Why cinematographer Martin Ahlgren turned to deep focus to capture ‘The Plot Against America’s’ chilling alt-history [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

The Plot Against America,” based on the novel by Philip Roth, imagines an alternate history in which Charlies Lindbergh defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 election by running on anti-Semitic, fascist platforms. But even without that eerie resonance, cinematographer Martin Ahlgren knew the show had to look and feel as real as possible.

“It was intending to do something that was a comment on the present for sure, so I think that permeated everything that we did,” he tells Gold Derby at our Meet the Experts: TV Cinematography panel. “I think there were a few things that happened that were prescient in the show maybe because it’s so timeless. It’s not trying to keep up with current events and is instead trying to let go for some larger themes and in a way, we ended up seeing some of that mirrored in reality.”

To capture that verisimilitude, Ahlgren, who was Emmy-nominated for his work on the HBO limited series, turned to photojournalism of the 1940s. He quickly noticed that photos from this era were all in deep focus. “[It] wasn’t necessarily a conscious styling in and of itself, but it wasn’t like the shallow focus aesthetic that we’re used to today,” he notes. “There were a few photos like that that really caught my attention and I was like, ‘Ah! It’d be really interesting to do this show with that.’”

SEE ‘The Plot Against America’: The true story behind HBO’s alt-history limited series

Deep focus means everything in a frame is in focus, allowing viewers to look at and absorb everything in the shot. It also means entrusting the viewer to figure out what’s important without being told. Ahlgren viewed it as a way of “telling the story with images that had layers and depth and more richness.”

“Shallow focus is one of the tools we have to direct what the audience should be looking at. I think when you’re not using that, you’re instead intentionally creating frames where maybe there’s a little more room for you to scan the image and find different levels of interest,” Ahlgren explains. “I especially got really interested in setting up frames with multiple people in the shot, sometimes trying to make a frame that kind of stacked all the faces so left to right would be filled with different faces and having all of those in focus, and just feeling there was something interesting and unusual about that. And also allowing for that image to live a little bit longer than you would do otherwise, so it was in some ways a new experience for me. … It was a fun challenge.”

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