Emmy®-nominee Robert McLachlan talks to Awards Daily TV about filming the gorgeous vistas and clinical interiors of HBO’s acclaimed Westworld.
You likely don’t know Robert McLachlan, but you should. A highly gifted cinematographer, McLachlan set the scene and filmed one of the most discussed hours of television in TV history: HBO’s Game of Thrones‘ “The Rains of Castamere,” a.k.a. “The Red Wedding.”
Loose your arrows!
“Nothing really prepared us for the sizing of the audience reaction. We knew everybody was going to be pretty upset about it, and my goal photographically was to just absolutely do everything I could to not visually tip our hand that everything was going awry,” McLachlan laughed, not at all fiendishly. “Obviously, it was incredibly gratifying when we saw all those YouTube videos of people freaking out while they were watching in.”
McLachlan and team tried not to tip their hand to those who had yet to read the George R. R. Martin novels. They played with lighting and warmer color pattern to invite viewers in photographically. They created a false sense of security by overnighting the banquet scene to what McLachlan refers to as “a Disney movie level.” Something we clearly should have picked up given how visually dark the series registers.
One of Robert McLachlan’s strongest influence remains the French Baroque art of Georges de la Tour. Even with a casual visual understanding of Game of Thrones, you will immediately recognize the influence of de la Tour’s delicate candlelight on McLachlan’s lensing. The effect often repeats in some Western-set Westworld scenes.
“Yeah, I’ve really always leaned on that heavily,” McLachlan explained. “It really suits [Game of Thrones] well.”
Robert McLachlan’s brilliant work across multiple seasons of Game of Thrones garnered two Emmy nominations. This year, McLachlan continues his striking lensing into four episodes of HBO’s Westworld. Given the remarkable below-the-lines pedigree of the series, Emmy feels likely to come knocking again.
Filming the Wild Wild Westworld
Two of McLachlan’s strongest cinematic influences stem from Western-tinged works. Films like George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout helped create McLachlan’s visual palate. With the heavy Western influence of at least Butch Cassidy, it’s tempting to associate that look with that of Westworld.
Not so, said McLachlan.
“The thing about Westworld is that it’s not really a Western. It’s really a science-fiction show. So, really, what I had in the back of my head, especially in Episode 5 “Contrapasso” when we were in that Sodom and Gomorrah brothel, my reference point was more Blade Runner than any classic Western.”
The initial scripts led McLachlan to the Spaghetti Westerns of his youth like The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. As a result, the lensers rendered exterior shots as iconically beautiful as possible. After all, Westworld primarily functions as adult theme park. Gorgeous vistas come with the price of a ticket. A very expensive ticket.
To render the gorgeous exterior imagery as well as the cold interiors of the robotics lab, McLachlan and team shot classically with film stock. It became much more difficult to achieve the natural lighting McLachlan favors on Game of Thrones, which films with a digital camera. Establishing the right lighting for his scenes provided one of the biggest challenges of the entire series.
“I hadn’t shot film for five years, so to go back to it was a steep learning curve to get back in the saddle. Frankly, for a cinematographer, it’s fantastic. With digital, everybody sees what it will look like as you’re doing it, and you have a lot of room to manipulate it on set. With film, the cinematographer remains the only person who knows exactly what it will look like when we get dailies the next day. It’s very empowering and a huge responsibility.”
Episode 5, “Contrapasso,” remains one of McLachlan’s favorite episodes of Westworld Season 1. In that episode, cast members journey to the visually stunning town of Pariah. There, the infamous brothel scenes are lovingly rendered in gorgeous earth tones.
You’d never know McLachlan actually filmed the scene in a 100-year-old mausoleum in South Central L.A.
“If you’d seen that place when we first walked in compared to what it ended up looking like, you wouldn’t believe it. Creating the mood and the lighting and the atmosphere of those plus all the connective tissue for the episode was incredibly satisfying for me.”
Beyond Westworld, McLachlan spread his cinematic wings on Showtime’s Ray Donovan. There, he both shot and directed Season 4’s “Get Even Before Leavin’.”
The episode emerged as one of the best episodes of Season 4. It allowed McLachlan to fully shape an episode on his own.
“At this point, I’ve worked with out 350 directors on episodic TV. I’ve worked with some who are absolute geniuses and learned a great deal from all of them. That’s where an experienced cinematographer really pays off. They ensure the producers are going to get their shows in on time and have all the bits that they need to assemble an episode that’s in keeping with the style of the production.”
And in case you’re wondering, yes, he’s returning to Game of Thrones. No, he didn’t share any spoilers.
Because he really loved to film that Red Wedding scene, and I wasn’t pushing my luck.