“The show must go on” is a fitting expression for the third season of Only Murders In The Building. When centered around the production of Oliver’s (Martin Short) Broadway return, “Death Rattle,” the podcast besties band together to solve the murder of their star Ben Glenroy (Paul Rudd). The same can be said for continuing the series with a new director of photography after Chris Teague took on another project, handing the show over to Kyle Wullschleger, his ‘A’ camera operator.
The two had worked together before, namely on Russian Doll and Broad City. It would prove to be an easy transition, as the cast and crew members were very familiar with Kyle, but it would also be daunting nonetheless to fill the shoes of Teague, who originated all the looks for the show.
Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, Wullschleger learned a variety of camera skills working on music videos. With a focus on steadicam operating, he made the jump to New York City, where he built up his resume working on such productions as Dr. Death, The Mare of Easttown, Project Runway: All Stars, and Chopped. Setting his sights for something bigger, Wullschleger was more than up to the task and well prepared for the promotion as director of photography.
Below The Line spoke with Kyle Wullschleger via Zoom video. Wullschleger discussed some of the complicated shots, specifically diving into the scene where Paul Rudd’s character falls down the elevator shaft at the start of the season, the Broadway show theatrical lighting, and filming a very white room featuring Steve Martin.
Below The Line: What was it like taking over for Chris Teague in season three? Not too daunting, I suppose.
Kyle Wullschleger: [laughs] Not even a little bit. No, there were definitely some really big shoes to fill. I’ve worked with Chris as one of his operators for years. The first show we did together was Broad City, and he kept on bringing me on. I got to do season one of Russian Doll with Chris, which was a phenomenal experience. I missed out on the opportunity to do season one of Only Murders, and when the opportunity comes for season two to come in as an operator, what better show to get to jump into?
Immediately, I just felt at home and hit it off with the cast. I knew a lot of the other crew already, so it was kind of a natural evolution there for season three, and still a big decision because I have had a little bit of TV experience as a DP. I was just doing Awkafina Is Nora from Queens (A Camera, steadicam operator), so to take a nice, really big step toward this show was really a huge undertaking.
The producers gave me a lot of trust, so I felt I was well supported. In that sense, I had an awesome team. We knew each other well, and we just went off to the races. I think a lot of people were really happy with how the season went.
BTL: How did all of your steady cam and camera ‘A’ experience translate to the skills needed as a DP?
Wullschleger: I came to New York almost 11 years ago. I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, and I started just kind of as a catch-all learner in a smaller market. I was so thankful for my upbringing there because I came to New York with a wide variety of skills, but I had focused on doing some steady cam, was able to present a reel, and started getting some music videos, which led to the next thing.
Having that background of sort of the full breadth of small production and then jumping into New York City gave me the opportunity to really pay attention as I started as a camera operator to camera movement and see what DPs and directors are wanting. That also allows you to communicate very directly with the cast and the other crew members, whether it’s your dolly grip or whoever else.
It gave me the good foundation and good fundamentals for the Only Murders producers to step up and say, “Hey, we want to put you in charge. Let’s see how it goes.” I knew I was working well with the cast to make sure that we could do this specific shot that we’re after, and we didn’t slow down. We did some big, complicated scenes this year, and it was really fun.
BTL: How would you describe the overall look of season three compared to season two?
Wullschleger: Partly because of my comfortability with working with a new colorist and all of these things. Chris had actually brought in a very specific LUT (look-up tables, which are preset files that apply a specific color grading to give them a certain mood, style, or aesthetic) from season one that he started with that kind of pushed the show a little bit darker, moodier, and noir, which I didn’t want to lose at all. Tim Vincent, the colorist, and I spoke a lot about being able to maintain consistency and giving him a little bit more control by redeveloping the LUT under his guidance so that as he got footage, he’d have as much flexibility as we would need in the D.I. (digital intermediate) together.
It worked really well because the season was so theatrically based. We used actual theater lights, and I think we left it feeling very authentic to what the theater should feel like and what it does feel like, especially during the performances towards the end of the season. We’ve gone full theatrical lighting. We had an amazing lighting designer come in and work with us to show us how the theater would do it, how it would work, and how it would look, and then we would kind of pull that back and make it work for us and the cameras. I think ultimately, whether it’s because of the theatrical lighting, me working as a new DP, or a new colorist, we just kind of came together to have something that is a touch more vibrant in some ways. It gives that larger-than-life feeling of the theater, which I think was sort of the push.
BTL: Do you have a specific example of how that was all illustrated?
Wullschleger: Towards the beginning of the season, when Oliver has his dream with Mabel, his son, and Charles all singing this little dream song to him, it inspires him to make this thing into a musical, to make it sing. (Creator) John Hoffman came to me with All That Jazz as his reference for that, the costumes, everything. It really is a specific sort of film washed-out look, and the lighting is so specific that it appears they’re doing All That Jazz on a full big stage.
We were doing it on Oliver’s little, tiny stage that has a 10-foot ceiling, and to accomplish that from everybody’s angle was a great challenge and so much fun. I loved how it came out, and I think we really nailed something there. That just sort of set up for the rest of the season that if we did have something referential, we could dig into that and find a way to match it up and make it look great.
BTL: Tell me about some of those complicated scenes that you shot, specifically where we see Paul Rudd’s character falling down the elevator shaft.
Wullschleger: I’m really proud of all of that, and I’m proud of the whole show, of course, but that’s a moment that I was really excited about reading in the script and thinking, “Okay, how do we drop a guy down a full elevator shaft to make it look believable, safe, and economical?” You know, these are all things that we have to take into consideration.
We had many meetings, and the stunt people had their ideas of how it should go, and the director/showrunner, John Hoffman, had his ideas of how it should go. I’m thinking very practically, so I have an idea of how it should go. And we all put our brains together and came up with something that I think worked really well and was fairly elegant in its simplicity.
BTL: Ok, how did you do it? The suspense is killing me!
Wullschleger: [laughs] So we had the camera set up on a dolly track and put Paul Rudd on a chair that we ended up green screening out this little bicycle seat basically that he’s suspended on from above. He’s just there midair, giving us the look and angling backwards in the chair, and it just feels like you’re going away. So the camera was on a dolly track horizontally, and we pulled maybe 50 or 60 feet of dolly track away from him. I think we also incorporated a little bit of a zoom just to accentuate that feeling of falling and getting further away from the camera.
John Alcantara, our gaffer, did such a phenomenal job of setting up some lighting that was active as he passed through it. So it was all these things, together with our effects team blowing a little wind from behind. We had the caution tape on there and just little things that we all kind of brought to it that said this is going to make it work. We did it safely, quickly, and efficiently. What more can you ask for?
BTL: Oh yeah, it’s a really fun scene. Now let’s talk about lighting in the episode, “The White Room” featuring Steve Martin.
Wullschleger: We approached that knowing that we wanted a lot of flexibility in being able to get far away, so we brought in a camera crane to put the camera as far up above the set as we could. That also meant building really tall walls, which also meant lights had to be far up and away and above. John Alcantara and I spoke about it, with Mike Yurich the key grip just helping kind of construct all this together. We knew that in this white room, light would just bounce everywhere and do a lot of that work for us to kind of give that sensibility. But we wanted as much control as possible, so we had a couple of these larger 360s that could just pump right down, making sure that we had everything balanced.
Then we had the window light as well, where we’d see Steve seeing like a fish or whatever else, so VFX wanted as much control up through those windows as possible. We still sent a little light that would just kind of give some definition in contrast so that you weren’t completely lost with the whitest person ever in the whitest room ever. (laugh) It still had that sterility and fugue state that Steve’s living in—those moments just amped up the comedy like crazy. It was so much fun.
BTL: It sort of hearkens back to all the orange that was used in season two, because you have the orange Statue of Liberty and the orange fish.
Wullschleger: Yes, absolutely. There was some great opportunity for contrast there. The Statue of Liberty was a physical object, whereas the fish were all VFX elements, but they did such a great job of marrying it all together. I was really happy with everybody’s effort. Our art department came together and painted the statue, and it was what they had available that would fit in the tank that I think was fish-safe. We had a lot of considerations for what we could use. It’s funny what ends up dictating some of those choices sometimes.
BTL: Since this show is shot in New York, did you shoot on the actual Circle Line Ferry?
Wullschleger: We looked into shooting on the Staten Island Ferry, but your window of time, the amount of crew, and everything else that you’re allowed to have are so limited, so our producers went high and low and ended up finding that the Circle Line was available and would allow us to put a full 23-foot techno crane on the bow of the boat to get a lot of those shots. So that was a huge challenge, and in February, the weather could have been terrible. Instead, we ended up with a perfectly calm ocean. It was so nice out, and everything just came together. It was one of those nights where the show just somehow gets magic fairy dust sprinkled across it and everything goes perfect.
BTL: Moving onto the cast this season, let’s talk about stars. Here you are lighting Meryl Streep. That must have been a pinch me moment when it first happened, right?
Wullschleger: I mean, from the first phone call I had with one of our producers, saying, “Hey, do you want this job, and by the way, I can’t tell anybody else, but Meryl Streep’s going to be in it!” And so you’re thinking, “Okay, yes, I definitely want this job,” but I also have to show up and remember that I’m just lighting one of the greatest actors of our time. Not to mention that we’re already with Steve Martin, Martin Short, Selena Gomez, and a whole bevy of other people this season that are just incredible.
I mean, Paul Rudd was so much fun, and Meryl Streep was incredible, but you want to make everybody look great. There’s certainly a small amount of nerves that come with lighting Meryl Streep on that first day. One of the nicest things that happened to me was that executive producer Jess Rosenthal pulled me aside and said, “Hey, Meryl Streep’s makeup guy, Roy (Helland), wants to talk to you.” That could be good or bad; I don’t know! I walk over and find him, shake his hand, and he just says, “Kyle, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. You’re doing it. Great job.” If Roy, the guy who’s been doing Meryl Streep’s makeup for forever, is happy, then I think we’re off to a great start! She was so generous with her time. If there was something that we wanted to fix, she wanted to watch and understand what it was—never heavy-handed, but always hands-on at the same time and just really part of the process—and that was delightful.
BTL: What else was most rewarding for you that validated your work on the season?
Wullschleger: The thing that sticks out to me is that I think we were shooting episode eight, “Sitzprobe,” and Steve, who’s one of the producers as well, came up to me, and you never know if you’re taking Steve seriously or not. He just said, “Hey Kyle, I just saw everything up through these first few episodes. We got a chance to watch, and everything just looks beautiful.” And I kind of looked at him and said, “Are you serious or not?” Like, of course he’s being nice and complimenting me, but for that one split second, you’re just like, “Wait, Steve Martin’s giving me a really nice compliment.” He might be joking. [laughs] You get into a rhythm, and people trust that you’re doing what you’re doing because it’s going to work and it’s going to look great, and you get some positive feedback here and there. But overall, you’re just doing the job.
BTL: What was a big takeaway stepping in as DP?
Wullschleger: A big thing that I just loved about this season was this giant cast that we had and the ability to work with everybody and have them just be present and provide a performance that was so much fun to watch, like Meryl singing the Lullaby over and over again, even when she wasn’t on camera. It gave me a lot of appreciation for all these very talented people, but at the same time, I’m so proud of my crew and everybody down to the loaders.
We got to come in and work with some of these most amazing people, and everybody got along the entire time. We just had a really positive experience, and I think that’s the thing that this show gives me: a sense that you can work really hard and still have a fantastic time if spirits are high and you keep it light. It’s not that hard when you’re making a comedy, but it is so important to have a fun time, and we really just nailed it on this show. I can’t thank everybody enough for that.
Only Murders in the Building season three is now available to stream on Hulu.