Our latest interview with cinematographer Chris Teague took at look at the world of hit series Only Murders in the Building. Chris DP’d the entire first season of the series and a little over half of the upcoming second season (1-4, 9-10), even directing some of the sophomore season’s episodes (7-8).
As sole cinematographer for Season 1, Chris got a unique opportunity to collaborate closely with other department heads to establish and impact a visual aesthetic for the show. He utilized lighting, color palettes, and a mix of Hitchcock’s aesthetic with modern accents to ensure the realistic feel of the show that still reflects the characters’ personalities. For the upcoming second season, Chris got to continue his journey as a cinematographer while also directing two episodes, which allowed him even more significant creative input into the impeccable look of the show.
PH: Hi Chris! Can you describe your background and how you got into cinematography?
Chris Teague: I went to grad film school at Columbia University School of the Arts, where I concentrated on directing. Columbia does not focus on the technical side of filmmaking, but my background in photography and my work as an assistant to a documentary cinematographer before film school prepared me to some degree to work as a de facto cinematographer for my fellow film students. This work led to short films and micro-budget features, which then led to television.
PH: Who are some of your professional inspirations?
Chris Teague: As far as cinematographers go, I am inspired by Gordon Willis, Nestor Almendros, Bobby Muller, Harris Savides, and Greig Fraser, among many, many others. Some directors who inspire me are Lucretia Martel, Olivier Assayas, Joachim Trier, Arnaud Desplechin, PT Anderson, Steven Spielberg, and many more.
PH: How do you select what projects to work on? Do you have any criteria?
Chris Teague: I try to find material that I connect with, whether it is a comedy that makes me laugh, a story with a world that captivates my imagination, or a drama with themes I can relate to. Next, I try to pick projects that allow me to try new things. And lastly, I try to find projects where I connect personally with the filmmakers.
PH: Let’s talk about Only Murders in the Building. How did you get involved with this series?
Chris Teague: Jamie Babbit is an EP and director on Only Murders, and she and I worked together on Russian Doll. She put my name in, and I met with her as well as showrunner John Hoffman and EP Jess Rosenthal, both of whom I really connected with, and I think they appreciated my visual references for the show. I thought the script was hilarious and smart, and I felt like the nature of the show, being a comedy/mystery mix, would lend itself to an interesting look.
PH: What did pre-production look like and how did you prepare to work as the sole cinematographer in season 1?
Chris Teague: Because of covid, we had a bit more time to prep than I’ve had on other shows. It was incredibly helpful because we were building fairly sizable and complicated sets. We worked hard to light them as carefully and thoughtfully as possible so that we could have beautiful-looking spaces to work in and have the flexibility to shoot them in a lot of different ways since we knew we’d be spending a lot of time in our hero apartments.
PH: What were some of the challenges (and maybe opportunities) working solo?
Chris Teague: The main challenge of working solo is having almost no time to prep with directors after the first few episodes. It is challenging to develop a creative rapport or brainstorm novel solutions to problems when you cannot spend much time together. As experienced professionals and collaborators, we learn to identify the key challenges and bring our ideas to the table quickly and succinctly since time is always of the essence, and we try to allow each other the room to work in the way that is most comfortable for each other so that everyone feels included and that their process is being respected.
PH: You also worked on a few episodes in the upcoming season. How did you continue to infuse the look and feel you created in season 1 while working alongside other department heads?
Chris Teague: The nice thing about a second season is that you have already created all this fantastic reference material by shooting season 1. The existing sets for Mabel, Oliver, and Charles inspired Bunny’s apartment in terms of having a lot of visual layers – corners, hallways, and spaces to explore. However, our production designer for season two, Patrick Howe, gave Bunny’s apartment many details that felt like Bunny. The season one sets also give you a frame of reference for picking new locations, such as Alice’s art gallery. We chose something that felt drastically different from the Arconia in terms of its shape and scale, but at the same time, we added color to the lighting of the art opening that felt like it fit the overall look of the show.
PH: What was the transition to Director like?
Chris Teague: I could not have had a more comfortable adjustment to the role of a director, mainly due to being surrounded by the most incredibly supportive and warm cast and crew you could imagine. It was a lot of fun to engage with other department heads on a new creative level, to be a little less technical and a little more story-focused. It was indeed a bit daunting to work with such experienced and legendary actors – Steve Martin and Martin Short were making me laugh when I was a little kid! But I was fortunate enough to have gotten to know them, and how they work from spending so much time with them on season one, so I had a good sense of supporting them and giving them room to do their best work.
PH: Visually, what are you most excited for viewers to experience in the upcoming season?
Chris Teague: John Hoffman and his writers were very clever and creative about finding new, secret spaces within the Arconia to explore. Those were a lot of fun to light and shoot, and I think fans of the show will love it. There’s also a big event later in the season that significantly impacts the show’s look, and that was during one of the episodes I directed. So that will be something to look forward to!
PH: How do you continue to evolve as a professional?
Chris Teague: I try to learn about new cinematography techniques as they emerge and test new gear to see if there’s a place for it in my workflow. I like to experiment with different lighting styles and different uses of color. I research VFX techniques since VFX is a significant component of every show nowadays, even if it’s not a show in outer space or with superheroes. Finally, I try to get back to shooting still photography when I can, as it forces you to look at things differently – it gives me more time to meditate on my thinking of how I am looking at things.
PH: Can you share how you challenge yourself creatively?
Chris Teague: Stepping into directing was a creative challenge for me. It has opened up a new perspective on visual storytelling and gives me new respect for the directors I work with. I hope I have the opportunity to do more of it!
PH: Any upcoming projects on the horizon?
Chris Teague: I just got hired on a new series that is a new direction for me that I am very excited about, but unfortunately, it’s too soon to say what it is!