Cinematographer Ross Riege spoke with Solzy at the Movies two weeks ago about working on the new Peacock original series, Rutherford Falls.
The upcoming comedy series about two lifelong best friends, Nathan Rutherford (Ed Helms) and Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding). They find themselves at a crossroads when the series premieres. It’s rather timely and relevant given the ongoing conversation about statues and whether they should be removed.
Helms created the series with Michael Schur and Sierra Teller Ornelas. The trio executive produces the series alongside Mike Falbo, David Miner and Morgan Sackett. Universal Television produces in association with Fremulon, 3 Arts Entertainment and Pacific Electric Picture Company. In addition to Helms and Schmieding, the series stars Michael Greyeyes, Jesse Leigh, and Dustin Milligan.
Riege shot the series with the ARRI Alexa Mini LF, which is very unusual for the comedy format.
Rutherford Falls launches April on Peacock. What attracted you to the project?
Ross Riege: I knew Sierra. She was a writer on a show that I had done a few years back. Just the logline. I think Ed is super talented. I know Mike Schur’s work is extremely funny and I’m a fan of it. From a style standpoint, I want to be doing things that are cinematic and visually calculated. I thought it was an interesting opportunity to say, Well, I know this is a half hour comedy, and I know what your other shows have looked like. If you’re interested in shooting a show that looks like your other shows, that’s fantastic, and kind of what I would expect. But what really makes me interested is if we could shoot large format, and if we could shoot shallow and these are all things that they responded to right away. I was like, Oh, this is great. That was kind of the opening thing was that that they were looking for it to have its own look and to kind of empower me to find that. I was really excited to do that.
You don’t really see that many television comedies shoot in large format.
Ross Riege: My guess is that we’ll start seeing more of that but that was definitely something I was excited to do in general. I thought it would be particularly interesting to give it a treatment that felt different.
What was it like to worth with this particular cast and crew?
Ross Riege: The cast is amazing. The crew was fantastic. We had started prep in February or that’s when I had started. We had gotten things going and then ultimately had to shut down like every show did. We came back in August with all these new protocols, new challenges and changes to the way that we’re used to doing everything. There’s a lot of nerves in how is the show going to work? How are we going to be able to make our days our days? We went down to 10 hour days, instead of 12. Given the massive amount of challenges, changes, and adjustments along the way—in hindsight, I look back and I go, Wow, it really couldn’t have gone smoother. There were a lot of ways it could have really gone worse. I think that’s a big testament, obviously, to the crew and the producers for the way they set up the show and the actors for rolling along with it. Certain things take longer. My process of working is very, very kind of hands on. It was difficult for me to have to step back and take more space. We used headsets a lot more with my operators, my ACs, and my keys. There’s something very handy about that and useful but it was definitely an adjustment for all of us. Ultimately, it worked out great, though.
What would you say was the biggest challenge of working on a comedy series during the pandemic?
Ross Riege: Honestly, the biggest challenge all said and done for me was trying to eat healthy and eat enough because we were doing these 10 hour days with walking lunches. You can rotate crews but for some of us, it was harder to step away from set while we’re continuing to shoot. It was learning to find a way to do that. But second to that, I think it was really just trying to get the same amount of material that we would normally get so we have the options and we have the coverage in such a tight timeframe.
When Larry and I were prepping that that first block, really, we started very ambitious, and we didn’t want to have to shy away from that despite the restrictions. It wasn’t like we took any visual steps back in terms of saying, Okay, well, we can’t shoot our clean singles anymore, we have to do everything two cameras over the shoulder just so we can get through it. That was a constant push for us and that never really changed all the way through. It was always a challenge to make sure that we could get enough stuff, do the scenes justice, and give the actors their time. I think that was the biggest challenge. But generally speaking, I think we did quite well.
Did you feel safe on set?
Ross Riege: Incredibly safe. In fact, the thing that I have always told people is that I felt safer going to work than I did going to the grocery store on the way home. We were testing five days a week. We were wearing masks full time, of course, and temperature checks multiple times a day, a wristband that shows that you don’t have a fever, hand washing stations. People were very conscious of the space. I think just because everybody had just gone off this long period of time without work and were so excited to get back, there was this high level of proactive, safe behavior by everybody, which is the key. I never felt compromised. If anything, it’s just the discomfort of wearing all this stuff on your face and your head all day. I tell you it’s definitely a nice feeling after wearing a mask and a shield for ten and a half hours to get to your car, pull it off, and just feel your face again.
I don’t have a car and with the pandemic, I’m nowhere close to comfortable riding public transit until after I’m fully vaccinated. In walking a half mile to the grocery store, I’m schvitzing up a storm.
Ross Riege: Yeah. It definitely just changes everything we do.
How did you manage to keep yourself busy between February and August?
Ross Riege: I was at home a lot. Fortunately, my kids have no problem keeping me busy while I’m at home. I take a lot of stills as on my own as a hobby. I shot a lot of stills, shot a lot of film and digital stuff as well. We did a lot of that stuff and cooked a lot of new things like everybody did. That was kind of it. There are a few places that were people were shooting these kind of shot-at-home commercials, where you get you get a brief and it would be the DP or the family would be the stars of the commercial. It would be written a certain way. You would have to basically shoot the whole thing without anybody else in your house and you do wireless feeds to the client agency and stuff like that. I did one of those with my wife, which was a fun little experience for the two of us to do and a little bit of a challenge trying to figure out how to how to prep everything. I kind of had to play the role of multiple departments and but it was fun. We did that. That broke up the time a little bit for us. But that was about it. It was hard not to go a little bit crazy. I had plenty of conversations almost every couple of weeks. I would check in with the producers and see what the latest they were hearing was because we’re just all curious if we’re gonna get back to work. How is that gonna work? There are a lot of questions.
Since I know you’ve worked on Kong: Skull Island in the past, I have to ask you if you’ve seen Godzilla vs. Kong yet.
Ross Riege: I have not seen the new film yet although I’m very encouraged that it’s screening in theaters. I haven’t really read to hear how that’s been going but I’m excited to see it. I know Mike Dougherty pretty well as well. I’ve done some short stuff with him and of course, I know Jordan well so I know they all got together. I’m glad to see that I’ve heard that it’s been doing well.
That reminds me, I loved The Kings of Summer.
Ross Riege: Oh, yeah. Thank you. Thank you. That was a kind of step for Jordan and I and then he took a giant step after that to do Kong. That’s just the classic indie experience. It was just a battle from day one to make it happen.