The Second Golden Age of Television rightfully gets lauded for incredible stories and characters on shows like The Sopranos or Mad Men or Breaking Bad, but another key aspect of this period is an upswing in visual storytelling on the small screen. As more and more talent has moved to TV for longform stories, the cinematic language of those stories has grown considerably to the point that the cinematography on shows like Game of Thrones, Better Call Saul, or Fargo and Legion rivals the work done on the big screen. It’s the latter two shows that are particularly interesting, as they’re both run by showrunner Noah Hawley, who approaches each season like one long feature film.
Hawley doesn’t direct every episode of Fargo and Legion, but his fingerprints are all over these shows, and it’s up to the directors and cinematographers to execute that vision in a manner that’s both faithful and unique. The bulk of these two shows were shot by cinematographers Craig Wrobleski and Dana Gonzales, who are responsible for crafting some of the most exciting shots on the small screen all year.
Recently I got the chance to speak with Wrobleski about his work on both Fargo and Legion, crafting nods to the Coen Brothers and cinematography great Roger Deakins, the specific references in Fargo Season 3, and more. He also extensively broke down his work on the Season 3 episode “Who Rules the Land of Denial?”, including that Big Lebowski shot and a surprising nod to another Deakins film. As for Legion, we discussed how Wrobleski brought Hawley’s insane ideas to reality, crafting the astral plane, and the biggest challenge of the season.
Wrobleski is responsible for shooting eight episodes of Fargo thus far and handled three key episodes of Legion, including the season finale, so he has intimate knowledge and insight into how these shows work. He’s a fascinating and talented director of photography, and if you’re at all a fan of Fargo, Legion, or just great filmmaking in general I think you’ll find this interview interesting. Check it out below.
How did you first get involved with Fargo back in season two?
CRAIG WROBLESKI: I actually got involved at the tail end of season one. They had shot the majority of the season and they got into their last two episodes and obviously had a lot on their plate with having to shoot some additional footage for earlier episodes. It started out as fairly traditional second unit work, establishing shots, drive-bys, inserts, that kind of thing and someone, one of the others on the show I’d given Noah my name and said if you can help me out, I’d just wrapped a series at that point so I was available. I came on to do the second unit work, which like I said, it started out as fairly conventional second unit work but evolved over the course of the two weeks that we were working where we ended up picking up scenes for main unit and by the end of it, we were doing two page interrogation scenes with principal cast.
It was a really interesting process but a very natural evolution from essentially traditional second unit work into essentially what became a reduced main unit approach. It’s sense been an approach that’s been carried through on other seasons. I was invited back on season two as main unit DP alternating with Dana Gonzalez and I stayed on at the tail end of season two to do additional second unit work for episodes nine and 10 which was, again, two solid weeks of shooting with some substantial call sheets. Then we did the same thing a month ago at the tail end of season three when we wrapped up episodes nine and 10, I stayed on to help out with some second unit work. It was an interesting experiment that ended up becoming part of the language of the show.
That’s fascinating. I was curious about the production of the show. Is it shot in blocks? Because I know you’re alternating with Dana.
WROBLESKI: Yeah, it is shot in blocks, two episode blocks. Except season three, they shot episode three on it’s own and episode one on its own. Episode three was the L.A. episode so it was a standalone.
Oh yeah, that’s right.
WROBLESKI: Episode one was the first episode so it stood on its own as well. I shot episodes two, four, seven, and eight. That’s season three.
It’s a unique show in that Noah Hawley is the main creative voice but he’s not directing every episode. How do you as a cinematographer ensure that ever episode feels Noah Hawley-esque and is in line with his vision?
WROBLESKI: It all starts with the script, which is a very incredible document. If you ever get a chance to read a Fargo script, I feel like they should be put into novel form and you should be able to buy a season and read it like a book because it really is amazing the detail in the scripts and the tone in the script is so specific. As an incoming director, we have the entire legacy of the Coen brothers and Roger Deakins’ work with the Coen brothers to use as a point of reference. When someone comes onto Fargo, they obviously, there’s the feature film version of Fargo, which is an incredible compass point for us and then you also have the entire legacy of the Coen brothers and their work with Roger Deakins to use as a jumping off point for the aesthetic. As a DP, it was great because we’ve got all this common language to work from and everyone has a pretty good understanding of how the Coens work and that’s always been our true north from an aesthetic standpoint.
Yeah, how does it feel as a cinematographer having to mimic or fit in with the work of one of the greatest cinematographers of all time?
WROBLESKI: (Laughs) Well, in many ways it’s an honor and a privilege to carry that torch. I’ve been a lifelong fan of the Coen brothers and of Roger Deakins. For me, it is an honor and a privilege and obviously, I put my own spin on it. There is an element of my aesthetic that naturally leans very close to where the show is. Even if I wasn’t doing Fargo, a lot of the work I do is in that world. They’ve been a real influence on my aesthetic and my approach. On that front, it was simple but we obviously try to put our own spin on it and bring our own range of experiences to it. It is a jumping off point but we’re not slavish to it. We honor it probably more strictly on the lensing side where the way we lens the show, which is very specific. We use very specific range of focal lengths. We don’t use a lot of long lenses, we use them very sparingly and if we do, it’s for a very specific purpose. I’d say we shot three quarters of my episodes on the 29 mill. It seemed to be our go to lens where we would shoot a lot of the season on. I’d say 90% of the season was shot on three or four different focal lengths. In fact, and this isn’t a spoiler because it was in the episode that aired last night, but in episode eight, I was able to pay homage to Roger Deakins in a very specific way. When we shot the bus crash, we used some very specific homage to Roger Deakins’ work in The Assassination of Jesse James. When they take over the train. We basically, I don’t even know, it’s almost a straight lift of somebody. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best and that sequence as a cinematographer is a standout and it’s an incredible sequence and beautifully done. It was a lot of fun to play with those images and put them into our world and have them be on their own fantastic images but if people understand the reference, then it gives it that much more depth. It’s not a strict Coen reference but it’s a Roger Deakins reference, which is a sideways reference to the Coens.
Yeah, I mean, the Coens go hand in hand with Deakins even though he hasn’t shot all of their films. Jesse James is one of the most beautiful films ever made.
WROBLESKI: Exactly. It was shot here in Alberta and I know a lot of the crew that worked on the show and I think the crew that worked on the show were on set. It was an interesting coming together of all these worlds.
I know with TV shows there’s a certain aesthetic that’s ascribed to the show and you fit in that, but here you’re also very clearly making sure it fits in with the Coen brothers. Is there a set of clearly defined rules? I know it’s not hard and fast but are there some guidelines that you guys always stick with?
WROBLESKI: Like you said, there isn’t a strict rule book. We’re not handed a thick tone that they slam on the desk and say “Here’s the rules.” It’s never that. We all understand and appreciate the Coens and Deakins so that’s this jumping off point but ultimately, the biggest rule we have is that the photography shouldn’t ever overtake the story. It should always be in support of the narrative and in support of what the actors are doing. My job as a cinematographer is to set the stage for performances. I view that as a very important part of my job and that includes obviously creating an environment on set but also building sets. In terms of how they look, they have a specific tone that feels right for the scene and they feel like real space. That’s all part of this idea of the photography supporting the story. We obviously have stylistic flourishes on Fargo that are part of the language of the show but whenever we assess one of those, they always have to be driven by the story and the narrative. We can’t ever do something for our own entertainment. It has to be for the support and guiding the narrative forward and also offering the audience those stylistic flourishes and those Fargo moments that they come to know and love.
Well and then moving from season two to season three, it’s an anthology series but it all takes place within the same universe but you’re also moving into a different time period. What were those early aesthetic conversations about season three, about how Noah wanted it to be distinct but also what you were keeping or maybe some touchstones that you guys wanted to hit?
WROBLESKI: Well, Dana had shot the first episode with Noah so a lot of those conversations happened with him specifically but Dana always kept me looped in on where the season was going and I was involved in the camera tests and when we were testing out the look. It was decided early on between Dana and Noah that they would pursue and aesthetic that was similar to Inside Llewyn Davis, which ironically is one of the few Coen brothers movies not shot by Roger Deakins.
Yeah, yeah, Bruno Delbonnel.
WROBLESKI: Yeah, he shot that and it’s beautiful, I mean, I absolutely love the look of that movie. It’s an incredibly beautiful film and the defining element of that look was that they had decided to remove the blue channel when they did the final grade. They obviously decided earlier on because it drove all these aesthetic choices but in the final grade, they did remove the blue channel, which creates an interesting, unique set of challenges and also a very unique look. I think I won’t speak for Noah but I think the decision was partially driven by the fact that as a way to lean away from the idea that cool toned images, blue toned images feel cold. It’s almost a visual cliché when you’re in snow, you shift to cool tones so it feels cold to the audience. Which has a certain amount of truth to it but it’s a bit of a cliché and I think it’s one that Noah wanted to stay away from. It was an interesting route to travel to go down the road of removing that blue channel. We did it at the lut stage, we did it in the camera where a lut was built with Dana. They went in and removed the blue channel and a portion of the green channel as well.