Awards Daily talks to cinematographer Julie Kirkwood about shooting the pilot of Showtime’s Yellowjackets and how they discussed the timelines within the thrilling first episode.
When cinematographer Julie Kirkwood shot the pilot of Showtime’s Yellowjackets, she had no idea that the “winter look” she developed with director and frequent collaborator Karyn Kusama (Destroyer) in that first episode would become so iconic and the subject of so much debate from fans. Who is pit girl? Who’s who behind the masks? What—or who—are they eating?
“When we shot the pilot, there were no scripts for the rest of the season,” says Kirkwood, “so when the show started airing after the pilot, I had no idea what was coming. I was watching it like everyone else as a fan. I kept waiting for winter to come back,” she laughs. “And now I’m waiting for Season 2. I hear that Season 2 does get into winter again.”
The “winter look” holds so much of the mystery of the series and is what most people debate about on Reddit threads, thanks in part to the obscuring and concealing that Kirkwood did as cinematographer.
“We couldn’t show the faces of anyone in the wilderness until Misty is revealed because I think at that point maybe Ashley and Bart knew who the individual people were in the individual costumes, but the only actor we had out at Mammoth was Samantha [Hanratty] who played Misty. We only had stunt women. We had to hide the identities, which Marie Schley did with her beautiful costumes, but we also had to hide the identity of pit girl, as she’s affectionately known.”
When Kirkwood initially read the script, she knew she wanted to be on the Yellowjackets team, especially coming from a horror background that includes The Monster and I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House.
“That [pilot] opening just grabs you right away and you want to know who these people are and what’s happening. Every now and then [while filming the pilot], I would get a little piece of information from the showrunners, like, ‘Hey, Julie! If it goes to series, Misty’s gonna break the black box!’ And I was like, ‘Oh my god!’ Those little pieces, those little hints that I got, I knew the show was gonna get picked up.”
Shooting ‘Pit Girl’
When it came to the location for the cold open, the Yellowjackets team thought about faking the wilderness on a filming ranch in Los Angeles and using synthetic snow, but they found they weren’t going to be able to get the scope they wanted.
“We couldn’t get epic wide shots and we really needed to show that these girls are in the middle of nowhere.”
So they shot on Mammoth Mountain, and unlike when Kusama and Kirkwood shot Destroyer and were forced to use fake snow, for Yellowjackets, there was five feet of snow on the ground at Mammoth. (Kirkwood remarks that production designer Cat Smith had to plan ahead and send up a team to dig a pit before the ground became frozen—wonder what THAT might be for!).
“Initially, this whole sequence was supposed to take place at night. The entire chase and everything, and we really had to map out the time that we had at Mammoth to shoot this. To shoot and light the entire sequence at night was going to be tough on our schedules and we wanted to have the time to really do it right because we knew we wanted the opening to be incredible.”
Then they started talking about the timeline and how this all might really go down.
“They would hunt her and catch her and then—what a horrible thing to have to talk about—it would take some time to string her up and let all the blood drip out of her. The idea being they would hunt her during the day, hang her up, and then they would have their feast at night. I’m not even sure how to phrase this!”
Weaving Timelines Together
Kirkwood says that there’s a version of this show that could be very dismal, but that was something they all wanted to avoid.
“[Showrunners] Bart [Nickerson] and Ashley [Lyle] and Showtime wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just this dark and depressing show about trauma. We wanted to have the lighter moments and obviously the lighter moments are also in the script from the beginning. We wanted to make sure it wasn’t desaturated and dark and gloomy. Karyn is a big fan of a saturated color palette, so that definitely became a big part of the look from the beginning.”
Kirkwood and Kusama were also mindful of how they depicted the violence against women.
“As a woman cinematographer in this industry, I get so many scripts that involve violence against women, rape and murder of women. I can guess why, but there was a period a few years ago where I got five or six in a row about rape and murder of women and I said to my agents, ‘I guess people write these scripts and think they need to have a woman on set?’ Most of those scripts were written by men. I got to a point where I told my agents, unless it’s something pretty incredible, it’s really hard to read these scripts over and over. Karyn and I are very mindful of what we’re putting on screen and how we’re showing it when it comes to violence against women. We knew some would certainly say seeing a woman’s bloody hair dragged through the snow is pretty graphic, and it is, but for it not to actually be a woman suffering on screen for a prolonged period of time and not seeing the graphic nature of it, that’s important to Karyn and me, to show that that does exist in the world, but to not make it terribly beautiful.”
Many shows with different timelines like ABC’s Lost use techniques to let audiences know when they’re watching, but Kirkwood and Kusama decided not to differentiate the past and the present through two distinct looks.
“Do we want people to know the instant they’re in a flashback that they’re in a flashback? In this one, we had talked from the beginning about weaving them together as if to say, the past is always with us. It’s always with these characters. We had so many actors in the pilot and we needed to make sure that the audience understood clearly and easily who was who in the past and present. It’s one of those things that you don’t want the audience to have to spend much time thinking about. As soon as you get into knowing who these characters are, you know whether you’re in the past or present very quickly. We didn’t want a really heavy-handed separation between the two of them; we just wanted to weave them together.”
Season 1 of Yellowjackets is available on Showtime.