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Grand Dames: How FX’s 'Feud' Re-Created a Famed Hollywood Rivalry

Cinematographer Nelson Cragg lit portions using old-school techniques that represent a significant departure from the contemporary approach he uses on other Ryan Murphy shows.2/27/2017 12:00 PM Eastern
Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis. Photo by Kurt Iswarienko/FX.

Taylor Swift and Kanye West? That’s nothing! Back in the day, they knew how to feud. Case in point: the decades-long battles between movie divas Joan Crawford and Bette Davis—the subject of Ryan Murphy’s new anthology series for FX, Feud: Bette and Joan, in which Jessica Lange as Crawford and Susan Sarandon as Davis re-enact the backstabbing and power plays that took place from the 1940s to the ’70s and climaxed in 1962 on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the macabre horror film that magnified the two’s enmity both on camera and off.

Cinematographer Nelson Cragg works frequently with Murphy on series such as The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and American Horror Story, but he’d never been tasked with a project quite like Feud. Much of this series takes place on the Baby Jane set, which production designer Judy Becker lovingly re-created, tracking down a painting, piano and other props that had actually been used on that film over a half century ago. Cragg lit the Baby Jane portions using old-school techniques that represent a significant departure from the contemporary approach he uses on other Ryan Murphy shows and on series such as Homeland. In the first place, the re-created scenes needed to look like they were actually shot in 1962. And an added complication, Murphy frequently staged moves beyond the actual set to show the crew, soundstage and period gear.

Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford. Photo by Kurt Iswarienko/FX.

“It took a while to get our grip and electric crews up to speed,” Cragg says. “We built real green beds [catwalks suspended by chains] above the sets and a lot of the crew had never worked on them. I hadn’t in a long time. We had old Mole-Richardson tungsten units lighting from above the way movies were usually lit in those days. I’m used to lighting naturally, in a modern style, with lots of soft light. It was interesting to suddenly work with hard front Marlene Dietrich-style lighting. We’d have little snoots and strong tungsten units to light streaks across the background. I certainly wasn’t used to setting two or three flags for every light. It was a learning curve for us.”

For exteriors, gaffer David Kagen located some brute arcs from the period. “We had three of them that worked,” Cragg recalls, “and we brought in some old-school technicians who knew how to work the carbons. The light they put out was absolutely beautiful, and there are still guys who can keep them running all day. When we’d pull back to reveal more of the location to show what was happening behind the scenes, we show those lights, of course, and we dressed a lot of our electricians in period clothing, so they’re also in the show.”

Throughout the series, Murphy and Cragg looked to classic mid-20th century films as inspiration, particularly studying Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. While neither of Feud’s subjects appeared in that film, the ethereal thriller from 1958 has gained a reputation, particularly in recent years, as a quintessential example of how to best use color and design in visual storytelling. “When I re-watched Vertigo, I saw how it was mostly lit with ‘white’ light, and the color mostly came through the incredible sets and wardrobe. That’s how we worked,” Cragg recalls.

Costume designer Lou Eyrich, a frequent Murphy/Cragg collaborator, created distinct colors for every outfit as a means of expressing character and story points. “We had Joan Crawford blues and azures,” Cragg says. “The entire color scheme was carefully worked out and it was in our consciousness throughout the shoot.”

Cragg took a more contemporary approach to lighting scenes that weren’t on movie sets, making extensive use of an array of LED units that Kagen recommended. “They’re so fast,” Cragg observes. “We could choose the color temperature on the unit, and dim without affecting color temperature, and they were really bright and punchy. This is the first show where I’ve primarily used LEDs, and I was very pleased. You can bounce them or put them through diffusion to make them really soft. They were very versatile.”

Cragg shot the entire series on ARRI Alexa XT cameras, generally running three for every setup, as he likes to do. “I look at my operators as artists,” he says. “Some of them have been with me and Ryan for years. We always give them freedom to find interesting shots—I think that’s part of what makes the shows good.”

Cameras were mostly on dollies in a more traditional studio configuration than Cragg and Murphy generally use. “We didn’t do much super-tight coverage,” Cragg says. “No big 360s or any of those crazy zoom-ins we did on O.J. We shot in a more classical style with no ‘three-dimensional’ moves in the sense that we’re never spinning around actors in a modern way. We kept it simple, classical and clean.”

Cinematographer Nelson Cragg (standing at right). Photo by Suzanne Tenner/FX.

The DP considered using vintage optics, as a number of other period pieces have done, but rather quickly rejected the idea. “I thought about old lenses or maybe shooting anamorphic or something, but with three cameras, it’s too hard technically for the crew to shoot the amount of material we like to do with old lenses.” Instead he selected Zeiss Ultra Primes and a complement of lightweight Angenieux Optimo zooms.

He did achieve something of a vintage look in-camera with a set of Mitchell filters he’d purchased from Woody Omens, ASC, nearly two decades ago. (Mitchell diffusion is still sold under the name Pancro Mitchell.) “I’d never used them before but they have an absolutely beautiful bloom and glow that really helped us represent some of that older look. I used Mitchell grade A, B and even sometimes C [softness] for every shot.”

Diffusion notwithstanding, Cragg’s role as cinematographer was not to simply help make the actors appear glamorous. “The aging of the two is the theme of the story,” Cragg explains. “What did that mean to them as people, as performers, as artists and as business people within Hollywood? Of course [Lange and Sarandon] wanted to look good, but they know that if they look too good, the audience won’t accept this as an honest story. So there were times I backed off on the diffusion or lit them primarily with a hard, high top light.

Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange on the set. Photo by Kurt Iswarienko/FX.

“I’ve never done much straight glamour photography and I don’t like to,” he adds. “I prefer to shoot in a more natural style. I’ve had similar conversations previously with Claire Danes on Homeland,” he continues. “I said, ‘Your character is having a nervous breakdown and she’s not always going to look glossy and great,’ and she was completely fine with that. Same with Sarah Paulson on O.J.: ‘You’re supposed to be going through all kinds of issues about your appearance, so we want to light you accordingly.’ She was totally willing to go along.”

Feud took advantage of period architecture throughout Los Angeles. Cragg discovered that some of the buildings in the city that have gone through virtually no changes are actually on studio lots, so much of Feud was shot inside the gates of 20th Century Fox. The project made use of both the interiors and exteriors of the large soundstage structures. “There are so many areas you might not think about as having a period look on that lot because the buildings are blocked with all these modern trailers. But there are these great old soundstages from the 1940s and earlier. We were able to move the trailers away from the stage where Modern Family shoots and put in old cars, and that was all we had to do for those scenes.”

Becker built the movie sets using old construction techniques involving very large sheets of plywood for flats and two-by-fours for the bracing. Cragg says, “When we put in the green beds and the lighting, it really felt like you’d been transported in time!”

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