Over Quyen Tran’s fifteen plus years as a director of photography, she has taken on a variety of projects. From shorts and documentaries, to features and series, her versatility allows her to work seamlessly through different types of projects. At heart though, she is a socially conscious artist. In our interview, we discuss what it was like to shoot Netflix’s Unbelievable, what it means to be part of such a searing, topical series, and what that experience will mean for her work going forward.
Awards Daily: How did you come to Unbelievable?
Quyen Tran: I was on another job at the time for HBO and the previous year I had worked with Lisa Cholodenko, the director, on an Alan Ball project. We got along really well and we kept in touch, and so the following summer when Unbelievable came up, she gave me a call. She knew I was on another job and asked me to let her know when I was done with it. The only problem was I like to take time off between projects, and she told me I’d have to start on Monday. I was about to wrap on Saturday morning at 3AM. (Laughs). I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know, Lisa.’
She said, ‘I really would love for you to do it. I know it’s a big ask because you’d be going straight into another project.’ I said, ‘Well, let me read the script.’ So, I did and I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is phenomenal! How can I not do this project?’ I thanked Lisa and told her this is a truly incredible story. I couldn’t believe I had never heard the podcast or read about it. It’s devastating and yet, hopeful. It’s exactly the story that we need to hear. So, of course I said yes.
However, I already planned a trip to Yosemite with my family and my husband and my kids are going to kill me if I don’t go, because I can never go on family vacations – I’d already missed three that year because of other jobs. (Producers) Susannah Grant and Sarah Timberman and Lisa told me to go ahead take my trip and that I could start when I came back. While I was away, I actually hired my crew. I felt terrible, like I really need to get moving. I was losing a whole week of prep because these people are being so generous and allowing me to take my family vacation. I think because it was all women who had children and families, they were very understanding of the time that I was asking for.
AD: This series would have been powerful at any time, but it seems especially of the moment now. One of the biggest challenges female victims have is that of simply being believed. My wife and I were watching this together and yelling at the screen when the police were questioning her.
QT: I’m so glad hearing that from a man. What has surprised me about his story is that affects men maybe, even more. It helps men understand and sympathize with a woman. A woman can easily empathize – I mean, yes, there’s a small percentage of men who have been sexually assaulted and abused, I understand that 100%. But, you have no idea how many women reached out to me afterwards – my friends and my colleagues who said, ‘Thank you for your work on this because I was a victim of sexual abuse and this resonated with me.’ I was in tears whenever anyone would email me because I had no idea how many of my friends and colleagues have been assaulted – the numbers are staggering and it’s just so devastating.
AD: Unbelievable takes place in Washington State and in Colorado. However, it was shot entirely in California. How did you go about shooting the exteriors to mock the terrain of those two states?
QT: I was fortunate enough to have shot a show in the Pacific Northwest already. So, I was very familiar with what characteristics were in the topography, and the landscape, and the lighting. I tried to emulate that for this show. When we were location scouting I made sure that there were always conifers, or pine trees, and no palm trees in any shot. We were very dedicated to not shooting any palm trees or any succulents. There’s actually a street in Pasadena called Christmas Tree Lane that is lined with conifers and it was perfect. There’s a little biking sequence with Marie and I made sure I shot a low angle on her so I could have the trees passing by, and they’re all conifers. Little things like that on a subconscious level make you feel like you’re not in California. And then when we went on stage to shoot the interiors I tried to emulate that lighting in the architecture.
AD: When you speak of the lighting, I noticed a lot of cobalt blue-like shadings in both the exterior and interior scenes – particularly in the Washington sequences. I’m assuming that was intentional.
QT: Yes, I wanted to differentiate between what happened in Washington and then what happened in Colorado. In Washington, you see a lot more of those blue, cyan, cobalt hues, because the lighting in the Pacific Northwest tends to be a little more diffused because there’s a lot more precipitation and humidity in the air. I wanted to make sure that we could – without having (a title card) saying ‘Washington State’ every time – quickly differentiate where we were. Colorado has more golden hues, so it was very specific. I try to do everything in camera, and then in post with my colorist, we would augment those palettes. Washington was specifically very cool when Marie gets assaulted. It happens in the early morning light. I wanted to make sure it was a very blue, very cool light coming in before it turns to golden sunlight.
Also, the color palette that we designed, the blue represents the assault and the police interrogation. Even in the interiors where the the two officers are interrogating her – I say interrogating because they’re not really asking her questions, they’re assaulting her – Lisa and I really wanted it to feel like the police were attacking her as well, and that she was constantly under assault.
AD: I also thought in the exterior night sequences, you seemed to avoid over-lighting those scenes. I know there can be a tendency to want to brighten up night scenes to make it easier to see the actor’s faces, but it appeared to me that you went in a more natural direction. I’m thinking specifically when Marie meets with her foster father in front of his house.
QT: There were a couple of things happening there. I wanted to use sodium vapor as a means to express the socioeconomic status of a family or a location. Throughout the years, I find as LED lighting is replacing the street lights that used to be sodium vapor, It happens more quickly in the city and in affluent neighborhoods. Marie’s foster family is not affluent. So, I wanted to make sure that I augmented that lighting with sodium vapor. In Unbelievable sodium vapor represents an unsafe and somewhat dangerous area for her. Additionally, at the end of the pilot episode, I used sodium vapor to light her when she is contemplating jumping off of the bridge. Sodium vapor and water are a theme. I tried to be subtle about it.
For example, the flashbacks to the beach, which are unscripted, are shot in silhouette, and when she submerges herself, you don’t ever see her come up again. That’s similar to the end of the pilot where we we think that she might jump into the river. Originally, in the script it was a highway, but then we suggested the river and the idea that water would be a theme. I also thought that was more Pacific Northwest – with all the water up there and the bridges.
AD: Why did you decide to use water as a theme?
QT: When we were discussing the rape,Susannah, Lisa, and Sarah, and I, we all wanted it to feel as if it was from the victim’s perspective, because no story had really been told completely from the victim’s viewpoint. We didn’t want anything to appear salacious or gratuitous with the assault. So, nothing is ever shot from the perspective of the rapist – there’s never an over the shoulder perspective of her. We’re never looking at her except when we introduce the direct POV of her looking into the beach photograph and then we cut to a closeup of her. It was very difficult to find that timing because if it’s strictly POV, when we ever see her? That’s the camera being more subjective. It’s not until we see that slow push into the photograph of her at the beach, then we cut to a closeup of her and that triggers that disembodiment where she transports herself mentally to a happier time.
As originally scripted, it was supposed to be a sunset photo that she’s focusing on. As Lisa and I were discussing it and going through the script, we thought, “let’s say we shoot the sunset and then it becomes real.” Then it turned into let’s see if we can get the producers on board to go to the beach and shoot. We had a very tight schedule and we didn’t have time for the beach – Malibu is far. Then I thought let’s do it as camera test and then we can get this. We made sure that when we had Kaitlyn there at the beach we shot these other vignettes that we thought could maybe fill in – like a frame grab from the photo and then have that be animated and turn into real life. In the final edit, It didn’t turn exactly into what we envisioned, as far as that image becoming full-screen, but the whole idea of her disembodiment came out of the original script – which is brilliantly scripted. But it was just a sunset photo, and we took it one step further to make it like she’s at the beach.
AD: At the risk of asking a really stupid question, how hard was it to shoot the assault scene?
QT: First and foremost, I have to give major warm hugs to our actress, Kaitlyn Dever. To put yourself in such a vulnerable position and to be photographed while in that position is very grueling. I can’t even imagine…the things I was asking Kaitlyn to do. But along every step of the way she was like yes, 100%, I feel comfortable doing that. I have only respect for actors. I just want to make sure Kaitlyn gets all the attention and recognition for putting herself in that position. Secondly, I want to make sure that Susannah and Lisa and Sarah also receive recognition, because they made the set a very safe place. Lisa and I took Kaitlyn during pre-production and we sat her down in a room, and Lisa and I kind of acted out the scene. I told Kaitlyn exactly how we were designing the shoot. Lisa laid down on the couch, I pretended to be the camera, and we asked Kaitlyn, “are you going to be okay with this?” She said “whatever you guys need, whatever we can do to make it as authentic as possible.” It was a true collaboration.
AD: There’s a lot of interior shooting in Unbelievable, whether it’s apartment rooms, houses, or offices. A lot of the cinematography that wins awards tends to be of the wide-scope vista variety. Can you talk about the challenge of shooting interiors vs. exteriors on a project?
QT: I think as a cinematographer It’s very easy to make a pretty shot of the landscape, of a sunset, or a desert, because it’s all there – especially if you have an anamorphic lens.The goal of Unbelievable was not to make it as beautiful as possible. We didn’t need the wide vistas to tell the story, because it’s been a very intimate story. What the camera work needed was empathy. For me, as a director of photography, I tend to really delve deep into the story – that’s my priority. Yes, It’s great to make pretty pictures along the way, but first and foremost, it’s the story. We wanted to stay as true to that perspective as possible and make sure that we understood Marie’s story because without Marie’s story in the pilot, you won’t want to continue on and learn more about her. You have to really draw the viewer in during that pilot episode. If you fail to do that then it’s It’s not working. So, it’s easy to to create a pretty picture, but as a director of photography It’s It’s much more about trying to get the camera to empathize. The challenge is always making sure that you are telling the story but also making it visually interesting.
AD: One of my favorite scenes in the series is when Merritt Wever is driving to Kansas and sings “All Around The Kitchen.” It’s not a scene that moves the plot forward, but it tells you something about her character and personality.
QT: Lisa is so good with character. I love how she’s eating a (candy) bar in that scene. I just love the little character traits that come out in that scene. We actually shot it on a stage if you can believe it. All the interior car work is done through LED screens on a stage, projected. – because of the scheduling and because we didn’t have the landscape that we needed. I’m glad that people think that we found a real location to shoot that. The overhead drone shot of the car, that’s real. But all the interior car work is is done on stage. It’s just wonderful to see an actor take it to the next level like Merritt did.
AD: The acclaim that Unbelievable has received has to be really gratifying. Especially considering the subject matter.
QT: Also, because the message is so strong and people need to hear the story. I really wanted it to get out there. Just for my friends and my colleagues who reached out to me about having been assaulted and thanking me for staying true to the story – it’s so gratifying. To have the critical payment top of it, it’s just the cherry on top. I like to delve into the the darker subjects and topics. I’m drawn to stories that are interesting and have social impact. Right after Unbelievable I shot a documentary in Africa (Brave Girl Rising) about a a young woman and her education in a Somali refugee camp. I think the impact that Unbelievable had on me, because of the response – not just from the masses, but the personal response,s is that moving forward I want to try to do projects that have something to say socially, or politically, or both. In light of recent events, I think it’s more important than ever to try to find these kinds of projects.
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.