Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with cinematographer Shawn Peters about finding the imperfect visuals for The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey in the book as well as in the screenplay.
Talk to enough cinematographers, and you learn that their jobs always start with the script, specifically the narrative. Story dictates aesthetic. Read closely enough, and it will tell you how the film should behave and be seen.
With The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, director of photography Shawn Peters began where he always does, with the words on the page. Beyond Walter Mosley and Jerome Hairston’s scripts, Peters had Mosley’s novel, too. He threw himself into the book, in audio format (he is a busy creator, after all, gotta get the words in during every possible moment), and the text informed every decision.
With such intimate access, Peters solidified the protagonist’s ever-shifting world in his mind. It provided the cinematographer an opportunity to fully realize his frame in a way he had not done so before.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey centers on Samuel L. Jackson’s titular character falling into his own memory after undergoing an experimental treatment conducted by Dr. Rubin (Walton Goggins). The science fiction set-up allowed for Peters and the series directors (including Ramin Bahrani, Hanelle M. Culpepper, Guillermo Navarro, and Debbie Allen) to playfully fabricate multiple perspectives from a singular source. The result is a unique trip into the past where reality and fantasy meld together in memory.
To achieve such a tapestry, the series executes several different memory devices. We witness Ptolemy’s natural recollection of the past. We experience projections from his past inside his present. And we travel through Dr. Rubin’s procedure, where memory is malleable, frequently contradicting the previously established.
Grasping these phasing points of view required an assured action plan, the blueprint of which was Walter Mosley’s novel and how Peters filtered it through his brain. The more comfortable he became with the book, the more confident he grew around their deviations from it.
“It starts with my imagination,” says Peters. “How my imagination meets my personal memory reference. When you’re describing the world, novels are much more descriptive than screenplays, obviously. Even though the screenplay varies a bit more explicitly from the novel, the novel still gave me a chance to think about the major worlds of this character in ways that I didn’t get from the screenplays.”
Ptolemy’s apartment was a massive focus for Peters. He spent a good chunk of his pre-production process contemplating how that isolated location should look and how it should evolve throughout the series. Working in collaboration with Hilda Mercado, the other DP on the show, they formulated its shifting nature.
“It changes over time,” he explains, “with the introduction of different characters: his nephew, then the young lady Robyn who takes care of him after his nephew passes. As he transitions as a character from someone with a mind in major, major decline to someone with a better handle on his mind, his world changes.”
Mosley’s book held all the answers. Peters returned to it over and over. Some days with a pad and pen at the ready; other days, he let the prose wash over him. The show could control the sights and sounds, but the filmmakers needed Ptolemy’s experience to go deeper than that for their audience.
“In the novel,” continues Peters,” it’s really descriptive in terms of sensory perception. The smells and the layers of this particular color of dirt. Just thinking about that and working with the production designer and Ramin, we wanted people to know the smell of what they were looking at.”
To add texture to the visuals, Peters sought imperfection. With his Arri Alexa camera capturing a nearly unreal amount of information, muddying its resolution created a more tactile image. Lens play became paramount for the conversation he wanted to achieve between viewer and object.
“We use a lot of lens distortion for Ptolemy’s POV,” says Peters. “When [Jackson] was in frame, we used a lot of split diopters and broken glass. We wanted to dirty the frame in as many ways as optically possible. All in-camera.”
The usual tray of lenses was not enough either. Peters got a little kooky, a little more creative. A cinematographer can’t make imperfections; it has to come naturally or unnaturally — design by accident.
“We used different types of broken glass,” he says. “Sometimes bottles. We would actually cut off their ends, the bottoms of bottles. We can get a lot of in-camera optical effects on the lines within the glass. We used those for the times when the past was entering his present.”
They’re not making one series or one movie in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. They’re making a dozen, maybe two dozen. A new aesthetic was necessary for every dive deeper into Ptolemy’s memory. An endless array of choices were demanded for lenses, lighting, and movement.
“That was my thing,” says Peters. “A lot of the dreams of the past were done using optical treatment, or glass treatment. We used several different sets of lenses, different color treatments. And they ranged depending on the time periods, too. Some of those memories are from the ’30s; some of them are from the ’70s or ’80s. We had different looks and different lenses for each period.”
Through the decisions made by Shawn Peters, Ptolemy Grey’s character becomes clearer and clearer while the world around him fluctuates in a muddy soup. The joy for the cinematographer occurs when he sees his decisions merging with what his actor is supplying. That’s not always the case on every project.
“The greatest challenge was delivering this complex character with lens and lighting,” he says. “Obviously, we’re working with a tremendous actor in Samuel Jackson. He’s doing 90 percent of the work. But, there were times when I was like, ‘Wow.’ The lighting we chose, the camera support, and the movement we chose, that a hundred percent elevated the acting. That’s when you get those goosebumps, and you’re like, this is storytelling.”
Creation’s alchemy is truly what does it for Shawn Peters. Reaching into the book, pulling what he can out, and putting it before his camera. It’s everything to the artist who was a fan first. Not in his wildest fantasies did Peters think he’d be here with this work especially. It’s more than a job.
“I’m a big fan of Walter Mosley,” says Peters. “When I met him, he was looking through the monitor this one time, he said to me, this feels like the world I wrote.”
There’s no other criticism that matters beyond that. The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey and Shawn Peters, Walter Mosley approved. He’d retire but he’s too damn busy working.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is now streaming on Apple+ TV.