Season 2 of HBO’s The White Lotus turned out to be just as popular as Season 1, picking up numerous awards and earning a quick, unsurprising renewal for a third installment. With the exception of Jennifer Coolidge and Jon Gries, Season 2 featured an all-new cast including Michael Imperioli, Aubrey Plaza, Theo James, and F. Murray Abraham, and it also introduced a new Director of Photography in Xavier Grobet.
The Mexican cinematographer had previously worked with White Lotus Creator Mike White on his previous HBO series, Enlightened, as well as the 2017 film Brad’s Status, though he had to turn down Season 1 due to a scheduling conflict.
Below the Line recently spoke to Grobet about his approach to Season 2, which was shot under less restrictive COVID-19 protocols, and how he jumped at the opportunity to pay homage to one of the great Italian filmmakers when he discovered that they were filming in the exact same location as one his favorite classic movie scenes.
Having worked on a number of projects for HBO, including Watchmen, Grobet praised the network for not requiring him to shoot in 4K, which allowed him to use a piece of equipment that he believed would work best in capturing Italy in the moonlight as a volcano erupted nearby.
Below the Line: Had you watched Season 1 prior to being approached for Season 2?
Xavier Grobet: Well, I have some history with Mike White. He actually called me to do Season 1, and I had already committed to another job right after the lockdown, so I didn’t do it. And of course, it was a big disappointment, because it was such an amazing success. So when he invited me to do Season 2, I was very excited about it. Having seen Season 1 and knowing what they had established for the show back in Hawaii gave me a starting point on how to proceed with this show.
BTL: I’m a big fan of Enlightened, and I wish that everybody who watched The White Lotus would go back and watch that. But they’re such different shows, especially with regard to the cinematography. That show takes a different approach, maybe closer to Season 1 of The White Lotus than anything in Season 2.
Grobet: They are two different things. By the way, I say the same thing that you’re saying to people — if you love The White Lotus, go back and watch Enlightened because it’s such a good show. That’s one of my highlights. On that show, Mike was the writer and director of a few episodes, but he had a line of incredible directors, so the approach of each episode [was] pretty different from one another. If you look at the show, every director brought in their own language, which made it so much [richer] in that regard.
The approach [for] The White Lotus has these elements of suspense and uses nature as a metaphor for the human psyche. I think Mike said in an interview, ‘if I had known that putting a dead body in the front of the show would be so effective, I would have put a dead body on Enlightened as well.’ That’s the language of this show, no? The approach has a much more psychological effect, with all these different scenes and takes that enhance the whole world that we’re talking about, with nature and those drone shots and all these POVs of places and objects. Everything addresses the psyche of what the show is about.
BTL: While a lot of Season 2 does take place at the Italian resort, there are some pretty amazing outside locations, so were you involved at all with the scouting process, or were those already chosen by the time you came aboard?
Grobet: The genesis of this show is, of course, the pandemic, and the idea of doing the first season in a hotel in Hawaii was literally being in a bubble, [with] the whole crew staying in one hotel and being able to do the show without the risk of COVID. That was the genesis. But now, with Sicily, it’s not about being just in one place. Now, you have this incredible world to photograph and explore. That’s what makes the scope of it a lot bigger this time, [if] only because of that fact.
The layout was pretty much set, but when we got to Sicily for scouting, Mike was still finishing the scripts [and] still doing the final touches. He had already seen most of the locations, like the palazzos and all that. He had already done a pre-scout, but then we started going over the scripts and fine-tuning [which] location was better for what scene, trying to put it all together. We had those two palazzos, the one where the girls stay and the one with the evil gays. We actually swapped them, since one was better for the girls and the other was better for the boys. All those things started to happen as we were working.
BTL: There’s also one very memorable scene with the girls that you just referenced that pays homage to Antonioni. How did that come about and what it was like to recreate it?
Grobet: What happened was that, when I got to Sicily and I learned that we were going to be shooting in Noto, I said, ‘I’m going to revisit L’Avventura,’ because I hadn’t seen it in so many years, knowing that it had been shot there. I started watching the movie, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is Noto, and this scene is amazing.’ And so I showed it to Mike and said, ‘we need to put this in the project.’ He literally responded and said, ‘Okay, I know exactly where that moment will go.’ So it just landed and fell right into the spot. To me, that was like gold.
I was so looking forward to shooting that scene at the right time of day [with] the right lighting. I measured, standing outside on the piazza, trying to figure out what lens he had used and whether it was a slight dolly move. I tried to recreate everything just by standing there and following it all with my phone. I just wanted it to be identical. I thought it was such a great moment because it really fits well in the show and in the psyche of Harper, the character, and it’s just so much fun to see it.
In the beginning, I was like, I wonder if anyone is going to notice this? And of course, it went viral. As I continued watching the movie, they get to Taormina at the end of L’Avventura, and I see her coming down the stairs, and I say, ‘wait a minute, this is our hotel!’ The San Domenico Hotel Four Seasons where we shot is also the hotel where they shot L’Avventura. The same halls, the same stairs, the same dining room area, everything was the same. There were some little angles that I couldn’t figure out where exactly they captured them, but it was a fun find.
BTL: Some people probably didn’t get it, but it does feel like something sort of strange that would happen, as you say, with the psyche. Even if people don’t know what the reference is, there’s still a weird, eerie power to it.
Grobet: They also put a little bit of an Italian movie soundtrack in the background of that scene. It adds a little more of an Italian feel to it.
BTL: Were there any other scenes where you wanted to do an homage or that you tried to do one and maybe it didn’t work?
Grobet: The other reference to movies is The Godfather, because we shot in that same location. When we went to scout the location, I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is amazing.’ The place where Apollonia gets killed and the explosion of the car and Michael Corleone dies there at the end, on the chair. We also had that scene shot where F. Murray Abraham sits on the chair and is like, ‘this is where the Godfather sits.’ We shot it the same way, but that didn’t make it into the cut. We staged and tried to get some angles that were similar to the ones in The Godfather. There was one that we wanted to do over the wall, but the trees have grown so big [that] it was impossible to get that exact shot. So we tried to get something similar.
BTL: Were there any specific cameras or other technology that you needed to use that you hadn’t before or that were specific for some of these shots?
Grobet: The good thing about HBO is that you’re not forced to use 4K, so I just went with a regular ALEXA Mini, and I used a 35mm lens. I was so happy that I had that 35. I didn’t have to go into large format. It’s what they did [in] Season 1 as well, so I wanted to keep that. I was doing tests with lenses, and I ended up choosing the Panavision Primos, which are beautiful lenses. The mix between the Primos and the Alexa Minis was just fantastic. That’s what I wanted to use. As we moved along on the prep, I asked for a Sony A7S III, because I wanted to do some shots with real moonlight. I’ve done this before when I did Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and so I wanted to capture that here, too.
There are a few scenes that I did at night [on] the bay with the moon reflected on the water. Actually, the volcano, Etna, was erupting one day during prep, and I just ran out to the terrace at the hotel and just shot that. It’s a real volcano erupting. For all the underwater stuff, I ended up going with a Blackmagic 4K, just because it was easier to handle. I did comparisons and tests, and it matches really well with the Alexa for shots like that. The quality is great and the dynamic range is enormous as well, to be able to work it. So all the shots that we did in the swimming pools and in the water, they’re all done with that camera. And we also had the drone unit.
BTL: There’s one very memorable scene in the finale where Daphne and Ethan are talking right by the water, an intense close-up. Do you prefer these large-scale scenes and getting to be very close to the characters like that?
Grobet: That’s part of the language of film. You go into a face when you need to be there, and you go out to the world when you need to see where you are, depending on what the scene is about. For example, when the girls arrive [at] the palazzo and you see these shots of them walking into the room, you see the grandiose room with all the paintings and everything. There was no need to go in on a close-up there, so the coverage is just on two wide shots of the girls. What you want to see is where they are and what they’re doing. It’s not about something intimate, like the scene you mentioned.
BTL: Tell me about another HBO series you worked on, Watchmen, which earned you an Emmy nomination.
Grobet: Watchmen was a dream job where it was just so visual. Using the language of a comic book and having those restrictions or rules always makes you go in a certain direction. It [was] a completely different approach from The White Lotus. With Watchmen, it was about creating compositions and interesting angles, and always having something to shoot through. It was creating that kind of language. And every episode was pretty much its own little thing, so every episode that we were doing was like its own independent film. Every episode was completely different from every other. That was very exciting. Just to plan that [for] every episode has its own difficulties, so they all have to be addressed. [But] this is our job. Solving problems, that’s all you do all day long.
BTL: Will you be back for Season 3 of The White Lotus?
Grobet: I don’t know yet. Probably not, but who knows? I know they’re starting to prep and gear up for the new season.
BTL: Do you have other projects on the horizon?
Grobet: I do. I’ve been getting a lot of attention, of course, and offers, and scripts. I’m in the middle of trying to figure out what comes next. My mother passed away last summer right after the show, so it’s been a moment of readjusting my life. But we’ll see. Something will come up.
Season 2 of The White Lotus is now streaming on HBO Max. The series has officially been renewed for Season 3.