Mary Kills People from Page to Screen
By Stephen Reizes CSC
Source- Canadian Cinematographer April 2017
The original drama series Mary Kills People follows Dr. Mary Harris, a single mother who lives a double life, working as an ER doctor by day, while at night helping terminally ill patients end their lives. Created and written by Tara Armstrong, and executive produced by Tassie Cameron (Rookie Blue), the six-episode series premiered on Global early this year, and has been picked up by Lifetime. Series DP Stephen Reizes csc visually illustrates his process of working with director Holly Dale Jrom preproduction, through location scouts, shooting and postproduction.
Upon hearing the title Mary Kills People, I was immediately intrigued. Euthanasia is an original, topical and sensitive subject that has undergone a shift in society’s perception, and Tara had found a tone that was neither heavy nor disrespectful. One of the things that attracted me to this project was that it was not typical stand-alone episodes with multiple directors but serialized with one director, Holly Dale, who has done many high-profile U.S. and Canadian projects. She is an emphatically visual storyteller and has an amazing eye. I’d worked with Holly on Flashpoint, and her episodes were really striking and much of that was because she really pushed the visuals.
At first glance the look is not unusual. It was meant to feel natural, not staged or artificial, but it’s also what is often referred to as heightened realism. I think there’s drama in the contrast and composition. In some ways, it’s very sophisticated but also conventional; it’s not out there in terms of framing, but it’s a very dramatic, strongly composed and preconceived kind of visual. Depending on the scene, the colour palette was fairly natural, emphasizing shades of similar tones set off by hits of complimentary colour. We strived for a natural feeling from the lighting but with enhanced contrast to dramatize and model the faces.
We typically lit with a soft side key, the ratio varying depending on the scene and context.
It was a blessing and a curse to prep the six shows all at once. On one hand, there was really too much material to absorb and retain, yet on the other, it was a rare opportunity for me to prep all the episodes with the same director, to be part of that process, rather than the more typical scenario working with different directors with little or no prep. Holly, production designer Ingrid Jurek and I all brought a variety of visual references to the table that we thought appropriate to the scripts which Ingrid then assembled into a look book. We spent weeks taking location reference stills, which Holly assembled on an iPad so when we went to shoot, she could reference them for framing. There are many examples in the show where the composition in the show is a direct outgrowth of our prep photography. The other thing that was different about this from the other shows I’ve worked on is we made a big effort to have a DIT [Daniel George] on set so we could establish the look while shooting.
Being involved in almost all the location scouts was invaluable. We were really fortunate to secure a stunning state-of-the-art hospital location, which included the unused top floor of Bridgepoint Health [a care and rehabilitation hospital and research centre in Toronto]. The rooms that we used have stellar views of the city, which made it a real joy to shoot there. There were also a number of residential locations – we had to find a house for Mary, a loft for her colleague, Des, and a police station. Tassie introduced a water motif which added to the challenge, and when scouting, Holly looked for visual scale. She also constantly challenged me to work with Patrick Tidy our AD to schedule for backlight.
Holly shared many inspiring visual references, among them a video homage to Kubrick’s one-point perspective aesthetic that is a must-see vimeo.com/48425421
I offered up Shadows in the Valley, a video tribute to Roger Deakins ASC, BSC on Vimeo (vimeo.com/99589995) that is arranged thematically and also features a number of one-point perspective shots throughout. Holly was taken with the memorable Barton Fink beach shot, and we ended up with a bit of an homage when Mary goes to meet her patient, Joel.
The prep time gave me the rare opportunity to be deeply involved in the image-making process. For example, when scouting the Bridgepoint location, I wandered into this giant, almost empty occupational therapy room that Holly, Ingrid and I then transformed into a conference room. Starting with an empty room with a view and working with Patrick Tidy and set dresser Friday Myers standing in, we set the scene, eventually setting up some tables.
I saw the potential for reflections and requested a black shiny surface for the table. Finally on the day, we roughed in the frame with the Artemis finder.
We kept the single-point perspective alive even in the tighter coverage. Holly had me take the photo above that became the basis for a low-angle, dolly-in shot seen in the adjacent frame grab.
In the next scene, Joel (played by Jay Ryan) takes off leaving Mary, played by Caroline Dhavernas, standing alone in a lovely wide iconic frame.
Of course not every shot was inspired or planned during prep; sometimes we only came up with an approach during blocking. It seems obvious in retrospect that we needed to be above Naomi (Katie Douglas), a patient who has overdosed after stealing pentobarbital from Mary. Roger Finlay and dolly grip Johnny Wersta executed a beautiful move from overhead on Naomi to across her to Mary. Another visual stylization that Holly used on a number of occasions was the tight profile shot.
Although I believe the job of the cinematographer involves working with the director in the design of the shot, composition and lens choice, more often than not, one’s main preoccupation during a shot is lighting. Both Holly and I agreed that a natural look was needed. Our goal was an unlit look, but with mood, dimensionality and modelling, and for that we embraced side light as much as possible. We used a variety of LED sources including MacTechs, Kino Celebs, and DMG Switchlights.
Since most of our show was daylight, we also carried the Arri M90, M40, etc., as well as Source 4 ellipsoidal spots and Dedo 400s. When possible, we chose
dramatically and practically to use a fairly high lighting ratio. Gaffer Jonathan Brown and key grip Chris Toudy and their teams were invaluable in building these setups. We shot HD on ALEXA classics primarily with Zeiss Ultra Primes, and when there was enough light we chose to shoot stopped down to achieve deep focus.
A simple one-light setup with a DMG Switchlight side lighting our stand-in, with the actors and with atmosphere, and finally an ALEXA frame grab of Jay Ryan.
In the final edit, Mary Kills People plays mostly in tight shots so it may not retain the cinematic scope we envisioned when shooting. The final cut of Mary Kills People is a more intimate version of the show than we originally conceived, and in that sense the lighting, which we used to underpin the mood of the scene and protect the actors, plays an important role. The fact that the cast was so deeply in character and extremely photogenic made for compelling close-ups.
The way Tara, Tassie, executive producer Amy Cameron and the writers approached the subject was bravely refreshing. To do a show where the hero is a woman doctor on a mission to end suffering and offer dignity
to the terminally ill and yet who may be so damaged by her own childhood experience with death is truly special. It was a real treat to see how Caroline Dhavernas embodied a complex and unique character