- “Special Ops: Lioness” director and DP Paul Cameron talks about working with the show’s star-studded cast and stepping into the director’s chair.
- Cameron speaks about finding freedom in restriction and how a cinematography background feeds his approach as a director.
- “Sometimes you need to be a bit bold and break the ‘Five Cs of Cinematography’ [camera angles, continuity, cutting, close-ups, and composition] and deconstruct them,” he says.
- Show creator Sheridan Taylor is very, very specific about scripts: “If there’s time to do additional lines, or additional shots, or coverage, or anything of that manner, that’s fine, but you’ve got to shoot the script, and you’ve got to treat it like the Bible.”
Cinematographer Paul Cameron, ASC is most known for his collaboration with Tony Scott (Man on Fire, Déjà Vu) and he has taken lessons from the late director’s approach into his own directing work.
In Paramount+ series Special Ops: Lioness, for instance, Cameron takes an unconventional approach to coverage.
In Cameron’s hands, even a standard dialogue scene between two actors has extra dynamism and energy that come simply from looking for unorthodox angles or alternating focal lengths in a manner that might seem counterintuitive.
“The idea of matching singles or overs in a conventional cutting pattern has never really become part of my vocabulary,” Cameron told IndieWire‘s Jim Hemphill. “It’s more about what looks good on each side — a 65mm lens on Nicole Kidman’s side might be better with a 50mm on the other side with Zoe Saldana, or one side might be more emotional at a steeper angle on an 85mm,” he said.
“Sometimes you need to be a bit bold and break the ‘Five Cs of Cinematography’ [camera angles, continuity, cutting, close-ups, and composition] and deconstruct them.”
READ MORE: Taylor Sheridan’s ‘Special Ops: Lioness’ Breaks All the Cinematography Rules — and It Works (IndieWire)
Speaking to Matt Hurwitz at the Motion Picture Association’s The Credits, he added, “With Tony, I learned to just be fearless with cameras and put them in places I think are emotionally appropriate and not necessarily coverage-oriented. Looking for a shot, say, with a steep angle, a little too close, to make it just the right level of uncomfortable if the scene calls for that. It’s a matter of what makes it feel right, as opposed to matching focal lengths on lenses and distances, which many shows do.”
READ MORE: “Special Ops: Lioness” Cinematographer & Director Paul Cameron on Taylor Sheridan’s International Thriller — Part 1 (The Credits)
Taylor Sheridan created and wrote the military thriller that also stars Morgan Freeman, Laysla De Oliveira, Michael Kelly and Jennifer Ehle.
The genesis of the story was a real unit that the CIA set up in Afghanistan for handling female prisoners. Taylor’s idea: “What if we take young Special Ops women and put them in situations with high terrorist targets?” Namely, befriending the daughter of a target, or a sister — female to female.
“This way, they could either track and/or take action against high level terrorists. That, to me, was a pretty extreme and interesting idea. It may be slightly different than what Taylor does with a lot of his other shows, but it’s so female-oriented,” Cameron told Owen Danoff at Screen Rant.
He served as the DP on the first two episodes and directed Episodes 5 and 6, and in collaboration with Sheridan and pilot director John Hillcoat established the kinetic visual language for the series.
“Sheridan is very, very specific about scripts,” he says. “If there’s time to do additional lines, or additional shots, or coverage, or anything of that manner, that’s fine, but you’ve got to shoot the script, and you’ve got to treat it like the Bible.”
The challenge is that high-caliber of talents like Kidman, Freeman and Saldana are used to improvising their lines. So how did Cameron handle that?
“It’s just always that situation, like, ‘Listen, we’re going to shoot the lines the way they’re written and then, if there’s an idea, we can either address it together or let’s get Taylor on the phone, and we’ll see if it’s something we want to address or extend a little time to shoot as well,’ he told Danoff. “Again, it seems very constrained, but it’s kind of freeing in the sense that you really have that voice of the writer and that showrunner, and that’s what you’re doing.”
READ MORE: Special Ops: Lioness Director Paul Cameron On Making New Show With & Without Taylor Sheridan (Screen Rant)
Lessons from “Westworld”
Cameron was also heavily involved with Westworld, helping create the initial look of the show and directing episodes even in the series’ final season.
Working with Jonathan Nolan on Westworld, Cameron saw a director who “had linear beliefs of story and stayed with it, and doing that within the work of television,” he says in part two of his interview with Hurwitz. “The reason I started directing there was because I could see somebody setting the bar as high as I’ve ever seen.”
He also learned how to handle a massive amount of scenes in a limited time window. “We might lose a day for some reason and need to make it up, and even with all my experience, I was, like, ‘Oh, my God — how are we gonna do all this stuff?’ And, inevitably, we did it. And that gave me great confidence when I went to direct on Westworld.”
For Special Ops: Lioness, he had to hand his director of photography hat to cinematographers like Niels Albert, John Conroy and Nichole Hirsch Whitaker, something that can be difficult for someone who’s been in their shoes for so many decades.
Most important, he says, is to make sure to include them in prep as much as possible, evaluating scenes and locations, “And to really be open to big decisions,” he says. “What is this scene about? What are the storytelling aspects, and how are we going to manifest it in this location?”
READ MORE: “Special Ops: Lioness” Cinematographer & Director Paul Cameron on Taylor Sheridan’s International Thriller — Part Two (The Credits)
While Cameron and Hillcoat originally considered using a large format camera, like the Sony Venice or the Arriflex Alex LF, the two settled on the popular Alexa Mini LF for most of the production.
Hillcoat didn’t want to see any lens built after 1980, so Cameron gathered an eclectic set for the shoot, including Canon K35s and Zeiss uncoated Super Speed lenses (with both rear end and no coating). “They all react so differently,” he told Hurlitz. “The K35s have a great softness on large format, falling off on the edges really nicely. The uncoated lenses have different qualities of halation [spreading of light beyond the source] and blooming and flaring. So if there’s something bright, the image just blooms a little, or the top halates a little bit.”
Baltimore stood in for countless locations in nearby Washington, DC. The production also shot in Morocco and Mallorca, Spain. The ISIS compound seen in the first episode was shot at a location in Marrakesh, as was the first meet between Cruz and her target, Aaliyah (Stephanie Nur), Amrohi’s daughter, filmed in the city’s new upscale Rodeo Drive-like shopping area, Q Street, subbing in for Kuwait City. The show’s wedding sequences were filmed at a beautiful house on the ocean in Mallorca. Additional sets were also built in Mallorca, including the White House Cabinet Room, seen in several episodes. Beach scenes representing The Hamptons were shot at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, 120 miles from Baltimore.
“The challenge on this show was a lot of it takes place in DC, and we were situated in Baltimore, which is not the easiest place to film,” Cameron told Tom Chang at Bleeding Cool.
“We had to make a lot of Baltimore locations work for DC and get the establishing and aerial shots. It came together, but it’s always a challenge when you’re not in the exact place. I enjoyed going over to Morocco, I had some things directed there, and I had several scenes shot for John on episodes one and two there. It ended up being the better part of seven months. That was a challenge unto itself.”