'Preacher': Translating the Comic Book’s Humor (and Hellfire) for Television

"The graphic novel can pretty much do anything that it puts its mind to, while filmmakers have certain limitations that we have to adhere to," says DP John Grillo.
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After languishing in development limbo for years due to its religiously controversial and stylistically dark subject matter, the Vertigo/DC Comics comic book series Preacher is coming to television. The show, which debuts May 29 on AMC, was developed by Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen and Sam Catlin. The first season will have 10 episodes.

Adapted from the popular 1990s comic series created by writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon, who serve as co-executive producers on the show, the AMC series is a darkly comedic drama that follows Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper), a small-town Texas preacher with supernatural powers stemming from the fact that he is inhabited by a supernatural creature. Along with ex-girlfriend Tulip (Ruth Negga) and hard-drinking Irish vampire Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun), Custer departs on a mission across the United States to find God, who has abandoned Heaven for parts unknown.

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Ruth Negga as Tulip O’Hare. Photo by Matthias Clamer/AMC.

The show is shot by cinematographer John Grillo (Hemlock Grove, Gracepoint), who loved the look of the pilot, lensed by Bill Pope, ASC. “I was never a comic book geek,” says Grillo about his unfamiliarity with the graphic novel series. “When I was a kid I read the old Spider-Man comics, but I never got into graphic novels. When I got ahold of copies of Preacher, it really blew me away. I thought to myself, How the hell are we going to do all of that stuff for the general public? It’s really out there.”

For the pilot, Grillo liked how Pope was able to balance all the comic book elements, which include dark comedy, gore, horror and drama. One of Grillo’s biggest challenges was visually translating the graphic novel format into the language of cinema. “Usually graphic novels have a loose way of framing,” he explains. “There are rectangles, squares, ovals, and sometimes no frame at all. One shot that’s extreme wide can lead to another shot that is an extreme close-up on someone’s eyes. The graphic novel can pretty much do anything that it puts its mind to, while filmmakers have certain limitations that we have to adhere to: time, budget, schedules, etc. It’s been a challenge to visually amp it up, but I think we’ve been quite successful.”

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Joseph Gilgun as Cassidy. Photo by Lewis Jacobs/Sony Pictures Television/AMC.

Another challenge for Grillo was doing without the luxury of prep. As the only cinematographer on this ambitious series with a short shooting schedule of eight days per show, Grillo has very little time to prep episodes with each director. He typically sends gaffer Jim Tynes and key grip Pat Daily on tech scouts; they come back with photos, videos and drawings of each location so Grillo can see the positioning of windows and plan how to shoot in the space.

“The plus side of working like this is it makes me very nimble,” reveals Grillo. “I have to solve problems on the spot, so it keeps my mind sharp. I’ve shot quite a few documentaries in my career and I think they’ve prepared me for scoping out a location on the spot, looking at the light, seeing what the possibilities are, and doing all the calculations in my brain in a matter of minutes.”

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DP John Grillo on the Preacher set. Photo by Lewis Jacobs/AMC.

In terms of the look of the series, Pope’s work on the pilot was a big influence, although Grillo definitely wanted to bring his own ideas to the visuals. For the Western scenes, he looked at a number of Andrew Wyeth paintings for their simplicity, framing and textures. He also looked at films like Badlands and No Country for Old Men for their “Americana-influenced” look. Preacher is filmed in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for Texas. According to Grillo, Albuquerque has a certain color and quality of light that consists mainly of browns, yellows and golden sunlight, which he also incorporates into the look.

Preacher is shot with the Sony F55 in 4K raw in the 16:9 aspect ratio. For Grillo, one of the strongest features of the F55 is its compact form factor, since they’re often mounting the camera on jib arms, Freefly MoVI gimbal stabilizers, cranes and Steadicam. For lenses, Grillo uses Panavision PVintage primes, which are rehoused Ultra Speeds from the 1970s. He also uses Angenieux Optimo lenses, including the 15-40, 28-76, 45-120 and 24-290mm. To soften the look of the show, Grillo uses a Tiffen Black Pro-Mist 1/8 filter in front of the lens. “It helps take some of the edge off the sharpness of the sensor,” says Grillo. “We have some characters who wear prosthetics, so it definitely helps.”

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Jesse Custer with Arseface (Ian Colletti). Photo by Lewis Jacobs/AMC.

Grillo records his 4K files to Sony’s AXS-R5 raw recorder, employing the S-Log3 gamma setting and a single LUT that is based on the ARRI Alexa log curve. “With 4K raw, you really have the flexibility of fine-tuning your color later in post,” he explains. “Since I don’t have a DIT, the simplest way to work is to just pick one LUT and work with it. I add and subtract to it with filters. For example, if I want to make something warmer, I’ll add an 81EF to the shot, or if I’m shooting at night and I want to make it bluer, I’ll add a light blue filter. Those are the kinds of things that keep it simple for me.”

In addition to the AXS-R5, Grillo simultaneously records Full HD files to SxS cards. “The HD files are for editorial purposes so they go directly to dailies, where the editors work with them and the metadata is linked to the 4K raw material,” he explains. “It’s almost like working off a work print. That 4K raw gets stored and doesn’t see the light of day until you’re ready to deliver the final project.”

Grillo says there haven’t been many lighting challenges, although Albuquerque’s clouds are “very choppy” and can go from shadow to sunlight in a single take. For interiors, there’s a particular photograph by Robert Frank that Grillo often uses for inspiration. “It’s shot in a dive bar where there are really hot windows and it’s kind of smoky,” he says. “There’s smoke, sunlight coming through the windows, and you can see the shafts of light and it’s kind of burned out and contrasty. Sometimes an image stays in your head and you apply it to your work. There are two or three sets that I light this way.”

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Photo by Lewis Jacobs/AMC.

His favorite light for the series is LiteGear’s LiteMat, which was introduced to him by gaffer Tynes. LiteMat is a thin, lightweight LED fixture that creates a soft light without diffusion. “You can take everything off it and you have a panel with LEDs on it that’s like half an inch thick,” says Grillo. “You can screw it on a wall and it’s very low profile. It’s a beautiful soft light in different sizes. They’re pretty much our go-to light.”

He continues, “The thing about this show is that it affords you all kinds of lighting techniques because you’re doing a little horror movie stuff, in the forest with shafts of moonlight coming through trees, and then suddenly you’re in a normal scene at somebody’s Midwestern house. It’s a mix of looks and it definitely keeps us interested.”

At the time of this writing, Grillo had not started color grading sessions, which will take place at Encore Hollywood.

“The thing that’s impressed me the most has been our cast,” reveals Grillo. “My job has been to give them a platform to do their thing, in terms of framing, composition and lighting. We have a fantastic cast and they’re just so interesting to look at. The actors have found each character so perfectly that it’s fun coming to set every day.”   



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