‘Mrs. Maisel’ Meets ‘Goodfellas’: How Steadicams and Dance Moves Bring Dialogue to Life

These four exclusive scenes demonstrate how the Amazon comedy demands a lot of innovation and a little mind reading.
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”
Nicole Rivelli

With “Gilmore Girls,” creators Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino defined their show with dialogue that exhibited a distinct cadence and whip-smart wit. Using The CW show’s extremely limited resources, the duo put what little time they had into long walk-and-talk master shots in which the scene’s rhythm stemmed from pacing the performances.

“’Gilmore Girls’ was like the greatest gig in the entire world,” said Sherman-Palladino when she and Palladino were recent guests on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. “We were sort of ran crazy over the Warner Bros. lot. We were really left alone and we got to really sort of hone in and develop our style of storytelling and rhythm, but we never had a dime.”

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With “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the team was determined to only make the show if they had the resources to create a world in which the essence of their dialogue could be fully translated into visuals. “We just never had the opportunity to take it further, and part of the reason I wanted to do something period and something in this genre is we wanted a chance to push out,” said Sherman-Palladino. “We wanted to do something very external and build a world. Something that was very colorful and vibrant, and had all the bells and whistles.”

When an initial proposition had the show shooting in Los Angeles with only a few days’ production in New York, the creators said they would walk. Ultimately, Amazon ponied up, affording the production top-notch collaborators who would enable their vision and allow them the ability to experiment as they learned how to translate their words into visuals.

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”
Behind the scenes of shooting “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” Season 2Nicole Rivelli

Series cinematographer M. David Mullen told IndieWire that the  scripts don’t often indicate camera movement, but he instinctively feels the flow of a long, rhythmic single take in their writing. “The camerawork never feels unmotivated,” said Mullen. “It’s generally following the action, but in a more less a-to-b kind of way. It often spins around, catches something, backs up again and spins around again. So it’s more like a dancing movement. But I think it fits tonally with the scenes.”

That makes sense from Sherman-Palladino, a former dancer (“I direct like a dancer,” she said) and Mullen knows how to light a scene to accommodate a 10-page moving camera shot. “A lot of DPs don’t want to do that,” she said. “They want to put you in a corner and so everything’s like a Madonna and there’s slats of light coming through it. We don’t do that shit, so [with David it’s], ‘How do you make it look beautiful while they’re walking down the street, then walking to a club, then going up on stage?’”

Mullen knows he can’t allow the show’s stylized lighting  be a roadblock; he enables elaborate, 360-degree camera movements by anticipating them. “I try not to say no to anything, but to just sit back and figure it out,” he said.

Easier said than done. Mullen is limited in how many and what kinds of lights he can use; there’s also a finite number of options of where he can hang lights out of view of the swirling camera. Often, the most complicated part of his job is finding the exact speed and rhythm of movement Amy and Dan have in their heads.

Alex Borstein, Amy Sherman-Palladino. Alex Borstein, winner of the awards for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series for "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" and outstanding character voice-over performance for "Family Guy", left, and Amy Sherman-Palladino, winner of the awards for outstanding writing for a comedy series for "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" and outstanding directing for a comedy series for "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel", at the 70th Primetime Emmy Awards, at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles70th Primetime Emmy Awards - Entry Lounge and Winners Walk, Los Angeles, USA - 17 Sep 2018
Alex Borstein, Amy Sherman-Palladino, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”Arnold Turner/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

“They have something in their minds they want done a certain way, and then I have to figure out what tool can achieve that,” Mullen said. “And to do that, I have to talk to [steadicam operator] Jim McConkey and [key grip] Charlie Sherron, but also Jim’s brother Larry.”

While they aren’t household names, Larry and Jim McConkey are legends in the world of steadicam operators; you know Larry’s work in “Goodfellas,” and in Brian De Palma’s films. Like Mullen, they’d rather find a solution — often by tinkering in Larry’s garage — rather than restrict the creators’ vision.

“[Jim] McConkey is great,” said Sherman-Palladino. “It seems like a macho kind of like, ‘I’ve got a big machine strapped on me,’ kind of thing, but, what [steadicam] really is, is it’s music. It is an instrument, and a great steadicam operator has music in them and they feel the music. McConkey has all sorts of weird sounds that he makes, you know the breathing out.” At this, Palladino mimicked the yogic sound of McConkey’s rhythmic breathing, almost like an actor warming up. “It only works with the sound,” she said.

A perfect example of the Maisel team’s performance-like collaboration is the opening shot of Season 2. Here’s a split screen — the actual shot, and behind-the-scenes footage — of the elaborate choreography.

1. The S2 Opening Oner

“Amy wanted the camera to sort of ping-pong with Midge on her rolling chair, and she was worried that the steadicam wasn’t going to be able to keep up with her,” said Mullen. “Basically, the speed of a human being moving their arms as fast as they can.”

A shot that demanded going faster than a human operator would require a cable-cam system, which would mean cutting the ceiling off the set and recreating in post-production VFX. Mullen didn’t want that; he was also concerned that it would lack the preciseness of his A-list operator. “I kind of really trust a person to do that more than I do a machine,” he said.

Mullen didn’t know if their solution would find the speed the creators wanted until rehearsal, which had professional dancers playing the other switchboard operators. “When we saw the rehearsal, we felt even more confident that we could keep up with Midge and her chair,” said Mullen. “The distance between one end of the console and the other end of the room was only like six feet.”

2. A Nighttime Dance in Paris

Helping translate the “Maisel” scripts isn’t always about breakneck speeds. A perfect example of this is Abe and Rose’s slow dance in front of the Notre Dame in Episode 2 of the second season. You can watch the clip below:

“If possible, [Amy] wanted to do it in one elegant move,” said Mullen. “She wanted it to feel like we’re looking through dancers who are out of focus, and we see Abe and Rose through these kind of blurring shapes. And as they join the dancers, we pull back and reveal that they’re people dancing on the Seine.”

Mullen realized this would be a shot that started with a shallow-focus telephoto lens and transition to a wide angle that would supply the depth of field to reveal the river and iconic setting. However, most zoom lens are not “fast” enough (i.e., work in low light) to shoot the night scene. “I have to shoot this in available light, pretty much,” said Mullen. “I have some lighting, but I’m balancing with the entire city of Paris in the background and the Notre Dame.”

Mullen then remembered using a Fujinon zoom on “Westworld,” that could shoot at a T2 stop. “It’s like the fastest, sharpest, zoom I’d ever used,” said Mullen. ”So I had to find one in Europe.”

3. The Catskills Wide Shot

In Season 2 episode 4, there’s an incredible wide shot of the Midge’s family moving into their Catskills summer home. Here, the creators deny themselves camera movement and it feels almost like an experiment of how sound and choreography can create their rhythm and sharpness. “

“You do it more, you direct more, you learn more,” said Palladino. “So, like this has been our film school because we didn’t go to film school or college, really.”

4. Editing: Susie Lands the Telethon

Dating back to “Gilmore Girls,” Palladino and Sherman-Palladino love their master shots. Sherman-Palladino, in particular, insists on actors who thrive on finding a scene’s internal rhythm and speed in rehearsal and translating that to a single moving shot. “We pay a lot of attention to the masters,” said Palladino. “We rehearse a lot for the master, and we always do the master first. The actors always know, if it works out really great we’re going to use a lot of the master — or even all of the master, and not do coverage at all.”

This opening scene to episode 9 of Season 2 is an incredible example of how the scenes fast-paced energy comes from a marriage of the dialogue and  beautifully executed cutting through time and space.

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