by Dov Kornits and Lisa Nystrom, FilmInk
The British/Australian cinematographer (I Am A Girl, The Letdown) lands her first US gig with series Paradise Lost, working with highly respected shooter Alan Caso.
Director of Photography Nicola Daley, ACS is no stranger to breaking down barriers: she lived on four continents by the age of eight, was the 8th woman in history to be accredited into the Australian Society of Cinematographers, and has built an accomplished career spanning documentaries, shorts, features and television.
Earlier this month saw the Spectrum on Demand US release of Daley’s most recent work, the 10-episode Southern Gothic drama series Paradise Lost, starring Josh Hartnett, Bridget Regan, and co-starring screen legends Nick Nolte and Barbara Hershey. Daley collaborated on the series with fellow DP Alan Caso ASC, who, thanks to a heartfelt acceptance speech during the 2018 ASC Awards, is known for being an outspoken advocate for diversity in film. Together, Caso and Daley made it a point to ensure the camera department on Paradise Lost prioritised inclusivity and equality.
A resident of both Australia and the UK, Daley is currently locked down with family in England, where the situation is every bit as uncertain as it is across the globe. She talks openly about her work behind the camera and the challenge of keeping creativity alive during social isolation.
“There’ll be a lot of scripts this time next year with two people in a room going mad or something,” she laughs.
The Paradise Lost collaboration Daley enjoyed with Caso has extended beyond the set, the pair now working together on an article that will hopefully pull focus towards the ever-present need for greater representation in the film industry.
“He’d just been recruiting people who looked like him as a white man,” says Daley about Caso [Six Feet Under, The Americans, etc] speech. “He’d suddenly thought, ‘Hang on a second, what have I been doing?’ Now he makes sure that his crews are really diverse.
“You could see his philosophy when he walked on set,” says Daley about her experience shooting Paradise Lost. “That was my first job in America, so I don’t really have anything to compare it to, but when you walked on set, it was completely diverse. All sorts of people from all sorts of different backgrounds.
“You saw it in action. Obviously, it’s so important because there’s so many stories to tell and lots of different viewpoints in how we tell them. I’m a big believer in teams that are mixed up work the best together. I think there’s research now to back that stuff up. I’ve been doing this for 15 years now, so there’s loads of times I’ve been the only woman on a set or people think that you’re doing makeup and you’re the DP…
This was your first American project, were there any particular lessons from it that you could take away compared to, say, some of the independent productions you’ve worked on?
It was definitely the biggest budget I’ve ever worked on. I’d ask for cranes and they’d say, “no problems”, and you’d think, “Oh wow.” It was the biggest crew I’ve worked with. There were 10 grips and 10 lighting people. America has that slightly different system than we do in Australia and the U.K., where the grips set everything to do with the diffusion and shaping the lights. So, anything, any flags or cutters or anything that shapes the light is set by the grips. That was a bit of a learning curve.
We were shooting down in Baton Rouge. There were a lot of New Orleans crew. They’re very lovely, Southern, polite. They all called me ma’am, which is pretty funny. I said to them actually, “Don’t call me ma’am. That’s for the queen.” But I said as a joke, “In England they call me Gov’ner.” So that was it, for the whole shoot, I was Gov’ner. But everyone would say it in a fake British accent, which is quite funny.
But yeah, it had the biggest sets and the biggest budget that I’d ever worked on and the biggest crew. Then getting used to the American system…
Do you mean unions?
Yes, I had to join the union to do the job. They wouldn’t let me operate the camera, and because I come from the Australian industry, where you go through the ranks operating your own films. That was a bit of a curve. I sat in a chair for four months, so I was itching a bit to be behind the camera. But I had really great operators, so it’s not a problem. But it was different.
You’re a film buff from way back [Nicola contributed to FilmInk in its early days], was it weird shooting Nick Nolte and Barbara Hershey?
When I first turned up to Baton Rouge and I saw… because they keep their cast under wraps a bit at the beginning, and then you see all their head shots on the wall. I knew Josh Hartnett was in it. But then when I saw Nick Nolte is in it, I thought, ‘Oh wow, he’s amazing.’ He was great. He’s 80, so he’s… in a close-up, he is just fantastic. What a great actor. Very powerful.
He’s an amazing actor, but he’s not running or anything. We were shooting this in the summertime, so it was pretty hot. When we were outside with him, we would literally be shooting with three cameras so that we could get his stuff and get him out of the heat, because it was just 100% humidity. But brilliant performer, brilliant.
Same with Barbara, actually. What was a real treat, actually – because they play husband and wife in the series – we had one of those scenes first up which was quite an emotional. It’s always a pleasure to watch actors of that level.
Did you always want to be a DOP? Is that what you studied at AFTRS (Australian Film, TV and Radio School)?
Yeah, but I wasn’t one of these people who was like, “Oh, I want to do it,” since I was five years old. I wanted to do set design and theatre. I did my A level art and realised I was quite bad. I thought, “What am I going to do now? I’m not going to go to art college and do all that stuff.” And because nobody in my family worked in the arts, film didn’t really seem like a career. No one ever said, “Oh, you could go and work in film.” I ended up doing American Studies at University in England, because I was quite good at literature. We had a film section, and then because it was American studies, we did a year abroad. I went to the University of California in Santa Cruz. They had all these film courses, practical film courses. So, we shot on film and they taught us to splice film and edit it and do all this stuff. I was like, ‘Oh wow. What’s this? Is this a job?’ I was 21. That’s when I decided.
I wanted to be a cinematographer because I think I shot maybe three or four people’s student films, and then I was like, ‘This is what I want to do.’ Then when I came back to London, I met Michael Seresin who’s a BSC cinematographer. He’s shot things like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and loads of big stuff. I said to him, “How do I get into the camera department?”
He said, “Well, there’s two ways. You can either eat your way up the camera department: cap loader, focus puller; or you could work in a rental house.” So, then I ended up in Sydney, due to other circumstances, and that’s when I went to work at Lemac. Then I worked at Lemac for three years. I started in a rental house, like he said.
You would have been right on the pulse of the transition to digital.
That was it. It was 2000, so the Olympics were going on. Then there was this really new, exciting thing called HD coming in. Panasonic and Sony used to come in and give us talks. “This is the F900.” It was a really amazing place technically to learn all sorts of cameras and lights. And film, obviously, was still going strong. Michael was right, it was a great way to learn.
With Paradise Lost, what sort of cameras were you using?
We used the Sony Venice and we shot mostly with two cameras. Then we did have Sony A7S cameras for rigging, on cast, or hard to fit places. Mainly the Sony Venice though, which gets beautiful skin tone.
With the style of Paradise Lost, was that led by the other Alan since he was the senior DP [he shot 6 episodes, whilst Nicola shot 4]?
I got there when he was still prepping, before he’d started shooting. While I was still in England, it was a little bit different, because I’ve done second for shows like Harlots for Hulu. You picked it up from what the lead DP has set out. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t bring your own stamp to it, you’ve just got to fit within the mould of the show, especially something like Harlots, which was season three. But Paradise Lost was season one and all the showrunners were figuring out the look of it as well, and Alan was really good at emailing me reference pictures, back and forth. Then he set up a Look Document. Then when I got there, he was still prepping, so we got to collaborate on the look from the beginning.
You mentioned showrunners, I’m just wondering about the hierarchy on a limited series, how does that all work?
We had two showrunners, and then obviously they’d written a lot of it as well. It was Rodes Fishburne’s idea originally. Then they had a producer/director, Romeo Tirone, who’d done things like Dexter and True Blood. Actually, he was a DP originally and has been directing for many years now. He oversaw all the series, so all the other directors that came in, he would help them fit in with the look of what we were doing. It was quite a good system, actually, because you got the showrunners, but then you’ve got him, and then you’ve got Alan and me.
We would sit down and have concept and tone meetings. Everybody was on the same page as to what the look was. That didn’t mean that they couldn’t say, “What about this?” It’s not as strict as that.
How does this figure in your career?
There’s so much great TV around and so many visual opportunities in TV these days and so many different stories… You get a job in America like that and you get to work with people of that calibre, obviously I can go on to DP shows like that. I’m still doing features as well. My next project, which is obviously on hiatus at the moment, unfortunately, is the new Terence Davies film.
He’s a brilliant director. He’s in his 70s now, and he’s made some amazing films. His new one is going to be fab. We were a week away from shooting it, so it was a bit sad to postpone it. But we’ll still get it up and running. It’s called Benediction. It’s about Siegfried Sassoon, the World War I poet, so it’s a period feature. It’s low budget, around 3 million. Trying to do period from 1913 to 1950 on a low budget is always challenging.
What about documentary, which you have done a lot of?
I don’t do so many of them now. I did them for 10 years and I loved them. I think it was a great way to learn. Makes you quite fast, and it also makes you edit in your head, so that when shit hits the fan on set, you can think, ‘Okay, if we do this shot, that shot, it’ll edit together.’ It’s quite a good learning curve. Of course, I got to go to some crazy weird places around the world like North Korea and Afghanistan. I did Go Back to Where You Came From season one, which changed my life, really was amazing. I’ll never forget all those experiences. I guess now I’ve transitioned more into drama, but documentaries have a soft spot in my heart.
You’re working on your career in that part of the world now, are you working with Australian filmmakers at all on developing things?
My mum is here [England], so I’m here for now, but I did The Letdown in Australia the year before. I haven’t been back for five years. Let’s see where things go if I can actually leave my flat…
Have you done anything creative whilst you’ve been stuck in your flat?
I live outside of London in a place called Margate, and I live right by the beach. I’ve just been walking on the beach as the sun sets. This is where JMW Turner used to paint, so it’s nice to do that. Then otherwise, I’m actually trying to write a script, but it’s not about two people in a room.
Season One of Paradise Lost premiered April 13 on Spectrum’s On Demand platform