Love and Loss: The Interwoven Narrative of 'Olive Kitteridge'

Cinematographer Fred Elmes convinced the production to shoot on 35mm film. "Because much of the story takes place in the past, film would give us a little different feeling; that patina of grain would probably help ‘sell’ the period nature of the movie a bit more," he explained.
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Olive Kitteridge, in which Frances McDormand plays the eponymous role, takes place in the kind of quiet New England town where it looks as if nothing has happened since the 19th century. But beginning Nov. 2, in a two-night miniseries (each night comprising two one-hour episodes), the show lifts that façade to reveal, as HBO puts it, “illicit affairs, crime and tragedy, all told through the lens of Olive, whose wicked wit and harsh demeanor mask a warm but troubled heart and staunch moral center.”

Taking place over 25 years, Olive Kitteridge focuses on Olive’s relationships with her husband Henry (Richard Jenkins), son Chris (John Gallagher Jr.), Jack Kennison (Bill Murray) and members of the community. The film is based on the novel Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, which is written as 13 interrelated short stories and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009.

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Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in 'Olive Kitteridge.' Photo by Jojo Whilden.

Cinematographer Fred Elmes, ASC (Synecdoche, New York; A Late Quartet; Broken Flowers), got a call from director Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are Alright, Laurel Canyon, High Art) to work on the film. “We’d never worked together before but had [both] sat on the jury at Sundance one year,” he says. “We hit it off and had a lot in common. And moreover, I liked her films.”

The genesis of the project was McDormand, who had worked with Cholodenko on Laurel Canyon and got her interested in turning the Olive Kitteridge novel into a movie. After Cholodenko called Elmes, he got a copy of the script and met her in Los Angeles. “We had a great meeting and talked for hours, really seeing eye-to-eye what the story was about,” he recalls. “We felt it should be approached simply and somewhat classically, in a naturalistic way. It’s a human drama and character study, and should be treated simply.”

Although HBO initially wanted to shoot digitally, Cholodenko asked Elmes his opinion. “I said, either way, we can make a great movie,” he recalls. “But because much of the story takes place in the past, film would give us a little different feeling; that patina of grain would probably help ‘sell’ the period nature of the movie a bit more.” Cholodenko liked the idea and everyone else signed off on it. Elmes shot in 35mm with the ARRICAM Studio and LT cameras, shipping film to Deluxe Lab in New York, which also took care of the digital dailies.

In preproduction, Elmes suggested the work of Joel Meyerowitz, who did a lot of Cape Cod landscape and seascape photography. “It really struck a chord for both of us,” says Elmes. “Our story takes place in a rural small town, and people are affected by the nature around them every day.”

Olive Kitteridge was shot on location, with the exception of a few shots on a Massachusetts stage, and finding the right locations was the first big job. Because the story takes place in Maine, Cholodenko, production designer Julie Berghoff and Elmes visited rural Maine towns. “Then we came back to Massachusetts and found the places that worked for us,” he says. “We shot in three Massachusetts villages—Gloucester, Rockport and Essex—that were pieced together to form Olive’s old mill town of 6,500 people. However, I could never get the wide harbor shots I needed in Massachusetts because it was too congested, so I went back to Maine for a few days with a second unit to get those wide shots as well as some specific frames we needed after the edit was completed.”

Working with film made the workflow a bit of a flashback to times gone by. A courier drove to New York with film and returned with hard drives, which were rotated throughout the production. “Deluxe set up a large plasma monitor for me that matched their screens in New York,” says Elmes. “The others saw dailies streamed from the FTP, but we were all staying in rented homes up there and the security and speed of the local wireless network wasn’t great. The drive guaranteed I’d see the dailies correctly.”

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Brady Corbet and Zoe Kazan. Photo by Jojo Whilden.

Elmes kept things simple by using only two film stocks: Kodak Vision3 5207 and Kodak 5219. “Most of the movie was shot with the 250 daylight stock, which was very versatile and very forgiving,” he says. “It was a great do-all stock. The 500T was primarily for the moody interiors.”

He likes Cooke S4 lenses and used them along with the new S5s. “I added a very light diffusion net, and found these lenses very kind to faces,” he says. “The S5s are a bit faster and gave me another stop of exposure, which helped for the night exteriors we did.”

Elmes always kept the second ARRICAM camera ready, for nature photography. “Lisa and I talked about how important it was to see the intimate details of the surroundings,” says Elmes. “We wanted to feel the water at the shoreline, the clouds and rain. We’d give the second camera operator daily projects capturing what we wanted to see, and he was very busy.”

“My main focus was to create a simple, economical shooting style that allowed Lisa time with the actors for the performances she wanted,” he says. “I simplified the camera and the lighting package so it was easy to move in and out of locations.” Not all the locations were easy; Elmes recalls one remote house on the waterfront down a two-mile, one-lane gravel road. “The regular trucks couldn’t get in or out, so we had to bring in all the equipment in much smaller vehicles,” he says.

Lighting was mainly a combination of HMI and LED lights. “I used a couple big lights, the ARRIMAX 18K, and I used some small HMIs like the 1.8K, as well as smaller Joker lights,” says Elmes. “And in between I tended to use Mac Tech LED lights. I’d never used them so extensively before, but my gaffer, Mo Flam, convinced me that this was a good approach and would save time in the end. I tested them out and liked the results, so we used them for day and night work, both inside and out.”

Cholodenko and Elmes also discussed how the camera would move. “We decided that subtle moves motivated by the characters would be most appropriate,” he says. “We tried to stay away from grander and more subjective moves. That meant that we used the Steadicam and the dolly a lot to move subtly with the actors, but didn’t use cranes, for the most part.”

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Bill Murray. Photo by Jojo Whilden.

Elmes relied on his operator, David Crone, and second operator Patrick Ruth. “I operate sometimes because it’s great to see the scene unfold through the lens,” says Elmes. “But both our operators were great and I trusted them completely. Most of the movie was shot with just one camera, but when it came to the more complicated scenes—five people around a dinner table—we used two cameras simultaneously to get coverage. That’s where it gets complicated, but we condensed and simplified where we could.”

Those dinner scenes were the most challenging in the miniseries, says Elmes. In the miniseries’ first hour there are seven night dinner scenes in the kitchen, each with three and sometimes four characters. “Although it was a nice kitchen, it wasn’t very big,” he says. “Once you have the actors, crew and dollies in there, it gets crowded pretty quickly.”

That this kitchen worked so well was due in large part to the prep Elmes and Cholodenko did. “On weekends, when we could be alone in the house, Lisa and I talked through the kitchen scenes,” says Elmes. “We figured out how each scene would unfold and what we could do with the photography to support the drama. There was a moment in one scene where Olive jumps up, grabs the plates and crosses to the sink, and we knew that the axis of her movement would show us where the camera needed to be for the scene.”

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Frances McDormand. Photo by Jojo Whilden.

“Way ahead of shooting, we had a plan to keep the vision fresh and avoid duplicate setups,” he adds. “We brought life and freshness to the scenes based on what the actors needed to do.”

For Elmes, the most enjoyable part of shooting Olive Kitteridge is the reason that viewers will also appreciate the most. “It’s a character-driven story,” he says. “It’s about life in this town and the relationships. That’s why I took time to look at their faces. Portraiture was really key to me.”

The filmmakers used the unsettled New England weather and dramatic seasonal changes to reflect the lives of the characters. “Olive found the most peace working in her garden, where her nurturing provided the most satisfying results,” says Elmes. “I took it as my challenge to see these changes reflected in her face.”

Olive Kitteridge will air on HBO on Nov. 2 and 3.


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