David J. Miller is an Emmy-winning cinematographer known for NBC's The Good Place starring Ted Danson and Kristen Bell and HBO's political comedy Veep created by Death of Stalin director Armando Iannucci.
In this exclusive Mandy News interview, David tell us how he started in the industry, how he shoots fast-paced comedy and what fledgling cinematographers can do to ascend in the industry.
Please tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into the industry at first.
I’m a director of photography based in Los Angeles and a member of the ASC. I’m a director of photography mainly of television. I went to art school, like so many people, on the east coast and became a camera assistant.
I started off in movies, working on films like 9½ Weeks and Crocodile Dundee. Then, I basically got into the commercial business and worked in commercials for a long time. It was the 80s in New York, so it was very busy and very lucrative. I started shooting then directing commercials.
At some point I realised or remembered that that wasn’t why I had originally gotten into the film business – I wanted to work in movies. So I got offered a very, small movie in Los Angeles. I was married at the time. We came to LAand we stayed. There was lots of interesting TV going on, and nobody was interested in doing it. Back then, television was kind of the poor step-sister to film.
For me, I realised that, purely in a business sense, I could work 9 months a year, know almost to the dollar how much money I’m going to make every year, take three months off, and have a tremendous amount of control over what I do because I’m here all the time and the directors just come in. Someone new just comes in every week.
Also, I realised I really liked the idea of, instead of waiting a year to see something that I had made come up on screen, that I could see something in 3 or 4 weeks. That was something that was really tempting to me. Let’s face it – you work on a film and depending on the size of the film, you start colour timing it nine months later. With a TV show, I’m colour timing it 3 or 4 weeks later.
In the case of The Good Place, we’re just finishing colour timing in the last episodes now, but the post schedule on The Good Place tends to be a bit longer because of the amount of visual effects involved.
So a really quick turnaround between shooting and airing then?
Yeah. Other shows that I’ve done like Parenthood, there was a very short time because there were really no effects, nothing special in it. It was more about the drama and they know how to cut the drama fairly well. It’s a pretty quick turnaround. It’s certainly not waiting a year and a half to see what you’ve been working on.
When you’re moving from project to project, do you have a team of your own that you bring with you?
Yeah, I have a group of core people: gaffer, key grip, camera operators, assistants. Some people cycle in and out on the job, but I met Didier, my key grip, on Desperate Housewives and he’s been with me since that. Lou, the gaffer, I actually met on Scorpion.
I had basically been doing one hour dramas: Parenthood, Commander in Chief, Desperate Housewives… Full blown network hour dramas. My first big cable show was The Newsroom. Then what happened was I was doing Scorpion and that was ending, and they wanted me to come back and I was on the fence about it because I wasn’t really enjoying it for numerous reasons.
I had a friend, David Hyman, who produces Veep, and he was going to produce The Good Place with Morgan Sackett, another producer. David always tries to hire me. When I was shooting West Wing, he was the assistant director. They had called me about the pilot, I was just finishing Scorpion and I am pretty good about not walking away from something so I said, “I really have to finish this.”
So I finished it and – just as it was ending – they called again and said: “Well it’s going to series right now.” And it literally was going to start prepping three days after I finished Scorpion, so I said I would go in and take the beating. I met with Morgan, who I had not met before, David didn’t end up going to the meeting, and I met Mike Schur who created the show. Drew Goddard – who had directed the pilot and wrote The Martian for Ridley Scott – was there and involved in the show.
We had a great reading and I think Mike was a little concerned because it was one of those situations where everyone was recommending me: David Hyman was recommending me; NBC was recommending me because I’ve had a pretty good relationship there and they know that I’m highly responsible and will make the show do a good job for what they had available – another part of being a cinematographer. Also Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars) recommended me, because I knew her through Dax, her husband, on Parenthood.
So he got it from all sides. We had a great meeting and literally just five minutes into the meeting, we realised that we had grown up maybe 15 minutes from each other. Mike had gone to Harvard but his sister had gone to the University of Connecticut, where I went. That was kind of the end of that. So I got in the car, it was a good Friday, and I tried to call my agent at home and she didn’t answer. I thought I’d deal with it on Monday. About 10 minutes into the ride home, she rang and she said “I’m sorry I couldn’t pick up, I was on with them. You basically walked out of the room and they all looked at each other and Morgan called me to hire you.”
I had never really done half hour before, but The Good Place was so interesting and so different. The requirements of what they were hoping the show could be, i.e. Mike Schur wanting to cross cover everything, making all that work, everything getting done in one, which I’m really good at, because I’ve been shooting with three cameras since I did Shark. There’s nothing like going into the editing room and having all the cross coverage done at the same time, so you never feel forced to make cuts because of bad matching and things like that, you’re not trying to force something to work– it already exists.
In Parenthood, there was so much improvisation by the cast. On most shows the writers are on set all the time, saying what’s what, on Parenthood the writers weren’t allowed on set so they would make the script their own. That’s one of the genius things about Jason Katims (Parenthood creator), his willingness to trust people and allow them to add. He trusted them enough to know that what he felt was important would get through, but allow them their own creativity in the way of doing it, and letting them make the material their own. That’s why that show is such a success.
Mike wanted that, but also visually, I wanted to make something that was going to be interesting for me. So the challenge was figuring out how to set it up so I could go ahead and serve both masters. To have three cameras going all the time but also lay it out so visually it was kind of interesting. I think I succeeded at that fairly well.
Is The Good Place a multi-camera show?
The reality of it is that almost everything today is multi-camera. When you look at Ridley Scott making the last Alien film, lots of scenes, even plain drama scenes, he shoots with three or four cameras at a time. I think today, maybe it’s a little bit scheduling, but it’s really more of a creative decision. As great as an actor is – and I’ve worked with some really wonderful actors – there’s a difference between doing your off-camera dialogue and being "on" all the time. I think there’s a pressure, an immediacy that you just don’t get when you shoot in a more traditional manner.
For me, the truth is, I’ve done this a long time. I can light anything in a traditional manner in ten minutes. But the fun of it is trying to find a way to lay the material out and get it lit so it can be done in one single pass, maybe with a re-size, lenses, things like that, and not make it look like a sitcom, which I think I have achieved fairly well. The nice thing is it’s made me in demand.
That’s how I ended up going to Veep, because Morgan and David were producing it and I think it was a concurrence of events. I think their camera man was on the fence about coming back, and I think they were on the fence about having him back. So when he showed a little hesitation they were like, “Great. Do you want to do this?” I thought, “Oh my God, I’m going to become the king of half-hour comedy.” But I did it, and it was interesting because there was no rhyme or reason as to the way Veep was laid out. It was kind of chaotic, there was no staging.
On the first day, they rehearsed the material for a long time and they were like “Great, ok, we’re going to go now. Light it.” I’m like “Wait a second, we’re not quite done.” So I said we had to change some of the blocking to make it work. They were so used to doing whatever they wanted. I said, “Well no, you’ve got to say that line here, don’t make that false move, say the line and then move away but don’t go to this side, go to the other side of the room,” and all that.
Julia was a little bit reticent at the beginning, she said “You’re trying to control us.” I said “Well no, I’m just trying to lay it out photographically so it can all play in one big thing.” After about a week, when they started to realise, everything cuts together now. Everybody’s looking the right direction, the lighting looks so much better… They were like, “Ok, we get it.”
In the end, the funny thing is, after changing most of it and going through it, I won the Emmy.
Is Veep shot more in a kind of documentary style?
Armando had originally said to go for a very documentary style and I like that style. That’s what I did with The Newsroom, which is kind of the same thing. Even though it’s documentary, it doesn’t have to look bad. There’s a way to make it work and it really comes down to all of the staging. Figuring out the staging so that everything falls into place. It’s pretty simple to do, but you just have to be willing to do it.
Do you have filming kit of choice?
I’m definitely an Alexa user. On The Good Place I used the Alexa. On Veep I used the Amira, which is basically just a handheld version of the Alexa, because the whole show was pretty much handheld. I bought the Alexa when it first came out, when I was doing Desperate Housewives.
The only problem now is the 4K discussion, which to me is such a false discussion because whenever someone says to me, “It’s got to be 4K”, I say “Did you see Skyfall?” They say, “Oh yeah I loved it.” I ask if they’ve seen it in IMAX and they’re like “Yeah it was amazing.” I’ll say: “Yeah, well, that was 2K.” So I think the next thing I'll probably use – because Arriflex doesn’t seem ready to have new cameras yet – will be the new Sony, a really nice camera. As far as lenses, everything’s pretty much shot on Fuji premier zooms, which are great lenses.
My big thing is that I don’t like to take time for the lens change for the cast because when they’re in the moment, when they’re really moving, when the material is coming out, I don’t want to wait two or three minutes while they put a new lens on and readjust it. I just zoom in, resize, and go ahead and do it again. And that’s the big thing with being a cinematographer – you have to pick your battles.
In the shows that I do, I’m always trying to find a balance between my demands visually and helping the cast. You’ve got to be the one, especially in television, to want to create an environment for them to work in their best way. You start to see this with the actors. You start to see that a certain person’s good in take one, someone else is good in take three and so you just figure out how to lay it all out so you can set it up and get the best from everyone.
A lot of times, it’s making the directors understand that too. In a television show, it’s a bit different. I think that in the UK, on some shows, they’ll have the entire season written before it’s even started. Here, we get it week to week. And also UK shows sometimes have just one or two people doing it. On a network show – with 20 episodes or something – you could have 15 different directors.
What’s your relationship with the director like on a TV show? Do you have prep time before the entire season or do you prep for each episode? How does that work?
We prep for each episode. Depending on what the show is. On The Good Place, there’s no official producer-director. Morgan Sackett and David Hyman do the setup and prep the director, then the director gets shoved to me and I run the person through the show. Some people kind of get it, some people don’t get it, but the show has a specific formula about how it gets laid out.
In that case, I’m always very honest. I’m always very honest in job interviews. I’ll say “If your director knows what’s going on, then that person, he or she will get more from me in a faster amount of time than they will from anyone else. If the director doesn't know what they’re doing, then I’ll just push them out of the way and do it.” And that is the reality of making television, at least in Hollywood, in the US.. Because I’m there every day, the producers are there every day, the cast is there every day. The directors aren't there every day.
What is it you think that makes American television use more than one director on a series?
I think a large part of it is that American television is a writers’ medium. That’s really the guiding principle. The writers are the most important thing. I think, sadly, it’s not a director’s medium. It can be, for certain cable shows. It can definitely be a different medium, depending on the show, if they have a producer-director or not.
They’re doing a spinoff of Grey’s Anatomy so I’m going to go shoot four episodes of that, which just fit in schedule-wise for me well. Paris Barclay is a producer-director on that, and he’s a very smart guy. He’s really good at keeping his finger on the pulse of what’s going on and making sure the directors understand what the requirements are for the show.
On other shows where there’s not a producer-director, at least visually, you’re the one saying how you’re going to lay it out, that kind of thing.
Do you have any tips or advice for anyone up-and-coming in camera departments or future DOPs?
I think, take any job no matter what the money is. I did so many stupid things, so many silly jobs. The job that got me my first really good job as a director of photography was a TV show, a shot of a squirrel eating nuts. I came in, shot the squirrel eating nuts and it all turned out fine. You meet people. I met the producer and the directors. And then it’s like: “That turned out great, we need a scene shot, he’s pretty nice.”
Finally, on this one show, the post-production supervisor came in and said “Listen, we have a real problem. It’s David’s footage. It looks so much better than what our main unit is shooting, you guys have to make a decision– somebody’s gotta go or somebody’s gotta be talked to.” In the end, they got rid of the other person.
You don’t know where the opportunity is going to come from. You really don’t. It ends up being the kind of most silly off-sided type of thing that you can never describe. When I was an assistant, I came in to work for a documentary that was behind the scenes shooting Crocodile Dundee II, when they were shooting in New York. I was so excited. We were done and they decided they wanted to add another camera, and I knew one of the assistants. They asked me if I wanted to stay and do the third camera, so I stayed and I talked to Russell and I ended up doing a bunch of days on that.
It’s never going to be the opportunity that you think it’s going to be. Even at this point in my career, when I think “I’m going to go and get this job,” it never works like that. It’s the job that comes out of the blue – something that I was not expecting – that goes ahead. I didn’t take The Good Place as filler, I took it because it timed out well and I liked everybody who was working on it and the premise very much. The Good Place led to Veep, Veep led to an Emmy. You just don’t know.
So my first piece of advice is, unless it’s dangerous or going to kill you, say yes.
What would you say makes a good AC?
I was a terrible assistant. I was great at the artistic parts but getting the equipment in and out, the mechanics of it, I wasn’t really good at. It was a British cameraman who I worked for, Brian West, who shot Holocaust and was a member of the BSC. He had been around forever. He had been an assistant on The Third Man (Orson Welles), worked on all these incredible movies and was Ossie Morris’ camera operator. He said, “David, forget being an assistant. Just become a cameraman. Don’t even become an operator, because that’s not what you’re meant to be.” And he was right.
Being an assistant is about being very detail-oriented. I think being a director of photography is about being able to look at the picture globally. You’re the funnel at the end of a long chain of costume, production design, acting. These hundreds and hundreds of things that people have put together. In the end, it gets shoved down to you on the set and you’re the one who has to distill it.
Sometimes, I think if you’re just concerned with the minutiae of things, you get caught up in the details, you miss the big picture and you miss what you’re really there for.
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