Imagine you’re given a script containing a dialogue between two men that’s communicated through handwritten letters sent in the mail. The letters are penned in the script as VO but with very few stage directions or scene descriptions to match.
What we know: one man (a man of strong faith and God) heard the other man (the scientist) speak to a group of college kids about a subject that interested him. That man (of God) was so taken with the lecturer and his views that he shared his compliments and curiosities with the scientist by way of a handwritten letter. Flattered and intrigued, the scientist wrote back. Thus began a lengthy and powerful conversation between two intellectuals.
The director and I were tasked with portraying these interactions as a montage of their individual stories playing out alongside one another making their two separate worlds come to life.
Lessons in Chemistry, an Apple TV+ show, based on the NY Times best-selling novel by Bonnie Garmus, tells the life story of Elizabeth Zott (played by Brie Larson). As a woman living in the 1950s, Zott’s dream of becoming a scientist in a man’s world is challenged by a society that thinks a woman belongs solely in a domestic sphere.
Elizabeth is employed as a Lab Tech at Hastings Laboratory where she becomes paired with a Nobel Prize-nominated scientist, Calvin Evans (played by Lewis Pullman). Evans quickly realizes that Elizabeth is unlike any woman he’s ever met—she’s fiercely independent, wildly intelligent, hyper-analytical, and no BS. She was just like him.
While the show as a whole is structured around Elizabeth’s life in a linear fashion, the penultimate episode of the series (107) takes us back to the origin of Calvin Evans and continues to shed light on his side of the love story between Elizabeth and him.
Once we arrive at 1948 Calvin Evans, we get our first glance at Rev. Wakely a.k.a. the man of God (played by Patrick Walker) as he attends Calvin’s lecture at Harvard. Wakely felt so inspired and courageous enough to question Calvin’s scientific theories with his own ideas of God and how they might fit into Calvin’s world. So, he felt compelled to share his thoughts with Calvin. Intrigued, Calvin reciprocated leading to the interactions that we see and hear through VO.
These men seem to open up their minds to each other’s beliefs and worldviews. Their unlikely friendship grew as they challenged one another on various theories and understandings. They discussed family, friendship, and love. It was such a poignant display of respect and affection that they gained for one another.
Tara Miele, our director of episode 107, and I were both moved by this bond between the two men. The correspondence was so poetic and their descriptive language to each other felt so cinematic. We had to give these vignettes the photographic direction they deserved.
Tara and I discussed each interaction and broke down the emotional state as we would do with any other scene work. Whose POV is in the scene and what is the intention of the voice-over? We would then talk about the environments these men would be situated in and what their actions could be while the voice-over is recited. We found crossover with their words that created metaphoric meaning in the other man’s world. We pieced together a plan with a list of shots and locations desired for these shots.
Tara and I were shooting both episodes 107 and 108 together. Throughout our 20-day schedule, we would toggle between day-to-day shooting work in both episodes. We submitted a list of what our intentions were with how we wanted to shoot the letters as well as a list of ideal locations we felt they could take place in. Our ideas became puzzle pieces for our 1st AD (Katie Carroll); what could be paired with what to make the schedule work. This would also involve our location manager (Jesse Lorber) as he would work directly with us as well as our AD to find locations that were feasible for each idea and scenario on the same day. Taking into account that our show is set in the 1950s added even more challenges. Some conversations would have to involve our production designer (Cat Smith) in order to create the ideal sets for these scenes. We would give Cat an idea of what might be happening in Wakely’s world and see if it would line up with what she was already building. Did we need to change anything on our end or vice versa?
In general, a montage described in a script could be as short as 1/8 of that page. However, the work and the planning that goes into what needs to be shot and how involved that montage is, could take much more time than expected on set.
'Lessons in Chemistry' behind the scenes Apple
Below is an early example of how Tara and I used metaphoric imagery to portray the communication between the two men:
With Wakely in his study still captivated by the lecture he just witnessed, he felt compelled to sit down and write Calvin Evans a letter. We cut to a close-up of a delivery cart carrying our hero letter alongside a handful of others addressed to the people of Hastings. We then cut to Calvin at his home settled in with a whiskey as he reads Wakely’s letter while it’s simultaneously being recited to us in VO. It was meant to feel fluid like a dance.
Wakely states that “he is overlooking the mysteries of the divine” and “what if ‘HE’ is the spontaneous generation?” Tara and I thought it could be compelling to cut to a God-like high angle that’s slightly behind Calvin as he runs down the street. With another cut, the camera is now in front of him remaining high as we gradually crane down and tilt up to his eye level as he runs past the camera. We liked the action of Calvin running while deep in thought as if he’s listening to Wakely’s divine words. Creating height with our lens mirrored the words of Wakely’s state of higher being.
The script simply read that Wakely’s voice-over began as Calvin sits down in his study to read his letter. We’re then told that Calvin runs to work. There was a lot of room for us to play with ideas for what the best shots would be to elevate the visual language of this dialogue.
I love how filmmaking always creates challenges in the approach. Through prep, shot listing, blocking, and the execution of a scene, I am always thinking about the creative process while figuring out how to achieve this process with the tools and schedule at hand. Putting the puzzle pieces together is one of the many loves I have as a cinematographer. This episode was truly a fantastic challenge and I hope it shows on screen.
I’m so proud of our work on this episode as well as the rest of the show. It takes a village and everyone brought their A-game while making our visions come to life!
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