For the past 30 years, cinematographer M. David Mullen has helped shape the heightened look and feel of films like “Jennifer’s Body” (2009) and “The Love Witch” (2016) and TV series including “United States of Tara” (2009) and “Smash” (2012). But it’s the Hollywood veteran’s work on Prime Video’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” that made him a two-time Emmy winner. As the series comes to a close, we spoke to Mullen about the time-jumping visual effects on Season 5 and shooting the show’s final scenes.
Congratulations on wrapping the final season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”! What was the overall sentiment you wanted viewers to get from the cinematography?
We wanted the flash-forwards to have a different look. Each time we had a flash-forward, we’d talk about the colors and the diffusion and the lenses to create some feeling of the modern world coming into the show. We went sharper and sharper as we got closer to the final timeline. Besides the feeling of the modern world coming in and trying to create something in the period of the ’70s and ’80s as those scenes appeared, most of the mood is in the script. When we did that final walk through the house, [creator] Amy [Sherman-Palladino] had already picked this Barbra Streisand song “I Stayed Too Long at the Fair.” It’s such a melancholy, beautiful, sad song, and it really helped us figure out the tone of those scenes.
Did you approach filming any differently this season than in the past?
We have a big new set this new season, which is the Gordon Ford offices and the stage. That was the biggest shift. And of course, this season also had all these flashbacks and flash-forwards, which is a stylistic shift—because we didn’t do a lot of that in the past. That required its own approach. But beyond the flash-forwards, the style hasn’t really changed other than to accommodate the sets.
The burlesque shows at the Wolford Theatre are so much fun to watch. What was your process like for those scenes?
We established the burlesque club the Wolford on Season 4, visually inspired by movies like “Cabaret”—the smoky, colorful, dark theater space. We had a Broadway lighting designer come in and set up the lighting for the big burlesque numbers. And then when Midge would go into her standup, we’d basically go into a follow spot and all the rest of the lights would dim down. We tended to cover the standup with multiple cameras, unlike the rest of the show, which tends to be single-camera. We tried to change the look of Season 4 slowly, where it’s a little funkier and darker and more colorful when she first gets there, and it gets a little cleaned up…a little classier as the show goes on.
What were the most challenging scenes for you to shoot this season?
We had a traffic jam sequence on Central Park West—a [one-shot scene,] basically—that involved walking down one block and coming onto Central Park West and then doing a couple of 360s as they wind their way from car to car in the middle of this traffic jam and then rise up at the end of the shot. That was a complicated, difficult scene to figure out and do. We also had a similarly complicated one-er in the Gordon Ford offices that started in the offices and went out onto the show. Our last day was quite difficult because it was the finale of the whole [series], so it was a very long day in the Gordon Ford studio.
What tools did you use to achieve some of the more ambitious tracking shots?
DJI Ronin makes a still camera that shoots video on a gimbal so that you can hand-hold it like a steadicam, but it’s very small. We used it for the traffic jam sequence because, at one point, we wanted to pass the camera through the windows of a taxi cab. As Rose comes up, we go through the back windows of the taxi cab, then out the side windows, the other side and then [we] chase Abe down a row of cabs. To do that move, we had to have a camera small enough to fit through a cab window. That was unusual, because we don’t normally change our camera type. We usually stick to our regular Alexa Mini for everything.
Episode 7 features a really fun moment where Rose is shooting a commercial for the Romance Emporium. Tell me about how that came together.
The Romance Emporium shoot was interesting because it was supposed to be a commercial set in 1973. This was shot in the Pierre Hotel in this sort of tea room. My original plan—because in 1973, they would’ve shot on fairly slow film stock—was that I would overlight the space as if a commercial came in and had to light for slow film stock. But when we got to the location, the ceiling was painted with a mural and the location said that I couldn’t attach anything anywhere in the room. So suddenly, I had to light Rose coming down the big staircase and [for] a closeup, but without having any lights rigged. I basically put these period lights on each side of the camera and above the camera on tall stands, and I just front-lit the room from the camera direction. Luckily, the shot is broken in half, because I had the period camera on a crane.
On the series finale, there’s a high-stakes moment when Midge is on “The Gordon Ford Show” debating whether or not she should take the microphone. How did you use cinematography to heighten that tension?
Well, it’s a TV studio, so you have a lot of leeway to have lights wherever you need them to be. Generally during the show, the house lights are down, so the audience is in a dimmer light. And when they’re in between shows or commercial breaks, they might bring up the house lights. That’s the only real big change. We had to do a lot of blocking rehearsals to figure out all the spots [where] Midge would go to in that shot. We cover pretty much the entire space in a 360-degree move. But once we figured out the shot, it was a Steadicam move. It was just the timing of [figuring out]: When do we rack focus, or [when should] we rack focus to the mic in the foreground? I asked Amy if she wanted to pull focus off of Midge and onto the mic to make it more dramatic, and she did.
One of the final scenes of the series follows Midge through her sprawling apartment and gives viewers a look at her future. How did you go about filming that sequence?
The apartment was actually a mansion in Long Island, so we had to change the views out the windows to make it seem like a penthouse apartment on the Upper East Side. I used extremely wide-angle lenses in that space to make it seem big and empty, like a “Citizen Kane” kind of feeling. I normally shoot the show with some diffusion, but I wanted the final scenes to be shot clean, as modern as possible, essentially, with no filters or anything—just sharp and straightforward. [I used] very wide-angle lenses to make the space seem big and empty, basically, and then tracking through each room as we finally get to this little cozy room that she actually watches TV in.
This story originally appeared in the June 8 issue of Backstage Magazine.