Awards Radar recently spoke with Joe Anderson, the cinematographer behind episodes 1, 2, 5, and 8 of Peacock’s recent hit series, Mrs. Davis.
Starring Betty Gilpin, Mrs. Davis follows a nun on her journey to destroy a powerful artificial intelligence named Mrs. Davis. To give insight on the chaos that ensues on this journey, Anderson shot fire-lit medieval crowd scenes, Evel Knievel-style motorcycle jumps, a 5-page dialogue scene taking place underneath a rock, nuns playing baseball, a shoe commercial, and a volcano of strawberry jam in the pilot episode alone.
In this interview, Anderson explains how he kept the series grounded and cinematic despite its surreal content, the epic shots he was tasked with, and his creative process while working on the series.
Can you tell us a little bit about your journey into cinematography and past projects you’ve worked on?
Joe Anderson: I first realized that there were actual people working behind the scenes of movies while watching old Godzilla films as a child. You could see and feel the human touch in the handmade quality of the sets and costumes. I grew up emulating these movies, dressing my brother in a dinosaur costume and making short films as ambitious as the extension cord of my parents’ camera would allow. My mom and dad are artists living in Salt Lake City, Utah, so I was always surrounded by art and creativity. I also had the Sundance festival happening every year in the background. I was even fortunate enough to have a short documentary screen there when I was 16.
In film school, I was surrounded by extremely talented filmmakers that I still call friends today. After graduating, I worked as a camera assistant for DPs like Jody Lee Lipes and Bradford Young. My first feature as a DP was Antonio Campos’s film Simon Killer, which premiered in competition at Sundance. I later worked with Antonio again on Christine, followed by David Lowery’s The Old Man and the Gun, the British series Top Boy and several others that I’m proud of.
What drew you to working on Mrs. Davis? How did you get involved?
JA: I was drawn to Mrs. Davis because of how completely unique, wildly ambitious, and honestly, how purely fun it was. I felt the material was generous, visually thrilling, and respected its audience, which challenged me to do the same. Even though it dealt with deep and challenging subjects, like AI, the clash of technology, and free will, it did so in an engaging and entertaining way.
There is a shot in The Old Man and the Gun, which I shot on 16mm to help create a period atmosphere, where I zoomed in on an earpiece worn by Robert Redford’s character. I think this shot caught the eye of Owen Harris as he was searching for a cinematographer to work with on Mrs. Davis. David Lowery and I wanted to create a friendly, curious camera that wasn’t trying to be glossy. Owen liked the zoom shot and the aesthetic of the movie and wanted to incorporate something similar in Mrs. Davis. After a few conversations where we discussed the script and some of our working philosophies, he offered me the job.
What were some of your goals as you prepped this project?
JA: Because of the extraordinary storyline, the show allowed me to flex a range of creative muscles, sometimes within just a few minutes of each other. The pilot alone had fire-lit medieval crowd scenes, Evel Knievel-style motorcycle jumps, a 5-page dialogue scene underneath a rock, nuns playing baseball in an idyllic setting, a sleek shoe commercial, and a volcano of strawberry jam.
Since the series is such a rollercoaster ride, it was important that the audience had a strong emotional connection to the main character, Simone. I wanted to make sure that despite its often surreal content, the project felt grounded, yet rich and cinematic.
Can you tell us about some of the inspiration behind your work on Mrs. Davis?
JA: During prep, I dug deep into visual research with Owen, who is no stranger to tackling unusual stories, like in the episodes of Black Mirror that he directed. I pulled reference imagery from a wide range of movies like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, The Sound of Music, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Wild at Heart and Buster Keaton shorts, but also pop art paintings from James Rosenquist, photos from Richard Kalvar and of course Chuck Jones animation. All this helped us create a distinct tone that walks a fine line between absurdity and beauty.
What equipment did you use while filming?
JA: Arri Alexa LF Mini with Caldwell Chameleon anamorphic lenses, which I chose to help make the story feel larger than life and to give a tip of the hat towards classic 70s movies that have largely defined my own aesthetic. Chameleons are engineered in a way that replicates the classic anamorphic look with a tad of distortion that helps create a 3D effect, tasteful flares, and a slightly degraded background blur that creates really nice portraits.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
JA: Though my taste has grown since those early Godzilla movies I loved as a kid, I’ve always been drawn to projects where the filmmaker’s hand is palpable. My goal is to create work that is inspired by the films that I love, is relevant to the moment in which the story is told, and can also be an artifact for audiences in the future to look back at. I’m not going for machine-made precision but work that surprises and is unique and relatable.
What was the collaboration process like on this project?
JA: The showrunners, Tara Hernandez and Damon Lindelof (or “TaDa,” as we called them), gave us a lot of creative freedom to come up with the aesthetic and visual personality of Mrs. Davis. We worked out of Warner Brothers studios in the very offices where Chuck Jones cartoons were made, coincidentally, and we were constantly hanging out in Production Designer Emma Fairley’s office bouncing weird ideas off of one another. Costume Designer Susie Coulthard would come in to feed us her iconic costume ideas, and together we attempted to walk the tightrope of making sure the show would be a complete unexpected thrill to watch without being utterly disjointed.
Once we felt confident in an idea, we would share it with Tara and Damon, who would give us feedback and from there, we would work with the crew, producers and Assistant Director team to figure out a way to deliver on our vision.
What are some of your favorite shots from Mrs. Davis?
Joe: I am particularly fond of the first shot of the entire series. All done in a single, 2-minute long take, we start close on a pair of boots (a wink to the fact that later, this shot is revealed to be from a Super Bowl commercial for British Knights shoes). We follow the boots to reveal they belong to a knight being led to a burning stake! As he is being shackled, an executioner appears to address a crowd of 500 townspeople. Once the camera pulls back wide to reveal the totality of this event, text appears on screen to inform us we are in France in the year 1307. The camera then begins to move forward, past the gallows as they become engulfed in flames and keeps pushing into an extreme CU of a single woman (Mathilde Ollivier) looking on. The image then transitions to the next morning with her in the same spot, now in front of a burnt pyre.
The location in Girona, Spain where we shot this was beautiful but very tricky to work in. We needed a specialized crane to drop our technocrane into place as the cobblestone roads were too steep to move it into position any other way. The walls of the surrounding church were so tall that we could not get traditional cherry pickers to reach up above them to light our set. After many conversations with our Spanish gaffer, Jorge Sacristán, and the location department, we got permission to actually place a series of lights on top of the Girona Cathedral.
Another shot I love occurs towards the end of episode 2. Mrs. Davis has arranged for several hundred pianos to be delivered to a field in the middle of nowhere. As Simone arrives to find them, the camera cranes up to reveal this spectacular, surreal sight, lit by the setting sun. To create the scene, we had dozens of real pianos placed in the tall grasses that were then enhanced by our VFX supervisor, Zsolti Poczos, to achieve the final image. This shot nearly didn’t happen, as we learned that Christopher Nolan was going to blow up our chosen field for his film Oppenheimer mere days before our shoot. We scrambled to find another location, and happened upon a vista much more epic than we’d originally chosen.
What was the biggest challenge you faced, both in prep and during filming?
JA: The tone of the series was always the biggest challenge. We wanted the show to feel unique but also familiar. Challenging and also comforting. We were constantly double checking that our creative choices had some grounding in reality and in traditional filmmaking techniques, while we barreled ahead with fantastically surreal images like the field full of pianos or a horse strapped with dynamite. We were super lucky to have the incredible Betty Gilpin as our lead, who understood this challenge perfectly and was able to effortlessly shift between Buster Keatonesque physical comedy and disarming heartbreak.