Last year, filmmaker Guillermo del Toro made a sharp left turn into doing Rod Serling-inspired television with his anthology series, Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, for Netflix. Each episode involved a different director tackling a specific story, some of them written by the same director, others coming from del Toro’s story ideas, plus a few inspired by stories from H.P. Lovecraft.
The one cinematographer who received an Emmy nomination for his work on the series was Anastas Michos ASC GSC, who shot David Prior’s episode, “The Autopsy,” starring F. Murray Abraham and Glynn Thurman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom). Michos had previously shot Prior’s Fox horror film, The Empty Man, released in 2020.
In the episode, Thurman plays a town sheriff investigating a dead body found in the woods, forcing him to call on his medical examiner buddy (played by Abraham) to figure out exactly who the body is and how it got there.
Michos’ nomination is one of seven for the series in the “limited series or anthology” category – Netflix has yet to renew Cabinet for a second season – and Below the Line spoke with the cinematographer quite in-depth about his work, not only on “The Autopsy,” but also other aspects of his long career working in camera.
BTL: You’ve done some TV but you’ve mainly been shooting movies, so doing an episode of TV is a little rarer for you. Would you say that’s the case?
Michos: I suppose with the change in the streaming platforms and the distribution platform and everything, the kind of television being made has been different. I was always drawn to a narrative that had a beginning, middle and the end, if you will, that was an encased story, and serialized TV doesn’t necessarily do that. That’s not its purpose. That’s not to say I haven’t done episodic television and enjoyed it as well. You can see it’s an eclectic mix of what I’ve done in terms of the genre, so I like to keep it moving.
BTL: You’ve shot two movies I really loved — Man on the Moon and The Big Kahuna, Danny De Vito’s movie, both of which I saw so long ago, I can’t really talk to you about the cinematography in too much detail, but great movies nonetheless.
Michos: One of them, I had worked with Milos before, so that was my first big Hollywood movie Man on the Moon, and then right after that, oddly enough, I got a call to do this tiny little movie. I think we did that movie in 12 or 15 days, jumped-off of an 86-day schedule to get onto a 12-day schedule. In fact, Danny took over that role from Bob Newhart, who was originally cast. We were already in prep, we were about to shut down because Bob couldn’t do it, and Dan stepped in, and that’s where our relationship became cemented.
BTL: If you don’t mind going back a little bit, but how did you first get started in camera? Did you go to film school, or were you a photographer?
Michos: I did not go to film school. I had left university, because I wasn’t really quite sure about what I’ve been studying. I had gone to school for naval architecture, and that wasn’t really working out. I was kind of bumming around playing in rock and roll bands, doing theater lighting, and doing rock and roll lighting. I had been on tour with various bands doing lighting for them.
Ultimately, I had a next door neighbor who was doing a documentary, and asked me if I would help them out doing it. I got fascinated by that process, because we were doing a series of music films directed by Robert McGee, who is an ethno-musicologist on film. We had done a series of films on everybody from Sun Ra to Gil Scott Heron to Reggae Sunsplash to all sorts of odd, eclectic players and people. From that, I met Garrett Brown, who invented the Steadicam, and I assisted him on a number of commercials and whatnot. We became very friendly because we had the exact same sense of humor. We became friends, I learned to do Steadicam, I was invited to do a thing called a Skycam, which is the flying camera system that’s used on football games. Through those mentors, took off and slid into features,
BTL: Is this all in the ’80s, more or less?
Michos: That would have been in the ‘80s, into the ‘90s. I think my first feature film as an operator was a film that Marc Rocco directed, called Dream a Little Dream, which had Jason Robards, and had two young guys who were really, really hot at the time, Corey Feldman and Corey Haim. That was an indie. My first union Hollywood gig was a film called Lean on Me with Morgan Freeman, which John Avildsen directed, and you keep plugging at it. I think that tenacity is as much a value as talent.
BTL: I understand that personality is also something very important in making any kind of art. You have to work with people you like, and get along with, so having a good personality always helps.
Michos: Like in anything that’s long and tenuous hours, and really difficult, and you’re cold, and you’re wet, and you’re hungry, and you want to go home, and all of the above, and you got to keep on doing it day-after-day-after-day, which I think is the ultimate difference between doing amazing commercial work and amazing feature work is that on a feature or on a series, for example, it literally is a schedule-driven marathon. Having a sense of humor about life in general, and being able to laugh at your own foibles, and mistakes and everything, that certainly goes far. I used to say when I have had to replace myself on a job because I had another gig or something, whatever it was, I always used to say, “Okay, I gotta get somebody who is as good as me, but not as funny as me,” and that way I’d keep the client.
BTL: Let’s get into “The Autopsy.” Congratulations on the Emmy nomination. An amazing episode, which as you say, has a beginning, middle, and end.
Michos: Thank you.
BTL: You had worked with David Prior before on a feature, so did the two of you come onto “The Autopsy” as a package?
Michos: I never come on to anything as a package. I’m always waiting to be invited to something by a director. It would be nice to be one of those must-hires, but I don’t know if anybody has one of those in their contract that includes my name. David and I met on a feature called The Empty Man in South Africa, which was a difficult show that got caught up in the Fox-Disney buyout, in terms of release and whatnot. David is a really good director. He has a very clear vision about camera movement – not so much lighting, but absolutely camera movement.
When I came on to do “The Autopsy,” he invited me up to Canada on the Guillermo thing, and that was an interesting thing, because it was six separate episodes that were totally dissimilar from each other. Miles Dale, our producer, and Tamara Deverell, our production designer, she’s incredibly adroit, incredibly talented, because she had [eight] separate shows in terms of look and time period that she was designing. Of course, it’s such a collaborative art form that designer, director and DP are the triumvirate of the day on set. That one just worked out, because Tamara got exactly what we were talking about, and not only supported the vision, but elevated it many times by her sets. David and I actually had several conversations, but not that many, because I’d already worked with him. We had a couple of key movies that we watched in terms of tone, in terms of camera movement, and whatnot, but I kind of glommed onto the same page pretty darn quick.
BTL: From the episode title, I just assumed the whole episode was going to take place in the autopsy room with F. Murray Abraham cutting open bodies, which we do get, but that’s after a half hour with all these other locations, exterior night, exterior day, forests, mines. How was it shooting in all those different setups in the time that was needed? was
Michos: That’s always interesting on a television schedule. One of the things that actually drew me to the script, besides collaborating with David again, it’s an existential story. This particular script, it’s about a man who’s dying, recognizes his own mortality and will not be around for a long time, they won’t be there, which is the whole beginning setup, which was an interesting to figure out how to do that photographically. [He] meets an alien figure, which of course then becomes this clash between immortality and mortality and the consequences thereof. Within those deep themes, we had to make it dark and scary, something that people would want to tune in and watch and would work in 55 minutes. That led to the opening half, or the beginning structure of it – probably the first two acts are on location.
As always in that scenario, it’s all about crew. If you have the great crew supporting you, and I had an amazing key grip, Robert Johnson, and Mike Hall, my gaffer, and Dino [Laurenzo], my camera operator. As soon as you can get people on board and you allow them to expand on an idea, then you are far more successful, no matter what the schedule is, in order to complete whatever vision, if you will, the director has. Part of the deal is having a great crew.
BTL: Besides getting the right crew, are there any go-to cameras or lenses you have that you bring onto any project you’re shooting?
Michos: I believe that the technology of photography is pretty far down my list in terms of the way I operate. I’m somewhat camera-agnostic, if you will. There are particular ones that I know better than others. I certainly have a belief system in lenses, because that’s the organic piece that actually changes the quality of an image and the light, because it literally is organic. Ever since we’ve moved to digital, that’s the one physical thing… without getting too deep into it, light actually has physical properties, so when it passes through something that also has a physical property like glass, it changes its texture. It changes this texture in a somewhat random and chaotic way. Digital, by its very nature, is not chaotic – it’s like ones and zeros.
Even in a philosophical, exoteric kind of version of it, the idea that I control the image that’s hitting the chip is far more important than what the chip is. It’s likened to if you were playing music, if you’re playing a digital instrument, versus an actual, organic handcrafted instrument, there are tonalities in there that the digital world will only emulate. But every guitar, every piano, every violin, and every cello, trombone, you name, it has its own tonalities that you use. That’s why I’m far more into choosing the glass, then choosing the camera.
On this one here, because it was a series and it was already in place, David and I liked certain lenses, and [we] were particularly enamored with Panavision C-Series anamorphics, which is kind of a 1970s lens, which are very finicky to work with. They’re very idiosyncratic in terms of how they capture the world, so you have to be prepared for that. At the same time, they lend a quality that is difficult to reproduce.
Unfortunately, we were in the middle of a pandemic and our producers had already struck a deal. Through a literary weird serendipitous camera test the day before shooting, the other set of lenses that we were going with crapped out on us, and our choice of what we liked best out of what was left was a set of Zeiss Supremes.
Sometimes, what’s interesting about making film, making anything, no matter if it’s film or whatever it is that you do — music or architecture — it is your constraints that actually feel your creativity. Because of that, David and I specifically started lighting things a little bit differently than I might have, possibly for the one set of lenses compared to the other set of lenses, but you have to think on your feet in this business. Anything creatively, you think on your feet, you go with an impulse.
BTL: It is very different lighting for a mine versus exterior daylight, and I wondered about shifting to set up the lighting in each particular place. Obviously, the autopsy room in last half hour, you have one room, one actor and a bunch of bodies. But in the first half, the locations are so different from one scene to the next, so how do you have time to set up the lighting as great as it looks.
Michos: Like I said before, you’re only as good as your crew. I was incredibly fortunate with my electrical department, and in particular, my gaffer Mike Hall. What I don’t do is, I don’t ask for anything that can’t be done. So when you have a vision about how you want to do something, and you realize you have time constraints, because films are really being made with the cameras rolling. There’s an axiom, particularly back in the film days when “Roll camera, action, cut” meant something, and everybody on set acted a certain way during that moment, there was a commonality of focus. Today, with digital, it gets to be a little bit more ethereal in terms of how many people are focusing on the shot.
Having said all that, the lighting of it is you change or I change my capabilities. For example, there’s a big night exterior scene where I had asked for an 180-foot crane, and of course, we get the 180-foot crane and you need to light a certain area because we drove deep into a forest. And then, of course, when we arrived – through nobody’s fault, production or otherwise – somehow, the 1 in front of the 80 got dropped, and I had an 80-foot crane. The only thing to do at that point is not to stomp your feet. The only thing to do is literally pivot, you get with the director and go, “Okay, we were thinking this and I was pitching this, and you were expecting this. Well, this is what we got. So what do we do?”
That’s where the true collaboration comes from is that the trust between a DP and a director is paramount, where even now in the digital world, you look at somebody and you say, “This is what you’re thinking. It might have this other tonality to it.” A lot of that has to do with lighting, location work and whatnot. The mine stuck in that particular thing, that was all set, and it was a styrofoam set that was only maybe seven meters long. Because it’s time and money. How much set can you build? “We want a gun to run 30 seconds into a mine. Well, how fast can you run in 21 feet? Four steps.” Part of that then becomes the creative process between the director and yourself. “How do we use camera? How do we use cuts? How do we do it editorially?” It’s all that where you go, “Okay, will this work for what you’re thinking?” And it did, it worked great. It’s hard to believe that that was a styrofoam set.
BTL: But you’re coming in and using the crew in Toronto that was already in place from previous episodes?
Michos: That’s how it works. That kind of thing tends to get hired by the producer, becuase in this thing, we knew there were six or seven episodes with six different DPs, although one DP did two things, and then, six different directors. Unlike a series where a pilot is made by a director and DP collaboration, and the tone is set, and then others just follow, this particular one, everything was very different. It really speaks to the capabilities of those that support us that allowed the series to pivot from I was in the middle of 1970s in Appalachia, and the next series right after me was a 19th century Gothic story, and then Guillermo Navarro‘s was set in modern day L.A. It’s not quite the same as a series.
BTL: It’s nice to know that all the episodes had Tamara Deverell as production designer, to maintain some consistency despite there being so many different locations and time periods.
Michos: Part of it is like when you walk into a production office, and you see Tamara’s drawings on the wall. That’s why the whole virtual production, scenario of Zooms and conference calls and things like that doesn’t work for me, because creativity is serendipitously bumping into somebody’s idea, however you get there, but it’s a serendipitous thing. You’re walking by an office, you peek inside, all of a sudden, they got something different on the wall, and that allows you to spark something in yourself that continues. Walking into the production offices and seeing her designs allows you to get into her mind a little bit and then allows you to transfer that into, “Hmm, what was David thinking about photography-wise?”
BTL: That’s a good segue into my question about whether you and David story board a lot, especially the autopsy section, since it’s F. Murray Abraham in this single room with bodies that you need to keep interesting from shot to shot.
Michos: David is quite facile in previs. It was the pandemic, so we were both locked in apartments and condos for two weeks with a little four by six balcony that I pulled a yoga mat out and tried to breathe some outside air. I think David, for his prep, likes to plan things out meticulously, and previs everything. Interesting enough, he doesn’t share much of that with me. Every once in a while I ask, “What were you thinking?” Partly, it’s because he is visualizing and doing things in his own mind. He wants from me the freshness of, “Oh, that’s pretty cool. How about we do it this way?” Even though we have [stuff] going in prep, we never pulled anything out on previs on set at all or a storyboard.
We didn’t have too much stunty stuff, so even the complicated stunty things we did do, like the elevator shaft, then we added some stuff, because it was a fair amount of green screen involved and trying to get visual effects and “How do you make an elevator move that’s not moving with people on them?” That kind of stuff, and flashing lights and fans and trying to get everybody on the same page including Tamara with the design, so that we had storyboards for. But they didn’t get pulled out on set. There were no X’s going through anything by our first AD Sarah [Buell] — she didn’t X off shots. Maybe in a visual effect thing, we had a couple, like three we had to get to make the storytelling. That’s how that worked. Normally on set, we’re pretty much on the same page. We’ve already discussed it and whatnot, and we’re pretty much there.
BTL: I want to put this delicately, but actors generally want to look their best when they’re being shot, so they can watch the dailies and they look good. How do you balance lighting your actors so they look great, while also making sure you have the lighting you want for the environments?
Michos: Gosh, I think lighting actors, one has to know the actor and what they want. The most important thing to do is to make the actor comfortable on set for them, to be able to let deliver the character they’re looking for. Because ultimately, that’s what the audience is watching. They’re watching a character. Some actors tie the character very much to their own selves, and to who they are, which requires… you said it was a delicate question, but it’s not really. It requires an understanding of that. In terms of my lighting, and how to best serve the actor’s needs in terms of making them feel grounded, and also serve the story and the director about what they’re looking for, it has not been often when those two have been diametrically opposed.
The director and I, several times we’ve chatted about, “This should look like this, but because so and so likes that…” I mean, I did a whole film with one actor always looking left to right — a very well-known actor and now director – that he didn’t like the right side of his face photographed. The director, and I made it a challenge that every time he entered the frame, he’ll be entering the frame from left to right on every scene.
You grab those challenges, and you make it part of what you do. It’s part of the work, it’s part of the list of things under DP responsibilities. The opposite of that is sometimes making people look as brutal as you can and having a tacit permission to do so. And then, the permission can be literally explicit, or it can be just an understanding. “This is the character and this is not me, and this is the way this character should look.” It depends on who you’re working with, and if you’re talking about Murray. He’s been doing it a long time. If you say to Murray, “We’re going to make you look like this.” He goes, “Cool,” and then we’re off and running.
BTL: Before I let you go, I know you shot all three Kissing Booth movies for Netflix, which seems about as different from this as can be. They’re very different.
Michos: Like I said, I do different genre, because it speaks to you at a different times. Those of us who work in storytelling, I’m really involved in the emotions of the day and the emotions of the moment. I have a story that I tell which is, I’m one of the only people I know that literally turned down David Fincher and Darius Khonji on Seven. I was an operator then, and the script was a brilliant script, and of course, brilliant director and a brilliant DP. I was an operator, and I just came off of doing Interview with a Vampire and Mary Riley back to back, which is a year’s worth of the depravity of the human nature, the darker side of what it means to be human. That’s what Vampire is about, and that’s certainly what Jekyll and Hyde is about.
All of a sudden, there was this amazing opportunity to do something, and emotionally, you can’t do it. When you bring up the Kissing Booth series, I had just come off The Empty Man, and I was literally in South Africa shooting when Michele Weisler, the producer, who I’ve known from other projects, happened to be in town. We had lunch in Capetown. I said, “What are working on, when do you start?” and she said, “A sweet little coming of age story. Sweet, sweet.” The word “sweet” kept on coming up a lot. I was like, “Hey, tell your director, I want to shoot it. You have a DP yet?” Because I just needed this breath of life from this very, very dark thing that I was doing. That’s who I am. Other people are different; they do it different.
“The Autopsy” and all episodes of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities can be viewed on Netflix (as can all three Kissing Booth movies). Look for our upcoming interview with Emmy-nominated Production Designer Tamara Deverell and a few of the prosthetic make-up artists very soon.