When you see mentions of director Lexi Alexander, they usually revolve around her past as a stuntwoman, her unapologetic social media outspokenness on the topics of diversity in entertainment and movie piracy, and the fact that fans clearly want her to direct everything from Wonder Woman to Star Wars.
But what about her actual day job?
A lot of people—even film buffs—aren’t always so clear on the specifics of how a director and their cinematographer (or director of photography) work together on a daily basis, and how every single one of their creative choices is fueled by personal taste, technical ingenuity, and a little “throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks” daring. The following is a conversation between Alexander and DP Alan Caso, in which the two collaborators discuss the creative decisions they made during their time on the CBS series American Gothic, as well as Caso’s work on the critically-acclaimed HBO series Six Feet Under. This is going to get technical…but it may just change the way you watch TV and movies from now on.
LEXI ALEXANDER: Ever since working with you on American Gothic, I’ve become obsessed with using slant focus. I’m uncertain if everybody uses it the way you do, but to me it was a revelation that you didn’t have to rack focus back and forth between actors anymore [Editor’s Note: “Rack focus” refers to the technique of manually changing the focus of the lens in the middle of a shot, usually from something near to something far. “Slant focus” allows for more of the overall image to be kept in focus]. When did you start using it, and why doesn’t everybody do it?
ALAN CASO: This will be long-winded because it requires a bit of background. What we’re talking about here is depth of field. Or, in more basic terms, having enough focus to carry things in the background of a set as well as those in the foreground in focus.
In Citizen Kane, Greg Toland, the cinematographer, and Orson Welles make a statement in that film by using wide lenses and exposing a tremendous amount of light which produced an amazing amount of depth of field—or basically keeping much of everything in focus. There’s a certain democracy to it. The filmmaker gets to let the weight of the characters work in the frame, as opposed to manipulating what the audience must watch. It takes a lot of guts to shoot with wide lenses, because it requires confidence in your sets. There are a lot of myths about how long telephoto lenses make actors more appealing and sexy. That’s old Hollywood, and frankly I’m tired of it. It’s smoke and mirrors. A wide lens puts the audience in the room, and it keeps it honest as your eye sees it. A lot of DP’s and directors are inherently scared of wide lenses—it has a truthfulness that they don’t trust. I disagree. I think if you use wide lenses and your departments have done their jobs, then the set and the world in which you’re shooting will be given an honesty.
I actually started using deep depth of focus when I started working with John Frankenheimer. I got hired by him to shoot George Wallace because two minutes into my interview with him, he asked me who my favorite cinematographer was and I said Greg Toland. He asked why, I said depth of focus, and he hired me on the spot!
Now I have one for you. I noticed how carefully you consider composition in a shot, especially in that you like to use close-ups. You compose actors in a way that is very personal—they are square to the camera, and when they look to the offscreen character they are almost looking directly at the lens of the camera. What inspired you to frame things that way?
LA: If you’re expecting an elaborate technical answer, I can’t give you one! In my other work as a self-defense instructor, I have taught the importance of listening to one’s gut instincts. It never occurred to me that artists, of all people, have to be reminded that instinct is more important than tradition, but in our industry people seem to forget that sometimes. Yes, we have done things in TV and film for a very long time a certain way—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try something new once in a while. Even if it’s just a slightly unusual composition.
Now, I was obsessed with your work on Six Feet Under. You’re often credited with changing the look of TV with that show. Is the slogan “It’s Not TV, It’s HBO” true? How were you able to change the look so dramatically?
AC: When I read the script for the pilot, I knew I had to do the show because I had very strong feelings about what the show should look like. Six Feet Under couldn’t help but be a lab test for changing some of the look of TV. The idea was to put the audience in the room, and introduce wide lenses into TV as an active character. We wanted to make the way we composed shots help tell the story as much as dialogue. We had faith in the visual medium, something that hadn’t really been truly applied to TV as it had been to movies. For example, we never did over-the-shoulder shots, because we felt that none of the characters every connected, even visually. We also played with lights and darks, since a big theme of the show was life and death. So, yeah, it really did support HBO’s slogan.
Now, I know your experience shooting sports has given you a special bag of tricks—one of the ones you used on American Gothic you called a “flip shot.” Even though it was developed on a sports shoot, it proved to be amazingly adaptable to TV. Could you explain it a little?
LA: I’m still laughing about the fact that this crazy idea worked out! I used to shoot a lot of extreme sports stuff and I’m pretty certain other people in that field used the flip shot before me. But when you think about what snowboarders or skateboarders do and how best to capture that on film…of course you’ll end up creating all kinds of techniques that show off as much of a trick as you can without interruption. This is also an arena where no two takes are the same, and often an athlete will nail something in a way he or she won’t be able to duplicate in the same manner. So you’re always thinking of how the camera can move with them and capture the most of it. The reason I brought it up as an option on American Gothic was because I felt we needed breathing room and were moving too much from interiors to interiors. That can make a show feel small and claustrophobic. A lot of TV people have turned against establishing shots [Editor’s Note: A long exterior shot used to establish a location – like the outside of a building or a home] because they only think of them as boring, static, postcard type shots. It’s one of my obsessions to come up with ways to reimagine establishing shots in new, non-boring ways. Shots that have energy and excitement.
AC: I know you love to reference other work as a way to communicate with other people with whom you’re collaborating. I found it an effective tool on American Gothic, and it really helped our ability to communicate ideas. When did you start doing it, and has it ever not worked for you?
LA: I started doing it once I started directing TV, because there isn’t as much prep and get-to-know-you time for the cinematographer and the director to learn each other’s language and shorthand. And, yes, it can backfire. One time I worked on a show for which I pulled hundreds of classy shots from famous, critically-acclaimed movies way before I arrived to prep. I then had to pull a quick reference shot that wasn’t in my original collection just to make a quick point about how to shoot a large room with less extras, and the only example I could find quickly was from the movie Legally Blonde. BIG mistake. I committed the ultimate sin of referring to a movie that was beneath the creatives involved. I never heard the end of it! Too much baggage comes with other movies and TV shows. You never know when you’ll pull up a shot of a movie or a show that is hated by the person you’re showing it to. Hollywood is silly sometimes.