‘Russian Doll’ DP Chris Teague on Repetition, ‘Groundhog Day’, and That Ending

     June 19, 2019

In today’s oversaturated television landscape, it’s increasingly difficult for any one show to stand out, let alone remain in the public consciousness months after its aired. But Netflix’s Russian Doll was one such series for a variety of reasons. The story is wholly unique, the storytelling is fresh and inventive, the performances—especially from lead actress/executive producer/co-creator Natasha Lyonne—are tremendously layered, and the visual language of the series is striking and memorable. None of this was easy given the plot at hand: a somewhat aimless woman keeps dying, only to wake up on the same night at the same party over and over again. But it’s a testament to the filmmaking and acting that the story not only resonates, but is wonderfully cinematic.

That’s due in no small part to cinematographer Chris Teague, who shot all eight episodes of the show’s first season (Netflix just renewed it for Season 2). Teague worked in tandem with directors Leslye Headland, Jamie Babbit, and Lyonne to create and hone the visual language of the show, and the results are quite simply one of the best-looking and most visually impressive TV shows of the past year.

With Emmy nominations voting underway, I recently got the chance to speak with Teague about his work on Russian Doll. He discussed the early conversations he had with Headland and Lyonne about the look of the series, creating a version of New York City that felt somewhat fresh, juggling different POVs and timelines at once, using color to delineate separate stories, and the collaboration process with the show’s three directors. Teague also talked about working with Lyonne on the season finale, which she directed, and how her cinephilic nature brought a bevy of 70s film influences to the episode. And yes, we talked about that somewhat ambiguous ending.

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Photo via Netflix

Check out the full interview below. Russian Doll is currently available to stream on Netflix.

Immediately when I started watching the show I was really struck by the cinematography and your work in particular, so first of all I just want to say I’m a huge fan of the show and a huge fan of your work on it.

CHRIS TEAGUE: Oh, cool. Well, thanks so much.

It’s really striking and it feels really cinematic. I was just curious how you first got involved in this series, because it’s a very different kind of show. It’s hard to box into one specific genre or anything.

TEAGUE: Yeah. The way a lot of things happen in this business, it was a seemingly kind of a random series of connections. I had worked with Leslye Headland’s wife, Rebecca Henderson, on a film called Appropriate Behavior years ago. And we just had a great working relationship and she told Leslye, “You know, you’ve got to work with this guy at some point.” And Leslye went to pitch the show to JAX Media, and I had been working with JAX Media on Broad City and some other pilots and things. So we had a good relationship.

So, when my name came up in the pitch meeting, they were both like, “Yeah, that sounds great. Let’s do that.” So, that got the ball rolling and so, I hadn’t worked with Leslye before. I hadn’t worked with Natasha. And that was all new relationships and very fresh. And so I think it was all the more remarkable that they were able to trust me so implicitly with helping to contribute a lot to defining the look and feel of the show.

That’s what I wanted to ask you about, too, is I’m always curious with cinematographers that I speak to, the early conversations and the big-sky discussions of what is this thing going to look like. So, what were those conversations like about Russian Doll? Were there any touchstones you guys hit upon really early that dictated the visual look of the series?

TEAGUE: Yeah there were. A lot of it was a discussion about the world. There’s so many projects we’ve all done in New York City and we were talking at length about what version of New York City are we creating here? And for Leslye and Natasha, it was sort of like this idealized, timeless, grounded, but at the same time other-worldly version. And I loved that idea because it felt like an opportunity to mix realism, which I’m very familiar with, with something that’s a bit more surreal and absurd. And I guess what I would call “hyper-real”, like you very much feel the city around you, but it feels like a heightened version of the city that we could push in different directions depending on what the particular episode or scene asked for.

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Image via Netflix

You can certainly feel that through and there are sci-fi elements. There are comedy elements. There are drama elements. But I was wondering if you guys talked about romantic comedies? Because so many romantic comedies are set in New York City and so many romantic comedies deal in the notion of wish-fulfillment and do have a heightened or idealized version of the city. Were there any specific films or any things you guys were looking at?

TEAGUE: That’s an interesting connection. I mean, for me, having made so many romantic comedies in New York City, it was actually exciting for me to maybe not think about that this time (laughs). But it’s-

Well, to be clear, not like Obvious Child, but more like You’ve Got Mail or Sleepless in Seattle, like stories that feel nice but aren’t necessarily realistic.

TEAGUE: Sure. I hate to say this, because it’s such an overused term, but the city is a real character. The city is a real element of those films as well as this, right? But it is that thing of like what I guess I already said is just how do you manipulate that environment to suit the tone that you’re trying to create? The whole show’s at night, so it has this dark, high contrast feel. But we didn’t want to make something that felt dour or muted or cold. It was exciting to bring color and life and energy into it. I think energy is a good word. Just there’s a kinetic quality to the show that we can try to bring in with the color.

So, I guess that was part of the conversation. But yeah, I don’t remember any particular films that were romantic comedies. The Coen brothers came up a lot, the kind of tone of their work where you’re able to push things in a way that is more dramatic and sometimes scary, but without ever losing a sense of humor. I think that’s the kind of beauty of the balance that the Coen brothers find and I guess that’s something that we were excited about, too.

For sure. Well, and in those Coen brothers films, especially ones shot by Roger Deakins, the shot composition is really incredible. And that’s something that really stood out to me about Russian Doll was the shot composition you guys put together was just astounding to me. Did you guys set any kind of visual rules? You’re obviously dealing with the same day, over and over again. And so you’re repeating a lot of the same shots over and over again. Were there any rules of the world or rules of the visual language that you guys wanted to hit upon?

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Russian Doll

TEAGUE: We knew when we moved the camera it would typically be Steadicam or dolly. But actually Steadicam felt like the right feel for this, just going back to that sense of energy. Steadicam links to highly choreographed scenes where Natasha feels like she’s always on the move. But we’re not getting into an unsettled grittiness or anything like that. I think the Steadicam maintains the kinetic energy but keeps things more refined in a way that felt appropriate for the show, gave it kind of a driving quality that I really like.

And when it comes to rules, it was never a prescripted set of dos and don’ts. But I shot every episode, so I was able to oversee everything. And for me, I get wary of being too prescriptive about things, because I like when directors bring new ideas to the table. I like when we can find opportunities to break the language. And we did shoot some handheld, and we did shoot some things that were more locked-off, zooms that were more reminiscent of the 70s, like The Long Goodbye or 70s investigative stories. We definitely went into it particularly with Natasha’s episode. That was something she really wanted to lean into. And Natasha loves Fellini. So, a sense of fantasy was really exciting to her. So we really tried to push that where we could in the episode that she directed.

I was also curious what the collaboration process was like with Leslye, Jamie, and Natasha as directors. Because I think this is also just an exceptionally well-directed show.

TEAGUE: Yeah. I mean, it was incredible for different reasons, because they are three completely different directors. Leslye just really has an innate knowledge of film storytelling language and the way she can really connect moments in the episodes to moments in pop culture film or these pivotal moments in movies or pivotal feelings that she wanted to try to get across. The Shining was a huge touchstone for her, so that was something that was really in our minds when we were doing episode seven, which is our horror film. And Jamie Babbit is just a super pro director. She just has so much experience. She knows how to run a set. She came in, not being a part of the show from the beginning, and picked up on things really quickly and got a sense of the vibe of the show and found her own way into it. We worked a lot with compositional elements like mirrors and windows in her episodes, which was a lot of fun.

And then Natasha is just like an absolute cinephile. Her knowledge of cinema is far beyond mine and so the references she brought in, like I said, like Fellini or other Italian films that elevated the work. So she is just full of ideas and brought so many ideas to the table, and the challenge with Natasha was like, well how do we get all these into the show in a way that we can do within our very tight timeline, but also that fit within the script that we have written? She’s a big fan of the 70s films, so we did a split diopter, like kind of Brian De Palma stuff. It was just so fun for me, because it’s fun to have directors who wanted to try things out, push things, and really get excited about the visual side of filmmaking, which is not always the case with a lot of directors, particularly in television. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just a fun challenge for me because I get to explore new things when I work with directors like that.

Yeah, I was going to ask about that split diopter, because as a cinephile myself, that was really exciting to see.

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Image via Netflix

TEAGUE: Yeah, and what was great about it because it’s something you don’t see very often now, such a striking look, when you do something like that, you’re risking just detracting from what’s happening in the narrative. But if you look at the way it was used in that episode, it’s used in these very two specific moments that are—again, obviously, that whole show is about these parallels, but these parallel moments where each version of the Alan/Nadia character is turning the other version around. It’s like the pivotal moment when they save each other. So it was used very appropriately, which is something I really respected about Natasha and all the directors, where it’s one thing to be excited about these ideas, but it’s another thing to not just use them willy nilly because they’re fun, to find moments where they’re supported by the story.

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