An upcoming CNN miniseries produced by Glass Entertainment Group recently wrapped principal photography here in Philadelphia. The Director of Photography on the series, currently titled “Pope: The Most Powerful Man in the World” is Kristian Dane Lawing. Lawing was kind enough to sit down with Expressway during his lunch hour in the last week of shooting here to share some insight into his creative process.
The set for the CNN miniseries presents a convincing image of the real-life Vatican. Italian frescoes adorn the ceilings of the mansion’s most prominent rooms. In others, embossed wooden pews and confessionals sit idly. Black and white marble floors highlight the main foyer. The arches that welcome visitors into new parts of the home are emblazoned with the words “To Praise, To Bless, To Preach;” sometimes in English, but more often in Latin. Catholic insignia is the resounding theme of the chosen set.
Surprisingly, this set exists not in Italy, but here in Philadelphia. The Elstowe Manor was built in 1898 by William Elkins, the man who now lends his name to the specific area of the city, Elkins Park. A few decades later the home was sold to the Dominican Sisters, which likely accounts for the distinctly Catholic feel. The home was designed by Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer in the style of the Italian High Renaissance, perfect for recreating the essence of the Vatican. Much of the interior decoration was designed in France by Allard et Fils, giving the manor its uniquely European feel.
Visually doubling the Vatican presents significant challenges anywhere, but that’s exactly what Lawing has been tasked with doing. He was initially skeptical of Philadelphia’s ability to produce sufficient scenery to evoke the necessary settings.
“I wondered how Philadelphia, or at least Eastern Pennsylvania, would hold up to give us these kind of locations,” Lawing said over lunch in the middle of a shoot day at Elstowe. “With the exception of the Sistine Chapel and an actual desert, (Philadelphia) has been great.”
Lawing is an experienced filmmaker based out of Los Angeles. He was persuaded to become involved with the project because of the social stances coming out of the Vatican under Pope Francis. Having little experience with the industry in Philadelphia, he was unsure of what to expect. What he found exceeded all his expectations.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I’ve been all over the world… This is hands down the best crew I’ve ever had,” said Lawing. “Across the board, this team in Pennsylvania… I want to take them everywhere.”
For the cinematographer, the excellence from all departments involved in the production, is a deviation from the norm.
“They call this dramatic arts for a reason. Because there’s always drama, and every job I’ve ever done in my career had somebody who was a problem,” said Lawing. “That said, every department head on this job has been not only very talented, but run their team very well, and done it without a lot of drama.”
For Lawing, this professionalism and lack of distraction has led to high spirits among a crew that has faced some difficulty. The production lost some locations for sets, and had to deal with rain seemingly whenever they had planned exterior shots. On what happened to be the second to last shoot day in Philadelphia, however, the crew seemed jovial, clearly proud of what they had accomplished.
“Morale shows up on screen,” said Lawing, explaining that the comradery among the crew has led to a high-quality product output. “Everyone likes everyone, and we’re doing great work. And that is infectious.”
Screengrabs from the production can be found on Lawing’s Instagram, @danelawing, and as much as he believes the work has been highly cinematic so far, he says the praise has been coming in from outside the production.
“We’re getting nods from Cooke and Cinemills, and some of my peers,” said Lawing. “We can sit here and say, ‘Oh, we’re doing great work’ and pat ourselves on the back, but just from these screengrabs we’re sending, it’s reassuring. And it actually gives us extra momentum.”
This is important for Lawing as a cinematographer, as he tries to manipulate emotion onto the screen. He is working closely with the director to sense what the audience should feel about each period. Often in historical documentary pieces the visuals will attempt to give the viewer a vintage look to indicate to an audience the period has changed. Lawing also wants to bring the viewer into specific time periods, but instead of a vintage look he wanted each era to have its own cinematic feel.
“I thought well, each period of time should have its own look. When I’m in Rome in 70 AD, I want it to feel hot. I want the highlights to feel almost blown out. I want it to feel like a desert world.”
Lawing has also drawn on television and film to guide his vision, furthering the notion that this documentary is abnormal in its use of cinema as a guiding force.
“When we were dealing with the Borgias I actually took from the tv show. And for World War II I took from Dunkirk,” said Lawing. “I didn’t want to just desaturate or do any of the cliché historical stuff.”
The filming style has remained constant throughout production, though, to create a sense of continuity throughout vastly different time periods.
The interview portion of the production, which was also inspired by The Borgias, is shot with Leica Summicron lenses. For the historical vignettes, Lawing has opted for the Cooke S4 Prime Lenses, a brand that Lawing is very fond of.
“I love those lenses. To me there’s a creaminess. I like that octagonal bokeh. I think that the highlights and the flares are lovely with those lenses,” said Lawing. “I thought, ‘What’s gonna lend a cinematic look to this.’” So, he opted for the lens he’s used for his last five feature films.
The project is shot almost entirely at 32 fps, except for a few key aberrations to enhance the viewer experience.
“I took something that I use for my action films, that I stole from The Avengers, and I shoot action at 22 frames a second with a 45-degree shutter angle. We’ve done all the action sequences in this. It feels like all of sudden you’re in an action movie, rather than anything you’ve ever seen in a reenactment before,” said Lawing. “People are used to seeing it in The Avengers for sure, but they’re not used to seeing it on CNN.”
For lighting, Lawing has used mostly LEDs with unbleached muslin covers. He’s pleased with the advancements the industry has made in recent years in terms of reducing budgetary costs involving lighting. However, he still feels strongly about using light to tell a story in an industry that often wants to cut corners.
“It’s not about having to light,” he explained. “It’s about telling a story, and that’s why lighting can never go away. We may be able to shoot a movie on our iPhones one day, but that doesn’t allow you to craft a story. That means where does the audience look, when do they look, when does it rack focus, and how do they feel when they look there.”
All these factors have led to a project that hopes to buck the traditional standards of its genre, and present itself as an achievement in combing a historical work of documentary with the highest quality cinematic experience.
The finished product is still a long way off, but the sense on the set in Elkins Park is that something special is in the works. To Lawing, it feels like a feature film, and the experience in Philadelphia has been second to none.
“I’d come back here in a second,” said Lawing.
Written By: Joe Leonard
Joe Leonard is a man of many talents… Like journalism… and writing stuff… There’s other stuff too, but that’s not important right now. He’s a hell of a writer among many many other talents…