A version of this story about ‘Being the Ricardos’ first appeared in the Below-the-Line Issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
When Aaron Sorkin began working out exactly how he was going to re-create the iconic sitcom “I Love Lucy” in his Lucille Ball drama “Being the Ricardos,” he decided along with his cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth to do something few expected—modernize the look of the classic show. “For us, there was never a point in the movie where we’re replicating the show,” Cronenweth explained. “We’re always in her mind and it’s a reflection, so none of that really exists. We don’t go to a 4:3 format. We don’t get small. You don’t see it presented on a television screen.” Indeed, as “Being the Ricardos” follows one chaotic week of production on the set of ‘I Love Lucy,’ it’s told from the point of view of Nicole Kidman’s Ball, who visualizes how scenes are going to play out on screen during rehearsals.
In these visualizations, Sorkin and Cronenweth had the opportunity to re-create moments and scenes from the original show itself, including the famous grapes-stomping sequence. But as the filmmakers considered how to represent these moments, they wondered whether audiences would even appreciate a faithful recreation. “Do you shoot it and light it exactly the way they did to pay homage to it?” Cronenweth asked. “Or do you look at it from the perspective that they did it that way because that was what the peak of the technology afforded them to accomplish? They’re dealing with an audience that, film education-wise, is 70 years behind us. I’m presenting to audiences that watch ‘Game of Thrones’ and flying dragons and crazy superhero movies. Would they appreciate that flat look?”
The cinematographer—who has lensed multiple David Fincher projects, including “Fight Club” and “The Social Network”—noted the groundbreaking visual nature of “I Love Lucy,” but ultimately felt a painstaking recreation wouldn’t work for a general audience. “I think that if I did it the way they did it, the effort would be lost on the audience, and they wouldn’t appreciate why it doesn’t look as good as the rest of the film,” he said. “What I thought, and what Aaron and I discussed, was that we owe a certain amount of visual style to a modern audience. And so we shot in black and white. We used the RED monochrome cameras. And we added a little bit more contrast and a little bit more highlights and lit it predominantly the way that they would have.”
An aspect ratio change was briefly considered for the black-and-white sequences but was quickly dropped as being “too heavy-handed and distracting,” since the scenes are never actually displayed as the show. The result is that the re-creations don’t play out like re-creations at all. Instead, the viewer is taken even further inside Lucy’s head as the film aims to show the private side of the famed comedian.
But Cronenweth did expand the film’s visual palette when it came to flashback sequences. “I wanted to do something a little different to make that a clear understanding that it is a time difference, other than the hair and makeup,” he said. “Looking back and doing research, in the 40s it was the heyday of [George] Hurrell. And a lot of the photographers that used hard light and specific sources to make actors and actresses pop out.”
The cinematographer took inspiration from this approach when it came time to depict Lucy and Ricky’s earlier lives. “I went through all that stuff and thought that these flashbacks, we can make that a slightly different visual style and embrace some of the stuff that they did in the 40s and to make it stand out, as opposed to faded color or black and white, which would complicate the TV show already that we’re going back to. So it just gave us a fun opportunity to play in that world.” Indeed, Cronenweth delighted in evoking photography of the 1940s in the scene when Lucy and Ricky first meet. “When Lucy first meets Ricky, it could almost be a Bogart movie with her standing in the doorway all backlit, slash the light across her eyes. It was really fun to do.”