In a far-ranging slate that includes Dickinson, the wildly reimagined life of poet Emily Dickinson as an edgy teen drama in period dress, and Servant, M. Night Shyamalan’s creepy take on an unusual baby and nanny bond, Apple TV+ is serving up its new streaming options with plenty of cinematic trimmings. Those include 4K, Dolby Atmos sound and a very big helping of star power.
Even for a broadcast-centric story like The Morning Show, the headliner in the mix, the star power is high-voltage. Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, who also both executive-produce the show with director Mimi Leder, are joined by Steve Carell, Billy Crudup, Mark Duplass and a long line of guest stars including Martin Short and Mindy Kaling. Leder, a pioneer of the “walk-and-talk”-style direction on ER and its Sorkinized apotheosis on The West Wing, was specifically chosen by Aniston to bring the same kinetic energy to The Morning Show.
Naturally, Leder brought along her longtime DP Michael Grady, with whom she shot the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex. “Mimi and I go pretty far back,” Grady says fondly. “We’ve worked together for 15 years, and I consider her a dear friend.” One of a handful of men behind the scenes during production of The Morning Show, Grady says the slower arc of an episodic storyline means we really haven’t seen anything yet, especially when you consider the potential of such a heavy-hitting ensemble cast. “All the characters’ stories will start emerging to a place of much greater complexity. They’ll sneak up on you, I promise.”
As he contemplated the beginning of prep on season two, Grady discussed what he likes most about shooting in large format, how he and Leder mapped out a visual language for the show and the real reason he decided to sign on to the project.
StudioDaily: What was your reaction when you learned Apple was behind the project?
Michael Grady: I was obviously super-excited about it because I’ve always been an Apple disciple, in terms of just the product. The best experience of my entire career so far was on HBO’s The Leftovers, also with Mimi and such an incredible team, [which] convinced me, after 10 years of doing mostly features, that all the best stuff, especially the best writing, was already happening on the small screen. Then I heard the talent on board and it became clear that the stakes are high, the talent level is high, and what we were shooting was really a 10-hour movie. What’s the difference? And because I’ve known Mimi forever, I’m usually interested in whatever she’s doing, regardless.
Leder has recently gone on the record to say that details of the show’s huge budget have been greatly exaggerated. But with all that talent, and filming in New York and L.A., as the show does, you still need a pretty big budget. How did that affect your setup?
Yeah, the whole budget thing was blown out of proportion. And you’ve said it: big movie stars, New York and L.A. and all the support that those things need requires more people and more money. The production value is there, and we had everything that we would need within reason, but in terms of production, it was not extravagant at all! But those sort of stars will also bring in a lot of eyeballs, and that’s worth every penny.
Did you at least get to shoot with the latest and greatest?
Yeah, we shot with the new [8K] Panavision DXL2 and all of their new Primo lenses. Then of course we had all the morning show studio cameras — pedestal cameras used for studio news. We approached all the on-camera scenes very much like it was a news show, and they did their thing and then we were filming on top of it. We built that set on a soundstage just as if it was a real morning TV show and everything was live and completely operable, like a real news studio. Fun fact: those camera operators that you see are both operating the cameras for the feed view and were also extras, so had to go through wardrobe and makeup.
What do you like about shooting in a larger format?
I kind of got into shooting with the [Arri] Alexa the past couple years, and Apple’s 4K focus meant we had to at least start with 4K. When we started the project, however, there weren’t as many large-format choices as there are right now. But I fell in love with the DXL2 right away, loved the glass and loved the perspective of the large format. It’s just so much more like human eyesight, and you understand why still photographers have loved working with larger formats forever. We’re not going backwards from here, that’s for sure. After we moved to digital and people would ask, “which camera should we use?” I’d always say, “well, which one came out most recently?” Bring on the bells and whistles and advancements! But the large format was fun to work with, too, on a show that really is about everyone being under a microscope. The speed of this camera is insane, and I tried to use less and less lighting as a result and be as minimal as possible, except for lighting their faces. We shot some scenes in Las Vegas and we shot raw on the street. It looks amazing. There’s less technical stuff to worry about all the time with the newer cameras, too, so you can definitely focus more on assisting the director in telling the story and not just be worried about the math.
Did you and Mimi look at any specific references before production began?
We’re big about viewing things together, so we looked at all of the predecessors that probably come to mind, like Broadcast News, Network and the Aaron Sorkin show, The Newsroom, and just a lot of other stuff that we thought was tonally correct, like work by other cinematographers and directors. We watched a lot of New York movies. Mimi is a big collector of photographs and putting them all on the walls, so you have them all around you during prep. So even if you’re bored and staring off into space, you’re going to be looking at these pictures and absorbing them, because they’re all around you all the time. Every day, more stuff goes on the wall, and keeps on going all the way down the hallway once the walls are full. On the Ginsburg movie we really did go out of two rooms and down the hallway because we had chronological groupings, from the Harvard years, being a mother, being a teacher, etc. Sometimes, even the process of elimination of what the show isn’t anything like can be really helpful sometimes.
What was your favorite set to shoot on during season one?
The apartment of Jen Aniston’s character is just really awesome. It’s built on stage and magnificent in every detail. In fact, Jen worked with the production designer on it. The studio’s pretty great, too, because I love the control room. I loved using the monitors as lighting sources, and we tried to put as many monitors in the scenes at all times. Reflections, and the idea that everything is reflected off glass, is the ongoing motif of the show, so we tried to populate the frame with it. The control room epitomizes the overall look of the show, too: hard surfaces, reflective surfaces, and always reflections of our cast, on TV and off screen. That seemed the most organic way to help tell the story, to put those subtle reflections in the shots when they made sense.
What kinds of rigs did you use?
We did everything, from handheld to Steadicam and dollies. When we go on location we’ll go into a handheld mode, which you can see in the early scenes with Reese, and later in the show, we’ll go on location to other events that happened during those few weeks when the #MeToo movement exploded with the Harvey Weinstein allegations, for example, to capture the fires in L.A. It breaks it down a little bit in a handheld mode away from the studio scenes. With a 10-hour movie like this, we needed to be able to move with the range of emotional shifts and narrative shifts. Primarily, we were in a steady studio mode most of the time, but handheld is definitely in there, too.
The allegations against Matt Lauer and his dismissal from The Today Show offer an uncanny parallel to the show’s storyline, even though the cast and crew have said the Mitch character, played by Steve Carell, is more of a composite of many, many similar men in positions of power.
To me, I was super-psyched about the timing. When you make a topical movie or other form of pop culture a year to two years ahead of the release date, you’re gonna miss some things. But if you get a zeitgeist like this? It’s like hitting the lottery. So the fact that [co-creator, writer and showrunner] Kerry [Ehrin] and Mimi and Jen and Reese drove this project to the front is important, especially now. This is very much a show where the women are making the decisions and women are telling the story. I hope the issues we’re tackling resonate and it does what they intended it to do. Mimi makes a joke with me all the time, “Well, I’ve got too great a relationship with you, but I’d much rather you were a woman.” I take that as such a compliment and feel completely honored. My mother put a feminist perspective into me at a young age, and for the past 20 years, I’ve probably worked with more women directors than men. That’s an anomaly right there. Mimi was only one of the five or 10 when we first started working together. I love that Mimi is in the place she is now, because she deserves it all.
Beyond these important topics, there’s also plenty of comedy.
The comic timing of all of the cast is amazing. From an actor’s perspective, if you can make somebody laugh, you can definitely make them cry. There’s nothing harder than comedy. I firmly believe, when I watch any of these comedic actors, that they can smoke your drawers off if you ask them to do drama. On this show, these guys all shift back and forth from one to the other so seamlessly, like the true movie star professionals that they are. That’s what is so amazing when you have this grinding schedule and we’re all going so fast. Each one of them is that good that they came in completely prepared and just laid it down perfectly every time. That certainly allowed us to be efficient on such a tight schedule!
In a way, thanks to the explosion of streaming services, it’s like a return to the heyday of big studios when contract directors and stars would crank out dozens of films a year.
Absolutely. There’s an astonishing amount of good television out there right now, and it’s hard to keep up. And you’re right: in the old days, they’d finish a movie on Friday and start shooting a new one on Monday. It’s exciting for all of us.
Are you looking forward to shooting the next season?
You know, my usual pattern is to move on to something different to keep things interesting, but this first season was a really good experience and group of people and quality of life. I realized I really do want to go back and do it again. That’s the ultimate compliment for me, because one of my favorite things about this business is you usually don’t have to go back to the same office.
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