An interview with the cinematographer and director John Inwood

Best known for his work on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, American Woman and the hit US TV series Scrubs, John Inwood talks to Mandy News about how he got involved with the camera and his most recent show Murphy Brown.

20th December 2018
/ By James Collins

John Inwood IMDB

John, please introduce yourself to the Mandy News audience and tell us how you got involved with the camera?
Okay! It’s a long story, but I’ll try to keep it brief. My name is John Inwood. I am a director of photography, or cinematographer and I also do some directing. I’ve been a DP for about 25 years. I started out with a really keen interest in photography when I was a kid. I went to school for writing – I was an English major at Vassar. I realised that those two interests meant film. Maybe I should look into film and television.

I didn’t know how to get into the film business. I started out by getting a recommendation from my brother, working on student films. I arbitrarily chose NYU – the New York Undergraduate film school, which was a very elite level of student filmmaking and I put my name on the board, offering to work on films. I loved it from day one. My first day was at a place called The Life Café, which still exists on the Lower East Side. It was just meant to be. So, I just went from film to film to film, working on these graduate thesis films and my name got around: ‘Oh this kid can hustle, he’s got a good attitude.’ Whatever… I was a very hard worker.

I started gravitating towards the camera and became a camera assistant on these elaborate student films. I was first assistant on Ang Lee’s thesis film, which was photographed by Bobby Bukowski with a minuscule crew of five people. It was a very good film called Fine Line about a romance between an Italian guy and a Chinese girl and the fine line was Canal Street, which separates Chinatown from Little Italy.

During that time, I said, ‘I’m enjoying this so much, I’m going to apply for graduate school at NYU and only at NYU.’ So I did and I got in. I mean, the professors knew me, they saw me around on all these films. I submitted my photography portfolio. I had had a solo show during my undergrad years, and my short stories. I applied and I was still working on these films. I did eight, nine, ten in a row. And I got in! It was tough to get in so I was elated! I’m sure my directors were helping me out by recommending me. So I attended NYU graduate film school. It’s a very rigorous 3-year MFA programme.

The summer before I entered, I got another break. A friend of my brother’s, who was a stunt guy, said, ‘Hey, I’m working on this low-budget film. You should go there in person with your resumé and try to get some PA work on it.’ So I did and I got hired to work on a cult hit called CHUD, which is a horror film, AKA Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers – a fabulous horror film that took place in the sewers of New York City.

It was an incredible opportunity for me to get experience. It was my first professional job. The first few days, I was hired as a PA to go into these cavernous rooms inside the Brooklyn Bridge with a broom, to scrape the soot off the walls and prepare the location for shooting. I would walk out each day like a chimney sweep, covered top to bottom in soot.

I heard there was an opening in the electricians’ department, so I talked my way into it, based on my experience setting lights on the graduate films and they hired me to be a lighting electrician. So that’s what I did on my third day on CHUD. I worked all summer long. I was enthusiastic, I was a hard worker, I never complained. The gaffer and the best boy took me under their wings and trained me. By the end of that summer, I was quite a competent lighting electrician, so when I entered graduate school in the fall, I was 22 years old - we’re talking the mid-eighties - and I had more professional experience than anyone in that class.

Meanwhile, during my three years at graduate school people would ask, ‘Should I go to film school?’ You make the most of it. For some it’s not worth it, and it’s changed a little bit. Now you don’t shoot in film. I got a huge amount out of it. It was a huge commitment, three years. But I was 22 and enthusiastic. I was going to do whatever I needed to do to become a filmmaker. So I went for it.

During that time, I became very interested in cinematography and I became one of the three or four ‘camera jocks’. I was one of the better people at camera. I produced an enormous amount in my three years, because I was fulfilling all the writer-director requirements but I was also DPing two or three films a year. So when I graduated, I won this award but I wasn’t sure where to go – should I pursue directing? 

It was a very difficult decision but I liked cinematography as much as I liked directing. So I did the math and decided to pursue cinematography. At first, I hoped it might lead me to directing, hopefully. But I was already a lighting electrician, so in my third year, I took the test. It was very rigorous, you had to take a written test. So when I graduated I was a professional lighting electrician. 

NYU wouldn’t allow me to come back and shoot student films, so I would go up to Columbia graduate school, which was great. They were very strong on screenwriting, where NYU was better at film production and cinematography. So as an NYU graduate, I told them at Columbia I was interested in shooting thesis films. So I spent several years working as an electrician and shooting films up at Columbia, for nothing.

After several years of working really hard, I literally hung my wrecked, taped-up electricians’ gloves up to remind me of the road I had taken. I left the union. I became a non-union cinematographer for a number of years. Back when I was at graduate school, the dream was to be a DP or writer-director of indie films. That’s changed with the way TV has become such a strong force in the industry. I really think it’s become the golden age of television.

The production designer I’m working with, Jane Musky, who’s fabulous and has done some big films including When Harry Met Sally, says there are so few films around that she’s looked to TV as so many of us have. In my career, I was doing these indies, then I got my first show, for kids, called The Adventures of Pete and Pete. People of a certain age know this show. It was a Nickelodeon show, incredibly creative, the camera was a character – it was a single-camera show with a lot of visual style and snap. It won several Ace awards, as they were called. They were cable TV awards. It had a real style that people knew. They grew up with that show.

I met all these incredible, young, talented directors who taught me so much about coverage… you know, sometimes doing indies, people who are doing shows, movies, second movies… they know basic coverage but they don’t know the fine points of covering a scene, the components of what you need. And it’s not really taught. I’ve done quite a bit of teaching, I really enjoy it. In between shows, I’ll take a class. I’ve taught at NYU – undergraduate cinematography and NYU’S International graduate film school in Singapore. I would go back for masterclasses and what I saw were classes in teaching blocking. A lot of that isn’t really taught.

Anyway, the next stage in y career – I was doing indies and I got this really good show with really good directors. I learned a tremendous amount and many of them went on to have great TV careers. One of them I hooked up with, Adam Bernstein, a particularly strong director who’s had an incredible television career in drama and comedy, he was first known for his music videos. I became his DP for over five years. I shot his indie film that was very dark noir, then I would shoot his pilots and his commercials.

I would save up money in order to do these creative things. So, basically my philosophy was, I need to invest time and money to be more creative, so I made sacrifices. Either, ‘Oh, I’m going to get to shoot something instead of gaff something,’ or, ‘I’m going to shoot something more creative than the corporate video that’s paying me ten times as much.’ So I was never that concerned about the money. So long as I had enough to pay my loans off and pay my rent, I was okay. So now I was this union DP and I had this enormous bill to pay and I was being considered for Scrubs. 

I thought I had a good interview. And I said, ‘Look, I’m going to be around for a week, if you need me to come back in.’ It was a good interview but not a great interview. I got a call, miraculously, two hours later saying, ‘I want you to come and meet me for lunch. Meet me at Moe’s on Riverside tomorrow at one. See you there.’ Click! That was it! We had a nice talk and they said, ‘We’re interested in you shooting it.’ They wanted me to shoot Scrubs, so I got hired to do 12 episodes. It changed my career. It was my biggest break. Another thing I say is that you build a career out of a lot of breaks. Many little breaks, many medium-sized breaks and a couple of big breaks. But like I said, I didn’t have a great interview. My usual technique with interviews is to go in with tremendous enthusiasm. It works for me if not for everyone. 

So I’m shooting the show and it had a very strong visual style: a lot of steadicam and a lot of clever blocking and transitions, which is all stuff that I really loved, because I loved choreographing scenes with intricate blocking. It wasn’t a messy show. When we got into it, the show wasn’t a documentary show at all. I thought, ‘I can’t light these people with fluorescents, I’ve got to light them so they look great in every single shot!’ This is an upbeat comedy with young attractive people. It’s got to look good. I can give it a little flair, colour and style.

The style evolved quickly in that first season. The directors and I became very competitive over who could do the most stylish blocking, and clever transitions. Like in the second season, Bill Lawrence, the creator of the show, was very generous to me. He said, ‘Do you ever think of directing?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, of course, but I feel like I’ve had my hands full shooting your show!’ So he said, ‘We’re going to give you an opportunity to direct, so come back for season three and be ready.’

We did lots of fun episodes, like the one that was entirely musical, which won a number of awards. There were constant flashbacks, where I would modify the style. Sometimes I would shoot them in super-8, or I would shoot reversal, going back to the film days. It was a wonderful show and it launched my career as a single camera comedy DP. Then I left and wanted to come back to New York where I’m from - I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. I’d spent ten years in LA, doing Scrubs.

So I went back to New York where I was hired to do the film, The Best and The Brightest. It was a comedy with Neil Patrick Harris and Amy Sedaris, Chris McDonald and Kate Mulgrew – this fabulous cast. 

One last thing… Last year I had an amazing opportunity to shoot something. I’d become well known for shooting single-camera comedy, though I don’t think of myself that way. When I was doing indies, I was doing dark, violent films like Six Ways to Sunday – that was one of the most violent films I’ve ever seen. That was early in my career and I became known for that. I would get hired at a high level on good shows. They’ve been nominated for outstanding comedy six times now. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt being the most recent nomination.

Three different shows! They’ve been great. On Scrubs, I’d finally given up. I would submit every year because I knew we were doing really great visual work, but I was never nominated so I just kind of gave up. It was because they’d lump the single-camera comedy guys with the hour-long dramas. You know, we don’t really stand a chance when we’re going up against Game of Thrones and Fargo - shows like that. 

I was nominated in 2009 and at that point they made single-camera comedy its own category. I was nominated for My Princess, which took place in mediaeval times. So I really got to push and stretch the look. Zach Braff was the director – he was terrific. He wanted us to have two different looks, which made sense. So I pitched, ‘OK let’s shoot with the new Kodak reversal which is really rich.’ I’m forgetting the number, now! And we would shoot all the mediaeval scenes with the reversal, with a stocking behind the lens, an actual woman’s sticking. And it would give it this beautiful look.

In the hospital, I would shoot with the same film but I would keep it quite cool and I de-saturated it a little bit, so when you went from the hospital scenes to the mediaeval fantasy, you felt this rich, warm golden world, which was soft and idyllic, more so than if I went with the normal Scrubs look. It was a little warmer and more flattering.

Could you tell us a little more about Murphy Brown?
I was shooting Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and I got a call. It was Frank Pace and Lisa Jackson, who I knew from a Warner Brothers’ pilot I had done. They were very interested in working with me. I said, ‘I loved the show! I was a big fan.’ It was a short conversation but they were very interested in me doing it. I didn’t really think it through, because I was in the middle of shooting something. Then I got an email from them, saying, ‘Oh, we didn’t mention this but this is a multi-cam show. We know that you don’t really do multi-cam shows, but we’re OK with that, we really want to work with you.’ I was like, ‘Wow! OK, hmmm…’ So I asked my wife, ‘Should we do this?’ and she said, ‘Of course! 

So, one thing led to another. Frank said, ‘I’m ready to hire you but you need to meet Diane English.’ She was charming. She was the creator and head writer of the show. We had a very nice meeting and she said, ‘Well, you said all the right things. I’d like to work with you.’ And we left it like, ‘Oh, I’m in the running!’ I went out, someone else came in, so I’m like, ‘Oh well, they’re looking at lots of people.’ And I get a phone call two hours later on the subway and I’m hired.

So I finished this long, wonderful 4-year run of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix, after four seasons and 52 episodes. Netflix wants us to do a movie! We wrapped that on a Friday in June. We had a wrap party on the Saturday and I had Sunday off. Then I went to work on Monday on Murphy Brown. That’s been an incredible challenge. We had our first audience show last Friday. It went incredibly well. 

Apparently the critics are very excited for the show! It’s been a learning curve, though. I’ve really had to study and learn how to light for 4 cameras, without any re-lighting, from scene to scene and to go line up three main sets… During the audience show, you shoot the first scene and then all the cameras roll over to the next set, and you shoot the next scene. You do it a couple of times and then maybe you’ll go back and forth between a few sets. Other than panning a single light, maybe in between changes, there’s no re-lighting and no lighting on the floor. So that’s quite a change for a single-cam DP like myself.

Which brings me to my final question. What advice would you give to young people who want to become a cinematographer?
You need to have perseverance. Try to define your goal of where you want to be, as soon as you feel strongly about it. Pursue that direction. Be open to sacrificing money and time to opportunities that you want to take up, whatever it is: directing, shooting, sound recording, costume designing. 

You’ll always get those opportunities by doing something lower-budget, or a freebie. You know, I shot so many freebies, as we call them over here. They were rewarding experiences that I enjoyed immensely. I would balance that with something that pays better, for a number of years, before you progress. It’ll work out of you keep at it.