FILMING LUTHER: DP John Pardue reveals how he shot the hit show's latest season
After a two-year wait, Golden Globe-winning crime drama Luther is returning for season 5 soon with Idris Elba reprising his role as the eponymous hero. Fans will have to wait for an official release date but, in the run up to it airing, Mandy News sits down with DP John Pardue – who shot all four hour-long episodes – to quiz him on the challenges of shooting the show, what kit he used and what advice he can offer to aspiring cinematographers.
John, can you tell us a little bit about how you first got involved in the film industry?
That’s going back a few years; I’m a DOP/operator/filmmaker.
I got into the film industry by chance about 20-odd years ago. I lived in Manchester UK and used to play in a lot of bands, and so was in the local music scene.
Some of my friends were working at a club called The Haçienda, making music videos and, because I was good at photography, they thought I should be the cameraman.
That’s how it started and, then, I obtained a more professional job at Granada TV, working as a camera assistant. I assisted some great cameramen on documentaries and tv drama and learnt the correct way to do things.
Did you have a love for filming when you were working on music and is that why people asked you to do it?
No, not really. I was always very confident visually and did a lot of photography and stuff like that.
But I really had no idea about the film industry at all, because back then there weren’t loads of courses and things like that. If you ended up in the film industry it was because you stumbled into it or had a brother or father who did it.
I was quite lucky that I met a load of guys who were starting out in that whole music video thing and were sort of reinventing it a bit and doing it their way – I sort of jumped on that.
The commercials people back then loved what the music video people were doing, so I got picked up to do commercials and had a good 10-year run as a DOP doing some very big commercials. This was where I learnt my craft so to speak.
I then eventually moved into films and TV drama, which is probably what I’m best at, but all those other things led the way to that.
How did Luther come along?
Jamie Payne, the director, tried to get me to shoot Alienist with him last year and I couldn’t do it but I sort of made a connection with him then.
Then, he got Luther and asked me to do that. I was already quite flattered that he’d asked me do Alienist. Luther’s a good gig and he’s known as a good director, so I took the opportunity.
What was the process of working on Luther like?
Quite a hard shoot, because it’s all at night, the BBC don’t give it the biggest of budgets and the ambitions are very big.
There’s a lot of lighting; a lot of streets that need to be lit up; Highgate woods needed to be lit up. So, it’s quite a big number technically.
And the schedule was very tight. It’s a tough gig, but on the positive side, night is very good for cinematography and Idris Elba’s very good and really has a great look on camera.
Luther is quite ambitious for a TV show. It has a little bit of ‘police show’ but really it’s about a central character that’s mixing with the underworld and is also a policeman trying to investigate some pretty dark murders and events. It all gets mixed up in a world that can only be described as a ‘Luther world’
It is a very dark thriller and therefore needs a great look so as a director or DOP, it’s a good one to do – even if it’s a bit of a challenge with the economics.
Is the approach to shooting it a bit more like a feature film?
No, not really. Luther is episodic and they seem to do different numbers of episodes every time they make it. Luther 5 is four episodes.
It’s not really like a movie mainly because the structure of it is still like a TV show and the shooting schedule too.
It’s a movie in the sense that Idris Elba’s a movie star. Perhaps, it’s a movie in the sense that we’re doing more cinematic shots and it’s written in a way that the plot doesn’t follow a lot of dialogue. There’s a lot of visual stuff that takes you through it. I think we achieved a production value worthy of a well produced movie.
What was the shoot time for it and how long did you have to prep?
I had a very short prep of two weeks. That was before Christmas and then we were straight into it. The prep was tough, because there were some big things to try to organise.
Act one is full of standout visuals. There’s a chase that opens up the show in a container park at night which is quite a big thing to light. And then it ends up with another chase in Highgate Woods, which is another big light.
Jamie Payne, the director, thinks up some great shots and vision for the show. It wasn’t just a case of illumination but trying to create an atmosphere that we put into a very inspiring tone presentation. We were trying to do something like Gregory Crewdson’s night photography, which is a quite considered visual style on a very tight schedule.
It was a tough prep and a tough shoot, I’d say, but, at the end of the day, it’s all gone well and everyone thinks it looks great. It was worth it. What you don’t want to do is a tough shoot on a tough schedule and everyone thinks it’s rubbish at the end.
With the challenges of working on a night shoot, with big chases and other challenging scenes, what kind of equipment did you use and was it typical of other programmes?
Well, TV often has a Steadicam option most of the way through, for people running around or actors walking along the street talking and all of that kind of thing.
We tried to do it a bit differently on this. We had a thing called a MoVi Pro, which is a gimble head small enough to be carried. Basically, myself or someone else operates the head on a set of wheels and the grip or operator moves the head around.
We thought the Movi would give the show a good of energy and help us achieve shots that the Steadicam couldn’t do very well – such as coming from very low on the floor to very high.
There’s a great shot in the opener. Luther is chasing this guy in a container park and the camera chases along the ground and comes up once he gets out of the car, with all the containers at the back. It’s a dramatic shot that you can’t quite get with Steadicam because you don’t get that kind of energy and you can’t get the ‘jib up’ from very low to high.
About halfway through, we decided that we’d had enough of the Movi and went back to Steadicam. So, the first half of the show is shot on a Movi with a gimble head – all the energy shots if you like – and the second half is on Steadicam. That was kind of interesting and you can compare the two.
You mentioned shooting at night and shooting with ideas that were more cinematic than the budget would allow you – what other challenges did you face?
There were a lot of scenes to shoot in the time we had. If you have a nice cloudy day and you’ve got a lot of scenes, you can rattle through them because you’ve got no lighting. But at night, you don’t want to keep shooting in the same area, so you have to light areas up and recreate street lighting at night and that’s a fiddly thing to do quickly.
Season 5 of Luther is very cinematic for a TV show. Director Jamie Payne’s shots are very considered. He doesn’t shoot a lot of singles; he shoots one developing shot that tries to nail the drama in that one shot and he’s very good at that. So, you’d end up with these very beautiful longer takes - or longer shots, if you like.
And one of the other things is that there are some great locations in Luther 5. These were tough to shoot in but in the end, you win if you shoot good locations, however tricky they are to work in. We found some great houses and exterior locations, which I think has really given the show a lot visually.
You mentioned you are just prepping on a new film. What are you working on at the moment?
I’m shooting a movie called Four Kids and It – it’s a children’s film, so completely different to Luther.
It’s really important for me to do lots of different things. Luther was really dark and moody, and dark on the story side as well. And now I’m doing something with comedy, magic and fantasy in it. I think it’s good to jump from one to another.
We are shooting it all in Ireland – it’s set in Cornwall, but we are shooting in Ireland, in Wicklow, and the locations are stunning.
It’s got a different set of challenges to Luther. In the story, a sand creature grants a wish and, as the sun goes down, the wish ends. So, cinematically I have to do some scenes where the sun goes down within the time frame of the scene with plenty of adventure and jeopardy as the wish ends.
The kids come up with some quite elaborate wishes that we have to try to achieve on the screen.
What advice would you have for someone wanting to be involved in the camera department and be a cinematographer or DOP, like yourself?
I think it’s very different now to when I first started working in the film industry. When I started, it was a very unknown world – if you didn’t know about it, you could go through your whole life and not realise it was a career opportunity.
Now, a lot of people are aware of it because there are lots of film schools and media courses.
When I became a focus puller, before I was a DOP, I used to tell people I was a focus puller and no one knew what that was, but now I think I lot of people do know what it is. There is a different awareness of the technical side of film-making now.
Now, it’s tricky to make a start in a different way. There’s a lot more work and a lot more opportunities, but there are also a lot more people doing it.
The key thing is to choose your jobs; sometimes, you have to turn a job down because you have to wait for a better one to come. Ultimately, you want to try and work with talented people, who you get on with and that inspire you. You don’t just want to take every job that comes along.
If I could give any advice, I would say try to do jobs that enrich you in what you’re doing, as opposed to stuff you’ve done before. Try to do something different every time. Try to work with new people and try to work with good people, who have decent ideas. You will only ever be as good as the people you work with.
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