Ozark cinematographer Armando Salas has been practicing his craft for nearly twenty years on film and television. This year, the Television Academy has honored him with his first Emmy nomination for the Ozark episode, “Boss Fight.”
In our conversation, we talk about shooting “Boss Fight” as well as the final four episodes of the season, which came to a shocking conclusion in the finale’s last moments.
Awards Daily: The color palette of Ozark leans into darker shadings of blue and black. Can you talk about how you develop and maintain the look of the show?
Armando Salas: Because the subject matter is very dark, we embraced darkness on the show. This family living a double life, and the reality of what they’re doing is in the shadows and away from the scrutiny of the public. We very much embraced that as an aesthetic. We want that sense of dread, that feeling of knowing you are doing something wrong, but doing it anyway in every frame–both in the lighting and the composition, as well as the way the camera moves. There isn’t really a formula, exactly. But even when there’s a fleeting moment of joy, there’s always an undertone of dread and anxiety in every shot. This episode that I’m nominated for, “Boss Fight,” is partly in an underground cell in Mexico below the Navarro compound, and there’s also the casino, which is new this season. So, the look expanded dramatically in season three, but it was a natural and organic evolution within the story.
AD: The dungeon sequence in “Boss Fight” is shot much differently than the rest of the show. The lighting is more amber-toned, but still dark. It feels like a descent into Hell.
AS: The challenging and fun part of “Boss Fight” is that we were dealing with multiple geographical locations, and we’re also dealing with flashbacks. The script itself is very lyrical and not quite as linear as they usually are–there’s a lot of bouncing around. So I had to come up with an approach to the visuals that would both differentiate the location and the time period but would also hang together with the show as a whole. The color of the torture lights, for lack of a better term, in the cell is the same as the sodium lights that we use on our very blue signature night exteriors with a hint of these amber accents. So, it’s very much in the same color palette. It’s also the same amber that’s in the rough weed curtains in the hospital room where Marty is watching his father slowly die as a child. We were basically weeding that color in. You also see it in the stained glass windows in the Navarro conference room. As we were going from space to space, we wanted to make that amber light feel like a threat.
AD: With so much of the show taking place in the Ozark where the lighting is darker, I found the conclusion of the season even more shocking because the act of violence takes place in full light.
AS: In the finale, we staged it in that way because it was important for that very violent event to happen in broad daylight. Both for the suddenness and the surprise factor, but also to show that the extreme violence of that moment is just a natural–and even mundane–aspect of the Navarro organization. We basically controlled the sunlight on the actors. We had a soft, subdued light on them and allowed hard sun to trickle through the trees and in the background. You get both the sense of that hot sun but you also get the softer, moodier light on the actors themselves. We had to thread the needle there and keep the visual aspect of the show that the audience is accustomed to while also giving them something different. Then we have the camera moving ever so slowly closing in on the actors in an almost clinical way up until the chaos of the scene breaks out.
AD: I love the way that Nelson is barely in the frame during that final scene of the season. It makes the shock feel even more sudden. It’s as if he’s reaching out from beyond and snatching Helen’s life.
AS: That was actually the longest aspect of the set up. We blocked it out in pre-production with the ADs and PAs and used videotape trying to get the timing right and have a plan of attack. Because it’s all a practical effect. There’s just a little bit of CGI enhancement, but all the blood and gore on on Wendy and Marty is practical. So, it would be a very elaborate reset. So much had to be planned out. There was quite a bit of rehearsal with the actors. We had to slide in the stunt pad at the right moment and make sure everyone was exactly on the right mark. There were multiple rehearsals just to get the blocking right. There was no waiting for an extra beat for an actor to hit a mark.
The actors are so great. They make it look completely organic like they just happen to stroll into these positions very naturally. But it was refined and refined until the timing was just right so that the gun can go off at the right moment with the blood gun, which was just off camera. And so that the special effects person on a ladder could have just the right angle on Marty and Wendy. We wanted you to see Nelson leave frame and then just barely come back in frame with the gun drawn. Hopefully, it plays out in a very natural way, but it was kind of meticulously crafted. Mostly because once you bloody up the actors like that, it’s an hour plus reset before you can shoot it again. We got it all in just one take.
AD: I love your point about the shooting having to happen in broad daylight. I also thought it was great how you held the camera on Marty and Wendy for an extra beat or two to let the horror of what just happened register fully. That’s the moment they realize how deep the water they’ve been wading in is.
AS: They won, right? Because there was a constant power play between them and Helen the second half of the season to see who would come out on top. At the moment they win, they are simultaneously are experiencing the horror of the violence they just witnessed, and winning means that they’re just getting themselves deeper into this mess. They don’t get to enjoy the victory at all because it’s just going to get that much harder. That’s a testament to the writing and the performances. I’m incredibly fortunate to work on a show that’s this great. I feel a lot of responsibility to make sure that I’m elevating the material with the visuals as much as as possible and supporting the writing and the performances as best I can.
AD: You mentioned the casino earlier. The way the interiors are shot, it feels like the casino is a living organism, a character in its own right. How do you approach shooting inside that space?
AS: We spent a lot of time discussing the casino with Jason and David [Bomba], the production designer who was also nominated, both in terms of layout and how we can move through the space and use lighting effectively. It’s all been designed so that we can move through and connect all the different areas from the bar and restaurant, the lounge area, the casino floor, the money room, the hallway back to Marty’s office and back around. The idea is to be able to take in as much of that set as possible in any given scene. So, you can see all the different elements from the scale of the operation to the FBI auditing them and watching their every move. And there are the security cameras, which play a big part in multiple story points. The main thing was about flow and being able to move through the space elegantly and to maximize the set as much as possible.
AD: You shot the final four episodes of this season. Which means you really had to bring it home. From Ben’s confrontation with Helen, to Wendy’s leaving him with Nelson and her own breakdown, to the shocking violence of the finale. At times it was almost unbearable to watch. What was it like having that responsibility?
AS: The Ben and Wendy storyline was really crucial to the last four episodes. We shot all four together. We get to see Ben completely lose his ability to control himself and become a liability to the family and be labeled as “crazy.” Yet, he’s the voice of reason in all of this. He’s the one saying this is all incredibly wrong and that they all need to extricate themselves from the situation. So, you’re dreading and anxious about his actions that are putting them in danger, but you’re also at odds with yourself because he’s the only one that is on the correct side of things. Watching that incredibly heartbreaking relationship unravel between he and Wendy and culminate in episode nine where she realizes that she has no way of controlling Ben, and no way of keeping him and her family safe simultaneously, and decides to sacrifice him to protect the rest of them.
That moment in the gas station when she makes the decision to give Ben up without any dialogue was an incredible scene to shoot because of the way it was all laid out by our director Alik Sakharov and Laura’s performance. It was just incredibly powerful. Then Wendy and Ben’s last scene together at the roadside diner is just heartbreaking. Even if you’re a step behind, once you realize what’s happened, the weight of those scenes I think still come back on top of you as a viewer. The beginning of episode ten is really like a reset. Are they throwing in the towel or are they all in? And again, because the writing and the performances are so good, you’re not convinced how it’s going to go. I think that’s why the finale is so effective.
AD: I thought Wendy’s breakdown was all the more powerful because of its mundane setting. Here she is going on a vodka binge in a parking lot outside of a super store with all the relative normalcy of shoppers picking up groceries, trash bags, and paper towels. Can you talk about shooting those scenes in such a basic location?
AS: I can’t speak for the writers, but the interpretation that we had while shooting it was that the mundane drone of life that was going on before you will continue after you. So, you can wallow here in self pity or you can pick yourself up and start over again, but the world isn’t slowing down for you. We tried to create that feeling visually when Wendy is having the breakdown after allowing her brother to be killed, and she pulls the car over to the side of the road. The camera closes in on her, but you can still see the lights of the highway and cars whizzing right by her. It’s like you can you can stop here and have a breakdown, you can take a pause, but nothing else is going to wait for you. Helen is still planning. The Byrde operation is still going. You have to decide whether you’re giving up or moving forward.
AD: There’s a resigned sort of beauty in the way Ben is shot when he sees Nelson arrive. What was the idea behind that set up and framing?
AS: Once you see Nelson, you know how this plays out. There is no more ambiguity about what is about to happen. At that point, we approached it as shooting it like a Western. Ben on one side and Nelson on the other side and Ben’s look as Nelson’s approaching–we never got closer than a full shot. Then we cut back to Wendy in the car driving away as fast as she can, calling Marty, and breaking down. The pain in Laura’s performance is much more powerful than any act of kidnapping or violence or anything else that we could have shown you in that moment. So, it was kind of this classic center-punch Western approach of these two forces with the moral implications and the weight of what Wendy just agreed to.
AD: You earned your first Emmy nomination this year for your work on Ozark. Where were you when you found out?
AS: I was grocery shopping early morning with my pandemic approach to grocery shopping–which is to get a bunch of stuff all at once. My agent called me, and I thought he was messing with me. When I saw the list of nominees, it was even more unbelievable. Everyone in this category are just incredible, and the shows are out of this world. Seeing my name alongside the cinematographers in this group was incredibly humbling. I know everybody says it, but it’s definitely true– the biggest prize is just being included on that list. It’s hard to describe, but it’s wonderful to be recognized with that small group of cinematographers.
AD: Probably the best pandemic shopping experience ever, I assume.
AS: [Laughs] It really threw off my shopping game. I was pretty distracted going down the aisles. [Laughs]
AD: This next season of Ozark will be the last. What does it feel like knowing this ride is coming to an end?
AS: You know, I don’t really think that far in advance. [Laughs] But as far as being a part of it, with or without the recognition of the show and the ratings, it’s been such a rewarding experience to be on something where you’re not only surrounded by a phenomenal cast and really strong writing, but you feel like your contribution is honored and respected, and everyone is a family and incredibly respectful and loving. It’s just a nice place to go to work. Aside from from the recognition, I feel equally satisfied just being a part of the show. The recognition is fun after the fact. While you’re making the show with all the material that’s out there and all of the competition for eyeballs, you really don’t know if anyone’s going to see what what you do. But when you’re on something that’s solid, you still have a sense of satisfaction, and that’s a wonderful feeling because you feel like you’re part of something special.