Awards Daily chats with Poker Face cinematographer Steve Yedlin about his longtime partnership with EP Rian Johnson, Adrian Brody’s big leap in the pilot, and how they achieved that view from inside “The Spot” in Episode 9. *Spoilers Ahead*
Poker Face marks cinematographer Steve Yedlin’s first television series, although he doesn’t necessarily see it that way.
“If you can even say I did a series since I did two episodes!” says Yedlin with a laugh, who worked on the pilot “Dead Man’s Hand” and Episode 9, “Escape from Shit Mountain.”
For the past two decades, Yedlin has worked closely with Poker Face executive producer Rian Johnson, so while the television format was different, not much of anything else felt out of the ordinary.
“Everything with Rian has felt like a Rian movie, from the time we were making short films in film school up through his indie stuff and The Last Jedi and now this. It always feels like the Rian family filmmaking.”
Because of Johnson’s attention to detail in the script, Yedlin says that the lighting and shot design are built in to be visual. “This is truly made to be shown and to be shown in a cinematic way.”
Natalie’s Death in Pilot
We learn early on how cinematic Poker Face can be with the death of Natalie (Dascha Polanco) in the opening 20 minutes of the pilot. Charlie Cale’s bestie returns home to meet her demise in a shocking and visually stunning manner. Yedlin says that Johnson knew exactly what he wanted from this scene.
“That TV really was the glow. We had the TV going, and then we had several lights around the muzzle flash that were set to be a flame color. We had them set to all trigger together for exactly one-and-half frame duration, so you know you won’t miss it with the shutter, and have a tiny spill onto the frame before and after.”
Adrian Brody’s Leap from a Building
Natalie isn’t the only one to die in “Dead Man’s Hand.” Adrian Brody’s Sterling Jr. leaps off his high-rise after Charlie double-crosses him, in a sequence that’s both swift and breathtaking.
“A lot of the credit goes to our visual effects people because obviously, he didn’t really jump off the building. In shooting it, the shot design and the technique were bundled together. Rian already knew what he wanted to do. We were on a built retrofitted warehouse that’s sort of a soundstage, so we could dolly through the wall, and we just dollied out with him, and he jumped off a four-foot high platform. He was on wires over a stunt pad.”
The Red Glow in ‘Escape from Shit Mountain’
Yedlin says that he and Johnson have always gone back and forth with their love of theatrical realism, or the blurred lines between lighting in a practical way versus heightened like an opera. In Episode 9’s “Escape from Shit Mountain,” one of Yedlin’s artistic choices made Johnson “giddily delighted.”
“With that neon open sign [in front of the motel], we have the scene where we’re out there with them [Joseph Gordon Levitt and David Castañeda], and we have the scene where [Charlie] sees them out there. The interior was onstage, so one of the things I came up with and proposed—and I think Rian was excited I went this far to the theatrical side—when we see them out there, their shadows are projected onto the curtain, as though the red light is on the other side. That would never happen; it’s totally backwards. I asked him what he thought of that, and he was giddily delighted that I went that far toward the unrealist [side].”
A Glimpse Inside ‘The Spot’
Also in that episode, we get a glimpse inside “The Spot,” or the cavernous hole beneath a tree where Trey (Joseph Gordon Levitt) and Jimmy (David ) bury their secrets. Yedlin says they worked with the art department to make sure “The Spot” was wide enough so they could film in there.
“We can’t tell which direction we’re looking, but there’s not supposed to be any light in there, so this is one of the things you run into on movies. If it were real, there’d be no way you’d be able to see. What I was going for was this dim twilight-y, gloaming light, and it was a little bit difficult because usually the way you do that is with giant soft light so it doesn’t feel directional. You don’t want it to feel like it came from a source. We couldn’t do that because they were actually in a cave. The camera is moving all around in the mouth of a cave, so it was a combination of getting the soft light in there where we could, as a static thing, having the soft light on the camera that could dim up and down as needed as it got closer and farther to things. It was more of a technical problem-solving thing than a conceptual one.”
Poker Face is streaming on Peacock.