‘Westworld’ + ‘Snowpiercer’ DP John Grillo on Creating Sci-Fi Worlds Onscreen

Article Image
Photo Source: John P. Johnson/HBO

As cinematographer for both HBO’s “Westworld” and TNT’s “Snowpiercer,” John Grillo helms the aesthetic of not one but two of the most stylistic series currently on the small screen. Here’s why both shows ultimately operate toward the exact same goal, and how Grillo, a two-time Emmy nominee, stays present so the actor can stay present, too.

How would you describe what it is a cinematographer does?
The main job of the cinematographer is to help the director bring his vision to life. That’s the one thing that all cinematographers are striving to do. The script dictates a lot of what we do, and then you get a bunch of people together from different departments, and the one director tries to unify that vision amongst all departments. My job is to bring in ideas, bring in my visual interpretation of the script and propose it to the director, [then] take his ideas and incorporate them into mine, and hopefully come out with a unified vision of how to shoot the script.

When shooting a series or film, do you shoot individual characters differently in order to portray them most authentically?
I don’t think that we particularly endeavor to create a style around a character in terms of the visuals, because you need to have a throughline in terms of tone. It depends on the scene; it depends on the moment. There are times when certain characters are going through a very traumatic event that’s happening to them in that particular scene, and what we do with the camera might be slightly different in terms of how we approach the theme, but I wouldn’t say that it changes character to character. The Man in Black [on “Westworld”], when he’s in the asylum, for example, we did a lot of shots that were wider scope lenses close to him just to feel a little bit of the disorienting space and moment that he was going through, little things like that to create more tension. I look at it as scene by scene rather than by characters.

In that same vein, how are you working directly with actors as the cinematographer?
I’m very respectful of the craft and the artistry of actors. They’re essential; that’s what people want to see. They want to see stories about people. I’m very mindful of giving the actors space. I understand there’s a process behind what they do that’s not obvious to a lot of people on set. You have to respect that process and you have to understand [that] they are exposing themselves. What actors do, essentially, is open up and portray a character, but by portraying a character, they’re opening themselves to these different emotions that not everybody goes through as a normal human being—and they have to do it on cue. I’m very respectful toward them on set, particularly when we are blocking a scene. I’m always observing what ideas they come up with, what motivations they come up with, what movements they come up with.

Does what an actor does during rehearsal frequently change the planned blocking of a scene?
As much as you plan and block a scene or shot-list a scene before you rehearse it, invariably, you know in the back of your head that that’s going to change. Actors come in to rehearse, and I try to give them a little bit of the lighting when they come into the set. It’s not fully lit, but I’m at least giving them a sense of how bright or how dark the set is going to be, because I think that helps them, just as props or set decorating is going to help them figure out how they’re going to play a scene. I try to at least give them a sketch of what the lighting is going to be before they go back to makeup and get ready to come back and shoot. The blocking is essential and the rehearsal is essential, and I pay close attention to their movements and if they’re deviating from the shot the director created: “Oh, he’s not going to sit down in that chair that’s near that window, now he’s going to be standing.” I’m always ready to change everything, because I give priority to the actors. Very, very rarely, if it’s something that I know is very complicated and will take hours to shoot, I’ll approach an actor and adjust something or approach the director and have them talk to the actor, but, normally, I always want to be looking at what they’re doing, what ideas they come up with, so we can all be in sync.

So your mission as the cinematographer is to be present just as much as it is the actor’s?
Totally. We’re there to help them get to that place where they and the director want to go. The better they do, the better I do. The better a performance they give, the better my work looks. They elevate my work, as well. I totally understand that, and it’s a give and take. There are moments when actors come on set and they see a light coming through a window and they play to it; it goes both ways.

What is unique about shooting “Westworld”?
The theme that drives that show is technology and artificial intelligence. The element of sci-fi is always very interesting for a cinematographer to tackle, because it presents many opportunities, visually. I’m always interested in the inner world of characters; even as a cinematographer, that inspires me to try and translate emotions into visuals. Every show I work on, even if it’s sci-fi or action, I’m always interested in character and I’m always trying to figure out how I can visually represent what the characters are going through internally. “Westworld” deals with a very interesting dynamic, which is artificial intelligence gaining consciousness and eventually becoming human.

How different is “Westworld” from your other big project this year, “Snowpiercer”?
Both shows have a predecessor, a previous [source material]. Obviously, the one for “Westworld” is way different in terms of style, but with “Snowpiercer,” we had a pretty good guide in terms of the film and graphic novel. The challenge with “Snowpiercer” was having a modest budget. Trying to tell a story that takes place entirely on a train in a not-so-distant future presents a lot of challenges, and those took several weeks to figure out, in terms of prep. The complexity of the show, in terms of bringing it to the screen as a TV series with a scheduling budget, was very challenging. That was our biggest obstacle: How do we get this to look real? How do we get the audience to remember they’re on a train every time the camera is on? It’s not an apartment or a house, it’s a train that is moving. With all the trickery that we could bring, all the high tech and the low tech to create moving lights and movement of trains, eventually we got the language. New sets were built, and in every set we’d find new and innovative ways to create movement or the illusion of movement. We had great actors, storytelling, great scripts. The story moves along, and the audience will be entertained.

This story originally appeared in the July 2 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

Looking for remote work? Backstage has got you covered! Click here for auditions you can do from home!

Author Headshot
Casey Mink
Casey Mink is the senior staff writer at Backstage. When she's not writing about television, film, or theater, she is definitely somewhere watching it.
See full bio and articles here!