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Cinematographer Andrij Parekh Shoots ‘Show Me a Hero’

Exploring the Social, Political and Economic Realities of 1980s New York

Andrij Parekh‘s first assignment shooting television is certainly a prestigious one.

The medium never held much interest for the cinematographer, who is known primarily for his work on artistic indies (Dark Horse, Blue Valentine). “I haven’t really watched any network or cable TV show in 20 years,” he declares. “I grew up on a 13-inch black and white television, so I was never really attracted to it.”

Nicholas Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac, center right) defeated the multiple-term incumbent mayor Angelo Martinelli (James Belushi, center left) in 1988, campaigning on a platform of resisting court-ordered integration of public housing in Yonkers.

But when the opportunity came up to shoot the six-part HBO series Show Me a Hero, Parekh immediately responded to the material. “The scripts were really dramatic, nuanced and truthful,” he says. “It was like reading scripts for a very long indie movie.”

Written by David Simon, whose The Wire is on more than a few best-of lists, co-written by William F. Zorzi and based on Lisa Belkin’s nonfiction book of the same name, Show Me a Hero looks at the prolonged battle for desegregation of public housing in Yonkers, New York, in the late 1980s.

At the heart of the story, Yonkers’ young, newly elected mayor (Oscar Isaac) must deal with the aftermath of a federal court order that says he must build a number of low-income housing units in the white neighborhoods of his town, even though he had campaigned on a platform of doing just the opposite. He faces intense public opposition from white residents who are determined to protect their own property values and block the public housing at all costs.

As with The Wire, the show portrays the situation from multiple perspectives, from political to personal to economic. Paul Haggis (Crash) directed all six episodes.

Cinematographer Andrij Parekh (middle) and
director Paul Haggis (right)

“We had 75 days to shoot just under six hours,” Parekh says, “so it was like shooting three smaller movies of 25 days each. The entire series was cross-boarded, which helped with efficiency with sets and actors, but it was quite dizzying in terms of where the actors were in time and space and time of year and the year itself. The script supervisor, Dianne Dryer, was our master watch and our calendar. We could always go to her to remind us where we were in time and space.”

The production shot entirely in Yonkers, including a great deal of stage work for the interiors of housing units, where a significant amount of the action takes place. Parekh shot with ARRI Alexa Plus cameras—”we finished in 16:9 so we had no need for the 4:3 chip,” he notes—with a set of Leica Summilux-C T1.4 prime lenses spread across the two and sometimes three cameras capturing the action.

The mayor and his team debate where to buildlow-income housing in Yonkers. From left,Saverio Guerra, Luke Kirby, Oscar Isaac, Jim Bracchita and John Henry Cox

Parekh, who worked without a DIT (all of the on-set monitors were calibrated to one another), recorded to internal SxS PRO cards in ProRes 4444. “We tested [ProRes] against ARRIRAW, and the difference was too slight to warrant the extra expense, data handling and drive space,” he says. “If it was going to be blown up to show in theaters, I may have felt differently.”

The cinematographer shot virtually everything at the Summilux maximum aperture of T1.4. “I love the shallow depth of field and Leica bokeh,” he explains. “It definitely put some pressure on the focus pullers, Toshiro Yamaguchi and Ethan Borsuk,” he adds.

He likes to work with a minimal amount of gear and says he feels actors can perform better if he can shoot in really low light, which he was able to do with the Alexa (at EI 800) and the wide open aperture. “They’re not blinded by lights and gear all over the set. There are fewer distractions.”

For the housing unit interiors, most of which were shot on a stage in Yonkers, the cinematographer wanted to proceed in the same way he would for a real location. His goal was to give each unit a unique feel and avoid visual giveaways that are inherent to shooting on a set. “We had flyaway walls but we didn’t use them much, and I asked for hard ceilings,” Parekh explains. “What bothers me most about stage lighting is that there’s often a soft top light, which wouldn’t exist in real life. I wanted this to have more of a natural feeling.

Winona Ryder as councilwoman Vinni Restiano,
with the mayor (Oscar Isaac)

“We scouted real projects,” he continues. “What I found quite beautiful in them was the way hard light would come in through windows which were often quite dirty and bounce off the floor and reflect in strange ways. It is these accidents of natural light that I am really attracted to and attempted to re-create with xenons on the stage. Nobody has really used xenon lights since the mid-’90s. They were very much in vogue at one point.”

He would treat them like harsh sun bouncing into an ashtray or a metal pan or some other prop. “The reflections are quite incredible,” he remarks. “If there’s anything I hope I succeeded in, it is in making the stage not look like stage work and making it feel like location work.”

Much of the series’ action takes place among the bureaucracy at often-contentious city council meetings. Shooting at existing city government buildings, Parekh had the locations pre-lit with space lights hung from a grid built by key grip Chris Skutch. The lighting units were all on dimmers. The cinematographer would generally try to bring up the lighting for each shot to deliver three-quarter backlight to the subject(s). “This could be tricky with two or three cameras covering the scene,” he says, but with the pre-rigging, he was able to find the best setup quickly. He would then sometimes augment the big lights with some bounce on an actor’s face.

Carla Quevedo plays Nay Wasicsko, the
mayor’s young wife

Locations including several bars and restaurants were also shot in Yonkers. “Gaffer John Oates would generally make use of the lighting that was already in [an establishment] and just augment it in parts with a Kino Flo or small tungsten unit,” Parekh says.

Show Me a Hero‘s exterior shots consist primarily of not-terribly-attractive street scenes, both around the low-income housing projects and in the working-class neighborhoods. “It’s not the prettiest place on earth on a number of levels,” Parekh observes. “But I think David Simon is interested in showing the truth, and truth isn’t always beautiful.”

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