Take It From a DP (and Holly Hunter): Follow Your Instincts on Set

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Photo Source: John P. Johnson / HBO

Cinematographer Quyen Tran makes Alan Ball’s “Here and Now” shine on HBO each Sunday night. She tells Backstage what actors and DPs can learn from each other, and how she (lovingly) deals with a Holly Hunter gone rogue.

Tran booked “Here and Now” through Anna Paquin.
“ ‘Six Feet Under’ is one of my favorite shows of all time. ‘American Beauty,’ ‘Six Feet Under,’ ‘True Blood’… I actually shot a feature with Anna Paquin, so Anna actually sent a text to Alan Ball saying, ‘You should meet with Q.’ So there were a couple of people talking to Alan about me, and I Skype called him last March while I was shooting a feature in Toronto, and I got the job! It was a dream come true because I told myself many years ago that I’m not really interested in doing television unless it’s with Alan Ball.”

READ: How Alan Ball Cast TV’s Timeliest New Series, ‘Here and Now’

The series hits close to home.
“As a Vietnamese-American woman, mother, minority, filmmaker—you know, this show really kills me because it’s about all these adopted children and the current political landscape and everything that’s going on with immigration. Having grown up as a child of Vietnamese refugees, I could really, really relate to a lot of the narrative. It feels completely relevant. With TV, it’s always a little behind unless you’re shooting reality just because of the time it takes to write and produce episodes. But still, I feel like these issues are so current and relevant, and they’re scary issues. That’s what I love about Alan: He’s not afraid to bring these topics to the discussion.”

Know the story and what you want to do before you’re on set.
“For me, it always starts with the script, and it always starts with the story. I want to make sure I understand every scene in the script. I want to make sure I bring it to life and do it justice. So if I ever have any questions about not understanding a certain scene, I will ask the creator, ‘What is this scene about? Why does it exist? How does it further the narrative?’ Because really, there’s no time to waste in television, especially when you’re on set. You’re shooting eight pages a day sometimes, so if there’s any discussion about the scene that hasn’t been hashed out before, you can’t spend valuable production time discussing that. In television, you have these tone meetings where you discuss all that—you discuss the story, you discuss the look, the characters, everything. You try to hash it out so that when you’re on set, you’re able to really just fulfill the story and the vision.”

“Ultimately, the actors bring everything.”
“In the end, it doesn’t matter how beautiful it looks; if the acting isn’t there, then nobody wins. I want to make sure that the actor is comfortable. I never try to say, ‘OK, you’re going from point A to point B. You have to hit your light right here.’ I’m not that kind of DP.”

READ: How to Get a Show on HBO

Stars Holly Hunter and Tim Robbins are very different actors.
“Holly and Tim have very different processes. Tim is very technical—he does not like to rehearse, he likes to just shoot. I absolutely adore [Hunter]; we have a very special bond, but sometimes, she would just go rogue and be like, ‘Q, I’m going to go stand in this corner and I’m going to do the scene from this corner.’ And it’s like, ‘Well, Holly, is there any way your character would maybe just come three steps away from that white wall?’ I make it work, and I just love that about her. And other times she would be very amenable, it would just depend on the emotion of the scene.”

Tran wants to give her actors more than one take.
“Actors always want to go again, and I love that. I love when actors are given the chance to go again and go again and bring something new. It might be the seventh take where it’s magic. So there’s always time to go again—it just takes another 15 seconds. I always say [that in the time] we’re talking about going again, we could’ve shot two more takes. Let’s just go!”

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