Chris Teague Explains How to Bring Grit to Comedy in Only Murders in the Building

Selena Gomez, Martin Short and Steve Martin are about to solve another murder in the building, in a thriller that pokes fun at itself.

The first season of Only Murders in the Building was wrapped in a charming and warm visual language. Cinematographer Chris Teague brought his own comedic aesthetic to a murder mystery. He’s no stranger to finding a sense of levity in New York City, in Landline (Amazon), Russian Doll (Netflix), and Obvious Child (A24). A note that there will be spoilers ahead.

For Season 2 of Only Murders in the Building, Teague had two hurdles to overcome. He needed to build the character of the “Arconia” building, and he also needed to direct part of the series. No small feat.

Prepare

Teague was the original cinematographer from the start. He helped pitch the look of the show, running tests with other department heads. All the while, COVID loomed over production in 2020. Time-saving techniques should be employed in order to avoid sacrificing creative vision. Filming with two cameras helped with that, as well as capturing organic comedy moments.

“The crossfire came with on-set experience,” he said. “The gaffer knew the limits” of his team, and so they wouldn’t need a complete lighting reset just to test another lens or angle.

Working with Jamie Babbit previously on Russian Doll and getting his 1st AC Timothy Trotman from the same production, Teague was well placed to embark on this project. Getting comfortable meant that directing two episodes himself didn’t seem like too much of a stretch.

The need to lay out the show’s look ahead of pre-production forced Teague and his colleagues “to really distill our ideas into a clear, unified format. These more creative conversations about blue skies happened then. As you move up the board, it becomes a bit more about execution.

Make Gritty Murder Funny

Trying to play off the dark tropes of the New York murder mystery against bits of comedy is no easy task. To the show’s credit, she never takes herself so seriously that comedy seems out of place. For Teague, entering the second season meant he had to expand the library of references and emotions.

“I wanted an organic looking image,” I was told. “I like the texture in the image, I like the grain, I like the irregularities in the optics. Many styles we see today are an interesting mix of what an amazing modern camera can give you with some of the aesthetics and feel of something from another era.

Both seasons were shot with Sony’s Venice (unfortunately Venice 2 was released too late). Full-frame Leitz cine glass was used, both for primes and zooms. The first 21mm was as wide as possible. Interestingly, some of the wide-angle use was portable.

The expanding visual language expands to amnesia and self-distrust, which is new for the second season. “We use hand-held shots to signal subjectivity. It’s a memory. Did it really happen? »

Most of the show is shot locked, on a dolly, or with limited use of a steadicam. “With memoirs, we do a lot of freehand work. It’s interesting because when you’re in a cart frame of reference, you have to recalibrate your mind,” he explained. “The challenge became ‘how to make it portable and exciting, but not jerky and drawing attention to itself”.

“You have to work the camera a bit with the blocking, to create dynamism and energy with the handheld shot that you are looking for. If there’s not enough movement in the scene, you won’t notice there’s been a change in language. Of course, Teague gives credit to the amazing cameramen who joined the team, but it’s his credentials and insights that provide depth.

The show always “returned to another era of cinema” and leaned into its references. Touches of film noir, angles from Orson Wells films. Teague pointed out that the portable work in Only Murders in the Building has a similar feeling to the eerie cinematography found in John Frankenheimer’s “Seconds.” Trying to help the audience feel like the character doesn’t quite know themselves.

Perform on a set you know

“At the start of the season, I paid a lot more attention to how the directors before me worked with the performers,” Teague noted. “Just to be clear, Dagmar Weaver-Madsen took over the cinematography while I was directing.”

I think it was such a smart decision to have Teague direct the episodes he did. In particular, one episode takes place during a blackout in New York. Some scenes are fully lit by flashlights. The actors should use the lighting to follow the motivation of the scene.

“When you’re DP on a show, you never stop working. As a director, you can have those downtime moments when you’re waiting for lighting settings and camera setups. I’m not used to those moments of waiting for the DP,” he laughed. During the setups, of course, he stayed focused and “tried to anticipate problems.”

As the cinematographer for the show, Teague was quite confident and comfortable changing shots, cutting things, and finding opportunities. “It’s more difficult for a guest director. They arrive in a setting, in a new environment, and might not have had as much experience working with these actors, editors, or writers.

The season finale for Only Murders in the Building is out this week, on Hulu (and Disney+ internationally). If you watch it, I hope you notice the artistry of the cinematography.

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