It is easy for modern audiences to look back with a comforting distance at the historical moments captured in black-and-white. But nothing is ever just black and white. Once those images are given color and depth, we realized that we are not as far removed from history as we thought we were. 

Gaslit, Starz’s look at the Watergate scandal as adapted from the first season of the Slow Burn podcast, doesn’t want viewers to escape from the incompetence and immorality of the men in power. The show’s visuals highlight this while adding a new perspective to a moment that has settled into history.

Larkin Seiple, who often collaborates with Daniels on projects like Everything Everywhere All at Once, worked as Gaslit’s DP to highlight the perspectives of those involved in one of the greatest U.S. scandals. Nominated for an Emmy for Best Cinematography for a Limited Series, Seiple recreated a nostalgic tone of the 70s while unveiling the underbelly of Watergate and the stories of those involved in the cover-up. 

Seiple spoke with No Film School to talk about how he and his team created a character-driven drama that tells a complex story about power, greed, and the human condition. 

No Film School: Congratulations on your Emmy nomination for cinematography on Gaslit. When you first were in pre-production, what were the conversations around the look and feel of the world within the series

Seiple: The conversations kind of stemmed around less about how to make a film set in the seventies, and much more about the emotional arcs of all the characters and how to kind of tailor the film around that, as opposed to how we should shoot on these lenses and that. We kind of just started breaking down the different arcs of all the characters, like Martha's (Julia Roberts) arc, Gordon Liddy’s (Shea Whigham), and John Dean's (Dan Stevens) arc. 

We started creating themes and trying to find something we could touch on each episode. For Martha, her big thing is her appearance in public and private and how she sees herself and how the world sees herself. We created a theme of mirrors, so you'll see it kind of progress throughout the show. Even the very first fight she has with her husband is all told through reflections.

It's all the idea of them, basically, it's the arguments about how she's affecting their image and what she is in real life, and what the people think of her. And so, we did the whole scene in their bathroom, which is filled with mirrors. We kind of created these different tones and angles to kind of reflect the separation between them. Throughout the show, you'll constantly see her in different reflections. Even in the final episode, one of [Martha’s] last moments is actually looking at herself in the reflection of a hospital glass for the last time before she passes on. 

But that was one of them, and then the other one was John Dean. He is a character whose intentions are good and bad. He's kind of stuck in the middle. And so, for him, we wanted to feel like we were kind of in the hot water with him.

We wanted to bring the camera really close. All of his scenes were shot on wider lenses and kind of in his face. Then you have characters, like Gordon Liddy, who are kind of surreal. We decided to choose lenses that were distorted and to kind of make his story a bit more abstract and absurd to try to understand what makes someone tick like that. A lot of it was just trying to break down the characters and find a way to kind of keep that arc going throughout the series so that you could feel empathy for them, whether they made a good choice or a bad choice.

'Gaslit' cinematographer Larkin Seiple talks about his work on the showJulia Roberts as Martha Mitchell in 'Gaslit'Credit: Lionsgate Television/NBCUniversal Television Distribution

NFS: You can also see that through like the color palette that you created throughout the show, especially with the warmer tones kind of highlighting the deception of the corruption of the political world. And then those cooler colors highlight these moments of truth that can only be told in the darkness, and I'm interested in your process behind those choices.

Seiple: The corruption kind of happens in broad daylight and even the corruption itself, it's funny because a lot of the characters are saying, "We're going to win. Why are we doing this? Why are we going to this length?" It's because they could. A lot of the more dramatic scenes are in these brighter offices. I feel like the characters tend to have their more profound moments during twilight or when the lights are off when they can actually let go and kind of take a moment to step off stage and kind of reflect on what they've done.

Again, we kind of followed it with their arc, like the warmth and the brightness. Usually, scenes had a lot of energy or characters that were going for it, and then we tried to dial it down and become more somber on more reflective moments. There's a great scene of John calling his ex-girlfriend all lit by the dawn in a hotel room and you can barely see him, but it's the one time he's actually connecting. Meanwhile, Betty, his ex is just over it and she just hangs up the phone right after the phone call.

NFS: These characters really go through a lot, and the actors were phenomenal. I read that you originally started with a single camera, then as you went through the first week of shoots, you were like, "We need more cameras."

Seiple: Well yeah, we had so many great actors. Great actors are really good at learning their lines, and they can really improvise and play with them to change the scene up. Sometimes actors will once they're off camera, they'll start going bigger or changing how they perform to get the other actor to respond differently. 

There is one scene, there's this big fight between Sean and Julia, and Sean just started calling Julia by her real name, not by Martha, to try to get a rise out of her. We just kind of saw how talented everyone was, that they were so rehearsed and practiced that they could play with every scene. That we got jealous and we wanted to get the actors at all times, we didn't really want to give up a take.

We were like, “Well, what if we cross shoot?” 

We had a second camera, so we could shoot the other actors. Then, there were three actors in the scenes and we wanted a wide shot at the same time. So, we ended up with three cameras, which is hard to do. 

We'd set up shots and get all of our angles, even though the cameras were in the shots, and then would erase the cameras in post, so we could get the performance about having to make the shot worse or to get a weird angle. It became this big choreography all of a sudden, and it also made the filmmaking process really exciting because every scene became more than just coverage. It became more of like a play, like how can we get the entire performance in one take?

'Gaslit' cinematographer Larkin Seiple talks about his work on the show'Gaslit'Credit: Lionsgate Television/NBCUniversal Television Distribution

NFS: Those are the best jobs where you can really flex your creative filmmaking muscles. So, that's so exciting.

Seiple: And it helps because it was a hundred-day shoot. We needed to kind of find a way to make it exciting. And this is a bureaucratic story. So, there are a lot of people in offices and it's not a boxing film. So, we tried to create that tension by creating choreography that was fun and making it complicated to capture.

NFS: What cameras and lenses did you use throughout the shot?

Seiple: We shot on the [ARRI] Alexa Mini, which is a normal super 35 sensor, kind of the camera that's been around for the last decade. That was a fight because a lot of streamers are requiring higher resolution and large format cameras. So, with that, you get a very sharp image and you get really shallowed the field of view to a point where you can't sometimes tell what the background is. 

We had so many beautiful sets on this and our film was set in the 1970s, we wanted to capture it on something similar to that. We also wanted to see our sets as well. So, we shot on the Mini, and then we also used many different sets of lenses. We spent a day basically on like a motel room set with stand-ins and then the main actors testing, felt like 20 different sets of lenses to try to figure out what lens made sense.

What we ended up doing was picking lenses per the story. Martha's story is shot on a completely different set of lenses than John Dean's or Gordon Liddy's, kind of separating the heroes and villains. Martha's lenses were Canon K35s. They were kind of soft and intimate and they flared and gave you a sense of presence like you were actually in the room with her. Then for Gordon Liddy, we used sharper more contrasty lenses that had a bit of a bite to them if you will, that had like a malicious take to it. And for him, we even had like one lens that we used just for his closeups that we just called the Liddy. And that's what that lens was for was just this kind of warpy 25 mm that got in his face and I like those were super speeds.

For John Dean, who is stuck in the middle, we found the lens that had bite but also was slightly soft or not too strong. It was just this middle ground lens because he's kind of pushed between two worlds and we use Speed Panchros for those that were soft and fell off but still were punchy and sharp. It was a fun nerdy process, but it was a great way to start talking about what the film should feel like and having a different lens for each story kind of helped separate the story for us a bit.

NFS: It's that nice subtle visual change too that helps the audience kind of navigate what's going on through the story.

Seiple: Yeah, you can hopefully feel the shift in tone by the shift in the lenses and how intimate it feels versus how vicious it feels.

'Gaslit' cinematographer Larkin Seiple talks about his work on the show'Gaslit'Credit: Lionsgate Television/NBCUniversal Television Distribution

NFS: I think it worked very well. I was going to say when I was watching the series the other day, it feels very nostalgic and that's really very present in the lenses used and the camera. Did you have any references that you were going for like the visual tone of the story?

Seiple: Well, I mean, I think, I think everyone referencesAll the President's Men. I mean, for me in general, it's one of the best films ever made. I mean, obviously, it's about Watergate, but our story is kind of like the opposite of that film. The series is about the people they're investigating as opposed to the investigation. 

We watched it in the shot structure, and how they told it was stunning. We ultimately didn't want to do that. We didn't actually really want to reference much. We wanted to have all the ideas or answers come from our script as opposed to stealing from others. What we did do though was we wanted to reference the film stock that was shot back then. Not necessarily for all the president's men, but one of the more popular prevalent film stocks, which was a hundred-speed Kodak film.

Our colorist, Alex Bickel, was able to actually go back and find the technical details of that stock and translate it with the color scientist, which is this guy Bill who's a genius. He was able to actually make the camera, and create a LUT that makes it look like the colors from back then, which was really exciting because the first thing we did once we had this LUT was we just went to the wardrobe room and pulled out all the clothes. We put them up and we photographed them with the camera. It was stunning to watch all the colors shift, all these harsh greens became like avocado greens, and all the reds got dialed down and tamped on. It did so much work for us that it made shooting the sets and the story really fun because on set, it looks like how it's going to be finished in the end. That was a big part of the process.

We tried to make the series feel more modern in that we didn't use a lot of seventies techniques. But then slowly throughout the process, we were like, “I think it would be really fun to do a slow zoom for this scene.” Or like even the final shot of the film was probably owed to seventies filmmaking, that it's one wide shot that slowly zooms in over two minutes into the flowers at Martha's funeral, that said: “Martha was right.” It was a nice somber way to end it with still like a nice kind of wink to the seventies. 

The other thing too that we wanted to do was we had all these stunning sets, our production designer, Dan Novotny, killed himself trying to make these like perfect 1970 sets that weren't too showy. When you see seventies films and you're like, “Oh look, we're in the seventies,” and they really winked at the camera. We were trying to find something more grounded and we had to shoot everything on stage in Los Angeles.

So, instead of doing a green screen out the windows and having posts kind of create whatever was outside, we actually flew to DC and shot plates of all the locations, like what it would look like outside of Martha's penthouse. Then, we built backings or cloth backdrops and we printed the photos onto those and hung them outside the sets, and then lit them, so that no matter which way the camera was looking, you'd always have a sense of location and that you were actually present in the scene. 

It was a lot of work, but it was really fun because you could on the set walk away that day and be like, “Oh, look great and it actually feels like we're there,” as opposed to hoping that the visual effects will kick in later. We did add a lot of birds to windows to also help sell that, that was Robbie, our showrunner's favorite thing. In every scene, you can see a bird just kind of flying by a window just to help the illusion.

NFS: It's a little Easter egg to look out for.

Seiple Exactly.

'Gaslit' cinematographer Larkin Seiple talks about his work on the show'Gaslit'Credit: Lionsgate Television/NBCUniversal Television Distribution

NFS: That's great. When you use a printed backdrop, do you want it to be fairly in focus and then control the focus by controlling the depth of field in the shot? Or is there another approach you had to make the backdrops feel like you were on location? 

Seiple: The trick that we found to our backdrops is to light them as if you're in a real location. The outside's usually kind of overexposed and overly bright. And what happens on a lot of sets? What makes the backdrops feel fake is that people will expose them because they want to see everything. We ultimately didn't want that, we wanted it to feel real. So, a lot of our backdrops are highly over-exposed. 

You get a little bit of detail and you're like, oh yeah, that's the city out there or like, oh, that's a building across the way, but your eyes are not drawn to it. It should blend in. That was our main thing as we just kind of exposed the sets as though they were a real location, as opposed to trying to make it perfect and to see every single detail. It was more of a hint in a way, that was our approach to it at least.

NFS: I was going to say my favorite set that you guys had was the California house where there are yellows everywhere and they were so beautiful, but not overly bright like how yellows are nowadays. 

Seiple: That was a real location. I take that back. That was one of the few real locations we had because we were in LA and we were like, okay, if we're going to do anything in California, we can go out and find a location. So, we shot that in Malibu after looking at 30 different houses because it's hard to find a house that's from the 1970s that hasn't been updated.

NFS: Do you have a favorite scene or shot in Gaslit from a cinematographer’s standpoint? 

Seiple: I mean there are so many scenes. It was so surreal shooting something like this, it's like four features back to back. We had a lot of fun designing the Watergate sequence because that's like the juice of the story. Our biggest challenge was to find a location that looked like 1970s democratic offices and also a location that you could see from the outside. We spent a long time looking at weird office buildings that had a building across the way we could shoot from and we couldn't find it. 

We ended up finding a good interior, and then we had to create the perspective of Liddy and his henchman kind of across the street watching. We used an industrial crane on the street and floating a camera seven stories in the air, on the remote head to try to get all those POVs.

It was a tricky process because production was like, “We can't just find a building across from each other, but it ended up being the simplest solution.” That scene was great because it was all lit with flashlights at the same time, all photographed from like a long lens across the street. Yeah, it was just kind of fun to block that and to kind of dive in and to guess how they would've done it even though it's highly documented. One of my favorite scenes is when John Dean is making a phone call from the Philippines in the middle of a monsoon. We didn't know how to do that.

Luckily, we were shooting at Warner Brothers and they have a colonial street that they would use for like very old films. Our production designer was like, “Well, that architecture actually matches some of what was in the hotel district in the Philippines at the time.” So, we went there and we got a hundred extras and covered it with rain and shot it from like one very specific angle, lit it very colorfully, and just poured right on the crew for about four hours. It was great. It was just a fun escape to do something so silly as the phone call in the rain with people on bikes and cars and a lot of lightning gags. It was a fun challenge.

'Gaslit' cinematographer Larkin Seiple talks about his work on the show'Gaslit'Credit: Lionsgate Television/NBCUniversal Television Distribution

NFS: Would you like to add anything that I didn't ask you or do you have any advice for aspiring cinematographers that you'd like to share?

Seiple: Find a director you believe in that sees the world you see. I think that the hardest part is trying to find collaborators. I don't think you really get to do your best work until you find the people that you want to tell a story with, which I guess ultimately means keep looking, don't settle. 

Keep working with people until you can find the person that gets excited about the same things as you, or someone that challenges you is the other thing. Sometimes it's easy to just do the same thing you've been doing for years. On this, Matt Ross was wonderful to work with because he never settled and wanted to switch things up and every time we'd make a choice, he'd be like, but can we make something bolder? Can we push it further? How would this scene be done if an alien directed it? Something as silly as that. Find someone that makes you excited to go to set.