The premise of Russian Doll is hard to resist. Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne) keeps dying and finding herself, Groundhog Day style, resetting to the same exact moment in the bathroom of her best friend’s apartment. The show is the latest breakout hit for Netflix, thanks in good part to its surprising mix of authenticity and fantasy, humor and drama. That mix is especially apparent in the distinct look of the show, which was created by cinematographer Chris Teague. We spoke with him to learn more about what influenced the look of the show everyone’s been talking about.
Working With a Lookbook
In the earliest meetings with co-creators Natasha Lyonne and Leslye Headland, Teague knew that Russian Doll would be something special. “Leslye and Natasha had a very cool lookbook that gave you a sense that this show wasn’t going to be like anything else you’d ever seen,” Teague says. It was full of images that were absurd and surreal, but it was more than just the aesthetic that caught the cinematographer’s attention.
“It wasn’t so much the literal look and texture of those images that was meant to be incorporated into the show,” he explains. “It was more like a sense of how the show was meant to feel. It was meant to make you feel off-balance, like anything was possible, that the line between fantasy and reality was somehow blurred.”
Once the show was picked up, the lookbook went from inspiration to realization. It evolved to incorporate more images, but most significantly, became an encapsulation of the conversations the creators were having about how to shoot Russian Doll. “They were grouped into different sections that dealt with camera blocking, use of color, light and shadow,” Teague recalls. “It distilled all our conversations into a straightforward document that we distributed to all our department heads.”
Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll
A Marriage of Practicality and Creativity
Before shooting, Teague also likes those conversations to help set in stone the practical elements of a shoot. “There are so many logistical demands of production that if you’re not sure what you’re actually shooting that day, or how to proceed in terms of blocking and lighting a scene, you’re just not going to be able to get to those higher-level conversations about what the scene is really about,” he explains. “Those seemingly mundane details of process and methodology are what allow me to open up a free space in order to be collaborative and creative.”
And it’s not just a matter of creative space, but also efficiency. Teague shot Russian Doll’s eight episodes in quick succession, and there wasn’t always a lot of time to have on-the-fly discussions. Which is why it’s important to have all the cinematic ducks in a row. “It’s a way to open the door to more of a creative conversation that can then become a shorthand, so that when you’re working on set and you have to work quickly, those creative conversations are very simple but effective,” he says. “The creative conversations need to be as specific and as concise as possible.”
Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll
Creating a (Sur)real New York City
Despite its fantasy-driven premise, Russian Doll is deeply rooted in a real place: the Lower East Side of New York City. While it’s almost a cliché to say “the city is a character,” in cases like this, it still rings true. The show transposed NYC on screen in all its eccentric glory and gritty authenticity. At the same time, thanks to its concept, there was room to play and depart from that — something Teague relished.
“It was so exciting for me as somebody who’s shot in New York City for the past 15 years. Most of the work that I’ve done has, by nature, needed to adhere to a sense of realism,” he says. “To have a project that was a New York project, set in the city that I love, but with the ability to really play and explore with color and contrast, and push things in directions that I hadn’t really been allowed to push things before, was incredibly freeing and exciting for me.”
When asking himself how to incorporate the surreal into the actual world, the primary means became color. Teague’s goal was “taking real elements from New York, the chaos of the city, and thinking of ways to heighten that and twist it and push it into a color palette that felt appropriate and inspired by the city, but also like it honored this hyperrealistic landscape that they created in the script.”
Teague drew colors from square swatches cut out of images from the lookbook, so that while some images in the lookbook were surreal and absurdist, he kept the colors rooted in reality. “The colors that we’re adding to our color palette are pulled from the real world. They’re just heightened or embellished or elaborated upon,” he says.
Greta Lee as Maxine in Russian Doll
Harnessing the Technical Color Palette
Maintaining a consistent color palette wasn’t without its challenges, especially given the vibrant, eclectic colors of locations like the pivotal bathroom where Nadia wakes up each cycle, and the rest of her friend Maxine’s apartment. “That loft apartment has a living quality to it,” Teague says. Full of neons, pitch blacks, and hipster fuchsias, it proved to be a handy, if imposing, launching point for the rest of the show’s look. “It was nice to have this one space that was built from the ground up, where we could kind of pour in all our ideas about what the show should look like, and then use that as a jumping-off point to try to bring what was in that loft apartment out to the rest of the world and New York City.”
But that was also a challenge. “It’s kind of jarring in the show, when you cut to these day exteriors,” he says. “We needed to find a way to unite those scenes within the rest of the show by giving them a perspective that was out of the ordinary, so that they could feel like they fit.”
On a technical level, they used RGB LED lights so they could synch the colors of the loft with exterior locations. “We would hide those lights whenever we could, and we’d get pools of light in the background, these particular blues or greens or reds,” Teague reveals. It required diligence to get right. “It’s this constantly moving target with so many variables. Every camera and every light responds differently to colors, particularly saturated colors. Certain colors look great on certain cameras, and they don’t look great on other cameras. You kind of go to the strength of the camera, or the strength of the lot that you’ve built, or you try to build the lot around those colors to enhance them.”
All that hard work was part of the spirit of exploration and the finessing of the project. “In your cinematography, you have to figure out what they’re trying to communicate with this image. Because you can interpret it a thousand different ways,” Teague says. “With Russian Doll, it felt like, from the beginning, there were no wrong answers. Anything that seemed exciting, we should pursue, and if it felt like the right fit for the project, then everybody else would get on board with it too — that includes the color scheme, working in split-screen format, the style of the different locations, even the geography of the spaces that we’d be working in.”
Top: Natasha Lyonne and Brendan Sexton III in Russian Doll. All images courtesy of Netflix.