Directed by Nisha Ganatra, Amazon Studios’ comedy Late Night stars Emma Thompson as Katherine, a famous talk show host who hires Molly, her first-ever female writer (played by Mindy Kaling, who also wrote the screenplay).
Ganatra — whose rich directing background includes Transparent, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Fresh Off the Boat and Chutney Popcorn — worked closely with her, DP Matthew Clark. The two were students together at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Clark’s credits include Pitch Perfect 3, Up All Night and 30 Rock, among many others.
Clark has said that one of the toughest tasks in shooting comedy is to make it look and feel natural for the audience while allowing the space for them to laugh. “The visuals must have some depth to them but you need to let the actors work things out on screen,” he explains. “That was a big part for this film knowing the way Nisha likes to work. She’s visual but she’s also very actor-oriented, so one of the things I wanted to do was make our technical footprint as small as possible to give the actors room to work and to find those comic moments.”
For Late Night, Clark describes the look as “heightened naturalism.” He created a look book of images from still photographers, including Gregory Crewdson (artificial reality) and Robert Frank (super naturalism). He also worked with Light Iron colorists Corinne Bogdanowicz in Los Angeles and Sean Dunckley in New York to develop the look during prep. “There were three distinct kind of looks we wanted,” describes Clark. “One was for Katherine’s home, which was more elegant with warm tones. The television studio needed to be crisp and clean with more neutral tones. and for the writers’ room office, the look was more chaotic and business-like with blue or cooler tones.”
We recently reached out to Clark with a few questions designed to learn more about his work on the film and his most recent collaboration with Ganatra.
How would you describe the overarching look of the film? What did you and the director want to achieve? You’ve described it as heightened naturalism. Can you expand on that?
Nisha and I wanted a sophisticated look without being too glamorous. We started oﬀ looking at the story, the locations and the ideas that go along with placing our characters in those spaces — both physically and emotionally. Comedy is not easy in that regard. It can be easy to go from joke to joke, but if you want something layered and something that lasts in the audience’s mind, you have to ground the film.
So we worked very hard to give Nisha and the actors space to find those moments. It meant less lighting and a more natural approach. We didn’t back away completely though. We still used camera and light to elevate the scenes and accentuate the mood; for example, huge backlight on the stage, massive negative space when we find out about Katherine’s betrayal or a smoke-filled room as Katherine gives up. That’s what I mean by “heightened naturalism.”
How did Ganatra describe the look she wanted?
Nisha and I started going over looks well before prep began. We talked photos and films. Two of our favorites photographers are William Eggleston and Philip-Lorca DiCorsia. So I was ahead of the game when the oﬃcial prep started. There was a definite shorthand. Because of that, I was able to go to Light Iron in LA and work out some basic looks for the film — overall color, highlights, shadow detail/color, grain, etc. We wanted three distinct looks. The rest would fall into place.
Katherine’s home was elegant and warm. The writers’ office was cool and corporate. The talk show’s studio was crisper and more neutral. As you know, even at that point, it’s just an idea unless you have your camera, lenses, etc.
Can you talk about the tools you chose?
Once prep started, I realized that we would need to shed some weight to accomplish our days due to very few extra days for rigging and the amount of daily company moves. So we went without a generator and took advantage of the 5000 ISO Panasonic VariCam 35 in conjunction some old, beautiful Panavision UltraSpeeds and Super Speeds.
That lens choice came after I sat with Dan Sasaki and told him what I was going for. He knew I was a fan of older lenses having used an old set of Baltars and similar Ultras on my last movie. I think they take the digital edge off of the sensor and can provide beautiful anomalies and flares when used to achieve your look. Anyway, I think he emptied out the closets at the Woodland Hills location and let us test everything. This was very exciting for a DP.
What makes the process a smooth one for you?
I think what got me started, artistic inspiration and rules/process, all stem from the same thing. The story, the telling, the showing and the emotion. The refined and the raw. It sounds simple. but for me, it is true.
Always try to serve the story; don’t get tied to the fancy new thing or the splashy piece of equipment. Just tell the story. Sometimes, those things coincide. But, always tell a story.
Where do you find inspiration for your work?
I think inspiration for each project comes from many different sources — music, painting, photography, a walk in the afternoon, a sound. That’s very vague, I know, but we have to be open to the world and draw from that. Obviously, it is crucial to spend time with the director — to breathe the same air, so to speak. That’s what puts me on the path and allows me to use the inspirations that fit the film.
Main Image: Matthew Clark and director Nisha Ganatra.