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Beauty and Ambiguity in ‘Alias Grace’: Varying Visual Styles, One True Crime Story

This year has emerged as a breakthrough one for novelist Margaret Atwood. First there was Hulu's adaptation of her novel "The Handmaid's Tale," and now a limited series derived from her "Alias Grace" makes its debut on Netflix.

This year has emerged as a breakthrough one for novelist Margaret Atwood. First there was Hulu’s acclaimed adaptation of her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and now a limited series derived from her Alias Gracemakes its debut on Netflix. While the former takes place in the near future and the latter is set in the mid-19th century, both reflect timely and increasingly relevant concerns regarding the rights and status of women in modern society.

Writer/executive producer Sarah Polley (#SarahPolley) had first attempted to option Alias Grace back when she was still a teenager; while initially unsuccessful, persistence paid off and she ultimately received the author’s okay to proceed. The resulting six-part series, produced by the Canadian Broadcast Corp. and Netflix, also benefited from Polley’s decision to recruit Mary Harron (#MaryHarron, American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol) to direct.

Grace Marks and a stable hand were convicted of the murders of their employer, Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross), and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin).
Photo by Sabrina Lantos/Netflix

Alias Grace revolves around the presumed guilt of Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), a lower-class Irish immigrant servant convicted of participating in a double murder in 1843.

The story is based on actual events. Marks and a stable hand, James McDermott, were convicted of the murder of their employer, Thomas Kinnear; McDermott was hanged and Grace Marks was sentenced to prison. She spent time in an asylum, was later transferred to Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario, and was pardoned and released after 30 years. She then disappeared from the history books. Her role in the events—murderer or accessory—was never conclusively determined.

In Alias Grace, after many years at the Kingston Penitentiary, Grace agrees to see a mental health specialist (played by Edward Holcroft) hired by a reverend (David Cronenberg) in the hope of establishing that she had been wrongly convicted. The doctor is tasked with sorting out truth from fiction, along the way trying to determine if Grace’s recollections are clouded by the passage of time or altered as a result of deliberate obfuscation.

Novelist Margaret Atwood (center) has a cameo in Alias Grace as Old Woman at Church.
Photo by Sabrina Lantos/Netflix

While Polley and Harron were considering various cinematographers for what turned out to be a 65-day shoot, DP Brendan Steacy‘s name came up. His feature credits include Still Mine, Lavender, The Intruders and The Last Exorcism Part II, along with episodes of the Netflix/Citytv series Between. After providing his reel, the cinematographer flew to meet the director in New York; by the time he arrived back in Toronto, an offer was awaiting him.

The first order of business was settling on a method of image acquisition, with Steacy campaigning to shoot on ARRI Alexa. “I spent the first ten years of my career shooting film, but then, rather abruptly, that was no longer an option,” he remembers. “Even the availability of disposables such as cans, cores and bags that you’d once have taken for granted, they no longer exist. Most of the 2nd ACs that were good [film] loaders have moved on to become 1st ACs or operators, and we don’t even have a lab in Toronto now. As a result, I’ve been an Alexa guy most of the time since.”

Jeremiah Pontelli (Zachary Levi) and Grace
Photo by Sabrina Lantos/Netflix

Since Netflix mandates 4K acquisition, efforts were made to convince the powers that be of Alexa’s image quality even after footage is up-resed to 4K, but ultimately Steacy wound up shooting on Sony’s F65, provided by Clairmont Camera (now Keslow Camera). “It was a new camera for me,” he recalls. “I found it had a really good sensitivity and color space. It’s natively tuned to shoot tungsten and performed better under that light, but it has excellent sensitivity in the blue channel.”

The DP maintained the camera’s ISO at its native 800 throughout the shoot. “I didn’t want any surprises with the lens package, so I selected Leicas, for their reliability and their availability in a wide variety of focal lengths. We used several tools to soften the image in front of the lens—a cocktail of various tricks I devised.”

Steacy shot in raw and had a grade done on set. “We worked with one LUT just to preview the images, but that had a tendency to get contrasty very quickly, so we performed the grade from the log image,” he reports. “I wanted to get as much of the look in-camera as possible, since I’m not attracted to post looks. Fortunately, everybody was pretty supportive of that approach, which let me introduce subtle changes in looks that arose out of the story.”

Photo by Jan Thijs/Netflix

Alias Grace hinges on a Rashomon aspect that takes it well beyond the trappings of a standard murder mystery—the same event is described in contradictory ways in multiple narratives—so an early challenge for the cinematographer was settling on stylistic differentiations when portraying various perspectives. “We needed to figure out how to depict the different stages of her life and states of mind,” he elaborates, adding, “Grace is a kind of unreliable narrator, so trying to distinguish truth from fiction figured into our visual approach to shooting. There were times when we weren’t sure whether a certain point should be rendered as ‘truth’ or not, so at times it was kind of strange and a little funny just trying to figure that out. Plus we wanted those distinctions rendered in a subtle enough way that the audience could interpret them as they wished.”

The visuals accompanying Grace’s recollections of the two murders involve some measure of repetition. “One death is by shotgun,” says Steacy. “While that was pretty straightforward, there is also the aftermath of the second murder, of which we see a bunch of different versions. So you see the same basic event, but with crucial differences that change your perspective about who may be responsible. There’s her account, plus we see her accomplice’s version of the events, and that perception is visualized as its own separate reality. Ambiguity is key to what makes the whole story work.”

Toward that end, the cinematographer used every tool at his disposal to vary the camera movement. “There’s handheld, Steadicam, dolly and crane work—even a drone at one point [for a pullback revealing Grace aboard a ship during a grueling eight-week ocean journey from Ireland to her new life in Canada]. We’d include subtle hints to support each unique perspective,” Steacy relates, “like raising the camera so it would be at an elevation correct for that particular character’s height and eyeline. I like working with that kind of guideline, which provides a framework, but while we’d keep that information in mind, we didn’t become enslaved by it. If you shoot something and it doesn’t work, then you just have to reframe till it does.”

Edward Holcroft as Dr. Simon Jordan, who is tasked with determining Grace’s innocence or guilt
Photo by Sabrina Lantos/Netflix

With so much of the tale relying on sustained ambiguity, one might think that keeping the lead’s eyes in shadow would be a proper way to accentuate the uncertainty. While Steacy is currently shooting a film in which he did elect to keep the light off the lead’s eyes, he avoided doing so in Grace. “That’s because Sarah Gaddon is such a fantastic actor,” he marvels. “At every point, she knew exactly where she was [in the story] and could make minute adjustments like tilting her head, and when that happened, you needed to see what was going on in her eyes because it would change in an ever so subtle and telling way. Throughout the entire series, she utterly drives things with her brilliant choices and raw ability. Watching her work was such a treat. I had to fight to keep from getting caught up just observing her performance.”

The look of the series was developed with input from both Harron and Polley. “The overarching aesthetic was evolved from what Mary wanted, along with some of my ideas, but we took a lot straight from the screenplay. On paper, Sarah had indicated very specifically how she wanted the prison cell to look and feel. This is in a pre-gas lamp era, so the light was all supposed to be coming from either candles or windows. Since there isn’t any photographic reference from that far back, I chose to study naturalism-styled art from the period.”

The shoot involved both location and stage work at Revival 629 Film Studios, so achieving an invisible blend was crucial. “We had a separate all-tungsten lighting package for scenes shot in the studio,” says Steacy. “A lot of locations were period buildings. We shot the real Kingston Penitentiary, where she was imprisoned. They had to do digital cleanup to take stuff out, but it was a big stone building, so it looked just fine for the most part. I used a lot of negative fill outside. The locations were mostly HMI-enhanced, and many of the daylight interior scenes were staged to be most effective by working around the fall of window light entering the space. When we had white walls, I’d take the light down to give some shape to the light, but the far side of the room often didn’t give enough bounceback to register and would just fall off naturally. Plus we had shears that would increase the falloff.”

Servant Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard) and Grace
Photo by Sabrina Lantos/Netflix

Among the found locations was a historic home that had been opened to the public as a museum. “When Margaret Atwood came by, she was amazed and said this house was what was in her head when she wrote the book. Of course, there were a ton of restrictions when shooting in there. We couldn’t rig anything off the walls, and everything on the floor had to be carpeted. We couldn’t put in any smoke or atmosphere or even touch anything that was real and native to the home.”

When queried about using floating lights to avoid the restrictions, the DP points out that balloon lights would have been invalid for the period look. “You have to remember that all the light coming in when indoors in that world comes through windows, so figuring out the blocking while being a slave to the window location was a huge consideration. I used a ton of LiteGear LEDs—I’ve become so dependent on their products that I panic at the thought of having to light without them now!”

Kerr Logan as stable hand James McDermott
Photo by Sabrina Lantos/Netflix

Spin VFX and Rocket Science VFX contributed set extensions and cleanup work for various locations. “In Toronto, we had a 200-foot practical muddy road built, but at each end there were views of the city, so those were all done with VFX,” says Steacy. “When they got into post [at Deluxe Toronto, @DeluxeToronto], I was shooting another movie, so it was tough to work out, but I was able to do most of the DI in a couple separate stretches. I’ve worked with dailies colorist Kent McCormick (@KentMcCormick) for a while and he did some good stuff, working in Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve all the way through to carry it right into the final with [DI colorist] Bill Ferwerda.”

Looking back on the project, what is Steacy’s takeaway in the case of Grace Marks? “I’m still not sure if she was innocent or guilty.”

Download the December 2017 issue of Digital Video magazine