Working as a cinematographer in the world of television means fitting into specific molds, but director of photography Checco Varese is a very different kind of DP. Hailed as “The Pilot Guy,” Varese has most recently completed shooting his 20th pilot and is responsible for setting the stage for TV shows as varied as FX’s The Strain, HBO’s True Blood, and USA’s Colony by DP’ing their pilots. Varese also has plenty experience in the feature film realm, shooting filmmaker Patricia Riggen’s true story drama The 33 as well as the upcoming highly anticipated sequel It: Chapter Two.
So when I got the opportunity recently to speak with Varese about his work and process over the phone, I jumped at the chance. Unsurprisingly given his breadth of experience, Varese was full of insight into the art of cinematography—especially in the world of television—and also offered some intriguing details about Amazon’s upcoming series Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, the pilot he shot for the long-in-the-works Locke & Key, and his collaboration with Guillermo del Toro on both The Strain and Pacific Rim. Varese also revealed how he came to be chosen as the DP for It: Chapter Two and offered some invaluable advice for up and coming cinematographers.
It’s a wide-ranging conversation, but if you’re at all interested in the art of cinematography, I have no doubt you’ll find this a satisftying read. Check out the full interview below.
Collider: So you just recently wrapped the Danny Strong pilot. What was that experience like?
CHECCO VARESE: Well, it was wonderful. It was the first time I shot in Chicago, and it’s an exceptional city and the crew was amazing. At least, I got very lucky and my experience was great. Patricia Riggen, the director, and Danny got along really well. He’s a very creative person and very collaborative and fun to work with. So, it’s sort of like a legal drama. It’s wonderful, because it has a little bit of social conscience, which, nowadays, is very important in life. And it has a very interesting twist because there are a series of flashbacks that take you to 15 years ago. It’s very hard to do a flashback to 15 years ago though because it’s you and me on the phone without the iPhone.
VARESE: It’s just you and me. My jeans are the same, the t-shirt is the same, and the chair is the same. It’s just that, so, imprinting a very specific look for that was very hard but Patricia had very firm ideas on primary colors for flashbacks based on feelings. So what we did was say, this is a green flashback and that is a red flashback and this is sort of like an orange flashback. And that was very liberating because then you embrace a look and that’s it, you know? It was wonderful.
You’ve DP’d a lot really spectacular pilots in your career and I was kinda curious, how did you become known as the “pilot guy?”
VARESE: Well, it’s an interesting point, and I think it’s a matter of personality. I’m not good at being in the same place for 22 episodes. I always ran away from episodic because I felt that I would never be able to be creative and to be interesting on the same set over and over and over again. There are people that can do that and they can be creative just by being different on the same set. I feel I can’t. My very first pilot was with David Guggenheim, The Unit. I got offered the series and I’m like, “Oops. No.” I’m just like no. I don’t know what to do in the same place with these people again. I was a war correspondent in the beginning of my career, in the ’80s and ‘90s.
VARESE: So I think that’s what it is, you know? Just, “I gotta to in, report on this, and get out of this as fast as I can.” And I think in the pilot world, it’s a little bit like that. There is a commitment also with the producers and with the system that you have to be your best. But also you have to be to let the imprint of something be doable and repeatable, when it gets picked up, by someone that will have less time and less money than you. And that’s also a commitment. One thing led to the next and I’ve done, I think this is my 21st pilot, and 19 of them have been picked up.
Oh wow. So you’re a good luck charm.
VARESE: Something like that. Yeah, my batting score is pretty high.
That’s great. Well it also allows you a lot of diversity in terms of the people that you’re working with as well, I imagine.
VARESE: Yes. And also, this is interesting, I don’t think any DP has done as many pilots with a single showrunner like I have done with Carlton Cuse. I think I’ve done five or six projects with him. And it’s never because Carlton pushes me to the director. He offers it to them, “Listen, there are these five guys but this guy is great. You wanna try him? I’ve done many jobs with him.”
I wanted to ask about The Strain. Because someone like Guillermo del Toro is so well known for his colors and sense of style. What was that collaborative process like on that?
VARESE: Oh, it was amazing. When he did Pacific Rim, they needed another unit, not a second unit, like another unit. Because Guillermo wouldn’t let anyone else direct. He would direct, but they needed someone to sort of follow the steps of Guillermo and get everything ready for him to come in. So I did 50 days on Pacific Rim as the other unit. And then, Guillermo knew about my pilot experience, and it was his first television experience.
It was a wonderful experience. He was very disciplined and very creative and very precise. Very demanding in his look and his colors and his world, it’s only in his head, you know? You know at the very beginning of the pilot, there is this plane that gets hijacked and lands in an abandoned area of JFK airport. And he goes, “I would love this yellow pulsing light under the plane so it makes it look like a dying beast.” Okay. So, how the fuck do I do that? (laughs). Because at the same time, he would never do anything that doesn’t fit the suspension of belief, you know? It has to feel natural, it has to feel within the code and within the reality you’re creating.
VARESE: So we ended up putting this sort of tarmac chasing lights that are yellow and faulty. And it looks wonderful. But that was all him. It’s not like I came up with that. I just came up with the technical solution and sort of the aesthetic solution. Every time the master shows up, there’s this horrible smell and I’m like, “Okay.” And it’s a horrible smell and he says it’s sort of blue-green smell. Okay, that is a code word. Every time the Master is there, there’s this light that comes from the well, it’s not like a spotlight. You know, it just comes from the well. So he’s very organic in every single decision And you just have to adapt to it. You know?
I love him. He’s one of my favorite filmmakers.
VARESE: Yeah, I mean Shape of Water is exceptional.
Oh absolutely. What I’m also really curious about is Jack Ryan, which looks like kind of a political thriller with a lot of action. What was kind of your visual approach to that? Because I believe you didn’t shoot the pilot for that, you shoot some other episode.
VARESE: No as I said, Carlton Cuse never imposes, so I didn’t shoot the pilot. When they started Jack Ryan with Amazon, they chose Richard Rutkowski as the cinematographer. And then Richard chose another colleague Chris Fallona as a second cameraman. Then Patricia Riggen was recruited as one of the four directors.. It was interesting because I was adapting myself to someone else’s look and camera work, and it was a great look!! First of all, it was treated as a three or four, six different movies. So it wasn’t out of the ordinary because every episode of the eight concentrates on one event through the story.
VARESE: So you could have slightly different looks, obviously. It’s not like one is black and white and the other one isn’t. It was very easy to sort of fall into the system. But I am really proud of Jack Ryan and the result of it. One of the beauties of working with a director that you know, like Patricia and I, is that the very essence of the collaboration is you basically do what the directors want. As a cinematographer, you’re following the wishes of the script and the project, and therefore, the language of the director. Knowing someone intimately and having worked on six, seven, or eight projects together now, it’s the ultimate pleasure because you don’t have to guess. You know what they want. And if you are wrong, they will tell you, “Listen.” There is no political “Oh well, I better not tell him anything because he’ll get offended.” It’s like, “Hey, this is not what we talked about.” And I’m like, “Oh shit, sorry, you’re right.” You know? So in Jack Ryan when we’re showing up on the scout, it’s very simple. She will walk to the right and I will say, “Okay, we’ll put the camera here.” And people will say, “How do you know?” And I said, “Just trust me, I know.” And then 20 minutes later Patricia will say, “Okay, there will be a camera somewhere here.”
If I were to work with Guillermo tomorrow, my first three days of anxiety wouldn’t be there, because we had those three days of anxiety already. I always compare it to getting married, you know? You have the boyfriend-girlfriend period in prep, and then finally you get married and there’s a little bit of honeymoon, and then after that there is the boredom of the continuity, and then you get divorced at the end of the movie. But the beauty is doing it over and over.
Yeah, exactly. You also shot Locke & Key, which is a really fascinating thing because an entirely different pilot was made previously. How did you approach that?
VARESE: With Andy [Muschietti]. Yes, we did that in November. It was a wonderful project. It’s a very interesting category in the sort of mystery/horror comic genre. It’s this wonderful story about this family that, by a tragic event, moves to a house that was inherited by some family member. For a hundred years it’s been in the family. And the house is a haunted house, you know? You can open every door and it’s regular, but if you use a certain key that door does things to you. Some of the things are good and some of the things are horrible and they eat you and spit out your bones. It is a haunted house where the devil lives, or something like that. Andy’s approach to that was he likes to shoot—it’s a very unique technique he has. He doesn’t quite follow the traditional rules of “This is what I’m after and let’s go in for coverage.” He would start with a 20mm lens and go in with the coverage of that 20mm lens or the reverse, with the other 20mm lens. So the first instinct is, “Oh my God, how am I gonna do this?” Because where do you put your lights? A 20mm lens sees the nose of the operator if he’s not careful. But once you get over those 24 hours of “How am I gonna do this?” Then it’s fascinating because the ride is exceptional. I had an exceptional ride. The first two days I was like, “Oh my God, how am I gonna do this?” Scratching my head. And then by the third day, I embraced the system and here we are doing IT: Chapter Two.
I’m massively excited for IT 2. I thought what Andy did with the first movie was really spectacular. And you are obviously filling some very big shoes after Chung- hoon Chung. I know it’s very early days, but what have your initial conversations with Andy been about the aesthetic approach to the sequel?
VARESE: First of all, you’re right. Not only the DP shoes, but the success. Everybody’s expecting this to be twice as spectacular. And it’s always anxiety that creates that. The extent of the conversations with Andy was literally, and I can tell you this with a hand on my heart, the extent is, a month and a half ago he called me and I said, “Hey, how are you?” “Good.” “Hey, what’s the news on Locke & Key?” “Well, yeah, don’t worry about Locke & Key. I want you to do IT 2.” And I’m like, “What?” “Are you available?” Like, “Yes. When?” “It doesn’t matter, are you available?” “Yes, I’m available.” “Okay, I would like you to do IT 2.” “Okay. Do you have a script?” “No I don’t have anything, but don’t do anything, I want you to do IT 2.” “Okay. So should we see each other?” “I’m very busy. Why don’t I see you in Toronto?” “Okay, when?” “In May.” And this is like beginning of January.
VARESE: I’m like, “Okay.” Now that is the extent of the conversation I’ve had with Andy Muschietti about IT 2. It is a very big enterprise. As you know, and this is public knowledge, it’s 27 years later? So there is the contemporary look, if you can call it contemporary, and then there is the 27 years ago feeling of the movie. I haven’t talked to Andy about anything. He’s literally been submerged in rewriting the script and that’s the part that he really enjoys. We’ll do a little bit of a tech scout, pre-scout, director scout, and I’ll start in May for eight weeks. So probably by the beginning of June I could answer the question a little more intelligently than right now. But right now, the only thing I know is that Andy wants me to shoot IT 2 and that we’ll have fun.
That’ll be a great experience, though. It definitely seems like he has a very strong handle on what his vision is.
VARESE: Oh he’s a very strong visual director. He’s stubborn. That’s his biggest quality. And I think stubborn is a good quality, I don’t think of stubborn as a pejorative. But he is, “This is what I want. This is how I want it done. And please help me achieve this.” And the beauty of that is within that language, like in Locke & Key, he had never used a particular lens. I think he used it a couple times in commercials, but he never thought about that lens. And it’s basically the revolution lens, which gives you this infinity depth of field and it makes it look like you can have things in the very foreground, almost touching your nose, and see all the way to the background in focus. I introduced him to that and I said, “What if we use this for a few of the shots of the keyholes and the keys?” And he fell completely in love with it. So it’s like, he’s open to everything. You just have to embrace the system. Embrace the low-angle, 20mm lens looking at the sky. Like, “Okay. So where do I put a backlight?” “Maybe this movie doesn’t have any backlights.”
To me it’s very important, and I learned it early in my career, I’ve done a few workshops for the ASC or for other festivals, cinematography workshops. And I always show up with a little cardboard box. And in the cardboard box I open it and say, “These are the tools of a DP.” You don’t see it because the lid of the cardboard is against the audience or the students. And I take a tomato, an onion, and some basil, and some other herbs. And they look at me, crazy. And I say, “DP’s are like chefs. We all go to the same supermarket. We all buy the same tomatoes. We all chop with the same knives. It’s a matter of who you are in your heart and who you were as a kid, and how did you grow up and how many flavors you tried as a kid that makes you a different chef.” And I think that is a crucial part of my journey in this profession. I go to the same supermarket everybody else goes to. I just grew up in a different world. I grew up in Latin America with different colors, with different sensitivities. I was a news cameraman and a documentarian, so I approached the world in that way.
It’s a little less rigorous and little less formal, but at the same time, in my opinion, first of all, it’s the only way I know how to do it. It’s not like I’m coming up with this because it sounds cool. It’s just the way I am. But it is the way I know how to do things, which is you go in, you live with what the reality gives you, and you just twist it little bit to make it better.