Mark Vargo, ASC, is the director of photography on the current season of Salem, WGN America's 17th century drama, after spending the show's first season as the second-unit cinematographer. He came to the project with second-unit experience on more than 30 movies, including Transcendence and White House Down, as well as director of photography credits on several television projects. “I’m from Virginia, and I minored in American history, so the early days of the New World are very interesting to me,” he says.
Mark first worked with Salem creator Brannon Braga on Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, and when he learned that Michael Goi, ASC, would shoot Salem's first season, he offered to help with the second unit. “That evolved into directing second unit as well, and some work as an extra operator on big days for the main unit,” Mark says. “When Michael took another project, lo and behold, they offered the director of photography job to me this season. It’s a huge compliment; I had never shot a network series.”
Episodes of Salem are shot in Louisiana, usually in seven days. The per-episode budget is around $3 million. The ratings have been very good. “Shooting this show has tested everything I know, and it has made me a better cinematographer — better last night than I was a week ago,” Mark says. “The whole scheme of lighting is different. I light the entire set so we can run the whole scene from beginning to end, or at least in one direction, while maintaining a firelit look. It has been really tricky.”
I ask Mark about the stress of TV schedules and how he maintains his edge. “I do need more rest,” he responds. “But when I was a younger guy, working on visual-effects films and meeting deadlines for the major studios movie after movie after movie, I got over stress. We worked 90 days in a row to finish the opticals for Ghostbusters. I can handle this!
“This is my philosophy: If you’re giving 100 percent and your team is, too, then if you fail, it’s going to be due to an actor getting sick, or weather or equipment problems. You can’t change the momentum or the direction of that day; you can only battle it with your wits, your ingenuity and your stamina. So I don’t feel like I’m under a lot of pressure.
“I don’t like the metaphor of ‘going to battle’ because that sort of sullies the reputation of people who have actually fought in one,” Mark adds. “But they do get hardened, and although they might be afraid on any given day, they're reconciled to the mission. The film business is a bit like that, too. Some do freak out, but there are a lot of tough people in it. The photography part of this job is only one spoke in the wheel; the personnel, the politics, the preparation, the interaction with producers and actors, the logistics, the budget considerations — it’s a big job.”
Finding good crew is a key to success, but Mark notes that it isn’t a given in Louisiana, where state tax incentives have led to a boom in production. “You need people who can contribute artistically, not just show up and go through the motions. It’s harder to find good people outside of Los Angeles, but if you look hard enough, you can. If your crew doesn't have the experience to pull it off on schedule, the compromises can drive you nuts. Then you're using time that you should be spending with the director, reviewing the next shot."
When he’s not shooting, Mark devotes time to his website, where he tries to share his wisdom and experience with young filmmakers. “I got to teach cinematography for a couple of semesters, and I realized how poor the education is that students get from academics rather than filmmakers with on-set experience," he observes. “I’ve created some tutorials for my website, and colleagues from around the world have also contributed. I don’t charge anything; I’m trying to prepare kids that can’t afford to go to film school. It’s a great feeling to look out in a classroom and see that the students just ‘got’ some concept they were having trouble with. The website is my little film school, and I’m getting a kick out of it.”