Interview: DP Luc Montpellier on ‘Counterpart,’ Sarah Polley, and Justin Marks

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As television has continued to grow in size, many directors and craftsman that would have worked in independent cinema are transitioning to television. One such individual is cinematographer Luc Montpellier. Montpellier has shot several movies, including two films with Sarah Polley during the 2000s. As the DP of “Away From Her” and “Take This Waltz,” Montpellier has already helped to craft some strong independent cinema. However, he’s recently taken to television with Justin Mark’s new series, “Counterpart.” The sci-fi drama is one of the best new shows of 2018, and the cinematography makes it one of the most visually rewarding films on TV. With the finale just around the corner, I sat down with Luc to discuss his time as a cinematographer, his collaboration with Polley, and his work on the brilliant new series.

AF: How did you first pursue cinematography?

LM: Well, I guess I first began to pursue it in film school at Ryerson University, which had a very good film program in Canada. I was always into photography, and at the end of high school, I was trying to find what I wanted to do with my life. I was always into film, always into English composition, but it never really occurred to me that I could have a career in film. A good friend of mine discovered this program so I gave it shot. I didn’t get in out of high school because I didn’t have enough of a portfolio, but I realized I had all this photography. It was a love of stills photography, so cinematography was an obvious choice. I discovered the rules of cinematography on sets in film school.

The thing that really got me going was the music video. In the mid-90’s, bands were really using television to promote themselves, and it became quite a big field. That became quite a creative space for me to work in. I shot probably over 100 music videos in the 90’s and hooked myself up with a music video company here in Toronto. It produced a lot of work for “Much Music,” which is like our Canadian MTV, so there was a lot of work being done. It was narrative, and this allowed me to experiment and play quite a bit.  I got my opportunity to work on a few short films and independent films during this time but it was the music videos that gave me that first space as a young cinematographer.

AF: Now you’ve mentioned you began to work in independent film. Two of those are the work you’ve done with Sarah Polley. How did that collaboration begin?

LM: It was through friends we had in common. Sarah already had a career as an actor and I was still early in my career. It was the late 90’s when we met and she had really been interested in directing films. Through common friends, they recommended that she meet me. This was for a short she directed called “I Shout Love,” but before that, she had directed a few other shorts. This was more of a self-financed thing, and she was really exploring what it meant to work with actors and direct. We hit it off instantly. She told me that she was still evolving as a director and that she really needed someone to collaborate with. I believe there are no stupid questions, and it was a great way for us to learn a lot from each other.

I shot her short film, “I Shout Love,” and so a few years later when she got the funding for “Away From Her,” she gave me a call. That is probably one of the best collaborations of my entire career, the way a lot of the things she’s learned from master directors around the world. She’s really absorbed knowledge from those directors, and that’s helped her find her own voice in her films. I learned a lot of things for how to prepare for a film from her as well. It really taught me that we should be doing research in our roles and that there shouldn’t be passiveness in our departments. Cinematography is an obvious one, but you can truly elevate a story through the visual storytelling. The importance of preparation got reiterated working on Sarah’s projects.

A few years later on “Take This Waltz,” she really focused on the photography of the film. It was quite an evolution for us, because despite it being a drama like “Away From Her,” she wanted this to stand out. This was also an original script that she had written for the screen, so this time, it was purely and entirely Sarah that created it. We got to take everything we learned from the first film and apply it to the second. I see it as one of the best collaborations I’ve had and I really enjoy working with her. She has a natural talent for story and she’s an excellent writer. I find it amazing how she’s mastered things so well.

AF: What are some of the challenges of shooting for television versus shooting for a film?

LM: A lot of the work I had done in film was mostly the independent work. The beautiful thing about television and the independent cinema is that the resources are almost the same. So in feature films that don’t really have a big budget, you’re trying to tell your story and fit it all in a limited amount of time. That’s pretty much the definition of television. You might only have 7 or 8 days for an episode, so you have to have tricks up your sleeve to tell the story visually and effectively because you don’t have a lot of time.

I’ve shifted to television because a lot of the independent films I used to work on stopped getting made. I was very happy doing 2 to 3 independent films a year, but luckily the television world welcomed those filmmakers to develop series for Netflix or Amazon. I mean if you look at the credits for some of these series, those names are filmmakers. Baz Luhrmann just did “The Get Down” for Netflix. It seems like the barriers have crumbled and people are finding the right places to tell their stories.

Now the rules of film are being applied to television, and people want to see big shows like “Game of Thrones,” which is bigger than any movie being made today. Shows like “The X-Files” really started this, where it looked like a film each week and had a darkness around it, unlike other TV. It really taught that television could be more than the shows we watched growing up. The fact that the lines are blurred between the formats is way more of an exciting thing.

AF: Now speaking of very exciting shows, let’s talk about “Counterpart.” I’ll be honest, I’m very high on this show. What drew you to this series?

LM: The scripts. I mean they are amazingly written. The good thing is that Justin Marks, the creator, and writer of the show, had the writer’s room for the show open for a year, maybe even more. So when I started the process of production, all 10 scripts had been written. It was interesting to dive into that production and know the whole arc for series one.

I’ll be honest, the first time I started to go through them, I was finding it a little difficult to track everything because of the high concept. I was really interested in trying something that allows the audience to put things together, and if a script really gets me thinking, I have to do it. It was on the strength of the scripts, and when you hear a man like J.K. Simmons is attached, you begin to think that this could really be something special.

When talking to Justin, he also had a clear vision. There’s a reason the show looks the way it does and that’s part of that vision. He’s about using filmmaking techniques instead of supporting a more passive story. So how does the photography fit into that? Before the show started filming, Justin presented us with a manual he had written, a manual that the agency might have handed their employees. This way everyone could understand the hierarchy of where everybody in the show belongs. The attention to detail from Justin makes you want to up your game and bring this concept to life.

AF: Did Justin Marks have a particular visual style that he wanted to pursue from the get-go?

LM: He did, but he was open to exploring where we could take it. Obviously, there are two worlds in the show, so we had to make sure the audience didn’t get confused. There is a reason why there are differences, including textures between them. When I first interviewed with Justin for the show, I had written down a few ideas to draw from. He had happened to write down the exact same ones. One of them was “The Lives of Others,” which has this oppressive state, Eastern bloc kind of feel. The show takes place in Berlin, and everything was considered. He had a precise visual style, but he didn’t want us to just copy shows or movies. Instead, he wanted us to make it our own visual feel.

AF: When I was watching the first time I definitely felt that vibe. I wrote down “The Night Manager,” the Bourne films, Le Carré and Stieg Larrson. It all feels very similar to me but there’s something else going on beneath the surface.

LM: Well that’s it! You don’t want it spelled out for you so that the audience wants to find out more. It’s about darkness and shadow, or a cutting style that is very much focused on keeping secrets. For the visual style of the show, there’s a sequence that I shot in the 2nd episode in the theater that was tough. It was just pages and pages of just description because we had to tell the story through what people did instead of dialogue. That’s very untraditional for television, where many others would likely have overwritten the scene. However, there’s this confidence that Justin had to use the visual to bring us through things. Beyond just being a writer, Justin’s a filmmaker at heart. The shows and movies you mentioned just want to tell the best story possible and visual storytelling really helps.

AF: Now you shot 5 of the episodes and fellow cinematographer Martin Ruhe shot the other 5. How did you two choose to split episodes, and how did this collaboration work?

LM: Well it was interesting because Martin shot the pilot, but I had already been hired. We all knew that there were the 10 episodes. Martin and Morten Tyldum shot the pilot, but I was there to discuss the look of the show with Martin. We discussed a lot about lens choices and figured out how we could keep consistency. I describe it as playing jazz with one another. You each have your strengths and solo capabilities, but when a jazz band comes together, all the individual parts jam and mix together so that it becomes something new.

Out of the gate, we had to collaborate. Sometimes I would start my episode exactly where Martin had just finished. We had to keep in constant communication with it. Luckily we both agreed on how the show should feel, and that’s when Justin comes along and brings everyone together. The photography has to feel consistent for the viewer, and for two people that were used to being the solo cinematographer, I think we did pretty well.

AF: So far (at the time of the interview) only one of your episodes, “Birds of a Feather,” has aired. What was your favorite shot of the episode?

LM: I gotta tell you, anything that has the two Howard Silks (Simmons) in the frame at the same time were my favorite scenes. The level of technology and effort it took to do the double scenes is surprising to most. There’s one scene where the camera moves around the room and one Howard is making the bed for the other Howard. It really stood out because the director of that episode, Steven Williams, blocked it out like any other scene. It feels like two actors are just having a conversation, but obviously, it’s J.K. talking to J.K. in the scene. So they were difficult for us, but if we had twins, it would have been the easiest thing to shoot. To me, that’s what I’m most proud of from the show.

AF: What were some of the techniques you used to get these shots?

LM: Well it some shots use CG, but a lot of it was practical and split screen work. We’d also use body doubles because J.K. is not the only character that gets multiple versions of himself. Anything we did for Howard in this episode also had to be done for Baldwin. The most difficult scene was Baldwin talking to herself, which on its face is not complicated. However, she then has to bend down and examine the other version’s cuts on her arm. That required repeated camera shots and CG to blend the two scenes together.

However, we found that there is a camera that you can program all the camera movements into. That way you yield the same shot each time. So let’s say you have a scene with J.K. and he’s having a conversation between the two Howards. We’ll run the scene the scene first, with J.K. playing Howard 1. After he’s finished, he’ll go and change, and we shoot the same room again but with it empty. Then, he comes back and runs the scene again, but playing the other Howard. During this process, we’re doing a lot of math to make sure the time is perfect. What’s brilliant is that J.K. gave this naturalistic performance during a very technical process. By blending the three shots together, we get what looks like a seamless scene.

AF: So what should we look forward to as an audience?

LM: Well, questions will be answered. The show will reveal itself, and the story will become clearer. There will be a reason for all of this, and I think audiences will really enjoy themselves.

What do you think of “Counterpart?” Let us know in the comments below! 

“Counterpart” airs on Sundays on Starz. You can read our review of Season 1 here