Interview: DP Stephan Pehrsson talks ‘U.S.S. Callister’ and ‘Star Trek’ Aesthetics

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Once again, “Black Mirror” finds itself as an Emmy contender in 2018. With more exposure this year after breaking through in 2017, the series looks to add to its nomination count. Their TV Movie submission that will surely draw a lot of attention is “U.S.S. Callister,” a film that I raved about early this year. The film follows a lonely man who seems isolated out of his own VR company. However, as with most “Black Mirror” episodes, there is more than meets the eye.

The film is a brilliant take on “Star Trek” and an excellent homage to Sci-Fi in general. This is in large part thanks to Stephan Pehrsson, who served as DP for the film. I sat down with Stephan to discuss his time working on the film. We discussed his relationship with director Toby Haynes, working with Charlie Brooker, and how he was inspired by “Star Trek,” both new and old.

AF: What first drew you to become a cinematographer?

SP: I’m not sure. I always wanted to be in movies. I always wanted to work in film. I just assumed that you had to direct the film. I had a camera, and I found that it suited me. So I guess when I was 25 that I sort of realized that camera work was for me.

AF: Who are some of the cinematographers that you look up to or admire, and that you model your style after?

SP: Well I’m a huge fan of Roger Deakins, who finally won his Academy Award this year. He does some marvelous work. Also Chivo, Emmanuel Lubinski he does some amazing things with natural light. They all do something really incredible with their lighting that is really cinematic.

AF: It’s funny you mention the word cinematic, because as I was watching “U.S.S. Callister,” I was just blown away by the caliber of it. Especially cinematography. What first brought you onto this project? 

SP: I was very lucky that my good friend Toby Haynes was directing it. When he got offered the job, we had collaborated on many things before. We both love Sci-Fi stuff and action adventure stuff, so it just felt like the perfect and natural fit. He told me that he was going for the interview, and if he got it, we’d do it together. My friend got it, and he got me on.

A: As you begin the research component on your end, what were some of the things you were looking into to create the style of “USS Callister?”

SP: We were inspired by “Star Trek” obviously. You can’t really avoid that, but we also wanted to track all the iterations of Star Trek. We had the old “Star Trek” all the way to the modern J.J. Abrams “Star Trek.” That was a big thing, I watched a lot of the original show, and even the “Star Trek Continues” series. It tried to carry on the series as if it was made in the 1960s. It helped with making sure we achieved the 1960s look but wanted to appeal to those who love action/adventure. Anything Spielberg or J.J. Abrams had done was something we wanted to incorporate well.

A: One of the things that you guys did so well was separating the world of Infinity and the real world. What were some of the steps you took to differentiate the two?

SP: One of the main things early on, Toby was really keen on keeping the world sort of classic cinematic, on tracks and dollies. The other world should have a more handheld, realistic vibe. You would feel when you went from the pan or track onto a handheld shot, you would feel like you’re inside the movie instead of observing it. So when Ned (Cristin Milioti) is on her own, walking around the corridors, we were a bit more handheld and a bit more edgy than before. Beforehand has a bit more of a classic movie look.

It was in the colors a little bit. In fact, on the spaceship we wanted it to be bold! We went with really bright primary colors with the uniforms and the same with all the lights coming out of the walls. We really wanted that. Then in the office, we took it back a bit. We didn’t go all the way as grainy as “The Matrix” real world, but we sort of tried that. We didn’t go too far with it, but it was something we were looking at.

AF: One of the things I really liked about how you shot the characters was how you gave the audience a perspective on characters. Some characters feel forboding but then they end up being the “good guys,” and of course vice versa. It’s especially true with Daly (Jesse Plemmons). What were some of the steps you took to make the audience feel empathy for Daly before we get the turn later in the film?

SP: I think a lot of it was in the script, we sort of told the story. We also knew we had to twist it. We went from a normal, almost a rom-com kind of feel at first with the characters. For a moment you think this is going to be an office romance, where they’re going to fall in love or have an affair or they’re going to do something. We shot that like you’d shoot your office romance show. As soon as he changes, we sort of went into Bourne mode. We went to handheld. We had shots with him observing people, which was really kind of creepy. There are also shots of him in his glass little fishbowl, looking out at the world.

AF: So you mentioned that you and Toby had worked together for some time. Does he trust you to make calls or is he more hands-on in his approach?

SP: It’s a very collaborative process. We trust each other. He’ll do the blocking and I might question him and ask if “this can make it better.” Same with the lighting. I’ll set up one way, and he’ll ask “is that how you’re going to do the lights? Let’s try this.” It’s very collaborative and we don’t want to step on each other’s toes, but we know how to work together across everything to make it as good as possible. We’re good friends and we’ve now worked together for 15 years now, and worked on many projects together now. It’s good we have such a good work relationship.

AF: How about Charlie Brooker? He’s obviously overseeing the entirety of the “Black Mirror” franchise. How hands-on is he in the process?

SP: It sort of depends. When it comes to the shooting, the everyday kind of stuff, he leaves you to it. He really gave us room to do it how we wanted to do it. That said, he’s very on the script. The lines are Gospel and that’s what we shoot. He also has a very particular eye on art direction. Everything the production department produced had to be cleared by him, including any kind of graphics, computer screens, really anything you see in the film.

He’s very knowledgeable about games, software, this world in general. I think that’s a big part of why the show has been so distinctive from the start, he’s got a very particular eye for how this technology should be. He definitely knows when its wrong. Of course, I wasn’t involved in the editing, but he’s very strong in that aspect. He wants to make sure its edited so that he can believe the story.

AF: How did you guys work on Skillane IV, the planet? The one where they bathed and it has volcanic rock. What were some of the challenges to make it visually distinct? 

SP: Well it was a challenge at first because we could only go to one country to film all the planets. Then we had to find two competing worlds. We ended up going to Lanzarote‘s (in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa)  and rented a few places. Then we decided since we found a couple of red quarries, we could have a red planet. We also found a volcanic black beach and thought that it was perfect.

Then there were a few discussions about the volcanic beach actually looked a bit like mud. It was just a muddy beach in the pictures we showed Charlie, which meant we had to do more convincing. We then went to art direction designers, who came up with a few concepts for the planets in the sky. There was also that pink sky, and we added some grays that helped us finalize the look. We also added some extra blue into the water, which was very much done in post.

AF: How about the space chases? In the end, Daly is chasing the Callister, so how did you go about shooting that sequence?

SP: Well a lot of that requires imagination because obviously, all we had was some temp visual effects and some rocks in space. All we really had was the green screen and his little spaceship. There was a lot of “jump left, jump right” but a lot of it was stitched together in post. We sort of knew when they went through the wormhole that there was going to be light flashes. We added some interactive lighting so that the crew could feel more like the real thing was happening. There was a leap of imagination that this was going to work in the end.

AF: What was your favorite shot in this film?

SP: I really like the bit when Ned wakes up in her med bay. The whole med bay sequence is so great, especially in the close-ups with Ned’s big eyes and her eyelashes. It just felt really exciting. The whole room comes alive and its the image I think of the most when I think of “USS Callister.”

AF: One of the last things I wanted to touch on was how you shot Ned/Cristin Milioti. She felt more empowered in many of her scenes then the men, which can be a problem in sci-fi and adventure stories. 

SP: I think there was nothing different in how we shot her. She was our hero, so we shot her like she’s our hero. If Ned had been a male, we would have shot him the same way. Cristin is our hero, so she gets those great shots, the close-ups, she gets the great imagery. There’s the little push in at the end as she takes the captain’s chair. The light glints across her eyes and she’s a proper Star Trek captain now. You know those kinds of things, we wanted to give her as much power as a male protagonist would have.

AF: Alright, my last question is asking what’s next for you? You’re on set while we’re having this interview, so what are you working on if you can tell me. 

SP: Right now I’m on set filming “Les Miserables” for British television, but I’m sure it will go out to television around the world. It’s a huge sort of six-part series with a great cast (Dominic West, David Oyelowo, Lily Collins). We’re having a great time in Brussels filming. We’re shooting a scene tonight with 50 dancers at a ball. It’s fantastic.

AF: Thank you so much for your time Stephan! Best of luck!

SP: Thank you! We hope so!

What did you think of the cinematography in “U.S.S. Callister” and other “Black Mirror” episodes? Let us hear in the comments below!

The official Emmy Predictions have been updated.  Check out the newest predictions and see where “Black Mirror” and “U.S.S. Callister” rank!

“U.S.S. Callister” is available on Netflix. It is in Season 4 of “Black Mirror,” and is For Your Consideration in all categories, including Outstanding Television Movie and Outstanding Cinematography for a Limited Series or Movie.