The cinematographer talks about what lurks in the shadows in TNT’s noir, I Am the Night.
Film noirs are famous for their cinematography. If you Google ‘film noir,’ you will see many striking black and white images of femme fatales and things hiding in the darkness. A truly great film noir is hard to come by these days, but TNT’s I Am the Night is successful with how it melds together classic noir elements with an emotional true story. Matthew Jensen’s work on the limited series is both visually stunning and pays homage to noirs of the past.
Jensen worked on the first two episodes of the series with director Patty Jenkins, and he shows us two very different worlds. In Sparks, Nevada, we can feel the dry heat and the sweat. Fauna Hodel and her mother, Jimmie Lee, live in a small house together, and you can sense the toxicity in the air. That’s deeply contrasted by the colors brought to us when the show shifts to Los Angeles. The neon signs glow in the darkness–it’s very enticing and colorful but you can tell something is waiting in the shadows. What isn’t shown is just as riveting as what is in focus on the screen.
To achieve a truly noir look, Jensen paid a lot of attention to color theory and the palettes between both Sparks and Los Angeles. The idea of collaborating with Jenkins on such a fascinating character study was something that both challenged and intrigued him. A lot of questions are asked in I Am the Night, but Jensen’s cinematography begins to peel back the mystery and shed light on one girl’s struggle to find herself.
What about this crazy story appealed to you? Why did you want to be a part of I Am the Night?
Patty had mentioned to me the story when we were finishing up Wonder Woman. She said very little other than it was about a woman who was trying to find her racial identity in the 1960’s and it’s a film noir. She said just about that, and I knew I wanted to do it. The time period in Los Angeles is fascinating and turbulent. The question of somebody’s racial identity being so inverted and confusing was a great, dramatic entry into a very complicated, noir world.
We zoom in over the desert in that opening shot and go right into Fauna and Jimmie Lee’s house. Can you tell us about that first establishing shot?
That’s actually in the script.
Credit goes to Sam Sheridan for that. It describes the camera zooming along this desert landscape and goes into this house that you wouldn’t expect. It looks normal, and you’re going to meet this girl that will set off a major chain of events. The idea behind what we were trying to do with the opening shot was to create this foreboding sense of tension. A ticking clock. We wanted to convey that, as best we could, in one shot. It was combination of the visual effects department and working with them to create the desert and marrying that with the exterior and the interior which was built on a sound stage.
I’ve spoken to some people in the production about the difference between those intimate scenes and the lush world of Los Angeles. Those big, dramatic scenes between Fauna and Jimmie Lee feel like a staged production almost.
The house feels so toxic—there’s a staleness in the air. What can you tell us about shooting that as compared to the scenes in Los Angeles?
Los Angeles is a big, chaotic, messy world. Sparks is a little more organized, but there’s a lot more simmering underneath the surface. Things are buried. I think that Jimmie Lee’s house, the way it was designed, was to show somebody who was careful about appearances. She wanted to everything to look like they were fine. That’s reflected in how Pat looks. It’s mentioned in the script that she’s trying to make her look good and look well groomed. She’s reaching for something that her means doesn’t allow. From my perspective, what I was trying to do was differentiate the color palette and how the light works in the desert compared to Los Angeles. Los Angeles is a little more colorful where the color acts as an assault.
There’s something very controlled about the palette in Sparks. I was trying to emphasize the desert sun and how it washes everything out. I did some manipulation of the film stock in the day exteriors to show that warmth. With Jimmie Lee’s house, I was trying to light through windows and try to reflect the sun piercing through those smaller windows or at night very few lamps were on. Jimmie Lee is sort of walking through these pools of light. Almost menacing. Those are some of the techniques I used to evoke the feelings you were talking about. Everything was about differentiating between the worlds, so I’m glad to hear that it had an accumulation.
A lot of the design really establishes a mood. The camerawork and the lighting pulled me forward with the story.
Moving to the glamour of Hollywood, there’s a lot darkness lurking in the shadows. Can you talk about not making something too obvious with the camerawork?
Patty and I looked at quite photographic reference of the period like William Eggleston and Gordon Parks. Also, Stephen Shore who was really from the 1970’s but really had an influence on the look. All of those photographers have a great sense of color and an unforced naturalism but yet Patty still wanted to make a stylized noir that looked like a big Technicolor movie. So, we were combining a lot of that and Hitchcock. We were looking at Vertigo, which has an incredible use of color that becomes very symbolic throughout the movie, and Notorious even though it was black and white. It has this incredible graceful camerawork. And it’s a lot about what isn’t said and not cutting away from tension. Just sitting in shots to feel the tension between the characters. We were trying to combine that naturalism and period authenticity with a more stylized Hollywood rendering. I think you see that, particularly, in the Los Angeles sequences. For example, that last bit with Fauna alone at the bus stop and she’s making all the calls to her family and learning how crazy they are. She’s standing there in a red coat—which is very reminiscent of Little Red Riding Hood—and that shows her ‘little girl lost’ innocence.
That’s exactly what Rhona said when I spoke with her.
She did an incredible job outfitting everyone for the show. That was combined with the lighting that I was doing that was a blue/green cyan which is complementary to red. Turns out that color is period correct with lights in Los Angeles because streets were lit by mercury vapor lamps which put off this cyan hue. A lot of my research showed Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset and they were all lit with these lamps. You’d have all these gaudy colors clashing all the time. All the neon from the signs and then you’d have the street lights. There was this collision of color. In that sequence, it illustrates what we were trying to do. This is getting a bit into color theory but when you have opposing colors on the color wheel, you are instantly creating a tension. So when you have a red and a cyan, it simply creates tension through color. Sometimes it can be harmonious, but in our case we wanted to pull at that a little bit.
I remember when Jay is walking in to meet with Peter for the first time and the colors just pop so much on the neon sign. It’s just a shot of the outside of the building, and the color did smack me in the face.
When he walks into the bar for the first time?
Yes, it’s at night and the neon sign is really bright and colorful.
Him walking into the King Eddie Saloon is one of my favorite shots of the whole series. That was one of the shots where we had help from the visual effects extending the period look down the street. That’s downtown Los Angeles. Ten or fifteen years ago it was easy to shoot period, nondescript Los Angeles, but now, even in downtown, everything’s been gentrified. We found a great location—we’re looking up the hill into downtown. We turned off the power for several blocks and relit everything and we used very noir techniques of wetting down the streets to get those reflections and sheen. I thought that felt like we were doing a classic noir shot. I almost saw that shot in black and white.
Yeah. Doing that kind of thing is awesome. You get to direct period cars down the street. Years ago you’d have to go to tremendous expensive to change all the street signed and changing all the stop lights. Luckily, we had a very good visual effects department. Even on a series like this, you have limitations. The mood of that is so classic. The lone figure getting out of his car and walking into a bar. Those kind of things can easily get cut because they don’t necessarily move the story forward. It’s such a moody piece that I’m glad that Patty left it in there.
I’m glad you said that was one of your favorite shots because it’s so striking. My favorite shot has to be of the phone conversation that you mentioned between Fauna and Corinna.
The camera is just inching towards the back of Connie’s head, and I found myself quite literally on the edge of my seat since the story is taking such a crazy turn.
Yeah I love that part too.
I’m fascinated that you guys got to shoot in the actual Sowden House. What was that experience like for you shooting in that space? I’ve only seen pictures, but it feels utterly hypnotic yet very strange
I would have to agree with you. I don’t know how anyone lives there. They’ve done a great job modernizing it. The history is a little off putting. It’s a very strange shape but very mesmerizing. It’s very difficult to photograph and capture it and very difficult to light well because it’s essentially long and narrow shape. It has these weed triangular shapes on top. There’s no place to hide. Patty wanted to see the entire length of the house in one shot even though it’s cut with Fauna’s phone call. That’s all one camera move from the woman putting down the phone to the medium shot of Hodel. Patty’s instincts to capture all the feelings you mentioned was to shoot it on a oner and see the whole place and see all the bizarre people walking through it. For me, it was about getting out of the way and letting the house show itself and provide enough mood and illumination to see details. I wanted to give you an impression of it. It showed itself off.
I Am the Night is streaming now.