Fleabag‘s cinematographer tells Joey Moser what’s different between seasons 1 and 2.
The first episode of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag is a doozy. At an engagement dinner, many secrets come out, and it culminates in multiple people getting punched in the nose. While Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag continues to glance at us throughout the evening, it is cinematographer Tony Miller who makes us feel like we are sitting at the table for the dinner from hell. Throughout the entire season, Fleabag looks through Miller’s camera to gaze at us.
There are a lot of themes of light and dark in Fleabag and Miller’s lighting reflects that throughout this second season. As Fleabag falls for Andrew Scott’s priest, she exposes herself to him in scenes of surprising vulnerability. There is a lot to laugh at throughout Waller-Bridge’s magnum opus, but Miller’s placement of the camera is paramount to the emotional payoff.
Awards Daily: In terms of the nomination, was it a surprise to you? Fleabag was really represented in this year’s nominations.
Tony Miller: You just never know what you’re going to be nominated for. The things I think I might be nominated for, I don’t get it. When we were making Fleabag Season 2, I think we all thought that this was Phoebe’s masterpiece. Season 1 was very successful, and it was very unusual. But the second season, when we were making it, felt like it could be very successful. You’re like a player in the drama. You are because of the camera. You’re breaking the fourth wall. and you’re implicated in a way.
AD: Do you feel closer to Fleabag since you’re right there?
TM: I got hired on this because I wanted to reveal—through the lighting and camerawork—the emotional context of the characters. I wanted to try to do that in a way that was cinematic but also seriously implicated our audience. The psychological journey that Fleabag takes is something we can all relate to—her dastardly behavior, her dysfunctional family, her aggressive sister, her partners that we want to get rid of because they embarrass us. The breaking of the fourth wall is absolutely central in being complicit in her journey.
There were many ground rules that we established for ourselves. First, I shot Phoebe from lots of different angles with different lenses. I chose the anamorphic frame because it allows relationships within the frame, and we decided that every time Fleabag looks at us, we must find her attractive. She is a conduit through the camera to us. She reveals herself in those moments, and those revelations hopefully trigger us. I wanted to make her beautiful at that time, because she’s often so bad that I wanted to shoot her in a way that went against that. I looked at theatrical films of the 50’s like Sabrina, and Gordon Willis’ masterpiece photography in Annie Hall and Manhattan. What did come across was I wanted to cross-light her. If we were ever aware of the cinematography, I failed. The whole thing was handheld, except for two or three Steadicam moments in the season. That let me dance around and try to catch those moments that felt more organic. I could have never done it with just lighting it. I had to light and operate it—which is not the norm for a lot of TV work. It had to have that intimacy with the actors. We were all great friends now, and I have to be close to them in order to do this.
AD: You worked on both seasons. Was shooting Fleabag different in Season 2 because she was making such a conscious effort to make changes in her life?
TM: We knew the characters more this time. Fleabag is trying to be good, but she’s fundamentally the same person. She doesn’t succeed all the time, but this season felt psychologically darker. In episode one, there’s a Freudian sense to this deep family dysfunction that informs Phoebe and how she is. There’s all kind of shit going on, and I think the lighting had to be darker. I’m always interested in what’s dark and what’s light. Light reveals emotion. There’s this claustrophobia at that table, and Phoebe has to retreat to have a smoke or go to the bathroom. As a cinematographer, I’m really close to those emotional beats. I’ve never done a Season 2 before. This was very much an ensemble piece. I found lighting this was harder than with something period and fantasy like Carnival Row that I finished for Amazon. You kind of know where you are with Fleabag, but it felt like unchartered territory because it broke that wall with the audience. We wanted to avoid the tropes of any other comedy.
AD: Phoebe’s voice is so singular, so I think it helps that we can hear her voice in everything she writes. Whether it’s Killing Eve or Fleabag—we can hear her in her words and Fleabag has created its own style.
TM: It’s a psychologically deeper piece of work, and you have to approach the cinematography from that emotional point of view. You have to ask the questions about lighting around the characters so they can reveal themselves in what they do or don’t say. The emotion has to work on many levels. Sometimes it’s very funny, but it’s always dark. In the end, The Priest chooses his faith and she can’t believe. If it touches the audience, it works, and the cinematography has to do the same. Phoebe makes it fun. Killing Eve is more of a genre show, and Fleabag has this contradiction of realism with being cinematic.
AD: And that’s I love about the second season. That last scene between Phoebe and Andrew makes me cry like an idiot every time I watch it. I do think it touches a lot of people.
TM: That realism is there.
AD: If The Priest would’ve picked Fleabag over his faith, I don’t think it would’ve felt as true.
TM: It would have been a much bigger political statement than it would be a statement about two lost souls who are trying to find themselves. To be honest, that’s many of us in relationships. That’s why I think it’s such a brilliant end. We fought for that bus stop, and we wanted it to be a profound atmosphere. We wanted it to feel lonely, and we wanted to leave them both, in a way, lonely. Look at Edward Hopper, the great American painter who created loneliness so carefully. The end sequence is highly influenced cinematically by Hopper because of his ability to create that loneliness. The scenes in the toilet in the first episode were about that, too. With Claire in the stall and her miscarriage and the breakdown of her marriage. She’s fucked. She’s lost and totally in a mess. Claire has to come out fighting. The emotions have to be revealed through the photography. I’m so glad to hear you love the ending.
AD: I do. I love it so much. I have never seen a show end where the characters tell the audience to stop following her. I think it’s one of my all time favorite endings. It’s beautiful.
TM: I had a moment of sadness there, because there wouldn’t be any more Fleabag after that. I had a moment there when Phoebe tells the camera to not follow her anymore.
AD: One of my other favorite shots is when Fleabag and The Priest are kissing and the picture falls. We watch Andrew Scott walk away and he’s walking through pools of light. Do you have a favorite shot that you created?
TM: I do love that shot, and that was influenced from growing up in Holland and learning about how Van Gogh would always paint people from behind. There was always something about Fleabag and loving his neck and loving his back. We always think we need to see people’s faces. I got a shiver down my spine during that, and it just felt very weirdly intimate. I wanted him going through light because we don’t show everything. We needed to do that there. Another shot I like is the scene in the toilet, and I love seeing Phoebe go out to smoke. They break the mood in a way. There’s quite a few shots where I can still feel it in the camera.
AD: Going from light to almost darkness, the confessional scene is done in almost complete darkness. It’s almost swallowing her, and the editing almost never breaks from her. Did you want that to be her most vulnerable point?
TM: It’s the deepest she goes, but it also relates to almost all her experiences. Its layered with meaning because she’s in that small confessional. It had to be dark, but the light had to come from where The Priest was. He was the shining light of her life at that moment, and that’s why it comes from there. I pushed to do it in one shot. I didn’t want to cut this. We hardly even show him, but we know he’s there. We had to feel him. It’s one of her [most] revelatory moments of the entire season. And that supports how I think this season is much more mature and darker. Phoebe was really involved with how the cinematography worked with breaking the fourth wall. How do we make it engaging? How do we make our audience never bounce out? It must totally feel like they are with Fleabag, and we draw them into the emotions.
Both seasons of Fleabag are currently streaming on Amazon Prime.