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This Is Not ‘Groundhog Day’: Creating the Look and Visual Language of ‘Russian Doll’

Leslye Headland and DP Chris Teague take IndieWire inside how they brought "Alice in Wonderland" into a realistic East Village setting.

Netflix

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There were inherent challenges to shooting “Russian Doll.” For starters, the Netflix show had a limited budget, with mostly location shooting, and allowed for only five days of production per episode. It had to deal with “Groundhog Day” -like repetitions and develop a visual language of how it would create a cohesive style across different directors and metaphysical dimensions.

It was also a show that was very much grounded in a real place, New York City’s East Village, but that called for a unique, often nighttime, stylized look in an environment where the production had very little control. To shoot the series, co-creator and showrunner Leslye Headland – who directed half of the episodes, including the pilot – turned to a New York indie stalwart, cinematographer Chris Teague. IndieWire recently caught up with Teague and Headland (a guest on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast) to talk about capturing the look of “Russian Doll.”

A Feature Film Model

Russian Doll

“Russian Doll”

Netflix

Headland: I think a lot of it is being clear from the outset, which includes a look book for me, which my designer, who is also my sister [Inga Brege] creates. So that I can be very clear with all department heads across the board. I break it into four sections [tone, world, costume, cinematography]… where I talk a little bit about how I’m planning on shooting things. This is really good for the DP, so we’re not sitting there endless shot listing.

Teague: Oftentimes in TV there’s so many different creative contributors. Like I just did “GLOW,” where almost every episode was a different director and they just come in and do their episode and then they move on. And you have a showrunner and it was much more segmented in a classic TV format, with this it’s Leslye who’s directing a bunch of the episodes, on set every day, writing a bunch of the episodes and it’s [co-creator, star, season finale director] Natasha [Lyonne] in everything.

Headland: I take it as a compliment [that it’s hard to tell who directed which episode]. I have always said that if you notice it’s me directing then I’ve failed. I have the utmost respect for directors who want to put their own spin on things… You should feel like you are in a world where these characters exist, you should not be thinking ‘someone directed this.’

And so, to me, the most important thing about that first block [the first three episodes, all directed by Headland, were shot simultaneously in one block] was to create literally an ecosystem, not just on-screen, but off-screen as well, so it felt like this is the pace we are moving at, this is what the show looks like, this is how we deal with these type of scenes – these scenes that deal with these characters, we’re going to shoot them this way.

Teague: And so it’s great because you have this more concentrated creative dialogue that just goes further because we’re all there for the location scouts. We’re all there for the production meetings and the content meetings and everything. So, it’s easier to be all on the same page. It’s more analogous to working on a feature film, where you just got your director and they’ve got their concept for the movie and you’re latching onto that and building around that. That was a cool aspect of the collaboration.

Headland: At one point Chris and I stopped talking about what the shots were going to be. He just knew. By Episode 7 I would just block the scene and I would just go to video village and sit down, work on the other stuff, and then I’d look up and be like, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I wanted,” because he just knew based on how I blocked everyone; he knew what I was going to want to be looking at.

Loops and Camera: This Is Not “Groundhog Day”

Editor’s Note: In the “Russian Doll” when the Nadia [Lyonne] comes back to life – always returning to her 36th birthday party at her friend Maxine’s loft, in the bathroom staring at herself in the mirror – the world has changed, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically. In pre-production and production these changes were referred to as “loops,” and to make sure everyone was on the same page of how exactly things changed, each was labelled “Loop A,” “Loop B,” and so on.

Teague: There were days, entire days, that we were shooting Nadia’s resets in that bathroom and you get towards the end of the day and your head starts spinning about, okay, where did she die? Where is she coming from? Where’s she going next and what does that mean about where we put the camera?

Leslye had a mind for all that conceptual stuff. I remember somebody made a joke – we were talking about the loops and everybody understanding the loops and how it informed production design props, look and everything – and somebody made a joke about quantum mechanics and she very seriously said something like, “Well, actually, quantum mechanics is relevant to what we’re talking about, but I can’t really get into it.” Something like that where it’s like, all right, well, maybe when this is all over we’ll sit down and talk about that. But you have the sense that it was all worked out in her brain.

Headland: We had a loop meeting, we went through each loop and what happens. A through D, all the animals are going to disappear. D through H, these things are going to happen… We knew production design-wise, we wanted things to start disappearing in a particular loop.

"Russian Doll" – Maxine's loft

“Russian Doll” – Maxine’s loft

Screenshot

Teague: I think there’s a temptation when you have a structure like this to make use of every element in your palette, or your toolbox, to manipulate or underline what’s happening over the course of the story. And that was something I thought about a lot in terms of the lighting. Should we have the lighting evolve over the course of the narrative? And I ultimately decided not to. There were other elements like the things disappearing in the loft that would inform how the lighting would change, but it didn’t feel appropriate to drastically changed the quality or color of light in that space.

Teague: And what’s exciting about it is you have so much repetition. She’s walking out of that bathroom and going into the kitchen every single time, and there’s a lot of different ways to shoot that. I thought in “Groundhog Day” – which we looked at a lot, obviously it’s a big reference – they would repeat camera movement. They would do a lot of very similar camera moves with adjustments related to what was happening in the plot. We decided against that.

Headland: Unlike “Groundhog Day,” just from a filmmaking standpoint, when we knew we were in another episode we would just cross the line and start covering it from another [direction]. We didn’t want you to have the same feeling every single time you were in Maxine’s kitchen, every single time you were in Alan’s apartment. We did want you to feel like these places are big, they are different, they are livable and the characters in them aren’t just NPCs (non-playable characters in video games) that don’t have any sentience unless the lead character interacts with them. They can actually do their own stuff, it’s just like we’re just going to check in with them at different moments.

"Russian Doll"

“Russian Doll”

screenshot

Teague: What felt more important is to anchor the style in subjectivity, in Nadia’s experience of what’s happening. It’s an investigation. It’s just like peeling back of layers or going down all these different roads, these paths, and what is her state at each moment of that.

We’re so rooted in her journey, her arc, her goals, that we wanted to have her drive the camera. And so that was the thing that dictated what we did and how we moved the camera. It wasn’t so much like an Episode 1 to Episode 8 progression, as it was a scene by theme analysis. I’m hesitant about trying to do grand overarching conceptual visual approaches. I do think that that makes sense in a very broad way, but, I think it’s more important to adhere to what’s happening with the character in the moment in the scene. And hopefully that you can find a way to express that in a way that feels consistent with some grand bigger design.

We got halfway there in our prep and our discussions about how the show was in the look and feel, and then you get into the real nitty gritty of actually shooting that scene and something new comes up, or you get inspired by what you’re seeing, or what Natasha does in a rehearsal. We had an amazing Steadicam operator (Kyle Wullschleger), so we always had that camera movement at our disposal, if that made sense we knew we could take advantage of that. We didn’t necessarily know from the prep stage how it was going to move, what we knew was how it needed to feel.

The Color of the East Village at Night

Russian Doll

“Russian Doll”

Netflix

Headland: Maxine’s Loft space is that “Alice in Wonderland” journey that Nadia’s going through. It was our one build [sound stage set], and so we had the ability to design that exactly how we wanted it… [We could] build the look of the show within that space and knowing what that space was going to look like. I knew that we needed to bring that out into the real world and that some of that is already there.

Teague: The great thing about that neighborhood [East Village] is it is still alive. It feels like in terms of the color palette, you can get away with anything.

Headland: One of the things I talked about in the look book with Chris was using neon lighting and trying to keep the nighttime scenes still dark. That was one of my main concerns, was I knew we were going to be shooting at night a lot, but it is, I guess for a lack of better term, a comedy, so it couldn’t be high key lighting because I wanted to keep a sense of danger and dread there. It was really important to say ahead of time I want to utilize shadows, I want to use smoke, I want to utilize neon, and then I would use cinematic references like fluorescents from “Zodiac” and natural lighting as often as we could.

Teague: What I did is, even though we took all these images from a lot of dark films, like “Fight Club,” we looked at a lot of Robby Müller shot films, “Repo Man,” “Paris, Texas,” as references. There was a lot of color in them, and a lot of darkness in them, where the color has a richness to it, but it also feels natural and not being afraid to use a huge variety of colors within the same frame. The path to that look, [that] I’ve always adhered to is to use a complementary colors in the same frame at the same time. Let’s create a balance that way. The use of multiple different saturated colors in the same frame, or the same scene, it was meant to underline the chaos or discord of this character journey and of the world, this version of New York City that’s just wild, unpredictable and chaotic.

It was really fun to take what’s already there and then just “Russian Doll”-it by adding a few elements. We weren’t shutting streets down or anything – we did a few stunts where we had to shut things down temporarily – but mostly it’s working with what you got and then you’re asking your police escort if they’re okay to unplug some of the streetlights. We were hiding things in doorways, throwing color out in the world. We were putting cyan colored lights up on lifts that were raking the whole street.

Tomkins Square Park

Natasha Lyonne and Oatmeal, "Russian Doll"

Natasha Lyonne and Oatmeal, “Russian Doll”

Courtesy of Netflix

Teague: One place that was the most challenging was Tompkins Square Park because it has one color; it’s all this sodium vapor lights. We ended up shooting it differently than I’d ever done before. We changed the color temperature of the camera just to change the entire look of the sodium vapor lights and make it feel more true to life. Sometimes with digital cameras certain specific pathways to colors can get really weird. With Tompkins making it less monochromatic and bringing our own color into — it was a green, blue tone that we bought into the park — unified it in the world.

We shot on a RED camera [Weapon Helium] and did tests under a street lights. We shot them with normal color settings, which would be like 3200 color temperature, like your normal tungsten lights. When we looked at those, they looked like super yellow-green, like pea green almost, and just really unflattering and not at all what it feels like to me when I’m out on the street. We switched the camera over to 5600, which is the daylight setting. Which is not typically used at night, but it’s also the native color of that camera’s sensor.

The colors got warmer, redder, and then it’s still not the most flattering light to put on an actor’s face. So what we would end up doing is taking that light away from the foreground of our shots. Either by turning the lights off or flagging them and then adding our own lights that basically matched, but it looked better. So they were warmer but not an exact match for that real industrial tone of the sodium vapor.

Flash Back: A Return to Older Lenses

"Russian Doll" flashback to Nadia's childhood in episode 7

“Russian Doll” flashback to Nadia’s childhood in episode 7

Screenshot

Teague: “Russian Doll” was the first show that I’ve done with modern lenses, we shot with the Leica Summilux lenses, which are very clean looking. They’re not clinical by any means, but they are very modern, clean and sharp. And so for the flashback [in Episode 7], I went back to something I’ve worked with a lot before, which is vintage lenses, and we shot in Super Baltars, which are just super soft and really unique looking, that helped enhance the dreamlike effect. And then we had to soften that additionally with a couple of softening filter in the front of the lenses, then we flared the lens whenever we could. That built a base look that was completely different than what we had before. And then we work with it also in the color correct, to push it even further.

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