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Cinematographers and Directors: How a Cameraman’s Call Made ‘Better Call Saul’ Better
July 30, 2017  | By Alex Strachan

The look of a show, its very feel, is as much a signature of that show as the way it’s put together, the way the story is told.

Think of it: the sun-baked dryness of desert flats and dust-choked skies in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul (top); the dank dungeons and ice-crusted castle walls of Game of Thrones, now that winter has arrived; the bright, clean sheen and stylish look of conspicuous consumption in Ray Donovan, where old money rubs up against new in a milieu of lies and deceit in upper-crust Brentwood and Beverly Hills, Calif.

In TV, the cinematographer is called the director of photography — or “DP” for short, in behind-the-scenes lingo — and, unlike on the big screen, it can be an eight-month job for a single season of an hour-long drama like Ray Donovan or The Good Fight.

A panel of directors, convened by the Directors Guild of America this past weekend for the semi-annual meeting of the TV Critics Association, revealed some of the secrets that go into making a complex, ambitious drama, and perhaps one of the most surprising secrets is that the director and cinematographer work hand-in-hand to tell a show’s story, in a form of storytelling where “show, don’t tell” is still the primary goal.

Anthony Hemingway, the lead director on the Emmy Award winning limited series People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story; Michelle MacLaren, whose credits include Breaking Bad, Westworld and the upcoming HBO period drama The Deuce (right), about the early days of pornography in New York City, circa 1971; Daniel Sackheim, who cut his teeth directing episodes of NYPD Blue, The X-Files, and ER before turning to more contemporary dramas like The Leftovers, Better Call Saul and The Americans; and David Slade, who directed key episodes of American Gods (below) and Hannibal represent a myriad of different creative visions and artistic sensibilities, but they all agreed on one thing: 

On an ambitious TV drama, where time is always short, no matter what the budget is, if a director and his cinematographer are out-of-sync, the result can be a mess.

If they click, however, the result can be Game of Thrones — or Breaking Bad.

“I always assume the cinematographer is your partner,” MacLaren said. “You want to work very closely with them on both the look, the camera positions, on everything. If you’re doing a pilot, I like to come in with an idea of style and a tone and vision, and then with the cinematographer, I want to see what they bring to the table.

“They can have much different ideas. Together, you collaborate and create something that can evolve, or they help figure out how to achieve certain things that you want to do that you may not know how to execute.

“When you’re doing episodic, the cinematographer is the most consistent, creative person on that set, because he, or she, is there for the entire season. So the first thing I do when I’m a guest director on an episodic is go talk to the cinematographer, and get to know them. I get to understand how they like to work. I talk to them about the show, and the look of the show and the style. It doesn’t mean that you’re not bringing your own taste to it. You are, but there’s a really important collaboration there that you want to nurture. It can help you execute ideas and concepts.”

Sackheim directed Better Call Saul’s turning-point episode this past season, “Chicanery,” (top, right) in which Chuck McGill (Michael McKean) confronts his demons in a courtroom, and falls into an elaborate trap set by his brother Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk). Sackheim is known for his fluid directing style, which often involves long tracking shots interspersed with fast camera cuts. He’s used to working on the fly, but he quickly realized that Better Call Saul, with its frequent, claustrophobic courtroom confrontations, is an entirely different style. He was caught unprepared on the day, he admitted. Better Call Saul DP Marshall Adams pulled him aside. Sackheim called a halt in production, quickly scrambled his thoughts about how better to approach the scene, and came back to the table with a new idea and renewed energy and vigor. The result was one of the most memorable moments in the entire season, when Jimmy traps Chuck, and Chuck, a lifelong obsessive and micromanager, suddenly realizes he’s lost control, and falls apart at the seams.

“Sometimes, the cinematographer pushes you to do something you hadn’t imagined,” Sackheim said. “A lot of directors would say that by the time you get to day five of shooting, you’ve run out of all the ideas you planned — well, I do anyway. I hadn’t figured out how I was going to shoot that courtroom scene in Better Call Saul. I’m really glad (Adams) said what he did.

“(Cinematographers) are sort of the curator or guardian of the show. The cinematographer busted me on not having a cohesive plan, and he helped me to figure out a way to do it.”

Sackheim was unafraid to admit his failings on this one occasion, even to a room full of reporters. That’s how great art is made on the screen. A good scene became sublime, arguably the highlight scene of the Emmy-nominated Better Call Saul’s entire season, and that’s all that counts.

Television is a collaborative medium, Sackheim agreed. A good director can force his vision onto the cast and crew, and still come up with a solid hour of entertainment. Only by talking to each other, though —  acknowledging the other person’s experience and respecting their opinion — can everything click. 

Long before Better Call Saul was on the drawing board, or its precursor Breaking Bad for that matter, Sackheim won a directing Emmy for NYPD Blue (right), and was nominated for both Law & Order and House. He’s secure enough in his own abilities to admit when he’s wrong. And the director of photography is often best positioned to tell the director when something is amiss.

And when it works, the result can be Better Call Saul.

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