Interview: Cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard on Italian Cinema and ‘Master of None’

Few shows that showcase strong cinematography in their first season make a jump in their second season. However, “Master of None” took a huge leap from an already strong place to be one of the best shot shows on TV in its second season. Cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard followed star Aziz Ansari down the Italian cinema rabbit hole and took the inspiration to another level. The show’s incredibly successful second season looks primed for awards contention, and Schwartzbard is a huge reason for the series’s improvement. I sat down with him to discuss the influences on the show in the second season, shooting in black and white, and his achievement on “Buona Notte” by blending genre.

A: A lot of what I was seeing was the Woody Allen style of cinema. Did you watch a lot of 1970s cinema to prep for that?

M: Yeah, Woody Allen is a big reference. Hal Ashby is a big reference, and Robert Altman is a bit influence. Those were the big three informing the show when we first started the show we were talking about that. This second season was that with a layer of Antonioni on top of that.

A: Let’s start at the beginning, “The Thief.” How much fun was it to work in black and white? 

M:  A lot, a lot. The black and white was the best.

A: Who were some of the directors you wanted to model the shots after?

M: Aziz got really into Italian neo-realist films from the De Sica stuff from the ’50’s into the Antonioni stuff from the ’50’s and ’60’s. The whole arc of season 2 of this show comes out of there. So “The Thief,” obviously it’s a “Bicycle Thief” reference, so a lot of the stuff we’re trying to do is blend our style with the De Sica style. We kinda watched all that stuff, from “The Thief” to “Shoeshine” we watched all that stuff. Later on, in the season, we got into the Antonioni stuff. We were looking more at the composition styles and the blocking styles of the directors.

A: One of the more iconic moments of this season is “The Dinner Party” ending. How did you develop the idea for that shot?

M: If I remember right, it was just kind of on the day. We had the camera locked in the car, and we were driving around. I think Aziz had the idea to keep going. I’m not sure anyone really thought that whole thing would make the cut until it started happening. We kind of thought we’d have him in the car and we’d shoot him in the car, and drop her off, have a car drive by, and a block away have him get out as if it was a passage of time. As we kept driving around in circles to reset, Aziz got excited about just sitting in that moment. We came up with that on the fly.

A: One of the things I love about the show is that each episode feels like its own short movie. You guys can wildly change visual styles from episode to episode. On the “Thanksgiving” episode, what did you do to differentiate it from the other episodes?

M: A lot of that credit goes to Melina Matsoukas who directed that episode. Also to our amazing production designer Amy Williams, who built that house on stage. They spent a lot of time talking about specific colors of paint and types of carpet. I think the production design informed a lot of it. Stylistically, Melina wanted more handheld than we typically do on the show. We veer back and forth a bit, but that episode, in particular, got pretty handheldy. We had the ambitious overhead shots, but really it kinda came from trying to put a period look on things. A lot came down to Melina’s direction, a lot of her choices of what kind of handheld to do. Maybe a little bit more fashiony than the angles we often do.

A: Italy was a big factor in this season. What kind of shots did you use to bring out the country?

M: Well we try to make the locations a real element to the show. Wherever we are we want to play to the strength of the location when we block out the scenes. We can tell a story about the characters depending on where they are at. This can be doing a wide shot of Vespas riding through the hills, or this could be that when we’re in a restaurant we pull back.

Typically two people sitting in a restaurant we’d typically do something a little bit wider than we normally would and get a feel for the place. In an ideal world, we sit in that shot for a little bit longer than other shows would. It’s one of the advantages of our widescreen frame, is that we get a big wide shot and get more actors in it. Yet it’s not too wide where you miss out on the performances. You can get three medium shots in the same frame in a wide shot and still see a lot of the restaurant behind them.

A: Now the “New York, I Love You” episode, obviously you go to a bunch of different place for that. Did you go on location of those, or did you have to use a set?

M: Mostly on location. The room that is supposed to be the doorman’s breakroom is actually the electrical room on our soundstage that we redressed. Amy did a little construction in the apartment where the cab drivers live too to make it feel a bit smaller. But other than that that was all real?

A: Did you perform drastic changes in how you filmed the show when we’re following Aziz in his day-to-day, versus when he’s hosting “Clash of Cupcakes?”

M: Yeah we tried to do emulate the style of those shows. We put a jib on in, used different cameras, and tried to put big swingy jib more. Everything in how we shot that was different that how we shoot “The Master of None” show or the behind the scenes of that show.

A: As far as color composition how did you frame some of the shots? I think one of the better ones in “Buona Notte” when Aziz is dancing with Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi) and its a very intimate show with the red and blue lights.

M: That actually came about when we were doing the horror bits, the dream sequences and nightmare sequences where his heart gets ripped out. The idea of that is that its a dream sequence, but you’re not thinking about what it’s like to actually have your heart ripped out. You’re thinking about what you’ve seen in the movies. So in that case, from the perspective of Dev, it’s a horror movie trope. Well, we looked at the Mario Bava films and “Creepshow” for cheeseball horror ideas. In “Creepshow,” every time the demon comes out, the lights change to this red and blue craziness.

That was the original idea was to do some kind of lighting cue when the nightmare happened. Well, we did some testing with a different kind of red and blue light, but eventually decided the blood, that when you put anything other than white light on it, it was really hard to read the blood on Aziz’s skin tone. We decided not to do it there, but during the testing, we fell in love with what that kitchen looked like when you start putting weird colors on it. Aziz came up with the idea to use the gag in the dancing sequence to justify it with the idea that when Dev and Franchesca decide to do this make believe scenario in this bar, he goes into the drawer and pulls out some party colored lightbulbs he has and screws them into the lamps. So that’s what that was.

A: How collaborative is it to work with Aziz? He obviously directs, stars in and writes the show. How much does he let you work and showcase your own talents?

M: He’s amazing. All of them, Aziz and Alan (Yang) the co-creator and Eric Wareheim who directs a lot of it. This job is a dream job for collaboration. Aziz is always pushing us to go further with the visual style. He always wants to go further and further. He’s got great ideas, and he’s open to other great ideas. It feels like the perfect collaboration to me and I have an enormous amount of fun too. Everyone is always pushing for new styles, and everyone has got great taste.

I keep mentioning Amy, between the camera and the production design and the wardrobe. When Aziz started looking at and getting into this ’60’s Italian cinema, we all started looking at a lot of stuff together. Everyone started sneaking in their own references, like wardrobe cues from specific movies or textures and colors that are based on a lot of stuff. Stuff in season 2 has patterns based on polka dots from “L’Avventura.” The art department was using that pattern, a lot of us were using the pattern, and it became a kind of film school to find how to make it all work together.

A: Well congratulations on another amazing season of the show. It’s amazingly shot. 

M: Well thank you so much!

What did you think of “Master of None” Season 2? What did you think of Mark Schwartzbard’s cinematography? Let us know in the comments below.

“Master of None” is currently streaming on Netflix.