With “Fargo” and “Legion,” Noah Hawley has quickly become one of the most respected names in television. All three seasons of “Fargo” and the first season of “Legion” are incredibly artistic and have quite distinct looks, but all of that couldn’t be achieved without help of visionaries behind-the-scenes.
Cinematographer Craig Wrobleski recently told Business Insider what it’s like shooting a series like “Fargo” given its rich history, the inspiration for the visually-charged “Legion,” and what it’s like working as a cinematographer in television today.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Carrie Wittmer: The director of photography for “Fargo” was Roger Deakins, arguably the greatest cinematographer ever, and the Coen brothers are legendary filmmakers. Was it intimidating going into “Fargo” because of its place in cinematic history?
Wrobleski: I’m not sure if intimidation is the right word, but there was certainly the feeling of being handed a baton to carry on the legendary visual legacy that the Coen Brothers/Roger Deakins partnership has created over the years. I felt more honored and inspired than intimidated though — there was a certain amount of stress that came along with that. When I joined the “Fargo” team, it became abundantly clear that the series was holding itself to a very high standard and would be creating its own visual legacy to uphold. The goal, in my mind, was to rise to the level of the writing and performances and create images that told the story in the most effective and interesting way.
Wittmer: What’s it like on that set? “Fargo” has some of the greatest actors working today.
It’s like Christmas, really. On season three we had Ewan McGregor, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Carrie Coon, David Thewlis — it’s unbelievable, and I get to watch these performances every day. It’s incredible, really. Years ago, no one would ever think that someone like Ewan McGregor would do a TV show.
Wittmer: “Legion” is visually stunning, and has so many different stylistic elements. It also doesn’t take place in any specified time period. What was some inspiration for “Legion?”
Wrobleski: The inspirations for “Legion” were numerous and varied. The production design of Michael Wylie was an inspiration in and of itself. The sets Michael and his team created were so visually dynamic that they informed and inspired our approach to the visuals for each episode. Stanley Kubrick’s structured frames and ability to create tension, suspense, and unease through his imagery was a key influence. I’ve always admired Kubrick’s films, and being offered the opportunity to echo elements of his style enabled me to check that off my cinematic bucket list.
The idea of the “uncanny” was a critical element of Noah’s concept for “Legion,” and David Lynch is a master at creating those unsettling, uncanny images that really stay with the audience, so his work was a big influence as well. I’d have to say the biggest inspiration came from the scripts which were so dense and rich with powerful visual opportunities.
Wittmer: Shows like “Fargo” and “Legion” are just a few of the shows that take visuals seriously, including “Hannibal,” “True Detective,” and “Breaking Bad.” Do you think television is now a place where cinematographers are choosing to go for a chance to be really be creative instead of film?
Wrobleski: It’s an incredible time to be working in television. With the feature film world being increasingly consumed with large tentpole films with 9-figure budgets, much of the strongest dramatic material has shifted to television. That migration has included writers, directors, cast and below-the-line talent including cinematographers.
Traditionally, feature films were expected to have higher production values and stronger performances than TV, but I believe much of the audience doesn’t differentiate between the two like they used to. When they turn their TV on, they expect quality entertainment, regardless of whether it is a feature film or a television series. This expectation of high production values from television, combined with the strong writing, is what excites me about the medium today. It’s a double-edged sword, as it can be very challenging to maintain that level of quality on a TV schedule and budget, but if you have the right team, as we did on Fargo and Legion, then everyone rises to the challenge and it is a very gratifying experience.