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Mrs. Davis DP Xavier Dolléans on Bad Weather and Shooting the Pope in Prison


Mrs. Davis dp
Betty Giplin and Jake McDorman in Mrs. Davis (Peacock)

A nun and her ex-boyfriend can defeat AI algorithms threatening society only by finding and destroying the Holy Grail? That’s just part of the plot of Mrs. Davis, an eight-part series streaming on Peacock. As played by Betty Gilpin and Jake McDorman, the duo encounter death cults, Nazi assassins, medieval festivals, and a Taco Tuesday meal prepared by Jesus. Not to mention Schrodinger (Ben Chaplin), a scientist and his cat exiled on a desert island.

Executive producers Tara Hernandez (The Big Bang Theory) and Damon Lindelof (Lost) collaborated on shaping the series, which circles around how artificial intelligence affects our lives. Their Mrs. Davis is the equivalent of Siri or Alexa, only with vastly more power.

Shooting took place in California and Spain, with cinematographer Xavier Dolléans, AFC, taking on the Spanish sections. Based in France, he’s worked on features, music videos, and commercials as well as TV series like the award-winning Germinal.

He spoke with Below the Line via Zoom.

[Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.]

Mrs. Davis
Xavier Dolleans on the set of Mrs. Davis (Peacock)

Below the Line: How did you collaborate with Joe Anderson, who shot the opening episodes, to keep a consistent tone?

Xavier Dolléans: Joe was the DP for the pilot and episodes 2, 5, and 8. He set the tone. So we talked a lot about movie references and visual references. We also discussed the meaning of the sequences, which are sometimes very complex and profound. Then we talked about the final look of the project, framing, and colors of what had been previously shot, and finally, our discussion went about equipment. He chose the Arri LF, Mini LF, and Caldwell Chameleon lenses. All those exchanges were fundamental to continuing the road he took.

During the pre-production phase, I had the opportunity to meet Alethea Jones, the director of episodes 3 and 4. I quickly realized she possessed a remarkable combination of precision and intuition. Alethea had a keen eye for discovering compelling camera angles and movements that harmonized with the emotional nuances of the script. We were looking together for specific shot concepts, particularly for key dialogue moments, employing multiple cameras simultaneously to capture these scenes effectively.

Working in TV in France, most of the time, I’m using two cameras. Here, we sometimes used three or more for some specific sequences. That’s funny because, during my interview for this job, one question I was not waiting for was, “What’s your ability to shoot multi-camera, and what rhythm of work you are used to in France?”

BTL: How would you describe the rhythm? 

The rhythm of the production could be described as both similar and occasionally heightened, primarily due to the constraints of our legally mandated eight hours of shooting in France. Interestingly, on this particular project, having more time available daily allowed us to explore a greater range of shot options and foster a more diverse visual composition.

BTL: How else did you stay consistent with the episodes Joe shot but also deviate from them?  

Regarding lenses and camera LUT (pre-grade), I worked from the same starting point as the previous crew. The costume and production design staff remained the same. This helped a lot to keep the look consistent from one episode to the next, and Joe was also pushing me to bring my style to it. As the story travels in different countries in Episodes 3 & 4, I wanted to feel the travel and distance while still taking care of the lighting continuity.

Mrs. Davis
Behind the scenes of Mrs. Davis (Peacock)

BTL: You shot all the scenes representing Europe in Spain?

Dolléans: We shot in Barcelona for Italy and Figueras in the north for Scotland. I had around 20 days to prep my episodes.

BTL: At one point, Wiley is in an underground dungeon with the Pope in a cell across from him. How’d you light that sequence? 

Dolléans: That was an interior set in the castle where we shot the outdoor “Excalibattle” scenes. Nothing about the lighting was real; we worked like we were on stage because I had to keep continuity for two days. I did some top lighting to give the idea that they were underground and added some gobo to the source lighting to suggest a grid pattern. We then erased it in the post.

BTL: You had these precise reverse shots as Wiley talks to the Pope, as well, and then you start a slow push-in on the Pope’s face. What inspired that choice? 

Dolléans: We had a precise shot list with a floor plan. There were many setups because it was a scene with a lot of pages. Through subtle and progressive shot composition, Alethea and I wanted to bring the viewer closer and closer to the actors as the intensity of the dialogue increased. A feeling perfectly conveyed by the final editing.

Mrs. Davis
A lighting plan for Mrs. Davis (Peacock)

BTL: It was intimate and emotional. Now, contrast that with “Excalibattle,” a contest involving a giant sword standing in a castle courtyard. It’s a scene with hundreds of extras that took days to shoot, right? 

Dolléans: That was nuts. First, we wanted to do everything for real with the set, the stunts, the crowd, everything. We built an actual 12 meters sword that the actors perform around. Alethea and I spent many weekends shot listing everything, with a flow plan to maximize our time with the extras.

We had to organize around the sun, so I asked the production team to build the Sword on an east–west axis to keep the sun on one side. We shot all of the principal photography on the shadow side, which was helpful because the clouds were crazy.

When you shoot so much, with up to three cameras all the time, you have to synchronize your lighting differently. I used negative fill, placing the cameras in that negative space at different angles and, on the opposite side, some 18K’s to mimic the sun during those cloudy days.

Mrs. Davis
A lighting plan for Mrs. Davis (Peacock)

BTL: The event starts with hundreds of participants racing across the courtyard, plus you’re following Betty and Jake in conversation. How many cameras did you use? 

Dolléans: We called that “the running of the bulls.” We covered this action with the drone, a ronin on a Segway, and in total six turn-around cameras in many different setups were used for that part. Every day, we started very early in the morning until very close to night to maximize our daytime. Because our days were so short, I pushed the camera ISO up to 1600 for some sequences.

The focus for that sequence was on management and logistics. We had an excellent team for crowd management, as well as a skilled camera and lighting crew. Betty Gilpin and Jake McDormand, both talented and compelling actors, delivered exceptional performances.

During the shoot, we would sometimes do one or two takes using the crane, followed by smooth movements using a Steadicam. Time was of the essence, and we had to swiftly transition from one setup to another. I feel incredibly fortunate to collaborate with such highly skilled professionals.

BTL: How did you choreograph those very intricate shots?

Dolléans: We tried to be pretty as quick as possible to set up. Alethea has a lot of experience with choreography; she recently did the show Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies, and you can feel that she likes to have a good rhythm on set. Sometimes, after a few takes, she told me, “Just do the last part of the shot; I have everything else I need.”

Mrs. Davis
Behind the scenes of Mrs. Davis (Peacock)

BTL: Did you always plan to have rain for the Excalibattle night sequence?

Dolléans: Yes, that scene was planned accordingly. We had functional rain machines mounted on cherry pickers, and coincidentally, we also experienced some natural rainfall that night due to an unexpected storm.

Initially, for the lighting setup, I planned to utilize a 70-meter construction crane with a large “Moonbox” holding 12 Skypanel 360 units positioned in various directions. These lights would have been diffused through a 20 x 20 x 20 full-grid cloth box diffusion. Additionally, we had two more cherry pickers equipped with lightning strike machines, providing power outputs of 250 KW and 70 KW, along with an Airstar LED 3.6 kW lighting balloon for fill light.

BTL: Why did that plan change?

Dolléans: The production team contacted me on the morning of the shooting and informed me about an approaching storm and the inability to fly any machinery due to strong winds. I had to abandon the use of cranes and balloons. I opted for a scaled-down approach, keeping everything at a lower level on the stand. The winds were too intense to use any diffusion frame as well.

So, that was basically very hard Fresnel lighting from far away and some S360 very close to the actor’s face to mimic the fire produced by the SFX in the giant fireballs around the Sword. Fortunately, I had abundant equipment to change my plans, including 18Ks and 9Ks HMI, and an exceptional electrical crew who adapted our plans at tremendous speed.

Mrs. Davis is now streaming on Peacock.

Daniel Eagan
Daniel Eagan
Daniel Eagan is a producer and writer living in New York City.
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