Selena Gomez, Martin Short, and Steve Martin are close to solving another murder in the building, in a whodunnit that laughs at itself.
The first season of Only Murders in the Building was wrapped in a charming, warm, visual language. The 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, in Landline (Amazon), Russian Doll (Netflix), and Obvious Child (A24). A note that there will be some spoilers ahead.
For Season 2 of Only Murders in the Building, Teague had two obstacles to overcome. He needed to build out the character of the “Arconia” building, and he also needed to direct part of the series. No small feat.
Teague was the original cinematographer from the beginning. He helped to pitch the look for the show, shooting tests with other department heads. All while COVID loomed over the production back in 2020. Time-saving techniques would need to be used in order to avoid sacrificing the creative vision. Shooting with two cameras helped with this, as well as with capturing organic comedy moments.
“Cross shooting came with experience on the set,” he mentioned. “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 positioned to jump into this project. Getting comfortable meant that directing two episodes himself didn’t seem like such a stretch.
Needing to present the look of the show prior to pre-production forced Teague and his colleagues “to really distill our ideas into a clear, unified format. Those more blue sky creative conversations happened at that point. As you get onto set, it becomes a bit more about execution.”
Making Gritty Murder Funny
Trying to play dour New York murder mystery tropes against comedy bits isn’t an easy task. To the series’ credit, it never takes itself so seriously that comedy feels out of place. For Teague, coming into the second season meant that he needed to expand the library of references and emotions.
“I wanted an organic-looking image,” I was told. “I like texture in the image, I like grain, I like irregularities in the optics. A lot of the styles we’re seeing today are an interesting mix of what an incredible 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 the Venice 2 was released too late). Full frame Leitz cine glass was used, both primes and zooms. The 21mm prime was as wide as things got. Interestingly, part of the wide angle usage was handheld.
The expanding visual language extends to amnesia and distrust of the self, which is new to the second season. “We use handheld shots to signal subjectivity. This is a memory. Did it really happen?”
Most of the show is shot locked off, on a dolly, or with limited use of a steadicam. “With memories, we do a lot of handheld work. It’s interesting because when you’re in a dolly frame of reference, you have to recalibrate your mind.” he explained. The challenge became about “how to make it feel handheld and exciting, but not jerky and drawing attention to itself.”
“You have to work the camera with the blocking a bit, so that you create dynamism and energy with the handheld shot that you’re looking for. If there’s not enough movement in the scene, you’re not going to notice that there’s been a change in language.” Of course, Teague credits the amazing camera operators that joined the team, however it’s his references and ideas that bring depth.
The show has always “harkened back to a different era of filmmaking” and leaned into its references. Film noir touches, angles from Orson Wells’ flicks. Teague pointed out that the handheld work in Only Murders in the Building has a similar feeling to the uneasy cinematography found in John Frankenheimer’s “Seconds.” Trying to help the audience feel as though the character doesn’t quite know themselves.
Directing on a Set You Know
“As I got into the season, I did pay a lot more attention to how the directors who came prior to me were working with the performers,” Teague noted. “Just so we’re clear, Dagmar Weaver-Madsen took over the cinematography while I directed.”
I think it was such a smart decision to have Teague direct the episodes that he did. In particular, one episode takes place during a blackout in New York. Some scenes are lit entirely by flashlights. The actors need to use the lighting to follow the scene's motivation.
“When you’re a DP on a show, you kind of never stop working. As a director, you can have these moments of downtime when you’re waiting for lighting tweaks and camera setups. I’m not used to those moments waiting for the DP,” he laughed. During setups, he of course kept focused and “tried to anticipate problems.”
As the director of photography for the show, Teague was quite confident and comfortable changing shots, cutting things, and finding opportunities. “It’s harder for a visiting director. They’re coming into a set, into a new environment and maybe would not have 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, hopefully you’ll spot the artistry within the cinematography.