In an alternate Victorian England, a mysterious phenomenon has given the “Touched” spectral gifts: superhuman strength, visions into the future, speaking in tongues. In The Nevers, streaming on HBO, Amalia (played by Laura Donnelly) searches for answers to the Touched before authorities can imprison them.
Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey shot the first two episodes of the series, establishing the look and tone of a nineteenth-century London filled with fog, gas lights, and demons. A long-time collaborator with director Joe Wright, McGarvey received Oscar nominations for Atonement (2007) and Anna Karenina (2012). He was also DoP on The Avengers, working on the six-month shoot with director Joss Whedon, the creator of The Nevers.
Below the Line spoke with McGarvey by phone from England.
Below the Line: When did you start on The Nevers?
Seamus McGarvey: I got involved about a year and a bit before March 2020. Joss, with whom I shot The Avengers, called about a series he had written. I’d never done a TV series before, so I jumped at something where I could establish a look and pass it on. Also, I hadn’t shot in London in a couple of years, so it was a great opportunity.
We had an extended time prepping the series with Joss, production designer Gemma Jackson, costume designer Michele Clapton, and Christine Blundell on makeup and hair. On the first day of shooting, we were raring to go.
BTL: Can you describe the world you created, and how you achieved that look?
McGarvey: It started off talking with Joss about the milieu of Victorian London. We both wanted to avoid a kind of a period reverence, so we thought about the precedents set in filming that era. We wanted this to kind of come out sprinting. That’s why that action sequence was written in the beginning, we’re being sling-shotted into another realm, and not a quaint period film.
We looked for various references for the milieu, in terms of costumes for Michele, color for the design. We wanted there to be a juxtaposition between the vivacity of these extraordinary women and the kind of austerity and the coldness of the establishment, the male-dominated society that they’re up against. That was something that was thematically central.
We looked at etchings by Gustav Dore of old London. Photographs of the Limehouse and East End gave us cues, architecturally but also the smokiness, the pollution.
We wanted the orphanage, the center for the “Touched,” to have a warmer embrace, and a sense of mischief to contrast against the staid establishment authoritarianism. For instance, that first scene after the credit sequence finishes and bang you’re in the absolute polar opposite in terms of the stasis of the camera, the kind of cool hues of the light, and the menacing shadows of this cabal of men who are plotting against these strange women erupting around them.
BTL: Was this shoot predominantly locations or soundstages?
McGarvey: We had quite a few sets, and actually some of our locations had sets built onto them to create an amalgam. The orphanage is a real building, but it also had appendages of Gemma Jackson’s sets built onto them. The police station was a set, the opening sequence was a set, so I’d estimate it’s probably in the range of 60 percent locations, 40 percent sets.
BTL: What camera package did you decide on?
McGarvey: I still like to shoot on film when I can, but obviously this necessarily had to be shot digitally. We used the Arri Alexa SXT with Panavision Primo lenses ranging from 14mm to 150mm. We also had three Angenieux zooms. Going into a TV schedule, we were going to be pedal to the metal. These wonderful lightweight zooms meant that as we changed focal lengths there was no rebalancing required for the Steadicam. Which saves you know — well, you can calculate the ten minutes every time something’s rebalanced. It builds up over the day. In fact, the opening shot of the film is on a 15 – 40 Angenieux.
The Primos are really sharp, beautiful lenses, they’ve got a lot of character. I used Dior stockings on the back of the lens, and Glimmerglass filters when the windows blew out too much.
We carried a small Aero Jib crane, and we also had a Technocrane 30 with a Libra Head which we used fairly regularly, particularly for exteriors. Joss likes a moving camera. We used a drone for a number of shots, particularly for Augie’s [played by Tom Riley] point-of-view shots as a crow. I had worked with a company called Pivotal Films before, they did a lot of Game of Thrones. They did the drone work, which was not in a classic style. Well, we did some classic establishing stuff, but we also did aerial stuff that had more character, the way a crow might move.
BTL: How much time did you have per episode?
McGarvey: I think about four weeks. It was hard work but it was such a joyful shoot. The cast and crew were fantastic. I have a regular camera crew I’ve worked with on many films, so that was good.
Our first day on the shoot was in Penance’s [Ann Skelly] workshop, which is one of the loveliest sets I’ve ever worked on. Just in terms of lighting through that wonderful glass window, big lights right outside the window. It was fantastic to have the freedom of movement, it felt like it was really lit by the sky outside although we were within this studio.
BTL: No one ever says they had enough time.
McGarvey: You’re always up against it. As the day progresses you suddenly think, oh what if you did this, what if you did that. I like that way of working. No matter how storyboarded and prepared you are, there’s always the magic of chance that happens when you look at how an actor does something and you go, “We’ve got to get a detail of that,” or, “Let’s move the camera to here to capture the way she’s moved.” Joss was very open to that. And we had the luxury of being in one place much of the time. If we lost a few shots one day, it was, “Don’t worry, we’ll just pick that up in the morning and run with it.”
BTL: But you have a lot of intricate action scenes that require precise camera placement.
McGarvey: I’m really fastidious about not necessarily storyboarding, but shot-listing for each day. Just so people know exactly what we’re trying to achieve. The big action sequence that opens the movie, the chase, that was an exterior street that they built on to.
We were very lucky to have Rowley Irlam, an Emmy-winning stunt coordinator who worked on Game of Thrones. Joss and I get involved by saying what we would love to see, but we don’t know necessarily how it’s going to be done. Rowley’s a great collaborator, and he’s very creative with the stunts he suggests. He really embellished our original vision, and it all becomes better and bigger as a result.
BTL: The series has a sense of enormous scale. Were the locations difficult to light?
McGarvey: The opera house was a real location. The foyer was in the Lancaster House, a royal property next door to Buckingham Palace. We had to be very careful because it’s basically the Queen’s, and you don’t want to upset her. Especially if you’re an Irishman like me.
We lit that predominantly with balloons, they can be moved around, and you don’t have to attach rigs to precious marble walls. The opera itself was shot in a theater in Wimbledon. Gemma told us that we were going to have to use practicals for the lights because again it was a historic building. We made period footlights that looked like gas from the stage. For the opposite direction, we used tungsten light bulbs that would give us the oomph we needed to light the field. We also had a spotlight and various practicals around the edges of the stage.
It was actually sparingly lit, and what we used was quite simple. We accented some of the walls with Astera tubes, LED’s that you can program in different colors. They’re battery-operated, and you don’t need to rig them.
Joss likes to move the camera around, and to be able to look 360 degrees sometimes. So we would use Chinese lanterns with battery-operated LED’s so I could move the key light alongside the camera.
BTL: How do you collaborate with Joss in composition and framing?
McGarvey: It’s very organic actually, that’s what’s lovely about it. His office during prep was across the hall from mine, Gemma was there and the other heads of departments. It was a sort of organic confluence of ideas, this gently creative work. I love that mutual trust that Joss had with all the departments.
BTL:Do you operate the camera?
McGarvey: Rawley and his stunt team had the D camera. A camera was Peter Robinson, B camera was Rodrigo Gutierrez. We also had Oona Menges, our dailies and C camera operator. She’s Chris Menges‘ daughter, and a DoP in her own right now.
So I was the runt of the litter in terms of the operators. When we needed four cameras, which we did often in the theater, I was able to lend my eyeball. It was fun to get back in the saddle again.
BTL: Did you leave notes or collaborate with the other DoPs?
McGarvey: Because they were prepping their episodes, we were all in the room together. Ben Smithard, Richard Donnelly who was actually my old assistant, and Kate Reid, the one thing we all agreed on was that I was not the cinematographic showrunner of the project. They would joke about it.
The script evolved so dramatically, as audiences know, that using different DoPs was a wonderful idea. That they should bring their own looks is an even better idea. I’m not establishing the look, mine is not the way it should be done. Ben hated the nets that I was using anyway, he said, “I’m going to do it totally differently.” I’m still shooting some of my last episode while he’s out shooting his. And of course his lighting is so bloody beautiful. I rang him up and said, “You’re going to get me fired on my last week because your lighting’s so much better than mine. Just hold your best cards till last, until I get on a plane out of here.”
We had the benefit of Tom Gates, our gaffer, being there the whole time. Also we were lucky to get our timer Stephen Nakamura. He gave a cohesiveness to all the different cinematographers’ work, helped unite it all.
The film is about change. So the idea that it evolves and we change and it becomes something better is really what I love about the series.
BTL: Can you say anything about Cyrano?
McGarvey: I shot it in Sicily with Joe Wright, my old friend. I think I’ve done eight or nine projects with him. It stars Peter Dinklage and Haley Bennett. We shot it in the beautiful baroque town of Noto. I think it’s going to be really, really special. I’ve seen a rough cut and it was so engrossing and moving that I forgot that I worked on it.
The first six episodes of Season 1 of The Nevers are airing now on HBO and streaming on HBO Max; six additional episodes will air at a later date.
All photos courtesy of HBO Max – photographer Keith Bernstein.