Anyone who has ever watched Gilmore Girls – with its screwball comedy pace, its nods to Donna Reed – knows that producers Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino have a deep affection for the real and movie versions of the 1940s and 1950s. Which is why the pairs’ latest hit show, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, about an aspiring female comedian in 1950s New York City, feels like the show they were born to make.
The multiple award-winning Mrs. Maisel finds the Palladinos not just nodding to an era they love, but telling a heartfelt, funny, compelling story in it. But like any project set in a bygone era, it’s no small logistical feat to bring a period to life visually on screen. We spoke with the show’s two cinematographers – M. David Mullen ASC and Eric Moynier – about what goes into creating a period look.
Recreating the Past Requires Collaboration
Above all else, a cinematographer can’t create a period look without some help long before the camera shoots a single frame. “Every craft in the film world – from production design to costume to makeup to hair – works together to create what we can see on the screen,” says Moynier, who shot the second, third, sixth, and seventh episodes of Mrs. Maisel. “You’re basically creating a time machine.” That time machine was built with historical research and archival references to take us back to apartments, offices, clubs, and city streets of 1950s New York City.
Production and costume designers don’t create in a vacuum, because a key component of the job is making sure what they’re designing will look good on camera. “They talk to us, and ask, ‘What do you think about this color?’ and we chime in,” says Moynier. “We depend on each other’s decisions to enhance the look.” During pre-production, all that collaboration yields what amounts to the coordinated look of the show. “We had a lot of material that we pulled and created kind of a style board of the design aesthetic,” says Mullen, who shot the pilot, as well as the fourth, fifth, and final episodes of the first season.
Deciding How to Shoot the Past
Before shooting the pilot, Mullen wanted to not just know what 1950s New York City looked like in reality, but in the cinema and advertising of that time. “I did research into what color advertisement photography and movie photography was like at the time just to get a sense of what the ’50s look was in terms of filmmaking,” he says. “The question for me was, photographically, what would contribute to a ’50s feeling?”
Specifically, Mullen turned to films like How to Marry a Millionaire and Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind to especially answer a key question that period filmmaking requires asking: “Whenever you’re talking about period, you have to decide whether you want to emulate period photographic techniques of the time versus using a naturalistic modern style on a period setting,” says Mullen.
“That can even extend to how you shoot technically. I think everyone that does a period film has to decide which elements feel right for recreating that period. The zoom lens shot in a time before zoom lenses existed — does that throw you out of the period or not? There’s no right or wrong answer to that,” Mullen says.
Hiding the Present From the In-Frame Past
Production design can create hermetic and controlled period looks on set, but location shoots create very different challenges when it comes to hiding the present from the recreated past. The way the Palladinos like to shoot could make that especially tricky for Mullen and Moynier. “A lot of it is dictated by complex blocking, choreography, and camera movement,” says Mullen. “We move the camera quite a bit, even outside, which makes it hard to just hide every modern element by locking the frame down.” Moynier adds, “As cinematographers, we have to enable the storytelling to be told in almost 360 degrees.”
The Mrs. Maisel production team tackled its numerous New York City exterior shoots in a few ways. Practical solutions were one approach. In particular, the use of period-era trucks and buses to obscure modern elements in the environment was key. For example: “We had a shot outside Joel Maisel’s office at night in the pilot, where Joel jumps in the cab with Midge and the cab driver pulls out, and we pan 180 degrees with the cab as it drives past us. But in the middle of that pan was a modern office building across the street. So we timed it so that a big, period bus drove alongside the cab at the moment we would have seen the modern building in the background,” says Mullen.
In another case, the production was shooting inside a vintage-looking record shop, and through the window they could see a FedEx store logo. The problem was that no truck was tall enough to cover it. “I ended up putting a very light layer of Hampshire Frost gel over the window to blur the view out of the window,” says Mullen. Windows could be tricky in other ways too. “There were a lot of times when we had to deal with reflections,” says Moynier. “There was a scene where we were outside the Village Vanguard and there was a big long glass window. We had to erect as a wall of black because of all of the buildings and the traffic being reflected.”
When practical solutions didn’t work, the post-production digital wizards came in. For one, they had to remove some elements that were just too complicated to obscure on set. “Anything that is above the actor’s heads that was ‘2017,’ the VFX department can remake that — like moving air conditioning or street poles,” says Moynier. Objects like security cameras or construction spray paint on asphalt also got eliminated. Sometimes whole structures had to be removed too. “It’s a bigger deal when the whole building has to be painted out. That has to be planned in advance,” says Mullen.
In the end, that’s true of all the solutions when it comes to past-proofing locations. “It takes a certain amount of planning up front when we scout these locations and what effects might be involved,” says Mullen.
The Final Result
When everything comes together – production design, cinematography, post-production – the time machine effect of Mrs. Maisel is stunning. That’s especially true with some of the scenes the cinematographers say are their favorites.
“There’s a spectacular shot where we re-created the garment district in New York from West 23rd Street. It was a shot that was following Joel Maisel to see his father. We’re on the street and we just recreated 1959 in 2017 with extras and background,” says Moynier. For Mullen, it was a shot in the meticulously recreated Copacabana Club that begins with a close-up of a drummer on the stage, and moves through the dance floor and room, until it pops into the kitchen to find the show’s two main characters.
Both moments are encapsulations of what The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel does so well: creating beautifully immersive representations of the past that are both real and heightened, and always delightful.
Season 1 of the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is available to stream via Amazon Prime. Season 2 is expected later this year.
Looking for some 1950s inspiration of your own? Explore thousands of rare historical video clips in the Pond5 Archival Collection:
Top image: Rachel Brosnahan, Tony Shalhoub, and Marin Hinkle in ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.’ All images courtesy of Amazon Studios.