Few director/cinematographer collaborations have always been exciting to watch, regardless of what they do. One has been Rian Johnson’s long-time collaboration with cinematographer Steve Yedlin. I remember the day when I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi in IMAX 3D, and the film went into the “Throne Room” sequence, where Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) kills Snoke (Andy Serkis) and teams up with Rey (Daisy Ridley) to fight the Praetorian Guards and being completely blown away by it. From a purely visual standpoint, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, and I have probably rewatched that scene over a hundred times online. I always return to it as a prime example of visual storytelling and some of the best, if not the best, Star Wars action sequences.
Since then, I’ve always been excited to see what they do next, and they have not disappointed with Knives Out, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, and Poker Face. While Yedlin only contributed to two episodes of the series (which were both directed by Johnson), the visual style he established for the “Howcatchem” show is second-to-none and ranks high among one of Johnson’s best projects.
Awards Radar recently had the chance to speak to Yedlin on Zoom. We discussed his continued partnership with Johnson, the visual inspirations for the series, how he creates distinct atmospheres, and how the camera can elevate the on-screen mystery and subvert audience expectations.
Read the full conversation below:
You’ve collaborated with Rian Johnson for a long time and have always created a distinct visual language for every production you’ve worked on with him. How does your partnership with Johnson evolve with each production you work with him?
Rian and I have been making movies since we were 18-19. We started making short films for fun. He is the best as a visual author, friend, and collaborator. And he’s gotten better and better. As you evolve, things get refined and definitely get better, but there’s never been any big breaks in the methodology or anything. It’s always the same but slowly evolving into something more refined and exciting.
In terms of Poker Face’s visual style, how did you want it to distinguish itself from Knives Out?
Rian and I don’t usually try to do things by defining for or against looking like something else. We’re not necessarily trying to make it look like something or distance itself from something else, we’re just problem-solving what’s the most visually impactful, fun, cinematic way to tell the story that we’re doing. Of course, there will be some evidence of a recognizable style. However, everything’s different because it’s a different story with different locations and characters. We’re also in a different place than when we started, so it will automatically look different. It’s hard enough to make something look good in a visual and pointed storytelling way. It’s hard enough to figure out the best way to do that, even if you don’t make artificial rules. If you start making rules about distinguishing yourself from something else, you’re tying yourself up into knots, so we try not to have any photographic rules as we make something.
Did you or Rian have any specific visual inspirations that were the basis of Poker Face’s look?
Yes, but inspirations only. There was nothing that we were trying to emulate. The most obvious one is that the show is heavily inspired by Columbo, which I loved when I was a kid. I think Rian only got super into it more recently. In nowhere were we trying to make it look like Columbo, but I think that the idea of inspiring ourselves from that brought so much joy because it didn’t have a singular style. Unlike many contemporary shows, where the style follows itself from beginning to end, Columbo would frequently do all kinds of crazy avant-garde stuff, but that style wasn’t the same episode to episode. They would try different things through the camera, editing, and score. That’s what we took away from Columbo. We didn’t want to enforce any rules or make it look like that, but being inspired by how they consistently reinvented their style.
Both episodes you’ve worked on, Dead Man’s Hand and Escape from Shit Mountain, are very different stylistically. How did you want to set these two episodes apart and establish a distinct atmosphere between the two?
Rian had such a clear vision for both episodes. The cinematic language of these stories is built into the DNA of the script. You’re not looking at the script and going, “Okay, these are great words, but God, how the hell are we going to show this?” It’s not that at all. Everything deeply theatrical and cinematic about it is built from the script stage. To a larger extent, it’s figuring out how to establish, sharpen, and polish that look. These two episodes look different because they couldn’t be more different in terms of story. You have one almost like a horror movie that occurs mostly at night, where you’re in the unlit woods. Then you’re bathing in the tail lights of a car. The other takes place in the sunny desert and a casino that’s supposed to be lit, so the guests can’t tell what time it is. All of those elements are built into the script. My job is to heighten and sharpen the evocative nature of those episodes and how they will look.
I think one of the most impressive things about this show and any type of mystery story is that the camera will show something very early on in the episode and then come back later at that location to reveal something else. It was incredible how it got me every single time. I always tried to get two steps ahead of the story, but something like that would throw me off-guard each episode. How do you think a camera can enhance the on-screen mystery and be used to subvert audience expectations?
Rian has become a master at this because the complexity of doing exactly what you’re talking about is way bigger on something like Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery than on Poker Face. Rian has got it down to a science. He knows exactly what the shots are for when we see it again the second time. Usually, the way we do it is simple. We shoot the scene the main way you see it, then do a little bonus. For example, in the first Knives Out, we have many scenes where we go back to the same one throughout the film to reveal something else, which we often do through a big dramatic push-in. We would set the camera up to do the push-in, shoot the scene how it was supposed to be shot, and then do the bonus reveal with the push-in. That can be a bit difficult because it is based on whether you have somebody like Rian with such a clear plan in their head versus spiraling and figuring it out by the committee. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, if you’re not the boss, even if you have a really clear plan about it, you won’t be able to achieve it. This is a top-down thing that Rian knows. He’s got it all planned out and knows what he needs. We’re never spiraling and trying to figure out how to achieve this on the day of the shoot.
The show was shot digitally, yet its aesthetic is highly reminiscent of 35mm detective thrillers you’d see in the ‘70s. How do you achieve that film-like in a digital camera?
Oh, thank you. As I said, Columbo is an inspiration, but we’re never trying to make it look like a 70s TV show shot on the Universal lot or anything like that. But it’s a passion of mine that I’ve spent years studying, figuring out what I liked about a traditional print system because shooting on film only isn’t anything because you have uninterpreted data and have to go through a process that interprets it. So if you shoot on film for a digital pipeline, you still have uninterpreted data. I’ve always been interested in what makes the color rendering more artful as opposed to clinical I have my color mapping and other algorithms for how harsh edges are handled and stuff like that, which I have been developing over the year. This allows me to take what I like about film, not the stuff I don’t. It’s not meant to look precisely in the 1970s but more in line to have an artful color rendering the way a traditional print system would.
Is there a scene or shot on the show that you’ve worked on that you’re the most proud of?
Not really. I genuinely love the show. Separate from having worked on it, I loved watching it. It’s cool. Watching it, it’s sometimes surprising to see scenes done exactly how we planned it versus moments we would figure out on the day. Episode one has more of that than episode nine. For example, there is the crow’s nest, which is the overlook that Adrian Brody’s character has. I loved Rian’s concept for it because he actively wanted to do that thing where the location is intentionally dark, and all the light was actually glowing from the casino. I loved the concept, and we prepped for it. We were ready to have lights from below, but not inside It worked really well, but it was really because of the fine details of it that made it come together to a surprising degree instead of the overall concept. And when I ultimately watched the show, I was blown away but how it worked out so well. Not that I didn’t think it wasn’t going to be good, but I genuinely went, “Wow. This is amazing.”
All episodes of Poker Face are available to watch on Peacock.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]