Shooting Comedies, 'Stories That Just Happen to be Funny'

Zooey Deschanel in a scene from New Girl. (Credit: 20th Century Fox Television)
Zooey Deschanel in New Girl. (Credit: 20th Century Fox Television)

I connected with Russ Alsobrook, ASC, as he was looking forward to the start of production on season five of the Fox TV series New Girl. The season premiere will be his 99th episode of the show, a comedy that revolves around a quirky teacher (played by Zooey Deschanel) who shares an L.A. apartment with three men. It’s an ensemble show that is generally shot “single-camera style,” Russ says.

In the last couple of seasons, Russ has directed three episodes. “Television is definitely a producer’s medium,” he notes. “They have a lot of input on the look and style of a show, and the director has to hew very closely to that, so in some ways there’s not a lot of freedom. Sometimes you feel like your creativity is limited by the stylebook you’re given, but that’s just natural.

“I intend to pursue directing," he continues, "and I think it would be very interesting to do low-budget independent movies because you have more freedom to bring your own vision to the table — you don’t have the committee supervision that comes with a studio movie or a TV show. Of course, we all work within the limitations of the situation we’ve chosen. On New Girl we have a great time and make sure the set is loose and jovial, yet still disciplined and efficient.”

Cinematographer Russ Alsobrook, ASC (bottom right) with some of his New Girl collaborators.
Russ Alsobrook, ASC (bottom right), poses on the New Girl set with some collaborators.

Between TV seasons, Russ takes feature assignments. Among his recent credits are Black or White (which he discussed in an American Cinematographer podcast), Tammy and Paul Blart: Mall Cop. I asked how his thinking changes when he shifts to feature mode.

“On a TV series, everyone pretty much knows how we’re going to do something; we plug in certain techniques because we know they work within the time constraints of episodic television. On a movie, you can start fresh and develop a particular style that is informed by the material. I’ve done many comedies, but the filmmakers I’ve worked with don’t really like to impose the typical comedy style — the overly lit, no-contrast look. I think that has gone out of fashion, anyway.

“I prefer to approach comedies as stories that just happen to be funny. Comedies should feel real, and I work toward enhanced naturalism in terms of the photographic style. There’s more leeway in the world of comedy than there used to be; you have to please the studio and live up to their expectations, but sometimes you can bend the rules a little. For instance, certain scenes can be lit a little more dramatically. You can be a little edgier if the director and the producers are on board with it.

“Of course, when you do a drama like Black or White, then you can get a lot more gutsy,” he adds. Directed by Mike Binder, one of Alsobrook’s frequent collaborators, Black or White stars Kevin Costner as a grieving widower who is drawn into a custody battle over his biracial granddaughter. Russ calls it some of his best work.

“It was a great script and, I think, an important script because it dealt with some very significant issues that are germane to our times.” He says the 25-day shoot in New Orleans “was not just a labor of love, but a labor of total dedication and total involvement by everybody on the set.”

Jillian Estell and Kevin Costner in a scene from Black or White. (Credit: Tracey Bennett/Relativity Media)
Jillian Estell and Kevin Costner in Black or White. (Credit: Tracey Bennett/Relativity Media)

Tammy,  directed by Ben Falcone and written by Falcone and lead actress Melissa McCarthy, was another gratifying experience. “Melissa and Ben were fabulous to work with,” says Russ. “They were extremely efficient, very creative and very collaborative. And we shot on film for a change, which was great. I was able to bring a lot of my regular crewmembers [to Wilmington, N.C.], and they enjoyed it as well. I would put it up there as one of our most enjoyable endeavors.”

He recalls that the decision to shoot film was made after a screening for the principals at FotoKem that compared clips of recent movies shot in a wide variety of formats. “When the film clip came on, you could hear people catching their breath because it looked so damn good,” says Russ. “It was kind of a no-brainer.”

Alsobrook at work.
Russ Alsobrook, ASC

When he’s not busy shooting, Russ is very active on the ASC Awards Committee, which recently began planning for the 2016 ceremony, which will be the event's 30th anniversary. (The chairman of the committee this year is Daryn Okada, ASC.)

“Preparations are underway,” says Russ, “and, as always, it promises to be the best awards show ever!”

 

 

 

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