I recently interviewed Nathaniel Goodman, who worked as the Director of Photography (DP), otherwise known as the Cinematographer, on some of your favorite episode of Timeless, including “The Darlington 500”, “The King of the Delta Blues”, “The Day Reagan Was Shot”, “Chinatown”, “The Miracle of Christmas Part 1 & 2”, and most importantly to many fans, “Hollywoodland”. The DP is in charge of the camera and light crews on a television show and is responsible for making artistic and technical decisions related to the final image on your television screen. More simply put, the DP decides the overall look or feel of the scenes visually.
Music In the Dark: What was “a day in the life” like for a DP on Timeless? Did the different time periods make it more difficult or give you more of a chance to get creative?
Nathaniel Goodman: There are actually two typical days in the life of a DP on Timeless. One is prep and the other is shoot. Since Timeless was a large-scale show that basically had to recreate itself every week, we had alternating DP’s and Assistant Directors (AD) who prepped with each incoming episodic director. You can see from the show that we aren’t on our standing sets for most of the work of the episode. So, in prep, we have to scout locations and discuss the design of the time period, prep for any visual effects, and look at wardrobe, props, etc., all of which have to be built from the ground up to match the time period.
It’s a lot of work for the art and costume departments and they always blew me away with what they could pull out of the hat. In prep, we also deal with the schedule and other boring stuff and try to work in creative discussions in between!
Once we get to the shoot, a lot of the work has already been done. We’ll start the day with a rehearsal, then I’ll discuss the shots for the scene with the director, although we both would have a pretty good idea of what they will be from the prep and script, especially any complicated specialty shots that would need special equipment like cranes and remote heads. I also have a color and lighting quality plan in my head that I hope would fit the time period and drama.
The great thing about this show was that we really got to invent every episode and each presented its own challenges, especially when we were in time periods before electricity, like 1948 Sutter’s Mill in the finale. It’s way more fun than just doing the same thing every episode, but then, I always try to mix it up.
MItD: How did you approach the look of a Timeless episode? Different time periods all had their own looks: “Hollywoodland” looked very different from “The King of the Delta Blues”, which looked very different from “Chinatown”. Is it collaborative with multiple departments or does it start with you and the director or show runner?
NG: In the end , everything starts with the script. All the clues will be in there. Then, of course, the show runners, writer, and director have their conceptions. Directors in TV are most often visiting, so the writers, especially the show runner, are really the stopgaps. Some of the episodes are directed by the producing director, which was Greg Beeman in Season 2. He did the first episode with Jimmy Lindsey, the DP who did the series in Season 1, and with whom I alternated. Then Greg and I did “Delta Blues” and “Chinatown“. As the producing director, he also had more input globally.
In prep, all the departments present ideas generated from the script and I will also talk conceptually, perhaps showing photos, paintings, movie clips – any visual reference – for a direction. The Production Designer will do the same. Most often we’re all on the same page so we start by discussing colors, and practical lighting for the sets, which are then going to really drive the look. For “Hollywoodland“, I really wanted to go for a magical, almost “Technicolor” look, especially when Mari-An Ceo, our amazing costume designer, presented what she had in mind for Lucy, Wyatt, and Rufus.
MItD: You worked on some of the fan favorite episodes and then the original season 2 finale without knowing what was going to happen as far as renewal. Did that influence how the episode looked or how you approached their look, like if you knew a moment was big, you wanted it to look particularly iconic?
NG: So within the show runners parameters that Timeless stay in the “real”, we were able to light [Hollywoodland] in a more classic Hollywood way and manipulate the color digitally to give a “Technicolor” look.
For “Delta Blues“, we really wanted to capture a world where electric lights were still in their childhood, especially in the deep south. So I wanted to see if we could give it a look where the weak lamps of the time would be bright in their immediate vicinity but not really light very much. The challenge here was doing that with an important historical story that had all African-American faces. And it was a great vehicle for Patterson as it was a Mason-centric episode, like “Reagan” was an Agent Christopher episode. It was one of my favorite things I’ve ever shot and I was so happy to be fortunate enough to have gotten that episode as part of the rotation. Greg and I knew it was something special and we really wanted to knock it out of the park. But it all started with Anslem Richardson‘s script and infectious energy.
When we were doing “Chinatown”, none of us knew whether the series was going to be renewed. As for the iconography, I would hope we’re always striving for iconic shots. Timeless is especially good for that because there’s always the possibility that we will revisit a time period, so having something to really anchor the viewer is always important. This idea certainly came into play in the series finale 2-hour, where the writers really wanted to come full circle and give the fans a holistic experience that rewarded their own attention to detail. As for the season, as opposed to series, finale [Chinatown], we wanted to make that end moment, the cliffhanger, really a surprise. We all wanted to get a network and studio pickup after all!
MItD: Did you have a favorite episode to work on and if so, is that your favorite episode to watch as well?
NG: As far as a favorite episode, when I look back on all the ones I worked on, I’m really proud of all the work we did regarding the time periods and looks. In the end, we all watch the show because of the characters, who are all so well drawn and perfectly cast. Having said that, “Delta Blues” is probably my favorite to watch and in terms of what I contributed, but I kind of like all of them. That’s the great thing about Timeless for us. It’s like every episode was a pilot. Each felt really different from the others.
MItD: Did anything unexpected ever happen during filming?
NG: Not too much unexpected happened because a logistically complicated show like Timeless is pretty well planned to pull off nine days of shooting after only eight prep days. But we do often lose locations at the last minute and usually find new ones that are better. There are things that we go into that I’m somewhat skeptical of, like shooting winter in North Korea in 90-degree Santa Clarita, California, and everyone was nervous that we were going to have to augment a lot of snow with visual effects. But it’s amazing what acting and the color palate can do to make it feel cold.
MItD: Is there a particular scene you’re especially proud of? Conversely, was there an episode or scene that was particularly challenging to film?
NG: As I said, “Delta Blues” was especially challenging to get just right, but I’m super proud of what we achieved there. It’s why it was the episode submitted for the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) Awards and I’m especially proud of the fact that my peers at the ASC nominated it this year.
The “Hollywoodland” gunfight in the storage stage was also challenging because it was supposed to be sketchy and dark, unlit, and yet we still had to see what was going on, so I decided to have the daylight come in and have the action play in silhouette, which was not what everyone was originally thinking. But I wanted to try to do it without the typical overhead industrial lighting. It didn’t make sense to me that they’d have turned on the lights inside while making a shady deal. The pool scene in “Hollywoodland” was also important to get right as a MAJOR [emphasis Goodman’s] emotional moment for Lucy and Wyatt, so I really wanted it to be Hollywood romantic. I love that scene.
MItD: Were any of the actors particularly protective/concerned about how their characters looked?
NG: Actors are always concerned with how they look. After all, they’re the ones who would have egg on their faces if they’re left standing out to dry. But all of our actors were very committed to making sure that they were “real” within the context of the story, so if they were dirty, or bruised, they all wanted to go for it.
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