’s safety while getting deeper and telling more of the story of who the Byrdes are, and what is this bond, what does family mean? Digging into their relationships. Which I really think is the heart and soul of the show. What I think keeps the audience engaged is the relationships between the four of them. What do they want from each other and how do they get it? Is it through vulnerability and honesty? Or through deceit and lies? There’s so much interesting stuff to be mined, given the enormous amount of pressure that they are under. If you think of all the Byrde family woes as a million tons of lava and underneath all of that is a diamond. I think that diamond is the Byrde family relationships. It’s beautiful to watch. It’s an honor to film them. They are all such talented actors. I think the audience is going to love season 2 even more.
I know that the work on this show is its own reward, but you are nominated for your first Emmy. That must be gratifying.
It’s strange. For me, it’s just about the work. Waking up at 4 o’clock in the morning and going out and doing it. The Emmy nomination is more of a testament to everybody’s hard work. There’s so many in my crew…they just kill themselves for the show. I can’t speak highly enough of the team that works under me and alongside me. It’s beautiful to see such an amazing group of talented people come together. The awards thing is cool and I really appreciate it. It’s humbling. The real takeaway for me is the acknowledgement that people appreciate the aesthetic. It gives me license to take it one step further and do something even bolder.