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SYFY WIRE Mrs. Davis

What do The Sound of Music and Pee-wee's Big Adventure Have in Common with Mrs. Davis?

Cinematographer Joe Anderson exclusively shares his visual inspirations for the look of Mrs. Davis.

By Tara Bennett
A still image from Mrs. Davis Season 1 Episode 5

Even the most casual of television viewer has a general understanding that most TV and streaming series tell their stories within the production constraints of constructed sets and some location work. But there are also those outlier series which are more ambitious, like Peacock's Mrs. Davis. Despite not having the premium budget of an HBO series, series creators Tara Hernandez and Damon Lindelof charted the adventures of Sister Simone (Betty Gilpin) and Wiley (Jake McDorman) to take place in destinations as disparate as Reno, Nevada, Scotland, a secluded island in the middle of the ocean, and even Medieval locales. 

Making all of those locations look and feel real was the task of director of photography, Joe Anderson (The Old Man & The Gun). For the pilot episode, he established the whole look of the series in collaboration with the creators and director Owen Harris, and was the cinematographer for episodes 2, 5, and 8. Anderson — who was responsible for some of the most memorable sequences of the season, including Sister Simone's dramatic character entrance, the Super Bowl commercial, and Wiley's roller coaster moment — got on a Zoom with SYFY WIRE to provide some behind the lens insight into how they pulled off the show's visuals. 

RELATED: Damon Lindelof Responds to 'Frightening' Mrs. Davis Question from Actual A.I.

Cinematographer Joe Anderson Talks Shooting Mrs. Davis

A still image from Mrs. Davis Season 1

Starting from the very beginning, what about Mrs. Davis appealed to you as a DP?

Joe Anderson: I think what really hooked me from just the screenplay was how ambitious it is. We're used to a lot of dystopian, really dark shows right now. They're very moody. This show is just bursting with enthusiasm and curiosity and excitement. And all the screen direction [in the script] was so incredibly unique, with a lot of extra wording. It wasn't necessarily stuff that you could film, but there's lots of creating the atmosphere and communicating that. So it was our job to figure out how do we translate this incredible stuff that they've written to be actually like a temporal and visual experience? 

What were some of the visual references that came up in creating the visual tone for Mrs. Davis?

JA: We had stuff from like, Pee-wee's Big Adventure, The Sound of Music, and David Lynch projects. Also, Chuck Jones cartoons and James Rosenquist paintings. He's kind of a spiritual reference where his work is pop art and lots of different things like advertising, thrown together comics, and the industrial war complex. It was all this stuff kind of jumbled together on these bigger than life paintings that were the size of walls. And that just felt like that was the energy of this show. So we were all able to look at it all, put it up on our walls and just live in it for a while while we were prepping and trying to figure out the tone of the show. 

I also like to reference a lot of stuff from the '90s because that's before digital cameras came in. Digital cameras are amazing, but they also like to emphasize darkness. I just really like some of the movies that I grew up loving that were not dark and moody. They were very exciting experiences for the audience. And so a lot of stuff in the '90s was our touchstone and a big one was actually Baz Lurhmann's Romeo + Juliet, which features a bunch of characters [talking] to the camera and it's in on the jokes, and it's punctuating jokes. 

Cinematography breakdowns of Mrs. Davis

In the pilot, you open the series with the Knights Templar sequence which is then paid off in Episode 5. Talk about how you planned for it when it carried through several episodes?

JA: We had two big challenges with the Knights of the Templar sequence. It needed to introduce the audience to the show, Mrs. Davis, so it had to be big and mysterious and exciting. It also then had to pull back this veil a couple episodes later to show what it really is. And then in Episode 5, we also had to shoot the behind-the-making-of [scenes], so we actually had three different challenges going on at once.

Because this commercial was set in the '90s, we also want to use the language that was a Super Bowl commercial back then. We even have a kind of slightly dated morph in it — which is a little bit of a link to that time — but we still needed it to be cool for our 2023 audience. We looked at a lot of big budget advertisements from the times and we landed on the Stella Artois commercials which were made by fancy music video directors. That was our touchstone for the look of it. And then we just had to spread out the script on a table and dissect how do we film this, and then film the crew filming this, in a tight television production schedule? It was quite hard. We did lots of storyboards. The sequences are really storyboarded to a tee. We shot that stuff over five days: the behind the scene fights, the walking on water, and the big opening shot. It was a lot.

Cinematography breakdowns of Mrs. Davis

Also in the pilot, you introduce Simone in such a dramatic way, arriving in the dark on her white horse. 

JA: Yeah, that opening scene, where we were introduced to Simone, was a big challenge because it was written at sunset. It's hard to do a long shot at sunset, unless you're shooting like Terrence Malick, where you shoot one shot a day. [Laughs.] We pushed it to just after the sun has set, so the blue hour. It created this interesting atmosphere for the ruse that's taking place. Then when we get to the Simone character reveal, I just thought it was really a fun and bold move to light the main character with police flashlights as she arrives on a horse. It was a risk. You have a stunt rider on a horse. You have the main character. You're shooting in a big black void. But I took a chance on lighting with flashlights, and it's really me off camera [doing it]. I always like it when lights are motivated, you can then make it bigger and more expressive. In this case, it was motivated by the police flashlights and I just ran with that. We got a really cool moment where we the audience gets to see her for the first time and I'm really proud of it.

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Cinematography breakdowns of Mrs. Davis

Do you have a favorite establishing sequence in the pilot?

JA: Because Mrs. Davis is like a road show, where we're not just shooting in the same apartment set, it was important for me and for Owen Harris, the director of the first episode, to give the audience as much as we can of Simone's backstory, visually. Tara and Damon had written written a sequence as a "Terrence Malick-esque montage at the convent." A lot of times that takes up one eighth of a page of script, which seems quite easy to do. I think a lot of producers would just assume you can knock that out in a couple of hours on some afternoon. But Owen really, really pushed for it to really ground the audience in Simone's life so that when she is forced to leave that light, you really miss it.

We ended up shooting that sequence over the span of two days with multiple units shooting at the same time. Scheduling all these different locations outside, in June, in the desert, was a challenge. We did a lot of clever things like in the middle of the day when the lights are not as nice, so we went undercover. We actually built a set out in the desert, which is a little bit unusual, but it allowed us to be inside when the light was bad and shoot Simone in the beautiful triangle chapel. We shot all that stuff in the middle of the day and then we'd pop back out for the more Terrence Malick-hours to shoot. We just shot the hell out of this beautiful landscape that our amazing production designer Emma Fairley made. I think that's just incredibly unique about the show. You just don't see these epic minutes long montages.

Cinematography breakdowns of Mrs. Davis

Going to the finale episode, talk about visualizing Wiley's "death" moment as he's placed in that roller coaster cart and it's revealed in a very surreal way.

JA: Everything in the series, even though it's very surreal and larger than life, it's still grounded in real world physics. So when we get to the exciting conclusion of the entire series, I think it was a fun moment to actually just slightly break the rules. Having that scene at the end of Wiley's arc taking place in a glass pyramid in the desert, with a roller coaster that potentially ends people's lives, was a big challenge and very new for our show. We started throwing together images. But Tara was quite specific that she did not want the spectacle of a roller coaster to take us away from Wiley's eyes. It was decided that we would go just a little more mysterious with the audience and let their imagination fill in the gaps of what a roller coaster that can kill you would actually look like, and that allowed us to focus more on on Wiley's face.

All of Mrs. Davis Season 1 is now streaming on Peacock