Last week, I chatted with Adrian Peng Correia, cinematographer for Netflix’s GLOW and Hulu’s Ramy about growing up watching sci-fi and horror films with his parents, his journey to Ramy and how much fun it was to shoot that episode-within-an-episode of GLOW. He also confirmed something we all suspected: When you have Alison Brie & Betty Gilpin fighting (emotionally!) in a hospital room, you pretty much just point the cameras and let them do the work.
AW: I wanted to just start off by asking how you got in the industry and certainly cinematography specifically?
APC: Well, I didn’t go to film school. I was studying history and sociology in college and I was going to get my PhD at the University of Maryland, I was about to start, [but] I always loved movies. In fact, in terms of electives for the last 2 years of college were these film classes with Bob Smith as professor and it just became more and more fascinating to me as an art form because It was always just something as a popular kind of entertainment for me; it was a big deal for my family, it was the way we all connected.
So that summer when I was going to go get my PhD I kind of toyed with the idea of working in the film industry. I took a small film course in New York which was kind of useless but I met some people and they offered start to me to start PA-ing. And it was either go right away to school or not, and by that time filmmaking seemed not even a possibility but at least was interesting. I had just lost my mother to connect to cancer, she died very young and I was debating if I lived to be the same age as her my life was essentially half over and that kind of spurred me on to give it a shot honestly.
And so I just started working in the industry as a PA and working my way up through various departments.
AW: Wow that’s really that’s really beautiful and awesome journey. Did you ever get your PhD?
APC: (Laughs) No, I never did. it’s funny is that my college professor of history, Bob Asher, was kind of like a second father to me, but all we ever talked about was movies. We drank wine and talked about movies. In fact, most of my education in terms of foreign directors was because of him. I would go talk about history, and he would recommend you know Truffaut or Kurosawa and I would just start educating myself through the local video store up there at the University of Connecticut.
And when I was going to make a choice about giving it a shot I literally called him because I was like I’m not going on to get my PhD and I was afraid of disappointing him terribly and he said ‘There’s no money in history, go for it!’ (laughs). I was like ‘okay’ and then I went for it.
AW: You said movies were a big part of your family growing up: Was there like a movie that you remember you all sitting around once a year watching?
APC: No, it was all genre pictures. My father was like a geek in high school, so it was all science fiction and action movies and that kind of stuff and like weird barbarians subgenres and crazy stuff like that. My mother couldn’t speak English because she was from Thailand, so she liked really visceral movies where language wasn’t so important. So she was a huge horror film, monster movies and that kind of stuff so I had this kind of crazy pop culture genre picture education from my parents and then and all the highbrow stuff came in college with my professors so I kinda had this well-versed thing.
My father loved movies like you know Sword in the Sorcerer and Barbarian Queen and Logan’s Run and that kind of stuff. And my mother loved just crazy horror films like Humanoids from the Deep. I mean, I saw Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell when I was like 10-years old, you know?
And she didn’t really know – like I would scream because I was terrified and she would make fun of me it should be like ‘it’s not real’ because she spoke Thai, so she could barely speak would she be like ‘It’s not real, not real!’
AW: And that is so much better of an origin story than ‘Yeah, every Thanksgiving we watched E. T. and that’s how –
APC: (laughs) Oh God, no.
AW: I know you did some horror earlier in your career. Was that circumstantial or was that something that you sought out because it is a big part of your childhood?
APC: No, because I didn’t have a network from film school, a group of people your age, who are close to you within a four-year period that are connected to you and can help you when you start. I didn’t have that, so I just basically took whatever I could and there wasn’t a ton. So when Synthetic Cinema in Connecticut was making horror films and they wanted me to shoot their films I mean, yeah it was low budget and, you know, crazy heart, but I was honored to be able to shoot anything. It was a great thing for me but I kind of lied my way through the beginning of my cinematography career, anyways. My reel was nothing because I couldn’t I couldn’t get hired!
I would basically do it in a very cynical fashion; I had a small camera or I’d steal a camera from somebody and I would just build my reel through like, ‘Okay I don’t have a night exterior, I’ll put whatever money I can towards one night exterior shot’, and get a night exterior shot on my reel. ‘I don’t have any beautiful women, if you can’t light a woman, you can’t shoot’ so I’d get the most beautiful actress I could find and shoot the most beautiful close-up I could find. And that’s what happens on low budgets, you know, because if they don’t see it on the reel they don’t think you can do it. So basically, I just filled my reel with everything that I could think of that wouldn’t give a producer the excuse to say ‘He’s never done this.’ If they saw on the reel like ‘Oh he can do night exteriors, he can do day interiors lit, he can do stage work’. I would just try to cynically fill all the holes of my education and experience and then just kind of faked it until I made.
AW: Interesting. It does sound somewhat fortuitous that you started obviously in maybe lower-budget, quirky horror movies you know grew up watching.
AW: The last kind of historical question I want to ask you. Can you remember that one perfect shot or something that made you think behind the mechanics of it and were like, ‘I can do this or I want to do this.’
APC: Well, you know, what’s funny is that there wasn’t anything specific. Well, there was one actually. When triggerstreets.com was still around and Kevin Spacey was still considered to be safe to talk about, Kevin had triggerstreet.com that was an online kind of thing. It was like is a contest and my friend Jason Klein is a very gifted director had this idea for the short film called The Perfect Time.
When we made that short film and Jason won the whole competition, after I saw the finished product and what happened that I was like: ‘Okay, I can tell the stories.’ That short film really was the one that I was like ‘okay, we can do this, I can do this.’ And that gave me the confidence to move forward. And then also strangely enough that short actually help me move past the idea of only caring about cinematographer. Because that short I had to think about everything and with Jason and it really gave me a more well-rounded appreciation for all the departmental things and after that I kind of became less of a controlling director of photography and more a storyteller with a camera and the other departments and that was the most helpful thing in terms of rounding out my film education. That was a really nice film education in 2 days.
AW: I’m sure there are a lot of film students out there who would probably say that sounds like a real crash course.
APC: No, that’s normal. Shoot was two 20-hour days, it was insane. I remember literally driving back home at the end of the second 20-hour day and falling asleep behind the wheel and then waking up screaming on the highway.
AW: Oh my god.
APC: I knew I had fallen asleep and it was something where you can start screaming to wake yourself up and thankfully I did. Then of course my friend took the wheel.
AW: In terms of GLOW and now Ramy, this is a question I’m sure you get asked often, but these are two shows that are very, very funny but then also have big social message: Is that something that you sought out or is it something that you think you would continue to seek out or is it lucky happenstance?
APC: I think its more lucky happenstance. When I think of those shows the contrast between the comedy and the drama is from a storytelling standpoint extraordinarily satisfying because it allows you to delve into one of the great even exchanges of what it means to be a filmmaker. If you make somebody laugh, you know ,that’s immediate collateral that is unquestioned; it doesn’t matter if somebody thinks sophomoric or highbrow, stupid, serious well-played or improvised, if you make someone laugh like that’s the only collateral. So there’s something great and definitive about that. But then you have these elements of drama within the context of these shows that allow you to try to dive a little deeper into the profundity of what it means to be a human being and that’s the great thing about Glow is that it allows you to easily traverse between the two genres.
With Ramy, you know, you’re talking — when I read Ramy, I remember I told this to Claudio Rietti who’s my camera operator here in New York , I said I think we have a chance to make a kind of postmodern All in the Family. we have a chance to shine a light on people that don’t normally get a kind of normalized, in-depth, complicated picture of themselves without the weird kind of like societal conflicts and contradictions that are inherently perceived in the media. We could just have a family be a family and then the complications of their religion or their personal beliefs or beliefs on love or the any thing. It could just be the things that color the lines between these families, as opposed to things that define them and then that way you can make a more human picture of a group of people, and I thought that was really important. I think because the nature of the strength of the writing and the performances and sure-handed guidance of directors like Chris Storer and Cherien Dabis , we were able to do that; I feel very lucky to have done that show.
AW: They are two really, really great shows to have been worked on. I wonder if there is anything that you go at differently in terms of one is so female-centric and the other one where the central character is a man; Is there something different in the process being so focused on the two different genders?
APC: Well it’s a funny thing, you know, because you want to be open to the perspective whether it’s from a woman or race or gender identity or any of these kinds of things that kind of define what makes a person a person, you as a storyteller, you have to be open to whatever makes and kind of pulls the lever of their lives, so to speak, it kind of turns those gears. And the only way you can really do that it’s just try to understand the nature of whatever the drama or the conflict or the comedy is for those particular people. So I think in terms of your preparation or the way you set it up, is trying to understand the motivations from a character standpoint and then just basically have no judgment on who they are as people.
From a cinematography standpoint that means framing and lighting and choosing to tell the story with the camera in either a really unbiased and reflective and objective kind of point of view or, if you’re trying to make a point, kind of engaging in that subjectivity and just try to make your point as simply or as powerfully as you can. you know. I think a lot of whatever it means for the comedy and the drama in each show is that we came at it as truthfully as possible and I think that’s the key.
AW: How do you work with directors to make sure you’re enacting both of your visions for the shot and the show? You know you have this idea and they sort of have that idea and how do you merge those two things?
APC: I come from feature film, so in that realm the directorship, you know, as a cinematographer is the shepherd; They’re the ones who are really kind of guiding all of it and they’re the ones who have the true picture of whatever they’re trying to make in their head. In that way, I do believe in the auteur theory. I believe you can, as a department head, hotwire yourself to whatever that movie is in that particular person’s head, you’re gonna tell a better story.
In television, it’s a strange medium in that way because of the fact that if you value the perspective of a director – which I think is important in television – but also know that the creators are the ones who really are the true shepherds in the overall. It’s more of a three-pronged attack as opposed to a two-pronged attack. Usually directors of photography are the other ones there throughout the course of the season unless you’re lucky and can pull a Gregg Araki with Now Apocalypse or a Cary Fukunaga with the first season of True Detective and be there the entire season, these directors come and go and usually the director of photography is the one who holds. So, it’s kind of an interesting thing, from the shepherding standpoint.
I don’t believe it as so singular is it typically is for me in features, it’s definitely a multi-pronged attack and the only way you can really do that is trying to decide on what those themes and ideas of what the series is supposed to be, and then just try to stay true to them from a scene-to-scene episode-to-episode basis. that that that balance between the director and the creators and yourself and the writers – is really really interesting. You have to be delicate but you have to know what you want.
AW: Do you find that when directors come back for another season that it’s easier, that there’s more of a shorthand?
APC: Sure; sure it does. I think that’s definitely true. but sometimes not having the same director can also challenge and kind of push you into realms that you hadn’t anticipated. Much like foreigners often come to America and shoot really interesting films about America, whether it means like Adam Holender with Midnight Cowboy or László Kovács with Easy Rider or Vilmos Zsigmond with something like McCabe & Mrs Miller you know often times it’s a different perspective that frames the traditional or the normal material in ways you hadn’t anticipated. A new director can actually help do that. You know, shooting TV is usually a longer form job and the totality of it, of shooting whole season, continually – those kind of hours, that kind of time, that kind of commitment, that kind of energy – can be draining. Sometimes a new director voice who comes in can kind of snap you out of the kind of routine of TV production and kind of shake things up a little bit sometimes that’s a valuable asset.
AW: I want to ask you a few questions specific to GLOW.
APC: Go for it!
AW: In this season it feels like Debbie and Ruth tension sort of come to a head, when Debbie breaks Ruth’s ankle and then they have the big fight in the hospital afterwards, that is part of a crescendo point for them. How did you go about shooting that?
APC: Well, the funny thing about it is that these are not actions that are borne out of hate; to me those are actions, reactions and drama that are born essentially out of love. For whatever kind of problems Ruth and Debbie have, there was a friendship. There is resignation to the fact that there is a complicated but, to me, relationship of love between them. Not necessarily romantic love but certainly platonic love and there is this really kind of damaged wounded sisterhood between the two of them.
We have two actors who are immensely gifted as Betty and Alison are, when it comes to cinematography for those moments you can’t –
The ring is one thing, because that demands this kind of energy and action. In the episode when Debbie breaks Ruth’s ankle, the camera work in that particular sequence and after, obviously Debbie is taking cocaine, she has been through this whirlwind of seeing Mark with his secretary and the fact that her life really is going to change in ways that maybe she herself manifested in terms of a desire but now is maybe not prepared for what that means afterwards.
She takes cocaine and she’s devolving there mentally, which obviously started for me with the “Mother of All Matches” in episode 4, you have to have some kind of energy that kind of dictates.
this kind of collapse, so you can have a camera that’s a little more participatory. When it comes up to episode 7, you have to just say the hell out of the way from camera perspective.
Ruth is locked to a bed, Debbie is standing there before her; like yeah do you want to move camera and get some dynamics? Sure. But then at that point moving the camera would be ostentatious at best, so what do you do? My solution was to not move the camera at all. Don’t do anything with the energy of the camera to detract from the actors. Just let Betty stay there in the frame and rail against Ruth and to have Ruth just sit there and rail against her and you know the dynamic and the energy in the frame comes from the actor as opposed to the camera at that moment. That’s all to me that felt appropriate.
AW: You’re saying that it’s better when you have all the power in the scenes, you don’t have to do a lot more with the camera because what’s happening in the scene is moving it so far forward?
APC: Yea and then also think about the fact of how strong the writing is in that scene, how strong the performance are. What are you gonna really do at that moment, that Betty Gilpin is not gonna do? That Alison is not gonna provide? They’re going to provide.
If there was a specific beat at the end we wanted to hit, or specific moment. maybe we would tack on some kind of movement at the end but it felt just gratuitous.
The great danger with using camera even in the motivated way in terms of movement or some other kind of camera theatrics, the danger is that you actually undercut or subvert the drama at that moment someway with camera because it’s distracting or manipulative. Just let the performers and performances shine and they do.
There has to be a certain amount of resolve and trust in actors when it comes to the use of camera, as well.
AW: Another big GLOW episode this season was episode 8, “The Good Twin,” the episode-with-an-episode. Would love to hear about shooting that.
APC: If you’re talking about fun (laughs), I mean, there’s very little opportunity to shoot something as ridiculously – as fun – as that episode. That episode gives you so many options from a cinematography standpoint that you really can’t make any wrong decisions. But there’s a great danger with that large of a salad bowl of you just throwing ridiculous things into that salad. As crazy as you want to be with the camera, there should still be some type of rules.
The fact is, these guys (the GLOW characters) are not super professional, they don’t have a ton of money, they probably can afford great cameramen. They’re not perfect, it’s not a perfect show so the instructions were to the camera operators would be like if Ruth stands up from the hamburger stand, you don’t have to make the tilt up with her perfect, you can let her head get cut off a little bit and they tilt back up, you know, because they’re stealing shots at this hamburger stand; The pans don’t have to be perfect. When we do the lightning effects with Britannica in her lab, we could’ve used lightning strikes and all new-fangled technology but I used old tungsten lights and metal shutters, old school ways to create lighting effects because I thought that would look better and it would feel more Eighties. Everybody was kind of like ‘do we really want to use these old school techniques?’ and I’m like, ‘I think it will feel better.’ And I think that stuff just feels better, feels more theatrical, it feels like the show would feel. It’s all those little choices you make to try and make it – like the dream sequence with the Fred Astaire Gene Kelly American in Paris/Singin’ in the Rain dream sequence. Yeah, they wanted to make Singin’ in the Rain but they’re not absolutely great camera crane operators. It should be a little bit messy and a little bit not perfect and not a perfect representation of An American in Paris or Singin’ in the Rain, but maybe one that a budget a production could afford in the mid-eighties Everything is not supposed to be perfect and that’s the kind of idea that encapsulated episode 8. So it was just making it fun and silly and a little ramshackle in a way that was charming and I think we came through really well, that’s one of my favorite episodes of the season.
AW: It’s so great. It sounds like, based on what you said before, you were channeling you own journey from when you were starting out trying to get these jobs sounds like what they would’ve been doing on the GLOW set.
APC: Yeah, completely. The embodiment of the cinematography has to be true to the artist intent of what you believe they would be making and I think if you align yourself with that, you end up making surer choices. and I feel like those choices were pretty true (laughs).
AW: Yeah, so you were the perfect cinematographer for that episode.
APC: Considering how many schlocky things I’ve made? Sure.
AW: (laughs) I mean, you know having to steal those shots, like you were saying.
APC: I mean it lovingly, I mean it lovingly. All those experiences are what made me who I am and I love those movies.
AW: Had you seen Glow (the actual 1980s syndicated female wrestling show) just in your life before doing this show?
APC: Yeah, I remember I watched the premiere of Glow. I used to be a big professional wrestling fan in the early eighties, so I remember actually watching the premiere of Glow and being like what the hell is this? Because it’s more like a variety show then what WWF was at that time – they might have these little asides in the middle – but they were pretty much like straight sporting event, as opposed to sports entertainment like it is now. Glow came along, definitively more of like a variety show sporting event, so it had this kind of playful air about it. That was what was interesting to me because I was like ‘what the hell is this?’ as a viewer watching it in the eighties and being captivated by it, so I actually did have direct personal experience.
AW: And then you got to make an episode of Glow within GLOW. That’s so funny how life works.
APC: It’s pretty awesome. It’s kind of funny when you think of a preteen Adrian trying to formulate that in his mind, it’s like a weird rabbit hole.
AW: I had seen it, too as a kid by happenstance just going across the channels and having the same sort of like ‘Wait. What is this?’ because I was a WWF fan, too. So when the show was coming out I feel like among my peer group I was the only one who at any frame of reference for the fact that this is this is real in some ways.
APC: (chuckles) Yeah.
AW: I want to ask you one last question, in terms of the dichotomy between shooting a show like GLOW which in some ways has a lot of literal action with the wrestling matches and Ramy which is just a little bit more of the laconic, how do you pivot from one to the other?
APC: I derive everything I do from the page. The scripts, if they’re well-informed and they’re direct and clear in terms of action between drama and comedy, then those choices are pretty self-evident. Then when you discuss with a creator – whether it be Ramy or Liz and Carly – about the nature of the way they do their show, they know the show that they have or at least the show that they want. Those choices allow you great freedom as a technician, to know exactly how you should frame and shoot something. And then as an artist, they give you the freedom to be able to interpret and have a freer hand in terms of the way your particular point-of-view, your vision for the show can kind of filter and mix with theirs.
So jumping back and forth between these kind of shows in terms of material is not an issue at all. In fact, when you can have that kind of contrast within your professional artistic life, that often makes you stronger, more committed and makes you value what it means to contribute, to create those things as honestly as possible. You have that kind of freedom, then you have a responsibility to use it, so it’s actually an exhilarating thing as opposed to something that would make you worry about jumping from style to style or genre to genre.
With any project, what I always end up doing is I try to find like a central theme, an idea that can be my divining rod for any of those kinds of choices I try to find or discover through the season and if I can be locked into that then that gives me the guidance and, frankly, the emotional and photographic direction to be able to represent moments that are artistically true to the spirit of the show.
GLOW is currently available to stream on Netflix. Ramy is currently available to stream on Hulu. Correia also lensed the series American Princess on Lifetime, which premiered June 2nd.
Adrian Peng Correia is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Cinematography For A Single-Camera Series (Half-Hour) for the episode “Mother of All Matches” of GLOW.