Special Ops: Lioness hasn’t yet been renewed for a second season, but a sophomore year is likely a sure bet, given the latest Taylor Sheridan show started strong in the ratings and continued to perform well for Paramount+ over the course of its eight episodes. Much of the credit for the show’s success goes to Sheridan, of course, and to the military drama’s stellar cast, which includes Laysla de Oliveira, Zoe Saldana, Morgan Freeman, and Nicole Kidman, but Paul Cameron deserves major props as well.
The acclaimed cinematographer is behind such films as Gone in 60 Seconds and Collateral, plus he worked on HBO’s Westworld. He’s no stranger to realizing ambitious visions. For Special Ops: Lioness, he came on board during the show’s formative stages, shot the first two episodes, and directed episodes five and six as well. Recently, Cameron took the time to speak with Below the Line about his extensive, hard-hitting work on the hit series.
Below the Line: Go back in time. When did you start to pay real attention to the images that you saw in movies and on your television?
Paul Cameron: I was living with my brother in New York City in the late 60s, early 70s. He was an actor doing off-Broadway. He introduced me to a lot of movies like Clockwork Orange, The Conversation, Godfather, all the way through that era. I got exposed to a lot of movies, and a lot of theater when I lived in New York City. That’s pretty much the gist.
BTL: As you started to actually study the craft of filmmaking – and cinematography, specifically – what was the steepest learning curve?
Cameron: When you start as a cinematographer, there’s a lot of formal instruction on a lot of levels. I went to a school called SUNY Purchase outside of New York City. It’s a state school. My first year, we went down to the New York Film Festival; we had just started classes. I saw The American Friend, which cinematographer Robby Muller had shot. It was incredible. It had a lot of mixed light, and it was very daring. That pushed me to realize that it was about making some pretty serious decisions about location, style, and approach of lensing right off the bat. That was a wakeup call for me.
BTL: Your credits date back to the early 80s, when you were an Assistant Cameraman. Loaded question, but how would you say cameras and lenses have evolved over that 40-plus year span?
Cameron: It took film the better part of 100 years to get into an elegant state. I was very fortunate to go through school, shoot some films, and take them to the laboratory, to really appreciate it. Certainly, the transition on Collateral was fortuitous in a way because it wasn’t like looking for how to film things digitally. It was the opportunity to shoot something with a certain camera system that would record light at night that film couldn’t see.
No matter how much you push film, no matter how fast you use the lenses, you couldn’t see into the night. That was the decision for filming Collateral; we were trying to utilize that. Whether or not it’s filming in digital, they’re all stocks to me. They’re all opportunities, part of the medium that gives you the ability to pick and choose how you want to photograph that. We’ve gone to this massive development of modern lenses, and lenses for the full-frame format. Now everybody’s leaning on the lenses that are 30, 40, or 50 years old. That’s the irony of it all.
BTL: Not every DP can or should be a director. What gave you the confidence that you could not only craft the images that we see on the screen, but help shape actor performances as well?
Cameron: It came from an extensive career as a cinematographer, being able to work on a lot of very interesting songs, and work with A-level talent. The transition was very smooth working on Westworld, for sure, working with Evan Rachel Wood, Aaron Paul, Jeffrey Wright, and Ed Harris. Being so involved with stories throughout my career, having the ability to actually talk about the story and shape a performance with an actor just came naturally. It’s the things you don’t really say as a Cinematographer, but maybe want to say at times. It was a good opportunity, certainly.
BTL: What did you learn from your experience on Westworld?
Cameron: I shot the pilot and a bunch of the material. I shot another episode for Jonathan Nolan, but then I shot a lot of the Western Utah material and then all the overseas Singapore stuff. The opportunity working with Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy was coming in on a conceptual level. Being able to work with Jonathan and Nathan Crowley, the Production Designer… (involved) talking about how we were going to build this world and how we’re going to practically shoot it when we didn’t use a lot of green screen. “Let’s bring some parts of sets to Utah or around the world. Let’s use video walls.”
Before there was any Volume whatsoever, we put our own mini-Volume in, shot the thing, and photographed. It’s being part of a whole story, with the storyline coming together and them crafting a season, then coming in and out and finally coming back. They asked me to direct early on, but I was busy on a film, so I came back for Season 3, did an episode, then another for Season 4. It was a natural transition with the actors, the creators, and everybody on the crew.
BTL: How did you connect with Lioness?
Cameron: It was a phone call that came from John Hillcoat. I met John on a couple of films that he was directing. I wanted to shoot a film for him desperately. I love his work. He’s a consummate professional and a great director. He called and said, “Hey, I’ve got this show we’re going to do.” He explained what he knew of it, because there were only two scripts at the time that Taylor had done, plus there was a bit of a transition with the previous showrunner and director.
I found out John was leaving in a couple of days, and he needed me to get there in a week. I got the landscape of the show and realized they didn’t have other directors, so I got in touch with Tom Prince at 101 Studios and he put me in touch with Taylor. Taylor was very familiar with my work as well as me being very familiar with his work. We jumped on the phone, and I said I was very interested. He said, “Okay, that’s fine. Why don’t you do episodes 5 and 6? Let’s go,” very quickly. There were no scripts. It was just trusting in the writing and the nature of the show. It all worked out.
BTL: How vital is it to you now to be in on shows from the get-go?
Cameron: For me, I love getting in on the ground floor of a show, because it’s world building. That’s where a lot of the most interesting work gets done, whether you’re shooting, directing, or both in this case. It’s a great opportunity to be in the room with the creators, writers, and producers early on, and making all the decisions. “How do we want to handle the show? What do we want this show to look and feel like?” There’s a lot more creative conversations than jumping in as an episodic director or alternating DP. Again, the world building aspect of it is the most interesting thing to me and I’d love to do more on that level.
BTL: What were some of your contributions to Lioness?
Cameron: I’d say developing a photographic style with John Hillcoat was probably one of the top things. As the show came together, some of the actors came on a bit later — like Nicole Kidman and Morgan Freeman — so they juggled the schedule around. That was integral to helping figure out, “Hey, how can we block shoot this stuff? How can we utilize this location more? This is a powerful location. Let’s make sure we don’t lose it for another episode.” It’s that experience of knowing the longevity of a season and knowing how to trade the cards; “Let’s put our energy or money here, as opposed to somewhere here. This way we can take advantage of things we find more powerful or stylistically better for this season.”
BTL: You shot the first two episodes and then returned to direct 5 and 6. How beholden were the other DPs and directors to use the same cameras and lenses?
Cameron: Part of the world building with John was we put together a look book of 50 pages of images, with writing about things we wanted to do, to explore photographically, visually, and stylistically in the show. The expectation is when new directors and DPs come in – in this case, Anthony Byrne and Eric Koretz on episodes 3 and 4 – we showed them the material and off they went.
Hopefully, it utilized what they saw and were inspired by what John and I put together. I did 5 and 6. When John came back and shot episodes 7 and 8, he used another DP – Nicolas Karakatsanis – whom he’s worked with before on Triple 9. Nicolas worked with us while we presented it to him, but by then we were all block shooting and watching everything together.
BTL: Are you looking at this as a one season show, or is the concept for this to continue? You can’t really tell early on if it’s a limited series or Season 1.
Cameron: Quite honestly, there’s a hope for more seasons of the show. In terms of structurally, I don’t know what characters Taylor intends to keep. I would certainly think he’d want to keep his leads; I don’t know what characters would come and go.
BTL: Let’s discuss the series’ violence. Your camera does not shy away from depicting it…
Cameron: For Taylor, John, and myself, it comes down to the script and the writing. Taylor was very specific about how we filmed things. We filmed the script, and that’s the bible. If there’s anything in addition – if time permits – we do it. When it comes to the violence, it’s written very specifically. There’s no real room for interpretation of, “Well, maybe there’s a way not to show it or have it be less visceral.” It’s written that way, so we film it that way.
It’s not a pretty world, the whole world of terrorism, ISIS, and what these characters go through in these special operations. It’s amazing when you sit down and talk to the Special Ops advisors on it, and you realize the level of violence they incur on a daily basis. It’s important in a show like this to show some of that reality. In the very beginning, they murder the hostage and Zoe Saldana makes the decision to blow up the ISIS facility with everybody in it. That’s a hell of a way to start the show.
Part of the training of Cruz, Laysla’s character, there’s violence involved where they push her to the edge to see what her breaking point is. It’s never fun to watch somebody getting pushed to the edge on anything, but it was important for Zoe’s character to see where she’s going to crack. Showing it to the audience like this is? This is the reality of what these people go through with their training before they get put in these situations, and it’s beyond extreme.
BTL: But if that story continues, you want to come back?
Cameron: I was on this show from the beginning of August until early March. I got spread out. John was shooting episodes 7 and 8. I went to Morocco, to prep stuff that I was going to shoot for John on 1 and 2, then they realized we wouldn’t have time to do all this stuff – all the scenes that they wanted to do, all the action scenes – so I directed and shot for a week in Morocco, for episodes 1, 2, and 8. When you’re a part of a show that gets spread out like this, it becomes part of your psyche in a lot of ways, so I’d love to see how Taylor wants to do it for the next season. Of course, I’d be interested in carrying it through. All the actors are just wonderful to work with.
BTL: Did you squeeze in anything before the strikes started? How are you using your downtime?
Cameron: Fortunately, when I got off the show, I did a few commercials. I’m developing a show overseas now with the hope of starting it in 2024. Unfortunately, it slowed down quite a bit because of the writers’ and actors’ situation. It’s another show about world building, and in this case it’s an opportunity to direct a number of the episodes, so I’m very excited about it.
Special Ops: Lioness is now streaming on Paramount+.