Amazon’s Homecoming cinematographer Tod Campbell talks to Awards Daily about shooting past versus present, adapting a podcast, and the new series’ most challenging scene to shoot.
Even though Amazon’s Homecoming has Hitchcockian undertones, it was a Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland movie that sold cinematographer Tod Campbell on the concept of the show’s style, with its zooming-in closeups and dueling ratios.
“It was like the fourth or fifth day of shooting and Sam [Esmail] had an editor’s cut and he laid in the Klute soundtrack,” says Campbell. “That was when I thought, Oh, that’s where he is. We knew what we wanted visually, but when I heard the music, that took me to another place. Pretty mindblowing for me.”
It’s ironic considering that sound is what first gave Homecoming prominence, as a Gimlet podcast from Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg about a mysterious governmental program.
“Early on, when Sam was discussing [adapting the podcast], when the rumblings first began, I listened to it and fell in love with it. The short format is so awesome. The story is great, the writing is great. I was excited to take on the challenge of putting visuals to a podcast. It was actually more difficult than I thought, to keep it more visually interesting throughout. I felt like we really adhered to the original story there, which was a big deal, because it was so good.”
Like many popular TV dramas right now, this one cuts between past and present, past actually being 2018 and present actually being 2022; however, the series keeps it to a tight 30 minutes each episode, almost like a podcast.
“In 2018, I wanted to keep a lot of hard sunlight in her office since it takes place in Florida. That was a big thing I tried to key into. I wanted it to feel happy, even though we wanted to give a sense of an undercurrent, something beneath the surface that’s not right. I really wanted the lighting to feel like a very surfacy, beautiful thing.”
Homecoming stars Julia Roberts as a case worker at the Homecoming rehabilitation program for military returning home, and the way her character is shot in a 1:1 aspect ratio in “future” scenes, tells a lot about what’s going on in her world.
“The same way that she doesn’t have full vision of her past, we don’t have a full vision of what’s going on around her. We’re boxing her in and creating tension within that aspect ratio. When she does retrieve her memory, then we can go back into this beautiful world where everything is shiny and poppy. The overarching idea was to keep everything a little dull for the box format and to add a little more kick to things in her past.”
One of the most challenging scenes to film is in the first episode “Mandatory,” one long shot of Heidi (Roberts) talking on the phone with Colin (Bobby Canavale).
“We start zooming in on her, then we go up above her and we track her through the entirety of the facility into the lobby. Obviously it was very big and detailed. Sam [Esmail] wanted to slide a 75-foot crane over the top of it. And the stages were massive, the biggest ones at Universal and they’re brand-new. The challenge was lighting it and having to pull the ceiling off. We had to make these decisions in December 2017 and we didn’t start shooting until March 2018.”
It’s hard to talk about other tricky scenes in the series without revealing twists in the show, but one of Campbell’s favorite characters to work with was Thomas Carrasco, played by Shea Whigham.
“The whole opening of Episode 3 with Carrasco at his desk, going down that stairwell is one of my favorite shots that we did. But then he also goes into that massive file room. That was probably the most fun that I had in any of the sets, cause we completely created it and we were able to get the camera way up above and the lights were turning off and turning on. I love the Carrasco stuff because there wasn’t a lot of control there and we could do whatever we wanted to do.”
But while he enjoyed shooting Carrasco, Campbell above all loves working with Sam Esmail, who he previously worked with on USA’s Mr. Robot.
“I love working with him. I love Sam’s choices, his attitude, the way he treats people. I don’t know how I got so lucky.”
All episodes of Amazon’s Homecoming stream Nov. 2.