2017 has been a great year for television, and it’s not even half over. My choice for best show this year is far and away FX’s Legion. Created by Noah Hawley, who also brought Fargo to FX, Legion is based on Marvel’s X-Men character by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz. The show’s unique visual style is one of the reasons I loved it. It is truly unlike anything else on television, and TV is riddled with superhero shows. One reason for its stunning look and unique feel is the cinematography. Last weekend, I got a chance to interview cinematographer Craig Wrobleski who worked with Hawley on three episodes of Legion as well as season 3 of Fargo. Wrobleski has worked behind the camera since the late 90s, and talked with me about working on two of TV’s most popular shows, and collaborating with one of television’s best writers.
Check out the interview below.
Geeks of Doom: Hi Craig! This is Danny from Geeks of Doom. Thanks for taking some time to talk today.
Craig Wrobleski: No problem, thank you.
Geeks of Doom: I’ll start off by admitting wholeheartedly Legion was my favorite show of 2017 so far, and I was so excited when I found out I was going to interview someone who played such a crucial role, especially with the visual aspect of that show. So let’s start there, what was it like to work on that show?
Craig Wrobleski: Thanks for watching it and I’m glad you enjoyed it. As you know that show was a pretty mind warping experience to watch, and it was much the same to make. Every time the script would come out, our minds were just blown from what we were reading. We spend so much time in preparation to shoot the episodes, just trying to figure it out what is real and what isn’t real. You know, a lot of the same questions the audience was having watching it.
Geeks of Doom: I was just thinking, I wrote that line in every Legion review; “I don’t know what’s real and what isn’t.” And I don’t care because I was hypnotized either way, and it’s funny hearing that the crew felt the same way.
Craig Wrobleski: Well, you know we ultimately figured it out, at least I hope we did. It was an amazing process. I never worked on a project the changed my view of the world around me the way Legion did. It really makes you question the whole notion of real versus not real; it really makes you look at the world differently. How much of what I see is a fabrication of my mind? Is this what I want to see or what is there? As a cinematographer, that’s fantastic because you can really dig into perception and the visuals, and present the audience with something that asks the right questions. We hope it asks the right questions, and then we hope we give them some answers.
Geeks of Doom: I know what you mean. I just kept telling everyone, they need to watch this show because it’s unlike ANYTHING I’ve ever seen on television. What were some of the biggest challenges you had on Legion? With all the cuts, and edits, and slow motion and effects, it had to be challenging. Can you tell us some of the specific challenges you had?
Craig Wrobleski: Oh, there’s so many. The thing about Noah Hawley is that he’s such an incredible writer and despite all the crazy things going on in Legion, it’s really grounded in the human element, the relationships between these characters who are essentially misfits trying to find their way through the world. It’s really grounded in that, and that’s how we tried to approach it. Whenever we had a challenge, we approached from the viewpoint of character and story. How do we tell this story?
Geeks of Doom: One scene in particular I want to ask about was what I call the Aubrey Plaza “Flashdance” Scene in episode 6.
Craig Wrobleski: Hehe, so yeah… even that scene is grounded in the idea that Lenny is going back to all the places she was victorious over David. If you look at where all the dances in that sequence happen, it’s places where she won over David’s mind, like in the bedroom where he hangs himself, in the sitting room where he was smoking with Lenny, arguing with his sister and the kitchen where, well we all know what happened in the kitchen. Then the MRI room where he’s being analyzed by Kerry, and we all know what happens there as well. Even though that sequence seems whimsical and playful, it’s actually grounded in the story concept that she’s going back and marking her scent in all these places where she was victorious over David.
Geeks of Doom: I never even realized that. I felt like every time something totally crazy would happen, you just laugh and go along with it. Just talking about it reassures why it was my favorite show of 2017.
Craig Wrobleski: I’m glad you enjoyed it and that’s the thing; it was entertaining. But the main thing with Legion was that it had to be more than that too. It always had to be working on a different level, so the show didn’t become one dimensional or quirky for its own sake. It always had to grounded in something that drove the narrative forward. And that dance sequence is a great example of that.
Geeks of Doom: Do you know if you’ll be back doing cinematography for season 2?
Craig Wrobleski: Don’t know, it’s still up in the air.
Geeks of Doom: Ok well, you brought up Noah Hawley, and I’m assuming you have a good working relationship with him because you just finished working on Fargo right?
Craig Wrobleski: We just wrapped on that a few weeks ago.
Geeks of Doom: Can you contrast what it’s like shooting on Legion and then doing Fargo back to back?
Craig Wrobleski: It was definitely a process of, for lack of better word ‘detoxing.’ Legion was such an incredible experience and it was such a trip to go on, that to come off of that and go onto Fargo is a matter of rebooting your mind. And that’s part of my job regardless. As a cinematographer, you have to approach each job with fresh eyes and with no preconceived notions. The transition from Legion to Fargo was so extreme because the shows are so radically different. Noah put it best, he said ‘Fargo ain’t the crazy-shot show.’ Because we did so many things on Legion that you just couldn’t do on any other show, with some of the imagery, and the way we moved the camera, and how we lit the sequences and all the camera techniques we used. You can’t do that on just any show – it would seem out of place. We were able to do so many things on Legion that were unique and singular to that show, but we had to put all that aside for Fargo. We wanted to go back to ground zero for Fargo which is the Coen Brothers. That aesthetic, that visual approach is always the gold standard when we approach Fargo. That was our starting point, but I think I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some subconscious bleed through from Legion onto Fargo this year. There were some things we did and I talked to the crew where we’d say ‘that was kinda Legion-y.’ The whole camera team came over from Legion as well.
Geeks of Doom: I like how you put it, that it was a detox. You mentioned the Coen Brothers, of course. Before working on Fargo did you watch any of their films, obviously Fargo, but others from their catalogue for references or inspirations?
Craig Wrobleski:Fargo was a dream project for me because I’m a lifelong fan of the Coen Brothers, and the work of Roger Deakins (13X Oscar nominated cinematographer). To go onto a project that essentially used them as the standard bearer to me was a dream come true. I came in with a built in set of references, because I loved those movies my whole life and continue to, so it was a natural fit.
Geeks of Doom: In terms of working on sets with such great actors, and being the one who guides the camera, what is the relationship like between cinematographer and actor on set?
Craig Wrobleski: A huge part of my job as cinematographer is to set the stage for the performers to be able to do their job, and part of that is being able to blend into the background a little bit. If the cinematography ever starts to overtake what the performers are doing or stomp all over the story, then I’m not doing my job properly. So my relationship with the actors; I’ve gotten to know many of the actors on the shows I’ve worked and gotten along with many of them, but when it comes to shooting, I’m trying to stay in the background and set the stage for these people to do their work. In the crush of a shooting day, there are always small conflicts here and there, but the actors are all incredible professionals. They are so prepared and so amazing to watch, that I feel privileged to be in that position to be in the front row seat for these amazing performances. And the camera operators have a closer relationship with the actors, because of the lensing we use, especially on Noah’s projects. We use shorter lenses, shorter focal length lenses that puts the cameras closer to the actors. So the camera operator/actor relationship becomes very intimate, and they have a real connection especially on a show like Legion where we move the camera so much. That dance becomes so critical and the relationship between the camera operator and the performer becomes so intimate and so critical.
Geeks of Doom: So you just wrapped Fargo, what is next on the agenda?
Craig Wrobleski: Not sure, right now I’m trying to catch up on sleep, and get my life back in order. Waiting to see what’s next, there are things in discussion but nothing’s landed just yet.
Geeks of Doom: Okay, well if you don’t mind I want to ask about some of your past work. On IMDb it lists a lot of documentaries in your background, and as a history teacher by day, I love documentaries. What’s it like coming from the documentary world and shooting grounded real world scenarios versus the world of fictional TV series?
Craig Wrobleski: I wouldn’t trade my documentary background for anything. Shooting documentaries, you’re essentially a one man band, you don’t have a crew around you generally, and you really get good at your work. You have to react all the time to circumstances you don’t have control over that are constantly changing. You get really quick on your feet, and you also get a real sense of what reality is. Doing documentaries, you walk into all these spaces and you have to figure out real quickly where the story is, have a real instinct for human behavior to capture the story. And also to gain the trust of your subjects. You have to bring a good vibe to you work so you’re not viewed as an intrusion, and that carries through to how I approach my drama, which is kind of an answer to your earlier question. My job is to bleed into the background a bit, and let the story take front and center, and not let my needs or the photography strictly drive the narrative. That was part of my documentary training. Other things like lighting, you know the lighting on Fargo is very naturalistic and driven by natural light sources, and artificial light sources within rooms, and when shooting documentaries you learn how to use available light and natural light, and sometimes how to create a natural feeling light. I really think my documentary background has driven so many elements of how I do my narrative work both on a technical and a personal level.
Geeks of Doom: I always found it interesting how people in the entertainment industry can bounce between genres so seamlessly.
Craig Wrobleski: Well it’s all storytelling, we’re telling stories whether documentary or narrative, and Fargo takes it to a literal sense where it opens with ‘This is a true story.’ What we present on Fargo has to be a true story to the audience. Documentaries are the same way, you’re presenting authenticity and there has to be voracity to what we do. In narrative work for the audience to buy in, even in a show like Legion which is so fantastic and out of this world, it has to be grounded in something the audience can relate to. Otherwise they’ll just be completely lost.
Geeks of Doom: What would you say is your favorite moment from any show you worked on, favorite scene you’ve had a role as cinematographer?
Craig Wrobleski: Oh wow that is a hard question. I don’t know if I could pick one.
Geeks of Doom: I’ll rephrase since we started with Legion, was there any moment where you are filming Legion and you stop and think “I can’t believe what I am filming?”
Craig Wrobleski: Well, on Noah material that happens all the time. It is such a dream to work on his material and see this stuff come alive in front of you. I always go back to episode 4 which ends with the montage of Kerry fighting the D3 team, and that’s cut with Oliver dancing in the ice cube, and Syd fighting with the Eye, and all these elements coming together with the beautiful piece of music our director chose. When you watch that, it’s an amazing experience, because when the director yells cut, I get snapped back into the fact I’m on set. I get so lost when I’m watching the monitor, you get so immersed in it that when they yell cut it pulls me back, and I remember I’m at work and I have to remember what to do next. It’s an amazing experience, and it happens so many times on Noah’s projects. You just get so drawn into it, and it doesn’t happen on every project. That dance sequence, when we were shooting it, the fight in the woods with Bill Irwin was so different when we were choreographing it and then intercutting with Syd and the Eye, it was just such a beautiful collaboration. It really was a dance, not just between camera and performer but all the departments. It was such a true collaborative experience, you really felt what a collaborative environment Legion was and how everyone was bringing their A-game and everyone was so involved and so engaged with each other and the results are on the screen.
Geeks of Doom: Well, it is very comforting to hear someone who was on set working on Legion essentially saying the same things I was writing in my reviews each week. Thank you so much for lending us your time today.
Craig Wrobleski’s fine work can be seen on FX Network as season 3 of Fargo continues next Wednesday night, May 31st at 10:00pm ET. Legion can be seen on Amazon now with season 2 due out next year. Hopefully Wrobleski’s working relationship with Noah Hawley continues in the near future. Thanks again to Craig Wrobleski for taking time to speak with us here at Geeks of Doom.