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Checco Varese ASC • Daisy Jones & The Six

Dec 18, 2023

(Published in Cinematography World – Issue 014 March 2023)

Sex & Drugs & Loneliness

By Darek Kuźma

Daisy Jones & The Six, the new and original Prime Video series about the rise and fall of a fictional 1970s rock’n’roll band, benefitted from cinematographer Checco Varese ASC’s experience and visual savvy.

In a way, Daisy Jones & The Six is the same old story of a fight for love and glory as it charts the rise of a 1970’s band of Pittsburgh blues-rockers and a non-conformist LA singer/songwriter to the very top, only for them take a dramatic nosedive. It’s a story of sex, parental heartaches, drugs, tortured affairs, atonement for past sins and rock’n’roll. But, being framed by documentary footage of decades-older band members reminiscing the good and bad times, the story is told through a series of clever adagios and crescendos. What remains – and what resonates louder than music and lyrics – are the individual stories of young folks who either burnt too brightly, or were never able to peak in the shadows cast by the others.

The project had quite a long and arduous development – it was prepped before Covid, the cast were already learning to play and sing the original songs, yet principal photography only started in September 2021 – but cinematographer Checco Varese knew it was worth the wait.

“I was pitched the idea of shooting a 1970’s musical series when I was shooting Them (2021, six episodes) for Amazon. I was born in the 1960s, in Peru, so I didn’t know that world, but I made my name in the US in the 1990s doing hundreds of music videos. So, I felt I had much to offer Daisy Jones & The Six in terms of shooting ensembles and giving music a visual identity,” he explains. “At the end of the day, the movie camera is another instrument, it can be a violin complementing an orchestra, it can be a bass guitar enhancing a rock band.”

Riley Keough (Daisy)

Varese established the look of Daisy Jones & The Six and shot the first five episodes with director James Ponsoldt. The series was done in two blocks, September to December 2021 and February to May 2022. DP Jeff Cutter shot most of the second block, with Varese returning in May 2022 to work with director Will Graham on an episode taking place in Greece.

“I started doing documentaries and news coverage, and still value being an observer”

“We prepped as if it was one big movie,” says Varese. “Sure, we had to adhere to the structure of episodes, having 12-15 days for each one, but it’s a story of fighting loneliness with music. The characters have dysfunctional families, or were abandoned, or didn’t feel loved, and they try to fill-up these holes by travelling the country with a group of people who feel the same. It’s easier to think about all of that as a movie.” 

Big chunk of the second block was done in New Orleans where the crew used the Tad Gormley Stadium for the band’s greatest concert, but Varese and Ponsoldt’s episodes were shot mostly on location in LA.

Nabiyah Be (Simone)

“I bought some records and saw some documentaries, to get a sense of the ‘70s. I didn’t use a lot of film/music references, but did watch The Deer Hunter (1978, dir. Michael Cimino, DP Vilmos Zsigmond ASC HSC) and The French Connection (1971, dir. William Friedkin, Dp Owen Roizman ASC) to understand working-class America of that time,” he claims, referring to the band’s humble Pittsburgh beginnings.

“My biggest inspiration was the research done by the art department. They had a large office with an entire wall covered with thousands of period pictures. I stopped by every two days to take photos with my iPhone.”

Highlighting the relationship between the band’s two leaders, Daisy (Riley Keough) and Billy (Sam Clafin), and their rapport with the rest of the group, was paramount.

“I started my career doing documentaries and news coverage, and I still value being an observer. We shot mostly with 28mm and 40mm lenses. We did dollies with remote heads, operated handheld, used Steadicam and Technocrane too, yet it all came down to making it cinematic without losing the intimacy, the emotional impact.”

This explains why he shoot long takes as much as possible. “If there’s a scene with Billy and Daisy recording in a studio, we start in a wide shot and push to Daisy singing, then the camera moves gently to the left to reveal Billy singing, looking at her. We push to Billy and that’s it. You don’t need tricks or seventeen cuts for that.”

Funnily enough, Varese says that shooting during the Covid pandemic helped Daisy Jones & The Six to reach this level of intimacy and poignancy.

“There were many concert sequences in the script, in different venues, from seedy bars to large stadiums, but the pandemic made it impossible to have dozens of extras in the background. We decided to make the story even more about the band members, about their relationships, about them playing together, singing, looking at each other. We intertwined these with a few digitally-enhanced shots from behind the band, and it worked,” reveals Varese.

“You stand in front of an audience, even in a tiny bar, and when they cheer at you, that’s the love your alcoholic mother or absent father never gave you. So, yes, Covid helped us to focus more on the human drama.”

Varese admits he is agnostic about film cameras and shoots on whatever fits the project. In this case, he knew Daisy Jones & The Six should be a Sony Venice show.

“I could go on-and-on about the Sony Venice and its features – its great sensor, latitude, contrast levels – but for me it was instinctive. I just felt it would be perfect for this production,” he asserts.

“We had three Sony Venices and its cousin, the Sony FX3, which I was the first cinematographer to use in a series, on Dopesick (2021). The Sony FX3 looks like a camera you’d take on your holidays, but has the same sensor as the Sony Venice, it shoots 4K, and it is compact, which was very important when we went Athens and then to the little Greek island of Hydra to shoot Daisy going into a rock’n’roll exile in the wilderness.”

The choice of lenses for the show was far less instinctive.

“The series covers over a decade of their lives, so we had a six-day-long hair and make-up test – a rare thing these days. I took advantage of that and tested lenses from 17 different manufacturers. In the end, I picked the Angénieux Optimo Primes because they allowed an internal filter,” he says.

“When the Covid hit, the cast kept rehearsing and they became almost professional musicians. No one was pretending, they were genuinely playing the music and singing the songs. I wanted to maintain this musical and emotional realism without losing the cinematic realism we designed. I decided to equip Optimos with Tiffen Glimmerglass 1/8 to achieve this, and then put a net behind the lens for the ‘60s Pittsburgh working class part.”

“I picked Angénieux Optimo Primes because they allowed an internal filter”

To shoot the first block, Varese brought an eclectic lighting package. “We had to be careful not to destroy the immersion. For concerts in small bars, it was basically a mix of rock’n’roll Pars and a period disco balls. For bigger concerts we used Pars, Parcans, Canons and spotlights. For the non-concert scenes we had an array of LEDs, mostly ARRI SkyPanels and LiteGear LiteMats. It was a fun challenge.”

Shooting in Greece was a different matter. “Hydra is not the Santorini-like Greece of white buildings with blue roofs. It’s more rustic and wild. No roads, no cars. We had to transport the gear on the backs of 60 mules. There was no way I could take big lamps, so I took a bounce and three or four little lamps. Plus, I used a lot of practicals from the art department.”

The look was supported by a LUT that Varese designed with his friend, Stefan Sonnenfeld, at Company 3 in LA. 

“The LUT resembles Kodak film from 1980s. It has the same colour, a bit of grain. It’s obviously digital, but Stefan created it through scanning a negative from 1980s,” remembers Varese.

“I believe colour transmits emotions and enhances the arcs of the characters. In Pittsburgh, it’s a bit colder, the light is limited, has little bounce. When they go to sunny California, the light comes crashing through the windows, the sky is blue, the palm trees green, the mountains yellowish, the ocean enticing. When things are good, the look is romantic and affirming. When it begins to fall apart, the mood gets darker – it’s still warm and cinematic, but with more reds and browns instead of oranges.”

Suki Waterhouse (Karen), Sam Claflin (Billy)

Needless to say, Varese is proud of how Daisy Jones & The Six turned out, and that, despite all of the obstacles he and the rest of the cast and crew had to overcome, the series accomplishes the most important thing: it makes the viewers deeply understand the characters over their long and turbulent journey; their ambitions, dreams, fears, what makes them tick and what makes them freeze in the most unexpected moments. 

“The show wouldn’t have a reason to exist if you could not relate to the characters, and feel what they feel,” he says. “Besides, I always try to observe the worlds I create as if I was an audience member. I ask myself every morning when I go to the set, ‘What is this scene about? What does the audience need to see and feel?’ I don’t see any other way.”

Riley Keough (Daisy)

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