Cinematographer Michael Grady on Framing ‘The Morning Show’

We chat with the cinematographer about finding artistry in a world in which we all think we’re experts.
The Morning Show Screenshot
Apple TV+
By  · Published on November 7th, 2019

Apple’s new streaming service has entered the market with a series built on a heated cultural conversation and celebrity smile. The Morning Show uses Matt Lauer’s removal from The Today Show after claims of sexual misconduct and assault surfaced to dissect our ravenous relationship with infotainment. We love a good train wreck, and it’s all the more delectable when the bodies strewn about belong to Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and Steve Carell.

To gain attention, the series needs to hit hard and look damn good. Aiding in that matter is cinematographer Michael Grady, who has shot the best episodes of The Leftovers plus the movies Easy A and William Friedkin’s Bug. Kickstarting a new service must also come with an extra layer of stress as all studio eyes glare down from above.

“They had some stops and starts with getting their whole studio going,” explains Grady. “While others got reorganized, we kind of got lucky.” Then came the cast, and it was off to the races. “You can’t tell this kind of star power story without getting movie stars,” he adds.

Grady spent most of his career working on features, but in the last decade, he’s moved over to television. “In the last five years, everybody has realized that all the best writing, or a lot of the best writing, has gone back to TV and away from movies,” he says. “Indie movies, and all the intelligent and challenging material has moved to the cable world.”

With the most satisfying material, along came the actors, who, once upon a time, would have considered the boob tube beneath them. As a result, programs like The Morning Show feel less like episodic television and more like really long features, providing the appropriate space for characters and their performers to thrive.

Of course, with more time and space, the grind of the job increases. “TV is the hardest thing to do because it is relentless,” says Grady. “People like Apple are spending enough money that they expect an extremely high level from you and all the other departments.”

Plus, Grady has Aniston and Witherspoon before his camera. He owes them just as much. “You’ve got to meet their stature and their level of work, you know?” The Morning Show provided Grady with very little relaxation, but you can’t expect or even want a serene time on a piece such as this one. “I say it’s relentless, but not in a negative way.” It’s damn demanding, which you want.

The narrative itself does not stretch over a long period, nor does it spread all over New York City. There is the studio set, the offices, the hallways around it, Aniston’s massive penthouse apartment, and a scattering of a few other locations. “We had some really big, feature-like sets in terms of size and functionality,” says Grady. “Hopefully, all that stuff ends up onscreen and people don’t even know it is a set.”

When it comes to morning talk shows, we’re experts whether we know it or not. We’ve all spent a few hours of our lives taking in the bright sheen of Good Morning America and The Today Show, and as such, the trick of The Morning Show is bringing new but recognizable life to those environments. “There’s a standard or a protocol of what those things are supposed to look like,” he says. When the in-story cameras were rolling, overhead lighting was crucial, and Grady couldn’t get fancy, or he’d break the reality.

“We brought in a group of technical directors and cameramen that worked on the news and game shows and all that stuff,” he explains. Grady would sit back and let them do their thing. “They had their headsets on, and you’d direct them, ‘Okay. Two shot single, you guys got a wide.'” You gotta leave it to the pros.

With a fully functional television set at their disposal, The Morning Show could actually split up the production to film in multiple locations simultaneously. “One camera would be on someone in the control room filming [Mark] Duplass talking through the earwig piece to Jen. Then Jen is on the air on the news side being filmed,” says Grady.

In addition to one team breaking off to film distinct sequences, an entirely different group was off shooting other segments. Grady took on six episodes while cinematographer David Lanzenberg shot the other four.

Maintaining the continuity of the image between two DPs is always a concern, but Grady feels that the modern era handles the dilemma better than the previous generation of shows. “I used to love The Sopranos, but I could tell the difference between their DPs,” he explains. “I was always like, ‘Ah, maybe I like this guy a little bit better than the other one.’ But, it’s totally subjective. I, personally, don’t worry too much about it. It always comes up, and producers will talk about it and get worried and stuff, but my experience has been, ‘Eh, it’s all right.'”

In the beginning, before the shoot, Grady went wild with photo reference. The production corridors were lined with various images, and the crew took it all in, but they never assembled them into a tone book. “The photos just sorta floated around,” he says. “They would be circulated for episodes. Here are 10 different images for this particular story.”

Nothing too complicated. The images were only there to center the philosophy of what they were trying to replicate. “The Morning Show is classical,” he explains. “The look doesn’t draw too much attention to itself, or the camera, or the lighting. It’s got a sense of naturalism and heightened realism.”

Grady refuses to get in the way of the story. He wants The Morning Show to speak to the moment, and to achieve that, the cinematographer sometimes has to hide the art of it all. “What does it mean for someone like Matt Lauer to go down?” he asks. “The show reveals what that entire world was like and how they allowed that to go on.”

His camera’s only job is to capture that conversation. No flash, just talk. It’s not cinema; it’s TV. The realm of story.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)