By Randi Altman
Dopesick Nation is a documentary series on Vice Media’s Viceland that follows two recovering heroin addicts, Frankie and Allie, in South Florida as they try to help others while taking a look at corruption and exploitation in the rehab industry. The series was inspired by the feature film American Relapse.
As you might imagine, the shoot was challenging, often taking place at night and in dubious locales, but cinematographers Greg Taylor and Mike Goodman were up for the challenge. Both had worked with series co-creator/executive producer Patrick McGee previously and were happy to collaborate once more.
We reached out to DP Taylor to talk about working with McGee and Goodman and the show’s workflow.
Tell us about Dopesick Nation. How early did you get involved in this series, and how did you work with the director?
Pat McGee tapped myself and Mike Goodman to shoot American Relapse. We were just coming off another show and had a finely tuned team ready to spend long nights on this new project. The movie turned out to have a familiar gritty feel you see in the show but in a feature documentary format.
I imagine it was a natural progression to use us again once the TV show was greenlit by Viceland. Pat would keep on our heels to find the best moments for every story and would push us to go out and produce intimate moments with the subjects on the fly. He and producer Adam Linkenhelt (American Relapse) were with us almost every step of the way, offering advice, watching our backs and looking out for incoming storylines. Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about that whole crew.
How did you work with fellow DP Mike Goodman? How did you divvy up the shots?
Mike and I have worked long enough together that we have an efficient shorthand. A gesture or look can set up an entire scene sometimes, and I often can’t tell my shots from his. We both put a lot of effort into creativity in our imagery and pushing the bar as much as we can handle. During rare downtimes, we might brainstorm on a new way to shoot b-roll or decide what “gritty” should look and feel like.
Covering the often late and challenging days took a bit of baton-passing back and forth. Some days, we would split up and shoot single camera as well. It was decided at some point that I would cover more of Frankie’s story, while Mike would cover Allie. When the two met up at the end of the day, we would cover them together. Most of the major scenes we shot together, but there were times when too much was happening to cover it all. We were really in the addicts’ world, so some events were completely unexpected.
How would you describe the look of the doc?
I’d say gritty would be the best single word, but that can be nuanced quite a bit. There was an overall aim to keep some frames dirty during dialogue scenes to achieve a slightly voyeuristic feel but still leave lots of room for intimate, in-your-face, bam-type moments when the story dictated. We always paid attention to our backgrounds, and there was a focus on the contrast between beautiful southeast Florida and the dark underbelly lurking just next to it. The show had to be so real that no one would ever question the legitimacy of what we were showing. No-filter, behind-the-veil type thinking in every shot.
How does your process change when shooting a documentary versus a fictional piece? Or does it not?
Story is king, and I’d say character arcs for the feature American Relapse were different from the TV version. In the film, we gave an overview of the treatment industry told through the eyes of our two main characters, Allie and Frank. It is structured somewhat around their typical day and sit-down interviews.
The TV show did not have formal interviews but did allow us to dig deeper into accounts from individuals with addiction, the world they live in and the hosts themselves. The 10 one-hour episodes and three-plus months spent shooting gave us a little more time to build up a library of transition pieces and specialty b-roll.
Where was it shot?
Almost all of the shooting took place in and around southeast Florida. A few short scenes were picked up in Ohio and LA.
How did you go about choosing the right camera and lenses for this project? Can you talk about camera tests?
It’s funny because Mike and I both independently came up with using the Panasonic VariCam LT after the director came to us asking what we wanted to shoot with. We chatted and decided that we needed solutions for potentially tougher nighttime setups than we had been used to. When we gathered for a meeting and started up the gear list, Mike and I both had the LT on the top of our requests.
I think that signaled to the preproduction team we were unanimous on what the best system was to use and production manager Keith Plant made it happen. I had seen the camera in action at NAB and watched some tests a friend had shot on it a few months before. I was easily sold on its rich blacks and dual native ISO. That camera could see into the dark and wasn’t so heavy we would collapse at the end of the day; it worked out very well.
Can you talk about the lighting and how the camera worked while grabbing shots when you could?
Lighting on this show was minimal, but we did use fills and background illumination to enhance some scenes. Working mostly at night — in dubious surroundings — often meant we couldn’t light scenes. Lights bring unwanted attention to the crew and subjects, and we found it changed the feel of the scene in a negative way.
Using the available light at each location quickly became fundamentally important to maintain the unfiltered nature of the show. Every bright spot in the darkness was carefully considered, and if we could pull subjects slightly toward a source, even to get 1/3 a stop more, we would take it.
Any challenging scenes that you are particularly proud of or found most challenging?
There were a lot of scenes that were challenging to shoot technically, but that happens on any project. You don’t always want to see what you are standing next to, but the story needs to be told. There are a lot of people out there really struggling with addiction, and it can be really painful to watch. Being present with everyone and being real with them had to be in your mind constantly. I kept thinking the whole time, “Am I doing them justice? What can I do better? How can I help?”
Let’s move on to more some more general questions. How did you become interested in cinematography?
I’ve always loved working with celluloid and photography and was brought up with a darkroom in the house. I remember taking a filmmaking summer camp when I was 14 in Oxford, Mississippi, and was basically blown away. I’ve been aiming for a career in cinematography ever since.
What inspires you artistically? And how do you simultaneously stay on top of advancing technology that serves your vision?
Artistically, I love Dali, Picasso and the works of Caravaggio and Rembrandt. The way light plays in a chiaroscuro painting is really something worth studying and it isn’t easy to replicate.
I like to try and pay homage to the films I enjoy and artworks I’ve visited by incorporating some of their ideas into my own work. With film cameras, things changed slower over the years, and it was often the film stock that became the technological advancement of its day. Granular structure turned to crystal structures, higher ISO/ASA were achieved, color reproduction improved. The same is with the new camera systems coming out. Sensors are the new film stock. You pick what is appropriate to the story.
What new technology has changed the way you work?
I rarely go anywhere nowadays without a drone. The advancements in drone technology have changed the aerial world entirely, and I’m happy to see these new angles open up in an increasingly responsible and licensed way.
Gimbals are a game changer in the way the Steadicam came onto the scene, and I don’t expect them to go anywhere. Also motion-control devices and newer, more sensitive sensors are certainly fitting the bill of ever-evolving and improving tech.
What are some of your best practices or rules you try to follow on each job?
Be aware and attentive of your surroundings and safety. Treat others with respect. Maintain a professional attitude under stress. If you are five minutes early, you’re late.
Explain your ideal collaboration with the director when setting the look of a project.
I love discussing what the heart of the script or concept really means and trying to find the deeper connection with how it can be told visually. Referencing other films/art/ TV we both have experience with and finding a common language that makes sense for the vision.
What’s your go-to gear — things you can’t live without?
I have an old Nikkor 55mm f1.2 lens I love, and I often shoot personal projects on prime vintage glass. The edges aren’t quite as sharp as modern lenses so in the case of the 55mm, you get a lovely yet subtle sharpness vignette along with a warm overall feel.
It’s great for interviews because it softens the digital crispness newer sensors exhibit without the noticeable changes you might see with certain filtration. The Hip Shot belt has been one of my best friends over the past while, and it saves you on the long days and low, long dialogue scenes when handholding seated subjects.
Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years.