Steven Meizler Interview: ‘Godless’ cinematographer
“Godless” cinematographer Steven Meizler took a whole class dedicated to Western films in college, but he first looked to another source for inspiration when prepping for the Netflix limited series.
“I got the beginning of my research from old Western photographers and painters, like Frederic Remington. I got a lot of the colors and color palette from that. And Edward Curtis — a lot of his photography and compositions,” Meizler revealed during Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: Cinematography panel, moderated by this author (watch above). “I was really struck by how hard the life was of the people and how they were survivalists and I really wanted to bring that to Godless, and how hard it was to live in the West.”
“Godless,” which was filmed in Santa Fe, N.M., features some of the most breathtakingly gorgeous images ever put on TV. Like any Western worth its salt, the series made sure the landscape was a character unto itself, which meant shooting a lot with natural light.
“Our first day of shooting was the beginning of monsoon season in Santa Fe. My key grip, who’s local, said, ‘The key to a Western is to embrace the weather.’ And I think that’s it,” Meizler shared. “I wasn’t caught in trying to make the continuity as much as shooting the skies and finding the angles. The sky does a lot of the work for you.”
Even in the dark. Meizler, who’s DPed a multitude of Steven Soderbergh projects including “The Girlfriend Experience” film and show, also deployed natural darkness to great effect to the point where you could barely see the characters’ faces, symbolizing the mystique and unpredictability of the West. The scene in the first episode in which Alice (Michelle Dockery) shoots Roy (Jack O’Connell) was in fact written that way. “It was written in there and I actually had to go back to it because shot it and while we were doing the color-timing,” Meizler shared. “[Creator] Scott [Frank] asked, ‘Well, can we see a little bit more of Alice’s face,’ kind of like, ‘We’re riding the line.’”
While you could hardly see faces in the dark, one thing Meizler ensured was always visible was the sprawling vista. Even in close-ups, the dazzling vistas always dwarfed whoever or whatever was in the foreground. “We came up with rules and one of our rules was that our close-ups would be with a 25-millimeter lens, so we could still have a close-up and capture the scenery too and also keeping a 2.40:1 aspect ratio,” he said.
Netflix actually forgot it had signed off on that ratio and “questioned us a week before we shot and wanted us to switch back.” Team “Godless” held strong, though, and convinced Netflix brass to see the light.
“Some of their people came out and we said we’re really passionate about it,” Meizler said. “I think it’s really important for the composition. It’s something to really stretch the frame and it is about the landscape and I felt it was necessary to keep it in that aspect ratio.”