INTERVIEW: DP Ben Kutchins on the Dreamlike ‘Ozark,’ Jason Bateman, and More

This year brought a lot of very strong cinematography to television. “Barry” and “Atlanta” both showcased some amazing shots throughout the season. The return of “Game of Thrones” brought a blockbuster sensibility to the small screen. Perhaps the most unique cinematography of the year came from the blue haze of “Ozark” on Netflix. The dreamlike world of crime and money laundering felt unique in the TV landscape this year and made an impact on the Emmys almost a full calendar year after it’s release. One of the many people nominated for an Emmy from the show is Ben Kutchins, who brought his unique eye to many of the first season’s episodes. Kutchins sat down with me to discuss his role on the show, as well as Jason Bateman the director and the visual flair of “Ozark.”

Alan French/Awards Circuit: How did you first find yourself interested in cinematography? 

Ben Kutchins: I became interested in cinematography through still photography. I sort of grew up taking 35mm stills of my friends and looking at the world through a still lens. You can say I became interested in cinematography specifically by watching movies. I didn’t have a TV growing up, so my experience with movies so the movies had a huge impact on me. Some of the first movies I saw were “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Seven Samurai.” My parents had very eclectic taste and didn’t mind sharing very adult movies with me as a kid. It sort of opened up a whole world of imagination to me. I didn’t know how movies were made, and I didn’t understand the language of filmmaking until my first exposure to it when I got an internship at Industrial Light and Magic when I was 19 years old. They offered me a job after that and that’s where I got my intro to filmmaking. Definitely not a bad place to start.

AF: Yeah, definitely not. What was one of your first big breaks? 

BK: I feel like the first big break was shooting a movie right out of film school. I went back to school, to NYU, and after I’d been out of school for a year, or less than a year, some kids I went to school with called me up and told me they were going to make a movie. They told me they were going to shoot on a small handy cam, but I sort of talked Panavision into giving us a free camera. I talked Kodak into giving us some free film, and we scrounged together enough money to process the film. That movie went on to get mentions for my work in the New York Times and Village Voice, and it was a big deal for me at the time. It sort of felt like that being my first experience and having so much positive feedback was a good break.

AF: What was the name of the film?

BK: The movie is called “Bomb the System” and it’s about graffiti writers in New York. It was a tiny movie, we had under a million dollars. Not a lot of money, but a lot of people’s hard work went into it.

AF: Between film school and ILM, what was your biggest takeaway as you began your career? 

BK: I think my biggest takeaway is that you should always be looking at each story that you’re going to tell as something that’s it’s own individual and it deserves the love and attention of a child. You have to sort of take this thing and baby it, raise it up, and nurture it and feed it. Really take care of each project because each project is an individual, and never look at this as just a job.

I think if you start to take it for granted, it starts to take you for granted and you’ll end up doing work you don’t want to do. There’s certainly plenty of work out there doing photography on projects that I wouldn’t really be interested in. The cinematography is a character in the story and a supporting piece of the story, so don’t work from a place of ego, but make the storytelling the priority.

AF: Well that’s a great segway into “Ozark, which is one of the most unique shows from last year. How did you first come to get involved with “Ozark?”

BK: I knew Jason Bateman from a project we did 4 years prior to “Ozark.” When I found out he was doing the show, I got in touch with him. We discussed it, and I had a conversation with the other cinematographer on the show, Pepe Avila Del Pino. He and Jason were fantastic and really welcomed me. I started prepping with them while they were prepping the pilot. I did not shoot the pilot, but I shot 6 of the 10 episodes. They invited me down to come prep with them, and I was around a bit while they shot the pilot. It was a very collaborative experience. You know, Jason is a force of nature creatively. It’s been an amazing experience.

AF: A lot of know Jason Bateman from his acting. How did he handle that transition from actor, to actor/director? 

BK: Jason has the amazing ability to watch himself perform. He’s able to critique his performance, and the performers around him in real time, which is something I’ve never seen an actor/director do. Like I said, he’s sort of a force of nature to watch. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. He works very fast. He likes to shoot quickly to keep the pace up, keep the energy going, and that’s something I believe in too. You don’t ever really want a big lag time between setups and shots. You want to keep that forward momentum. It’s good for the actors, for the crew, and everyone’s moral. That energy ends up translating onto the screen.

He’s very focused and he’s been doing this since he was 6 years old. He knows exactly what he wants, and what the tone of the scene should be. That’s primarily what we talk about. We talk about the storytelling and finding the most unique perspective the audience can take away from this scene. Each shot is sort of given a lot of regard, there’s never just a close-up. I really respect that about him, and I think we share that aesthetic. it always matters where the camera is because that’s the audience’s relationship to the storytelling. We share a great love for filmmaking and luckily a similar aesthetic.

AF: Speaking of the aesthetic, I found the show be very dream-like at times. It’s methodical, there’s a lot of blues, it’s dark. What were some of the reference points you used to develop the aesthetic for this show? 

BK: To be honest, there weren’t any references as “it should be like this movie.” Primarily I like the idea that the photography is evocative of a memory and can, therefore, tap into every audience member. It is somewhat dreamlike. I don’t think that things need to be super grounded into every moment to touch an audience. There’s a naturalism to the show, combined with the heightened dreamlike aesthetic that really works. I think that’s the thing I’m always chasing. This sort of marrying of the two worlds, of the dreamworld and of something that’s a little more feet on the ground. I think when you can combine those things, it gets kind of magical.

The real reference for “Ozark” is the sort of marrying of the idea of an old thriller shot on old Fujifilm stock, and the idea that the audience should never feel like anything is lit or pretty, or overly done up. Of course, there’s a lot of work and a lot of finesse to what we do, and the idea that there’s a lot of stuff that’s natural, and smooth, and the audience should never feel like they’re moving the camera now. That should flow seamlessly into the story and should continue to bring them in.

AF: I think you guys accomplish that in spades. What is your favorite episode in “The Toll,” the episode you received your nomination for? 

BK: That’s really tough. I come from a place where I do not want the audience to stop and think, “wow, that’s a really pretty shot.” I want them to be sucked in and engaged. There are no particular shots that stand out to me. However, there’s an aesthetic from episode 10 that I think sort of represents the apex of Jason’s work, and my work and the crew’s work.

Really the nomination is a testament to the hard work of everyone on the show. We managed to reach this crescendo at the end of the season where all things were firing on all cylinders. I don’t have a particular favorite shot, but I think I really just love the episodes. It sings. If you have an orchestra, everyone hit their part with the right timing and melody and it just works.

AF: I will say, I’m a huge sucker for the shot when the pastor (Michael Mosley) running down with the baby down to the water. The way you followed him down into the water and then circled him. It was an awesome moment in the show and I was holding my breath through the whole scene. 

BK: You know that’s what Jason and I were having so much doing on this set. We want you to try to figure out what someone is thinking. That’s why we’re not shooting people dead-on from the front. If you can get 3/4 behind them and slowly wrap as slow as you can. You can reveal their eyes, and reveal a little bit more, and the audience is engaged, wondering what they’re thinking. You see the wheels turn behind their eyes, and then you reveal. What is it that they’re looking at, what is it that they’re thinking. It’s that slow burn reveal that can be magic when it works.

AF: I think that’s just one of many moments in that episode where that feeling works. What was the most challenging thing for you on “Ozark?”

BK: I think the challenging thing is that it isn’t shot on a stage. There are some places we primarily work from, but it’s a location-based show. So we’re out on the water. The Byrde family house has so many windows it’s essentially shooting an exterior. So the clouds come out and what’s happening with the sun that day matters. If it’s a long sequence, then the lighting doesn’t match, so I have to manipulate it to match and have everything flow seamlessly. Being out in the woods, on the water, all those things are incredibly difficult.

To simply get a shot of someone out on a boat and to have the camera shaking without making the audience feel sick is incredibly time-consuming. When you have a camera boat with a crane on it, and you have another boat, they’re moving in whatever way the current wants to take them, it’s incredibly tough to get footing. There is no normal out on the water. It will never line up the way you want. Embracing chaos is what it is, and it gives you amazing stuff. A lot of the stuff from the water came out kind of magically. If you stay open, adapt, stay engaged with Mother Nature, it can really guide us.

AF: Well congratulations again on the Emmy nomination. You’re in a tough category, but the work really speaks for itself. It absolutely belongs here. One last question before we go. Coming up in Season 2 (which premiere on August 31st) what can we expect, and how many episodes are you shooting? 

BK: So in season 2, I shot 5 episodes. I think what the new season is doing is taking what happened in Season 1 and just ratcheting it up with the drama in the Byrde family. It’s the most interesting element and it’s one of the reasons season 1 worked so well. It’s a thriller, but it’s really a show about the family dynamic and we care about the Byrdes. This is why the stakes feel so high, and there’s a constant threat at any moment. We’ve grown to love these characters, and we want them to succeed or even survive. I think Season 2 the pressure raises from every angle. Seeing the family try to stay together in the face of it all is really magical.

What did you think of the first season of Ozark? What about Ben Kutchins’ cinematography? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below! 

“Ozark” returns for Season 2 on August 31st on Netflix.