I consider Prime Video’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel to be one of the most visually striking shows ever made. Everything from the costumes and the production is period appropriate and gorgeously designed, but the cinematography should never be discounted. For Maisel‘s final season, Emmy winning director of photography M. David Mullen should be rewarded for how he showcases Midge’s talents as we watch her big break happen before our very eyes.
Mullen has been with the Amy Sherman-Palladino series since the first season, and he has set up swirling shots from day one. He has lensed every season premiere across all five seasons, so he has seen Midge step onto The Gaslight’s stage for the first time, watched her wander up in front of a crowd in Paris, and even showcased her talent in front of thousands of soldiers in an airline hangar. You have to remember that every space, every club is different.
“When we did the pilot, I looked at Inside Llewyn Davis, because that was set in The Gaslight,” he says. “They lit their scenes in two different ways. One was very harshly with PAR can side lights for a dramatic effect when he is playing his song in the opening, but they also lit him with a softbox over the stage when the trio is performing. It was very pretty when they had to build a curtain around the softbox to hide it to camera. I did Akeelah and the Bee, and there is someone constantly on stage for that film and deciding whether to soft light it or hard light it. I tended to opt for what was realistic which was stage lighting with a hard follow spot instead of a softbox effect. It would probably look very pretty on Maisel, because it wouldn’t feel like a club anymore if it felt like a soft lit stage.
When I did the pilot, Amy told me that there needed to be a follow spot since Midge was going to get off the stage and go from table to table and then go back on stage. It’s a small stage, so there had to be a follow spot operator in half the shots. I couldn’t hide that. That was just a Leko light that the art department dressed around it to obscure the modern aspects about it. And then it’s about how much I mix back lights into it. We’ve gone to so many clubs over the years and what it comes down to, for me, is whether that club has a follow spot or can I just light the stage. Not all comedy shows use spots. I also have to think about what colors I want to use. In the episode where Abe gets arrested with Lenny Bruce, that space had a lot of black, white, and brown, so I went with red lights all around him because the black and the red worked together visually. If there was another club in the same episode, I might do it in blue or green, so there was a different approach to every club. In real life, a follow spot on a stage has to be high enough that the shadow isn’t technically on the curtain–it should be on the floor which makes it a steep angle. It’s considered bas theater to see the shadow of the person on the curtain behind them.”
After Midge realizes that Gordon Ford isn’t simply going to put her on his show, there is a moment when she sees the microphone standing alone with no one behind it. We are, in that moment, realizing what Midge is about to do. Midge has to make her own break, and we are reminded how it all comes down between her hers and that mic stand. It’s a pivotal and exciting moment–one we have been waiting for for five seasons.
“Amy talked often about where the mic was place and its presence,” he says. “She choreographed all these moves and planned this shot where Midge gets off the stool, goes to Rose and Abe, comes back, sees the mic, drags Susie to the band area…and all the while we see the mic behind her head. The Gordon Ford Show was lit with tungsten Fresnel spots, because that’s what they would’ve used on television. It’s lit for the band area and the center position for the standup and the desk. There are so many areas where Gordon and Midge are on stools between the mic and desk area. Midge goes all over the place, so there are a dozen more places on that stage that you would normally have lighting for. Rather than hang a dozen more light on the grid and overdo the set, I switched the frontal key lights from a hard Fresnel to a soft LED. I used two, skinny, long, SkyPanel S120 to create a key light that covered from the band area to the desk. I still had to create a teaser, so it wouldn’t look flat-looking. That way Midge had the room to go all around the space. She could stop, look, and move without me having to worry about her going from one spot to the next spot. It creating a softer lighting effect.
When Amy designed this shot, my only question for her was when the mic was in the foreground, do you want to pull focus towards it. To do that, is a very dramatic statement. If the mic was in soft focus and you see Midge staring at it the whole time, that’s one choice. But to come around her, lose her focus and see the mic makes a big statement. Amy wanted to do that. That was a bit difficult for our focus puller, Anthony Capello, since it was all done on a Steadicam–there’s no marks. The Steadicam in one take might be 18 inches from the mic and the next take might be 25. It’s an eyeball as soon as the mic breaks frame Anthony is rolling focus to where it’s going to be and holding focus for a beat. It’s just a feeling that you have to work through when you rehearse it–he nailed it.”
As Midge delivers her earth-shaking set, something magical happens. Mullen swirls the camera around Midge again, but the lights lower, and we are instantly transported back to Midge on stage at her first comedy home, The Gaslight. The effect looks like it was done with visual effects trickery, but it’s done with lights and patience with the camera. It seems like a simple effect, but Mullen details that the timing was imperative to nail.
“That was a tricky series of cross-cues, because we’re constantly backlit,” Mullen says. “I didn’t want you to see the lights come up, so we’d have to queue up the PAR can before it was in the frame. Just as we see it, the one that was on frame goes off-frame goes out, so it was a sequence in a circle. We had to cut a hole in the back wall of the Gordon Ford set to put a scissor lift and a follow spot since there is no spot on his set. That was Jennifer Scarlata and the electric team and Jim McConkey on the Steadicam. I had to haze the set since The Gaslight is foggy but The Gordon Ford set isn’t. As more and more haze built up to the moment, it hazed earlier than it should be. You can’t magically haze a set–it takes hours for it to evening fog up a soundstage. We built it up all day long.”
I could’ve talked Mullen’s ear off about sequences in this final season: Abe and Rose running through a sea of cabs to try and get to the set of The Gordon Ford Show on time. Zelda’s wedding in episode five, “The Pirate Queen.” The darkness of the club in our last glimpse of Lenny Bruce on stage. The cinematographer did end with revealing that they were tasked with making Midge’s palatial home look even bigger to sell her success.
“It’s hard to tell, when you watch something, how big or small a space is,” he says. “At the end of the episode, older Midge is in her mansion eating dinner in the kitchen. We wanted to make that feel as big as possible, so I shot it on a wide angle lens–wider than we normally do. The camera was pushed up against the refrigerator in the room. Amy wanted a push in and there was no room to put in a dolly, so we put in a three or four foot slider on a tripod. That helped make it seem bigger.”
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is streaming now on Prime Video.