The Cinematography of Counterpart: Luc Montpellier Interview
Counterpart is one of the newest shows on the STARZ network. It premiered back in January to much critical and audience acclaim. Counterpart is a dark sci fi show in the familiar Cold War setting of Berlin. It stars J.K. Simmons as Howard Silk, a paper pusher at a UN agency. His clearance is so low that he doesn’t actually know what his branch does. Some events transpire that force his superiors to bring him up to speed on what they actually do. We recently interviewed the series cinematographer Luc Montpellier about what it takes to pull off a show of this nature and the changes in consumer demand.
When do you and the director come together on establishing how the show should be shot?
The first step as a cinematographer is that a the director wor producer has seen my work or an agent will submit my work. It’s industry standard that i’ll read the script and if i really like it, that’s the first step. You spend so many hours prepping and designing these things, tit really needs to speak to me. It’s not doing anyone a service if I decide to do a film or tv show and I’m just not that into it. Once that happens, a lot of the initial planning is done on my first call with the director or producers. I’ll give my take on a project and the director will either dig it or they won’t.
The best directors use the entire creative team as a conduit for ideas. I compare it to a traffic cop situation where you still have the vision but you’re managing the road and still able to direct certain things. So that initial interview is very fundamental to me. Afterwards I spend my prep time dissecting the script and asking the director lots of questions. Because I focus solely on the visual tools, I’m very much inspired by the script. I use a lot of music terminology, it’s very much like a jazz band. You’;ve got the main track that you’re playing which is the script, and everyone brings their strengths. Like musicians, we’ll have solos sometimes and insert our own instruments, but then you’ll bring it together so it can become something more intense.
Consumer are more educated about how a camera is used to tell a story. How does that affect your work?
That’s a very good question.When your working on television or a film, there a bit of history with the audience. There’s so much more content now than what’s available at the theater or traditional network television. That the beautiful thing about what these services are doing. They’re playing in the playground of feature films. People running these places understand that the consumers are demanding higher quality products because there’s so much to watch. Its’called the golden age of television these days. The competition is so high that it’s forcing studios to do cinema quality work on the small screen. So the language you’d reserve for film is making it’s way to television. For example, Game of Thrones is on the same playing field of any big budget film in every way. From acting, writing, budget, and directing. That’s a good thing because network television in the classical sense can be a bit dumbed down due to censorship. But premium channels and streaming services aren’t limited. All these factors create an educated audience.
Counterpart has you doing quite a bit. Because of the nature of the show, I know there’s a lot of stunt and body doubles combined with scene splicing. Could you explain what goes into filming a show of this nature?
The challenge of Counterpart is that’s a cable show that could have easily been on the big screen. It was originally pitched as a feature length film. Now we’ve adapted it to a ten episode series. The concept of the show demands that we produce it like any other big budget movie. For example, you have all these scenes where J.K. is interacting with another version of himself in the same scene. Those were probably some of the most difficult shots, not only for J.K. but to photograph as well. There was a lot of technology involved in capturing this seamless scene of them in an apartment. And our job is to make it feel like its two actors acting against each other where all along its the same actor playing two different roles. So its amazing to see the episodes on air now and remember ow difficult it was to put those scenes together.
There’s no tricks or issues with the shots. We use motion control rigs which is a camera on a crane that’s capable of repeating exact moves to the millimeter. There’s also a technodolly. J.K. would basically get into Howard from one world and perform the scene from one side against a stand in and then we’d do a digitally repeated camera move so we can get his performance from the other side. So just watching the show and seen how amazing J.K.’s performance is in the situation is an awesome feat even from the point of view of someone who was just executing the same shots. I’m very sensitive to how my work can be a barrier for an actor , and this was the perfect storm for everything to potentially go wrong. I sometimes felt bad for how much we were throwing at him but there was no other way to do it. It was a bit of a shaky start due to learning curve but we got better as production went on.
Before you know what the show is about, you’re presented with a dark sci fi almost sterile feel. The audience knows that films about World War 2 seem to always have the same filter or color palette. How is that look achieved?
It’s a careful orchestration of set design, costume, hair, and makeup. All these departments work closely together to get that feel you’re describing. All of this came from the mind of Justin Marks, the creator. Basically when we arrived on set, he handed everyone an “agency handbook.: Basically a handbook he created the year before explaining how the agency Howard works for operates. It set the tone for the world we’re creating. Very Eastern Bloc in some ways. The show is also based in Berlin which plays into the Cold War aspect between the two dimensions. Justin also didn’t want intense differences between the two worlds. Our world has more Earth tones but the other side is ore sterile for reasons you’;ll find out as the show progresses. Because of the museeriousnature of the show, certain level of darkness was appropriate. It’s supposed to draw you into the world. There’s no accidents every thing is designed and intentional. Even down to the East and West Germany parallels.