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Darkness Falls: The Origins of ‘Ozark’

"We want to tell the story at a brisk pace but have it all feel emotionally real."

On July 21, Netflix is releasing Ozark, a 10-episode hour-long drama seriesfrom Media Rights Capital.

Ozark stars Jason Bateman (who also serves as executive producer and director on the series) as Marty Byrde, a seemingly staid financial planner, and Laura Linney as his stay-at-home wife Wendy Byrde. Marty has been laundering money for a Mexican drug kingpin, and when things take a nasty turn, he must uproot his family from Chicago to a summer resort community in the Missouri Ozarks. There, Marty is under pressure to launder a huge sum of money in a short time, while he also deals with a prominent local family’s drug dealing, a clan of dangerous locals and an FBI agent on a mission.

How the Ozark Cinematographer Created a “Gritty, Authentic Vibe” With Consistent Color Temps and Practical Lighting

Digital Video spoke to executive producer Chris Mundy (Bloodlines, Hell on Wheels, Criminal Minds) about the making of Ozark.

What was the genesis of Ozark?

Chris Mundy: Bill Dubuque [Ozark co-creator/writer/executive producer] had been kicking around this idea in his head for some time. He’s been going to the Ozarks since he was a kid. Bill still has a cabin in the Ozarks and works in St. Louis. He was also a corporate headhunter in the manufacturing industry, and so he has a good sense of business intrigue – besides being able to write amazing dialogue.

Media Rights Capital had come to Jason Bateman as an actor. He was perfect for the part and was interested in doing it as long as he could also direct. Then MRC was looking at people to run it day-to-day. I was working on season 2 of Bloodlines, and I was already working for Netflix and talking about another project with MRC. So it all came together.

How many episodes did Jason Bateman direct?

The first two and the last two. We shut down to prep so he could direct the final two. Andrew Bernstein, Daniel Sackheim and Ellen Kuras each shot two episodes as well.

I understand you took a road trip to the Ozarks. What did you learn there?

Yes, we took an original scouting trip there with Jason, Bill, cinematographer Pepe Avila del Pino, who shot the first two episodes, and some MRC people. Later, I took another trip with the writing staff. The story is born out of the place. We went to the resort where Bill pumped gas on the docks when he was in college, which became a model for the Blue Cat Lodge. We went into bars, diners, restaurants, and talked to as many people as possible.

The Missouri Film Commission people were our hosts and were really good to us. I’m from the Midwest, so I’m biased, but we ran into a lot of really nice people there, as well as a couple of colorful local politicians.

Yet you didn’t shoot in the Ozarks.

We needed stage space. And if we were shooting in the Ozarks in the summer, we’d have needed to shut everything down, which wouldn’t have been feasible given that it’s a popular summer resort. We shot a little in Chicago for the beginning of the series, but our stages and main locations are in and near Atlanta. The tax breaks are obviously a big part, but there is really good crew and great infrastructure there now. About 75 to 80 percent of our crew was Atlanta-based.

North of Atlanta are two lakes that doubled really well for the Lake of the Ozarks. Lake Allatoona is the location for the Blue Cat Lodge, and Lake Lanier is where the Byrde family and the [redneck] Langmore clan live.

Ozark has such an intricate plot. Tell us about how you assembled the right team of writers.

The super-obvious thing is that everyone in the writer’s room needs to be a good writer. We’re always together, plotting every piece that leads to the next piece, so you want really smart people. But you need different ages, sexes, personalities – you need a mix of points of view so you can be constantly surprised. The trick is finding that mix of points of view so you make a little family – yet one that needs to disagree a lot of the time. And you never know for sure if it’s going to work until you’re all together. We were a cohesive group.

It was complicated to keep so many plotlines up in the air. We have a natural story engine, which is that Marty and Wendy have to launder this amount of money by this time or they’re dead. That’s an urgency that drives everything forward. With regard to the people and the world, we wanted it to keep branching out and keep it moving forward. We want to tell the story at a brisk pace but have it all feel emotionally real, and it was hard to make sure the storylines kept touching one. We wanted those stories to feel that they’re encroaching on one another, and that as long as we did that, we’d be moving the story forward.

What was your workflow between the Atlanta locations and stages?

We were at five or six tiny bungalows at Runway Post in Hollywood. One of them was the writer’s room, and our editors and producers were just around the corner. We would continue to write and edit, but whoever wrote the episode in production would be on set in Atlanta. And I would try to go a couple of times, just to check in and be helpful. We were able to get dailies every morning with PIX.

We had three editors’ rooms, all equipped with Avids. Cindy Mollo cut the first two episodes. Vikash Patel did episodes 3, 4, 9 and 10, and Adam Wolfe did 5 and 6. They’re all cutting on the Avid.

How did you divide up the cinematography?

We had three different cinematographers. Pepe Avila del Pino shot the first two episodes and set the look we were going for. Then Ben Kutchins shot episodes 3, 4, 7, 8, 9 and 10 and Michael Grady did episodes 5 and 6. We started on the ARRI Alexa. But Pepe had some vintage lenses he wanted to use, and we needed to switch to the Panasonic VariCam.

Having three cinematographers made a huge difference for the show. While one person is shooting the other is prepping with the next director. I’ve never had the resources to do this, but what we’re trying to pull off is fairly ambitious, so any shorthand the director and DP can develop as they prep for their two episodes is good. Time is the biggest enemy. If you lose 10 minutes on a setup and do that three times, you’ve lost half an hour. But if the director and DP have walked the exact ground where they’re going to shoot, nine times out of 10 they’ll know exactly what they’re going to do, and that saves a lot of time.

Talk about what you were going for with the look of the show.

We wanted it to be as real and raw as possible, and Pepe was a good fit. He is really naturalistic and we wanted to do a show with tons of natural light and the actors wearing minimal makeup.

Production design was also huge, and we had two great production designers: Roshelle Berliner [pilot] and Derek R. Hill [series]. We didn’t want things to be shiny and new; we wanted them to be worn-down, raw – to feel that we’ve stumbled a cross it accidently. The Langmore trailer compound for example, looks like it had been there for years, but Derek built it in a short time. The house the Byrdes live in has seen better days. In fact, the person that owns it built another house next door to it and doesn’t live in it anymore, so that was perfect for us.

What are the biggest challenges in shooting the show?

Making this a big, sprawling story but keeping it emotionally honest, with urgency. From a character standpoint, those are the big challenges. From a production standpoint, there’s no central place where the show takes place, like a hospital or courtroom. Stage work is easier, and there weren’t a lot of natural days to be on stages. So, we’re out in the world a lot—the Byrde’s house, the Langmore compound, the lake—and these locations can be 45 minutes away from our offices. We also shoot on the water a fair amount, and that’s not fast. And, last, the episodes are a real hour.

There were no easy days shooting Ozark, and every once in awhile you want an easy day. Early on, we realized we needed an extra day. We originally had 10-day episodes but expanded it to 11.

Several actors also had to learn different skills. To play the Byrde daughter Charlotte, actor Sofia Hublitz worked out with a swimming coach to become a really good swimmer, as Charlotte was. Skylar, who plays her little brother Jonah, had to go to a gun range to learn how to shoot a gun. And Jason Butler Harner, who plays the FBI agent Roy Petty, and Mark Menchaca, who plays Russ Langmore, had to do a lot of fly fishing practice. Our line producer Patrick Markey produced A River Runs Through It, and he said, I can’t go home to Montana if these guys don’t learn how to fly fish convincingly.

What do you hope audiences take away from the first season of the series?

All the reaction has been really positive so far. For us, we just try to do our best and hope people connect to it.