There’s something comfortably distancing about history. Grainy black and white footage can look impossibly foreign, and even once something’s in color, the more limited options older film stocks worked with to recreate real life (just, you know, maybe without much cyan in it) have this kind of patina to them in comparison to digital color. It is easy for a modern audience to use the look of something as an emotional off-ramp — this thing looks different from how the world is now, so it doesn’t apply to us. But “Gaslit,” Starz’s look into the Watergate scandal (adapted from the first season of the “Slow Burn” podcast), doesn’t want to provide viewers with any escape from how the hubris, incompetence, and immorality of men in power ripple outwards. This extends to the show’s visuals, which restore immediacy to an event that’s now considered settled history.
“We wanted it to feel like what you thought the ’70s felt like, but in a way that was modern,” cinematographer Larkin Seiple told IndieWire. “We want it to have like a [’70s] flourish, but we didn’t want it to be nostalgic, like there’s a grimace to it in a way.” Indeed, the show opens with a dramatic harshness that fans of executive producer Sam Esmail’s “Mr. Robot” should feel right at home with: a mustachioed Shea Whigham as G. Gordon Liddy, shrouded almost completely in darkness except for an open flame licking hungrily at his extended palm, directly addressing the camera with near-psychotic zealotry.
The color balance Seiple and series director Matt Ross wanted to achieve — avoiding the look of an “All the President’s Men” without tipping into pallid Fincher thriller territory or the intensely digital blue/orange combinations of a “Transformers” — translates to a cool crispness for the Washington world of Martha Mitchell(Julia Roberts). (Even with the period-appropriate cars, clothes, and hair.) But it’s accentuated in the other choices Seiple made for shooting, giving particular characters their own distinctive feels when they’re in control of a scene.
Hilary Bronwyn Gayle / Starz
“We used about six different sets of lenses throughout the story,” Seiple said. “Martha had her own set of lenses. We used a mix of Canon K-35s and Speed Panchros, with glass from the 1970s. When you start to open the lens up, they get slightly softer. But then for John Dean (Dan Stevens) or the more villainous characters like Liddy, we used what are called Super Speeds, which are more modern glass that has a bit more bite and contrast and it’s a little harsher on the actors.” It’s especially harsh when Seiple gets in close, as he does often when government cronies on every side of the Watergate break-in snap and snipe at each other, desperately fighting to save face or their own skins — which look grossly florid in the eye of Seiple’s camera.
The other choice the series made to hew slightly closer to its time period was in avoiding green screen wherever possible. “All the sets are done practically. So like when you look at the Martha’s penthouse outside the windows, we went to the actual Watergate facility and we shot plates of the Potomac River and the skyline and then we made a giant backdrop of that,” Seiple said. “We basically printed them onto these giant drop cloth material that is actually somewhat new that allows you to light it in a very natural way.”
The natural look of the series is in more impressive in light of how “Gaslit” ended up shooting. “We initially were going to do like a single-camera approach,” Seiple said. “But the actors are really, really strong and really funny, and they kept changing it up between takes. They kept finding things and exploring [things, so we] started doing two cameras, you know, and by the end of this third week, we were at we were shooting three cameras at a time because we didn’t want to lose any performance.”
Hilary Bronwyn Gayle / Starz
Switching to a more multi-cam approach required Seiple and Ross to change up blocking in individual scenes in ways that ended up proving interesting for both actors and camera operators. “[Camera setups were] like a camera on top of a camera and then someone’s underneath it. Or we’re shooting in the middle of a circle. We have three cameras, all sticking out, pointing at different actors.”
Seiple said he had different cameras follow different actors across a scene and then trade-off at key moments, but because the series is largely centered on interiors which were all practically built, they had the freedom to get very creative in how they were using the spaces built by production designer Daniel Novotny and his team. “We spent a lot of time figuring out how to let the performance be the primary choice for those [interior dialogue] scenes,” Seiple said.
It was a mission the actors responded to as well, and their movement and sharpness with their eyes did a lot to guide Seiple’s camera — and keep morale up among the crew, too. Whigham would sometimes get deep into character as Liddy and improvise, and he developed a habit of saying “Stay with me” as he attempted to get a scene back on track. “And he would kind of put his hands in like a rewind motion and then we’d start the scene again,” said Seiple. “He kept saying it’s so much that everyone had mugs at the end of the show that said, ‘Stay with me,’ with his mustache on them.”